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from the November 2019 issue

Writing From Elsewhere: A Timely Anthology Collects Tales of Displacement and Resettlement

Reviewed by Hannah Weber

Edited by Dohra Ahmad, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature puts together a challenging and insightful collection that attempts to reveal the myriad ways of experiencing human movement across nations and cultures.

To anyone who regularly gets stuck in the news cycle, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature may seem somewhat overdue. Migration issues have received an increasing amount of media coverage over the past several years, often within a context of violence and disasters, as the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide hit record highs. Stories of migration are usually presented using imagery meant to provoke strong, and often contradictory, emotional responses. The picture of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015 will not be easily forgotten, but nor will drone-shot images of last winter’s Central American migrant caravans. The first image was used to foster empathy; the second, to incite fear. 

While these emotional responses are telling, they are also fleeting. An anthology like this one gives the topic of migration a history and genealogy, a context from which we can work to find answers in the long term. Like its many protagonists, this book arrives right on time. Editor Dohra Ahmad has curated a challenging and insightful collection that attempts to reveal the myriad ways of experiencing human movement—forced migration and exile are only a part of this story, albeit an important one. 

The works in this volume span many forms, including excerpts from novels, short stories, poems, and part of a graphic novel. It includes household names like Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie as well as plenty of emerging voices. No anthology can claim to be complete, so Ahmad provides an extensive further reading (and watching) list that could keep a person busy for at least a year. With such broad parameters, anthologies can sometimes feel disjointed. But reading this book from cover to cover—as one seldom does with such a work—goes smoothly, largely due to the consistency of its selection and organization.

The pieces are arranged into four categories: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, and Returns. The Departures epigraph reads “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” but the stories make clear that this is not always the case. In the introduction, Ahmad notes that “unambiguously involuntary migrations” are, in fact, rather rare. While we tend to be more emotionally generous in situations of forced migration, most migrations lie in a gray area. Many migrations—including this reviewer’s—are made freely and happily. To this end, Ahmad states that she hopes for a world in which “all migrations may be as optional and as joyous as they are enriching.”

While some migrations do indeed end in the United States, these narratives, read together, challenge the idea of America (or Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia) as the promised land. The multidirectional journeys present migration as a global issue and will hopefully undermine the hegemony the Western world believes it holds as an immigrant destination.

We begin with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a memoir written in the eighteenth century  by Equiano himself about his kidnapping and journey from what is present-day Nigeria to the British West Indies on a slave ship. Initially, the narration is sparse and observational—a child’s-eye view—but it builds up to the terrorizing scene of the slave trade. Surviving the journey but about to be sold at auction, Equiano comments on the loss that permeates many of the anthology’s stories. His emphasis on the slaves’ lack of reservations or misgivings is particularly devastating, even more so as in some regards it still feels uncomfortably familiar today: 


In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again. 


Equiano’s memoir is followed by the equally distressing “Zong! #5” by Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip. This poem is based on the legal decision (Philip is a former lawyer) to throw a hundred slaves overboard on a British ship to cash in on the insurance claims. Due to navigational errors, the ship was running low on drinking water, and letting the slaves die of dehydration would have resulted in financial losses. 

By the time these first two works on involuntary migration have shock us, we come to a third transoceanic story, Julia Otsuka’s “Come, Japanese!” Young Japanese women sail to meet their future husbands and an American future where 


the women did not have to work in the fields and there was plenty of rice and firewood for all [. . .] And wherever you went the men held open the doors and tipped their hats and called out, “Ladies first” and “After you.” 


Otsuka’s piece exposes how voluntary migrations, especially those so-called economic migrations, are sometimes tied to false conceptions about the destination. As Shauna Singh Baldwin observes in “Montreal 1962,” “this was not how they described emigrating to Canada . . . No one said then, ‘You must be reborn white-skinned—and clean-shaven to show it—to survive.’” Many false professions also permeate the Mexico-United States border. The bitter disappointment of making it past la frontera is introduced in Francisco Jiménez’s “Under the Wire” when the child protagonist explains, “This is California!” and his older, wiser brother responds, “I am not so sure.”

The anthology also includes stories of migration that do not involve crossing borders, but rather movement from rural villages to urban centers. Internal migrants face not only culture shock, but also the stripping away of ties to land and family. Mohsin Hamid summarizes this best in an excerpt from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:


In this history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.


These observations can help us examine how we have changed, and continue to change, as a social species. Rural culture is characterized by strong family ties, intimacy, and community-minded behaviors, whereas urban culture is marked by distant bloodlines, isolation, and competition. By drawing lines across centuries, the authors prove that we cannot understand migration today without taking a deep look at capitalism, industrialization, colonialism, and the legacy of slavery. 

Some writers included in the anthology explore the experience of assimilation and the attempt to create a sense of home in a new place. An except from Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis 2depicts the catch-22 situation of trying to assimilate without betraying one’s roots. The protagonist in Sam Salvon’s “Come Back to Grenada” isn’t so interested in such a compromise. Having left the Caribbean and settled in the United Kingdom, he forms a community with fellow immigrants and develops English habits like “drinking tea all the time” and “reading the newspaper in the tube and bus.” He even finds that “when he think ’bout home it does look so far away that he feel as if he don’t belong there no more.” 

Displacement is not the only common thread in these works. Regardless of time or geography, many symbols and tropes are consistent in migration literature. These include water, both a symbol of possibility and of life-threatening precarity. The ocean is a specter in the stories that depict the African slave trade, as well as in Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea,” a heartrending story of the passage from Haiti. While Philip invokes the “perils of water” in “Zong! #5,” Danticat’s narrator explicitly draws the link between centuries when he asks, “Do you want to know how people go to the bathroom on the boat? Probably the same way they did on those slave ships years ago.” Water is equally present in our shared imagery of today’s treacherous migratory routes. 

Other authors included in this anthology look at the seemingly banal aspects of migration—paperwork, bribery, administration, and seemingly endless waiting. In Salman Rushdie’s “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies,” the criminal offer of false papers is simply a “facilitation”—but the migration ultimately never happens. In Dinaw Mengestu’s lingering “An Honest Exit,” a professor tells his students the story of how his father fled Ethiopia, waiting for weeks on end for a smuggler to arrange his passage in a small crate on a ship. The wait is excruciating, riddled with stale excuses for the lack of movement, and speaks to the systematic inertia of migration processes around the world. The students are touched, except later the professor admits embellishing most, if not all, of the story. Mengestu recognizes that the children and grandchildren of immigrants often grapple with fragmented family histories:


I needed a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me—short, brutal tale of having been trapped as a stowaway on a ship. So I continued with my father’s story, knowing I would have to make up the missing details as I went.


Perhaps it is worth remembering when reading this anthology that in many languages the word for story and history are the same.

Since it spans centuries, or maybe because it offers such a rich and varied sample of migration stories, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature lacks the sense of urgency that accompanies the real and terrible vulnerability of today’s involuntary migrants. Some people may find that the volume also has surprisingly (and disappointingly) few works in translation. And, despite its aim to come full circle, it is like a one-act play—no one can say how migration will change and evolve, and the human stories with it, in the coming years. However, this anthology invites us to listen to the voices of migrants and, through the authors’ commitment to encountering them, asserts itself as a politically powerful volume. By presenting history as human stories, it acts as a gateway to empathy and understanding. The collection succeeds where politicians, international organizations, and even journalists sometimes fail because it reminds us of our common humanity. This thoughtful and provoking anthology from Penguin deserves its spot as the new cornerstone text for anyone interested in migration—indeed, the human condition—today.

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