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Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Whatever Happened to the Former Love of Ideas? – Positivism vs. the Humanities in the 21st Century: Brain vs. Mind – one should ask…

When I was still in college in the mid-sixties books and ideas were considered very serious things, something to be passionate about; a sort of higher form of existence residing in the Platonic world of the intelligible. Dialogues and debates on ideas were considered a sine qua non of an education worth its salt. And this was true not only for philosophy majors, such as myself, but also for those liberal arts students  who majored in  history or the arts, or literature. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of fiction, poetry, history and philosophy was not a mere tool useful for analytical procedures but, more importantly, it testified to one’s moral view of the world. Which is to say, ideas mattered. They mattered a lot. They had power over one’s life. They determined one’s intellectual and spiritual destiny. In some strange way one became the books one read.
Those ideas were found not only in the canon of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, but in great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Orwell, or the poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Eliot. Philosophy and Literature was in fact understood to underpin all great historical epochs.

This leads to the question: which are the great philosophical ideas that still exert great influence and inspire the current artists? I for one would be hard put to answer the question. Obviously there has been a decline in the appreciation for the grand philosophical and aesthetic credos of the past. It began with the unmooring of metaphysics from philosophy by language philosophers. Then came the Annales’ school of historical thinking (Bloch and Febvre come to mind) which asserted that it was not world-historical individuals who shaped events (as Hegel and Emerson believed), but merely economic, social, geographical factors. They, and only they determined events and the fate of nations and people. This was positivism applied to history. There were more subtle forces at work within history, beyond the wars and revolutions instigated by emperors and generals. They could be extrapolated from the available historical data. This led to deconstruction which elevates the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who transformed them into literary art. Enter Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva who insisted that one had to pay attention to what was previously beyond our notice. One did that by phenomenology which looks at what is in front of our noses.

Warhol brought the Campbell soup, or the obvious, to our attention. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became the focus of aesthetic expression. The interest was not so much in art but in the conceit that anything at all could be art. With this went the expulsion of all those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic canon to create meaning in verbal, plastic and aural mediums. The task now was to unmask Western civilization’s hidden agenda and its doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex and race as embedded in linguistic and social codes. For those critics, the Enlightenment has generated ideas about the world that were simply naive about their own implications. Enter Barth with his “Death of the Author” and Foucault with his idea that man is nothing but the invention of the Enlightenment, while Paul de Man at Yale university argued that there is no such thing as the human. All this made for some unruly times in the humanities and produced eventually the end of ideas as still alive in mid twentieth century. There are presently no schools of thought in the humanities. One can indeed still study the tenets of the Frankfurt school and the Prague school and study the works of the neo-Marxists (such as Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse) or the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man but the enthusiasm for ideas and the intellectual energy it generated is gone. It only exists as historical memory. This debunking movement went by the name of post-modern and it was essentially an anti-humanistic stance, even if it arose from within the humanities.

Literature nowadays is often taught without any longer drawing attention to form, imagery, character, metaphor, genre and the relationship between books and society. What has happened is that post-modernism has opened the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience which pretends to explain how we think and express ourselves and affirms that the stuff of consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of the brain’s activity. To understand anything, and indeed everything, all that one needs to do is to map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons. Reduced to those terms, every academic discipline becomes a neuro-discipline. We are back to phrenology which we thought had been superseded. This includes ethics, aesthetics, theology, literature, you name it. All this leads to the crucial question: if all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral–is an individual responsible for his actions? If the structures of the brain structures the person, in what sense we can say that there is such a thing as free will? In other words, is a person reducible to his or her physiological components? Is this not sheer reductionism or worse, a literally “mind-less” neuroscience?

What those not trained in philosophy or the humanities fail to perceive is that the focus has subtly changed from the meaning and the interpretation of ideas to the means (the MRI and the brain scan) by which they’re produced. Hence the classical questions that have always intrigued us: What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will,” have taken a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry.
Many misguided academic humanists believe that there is no better way for the humanities and liberal arts to save themselves from oblivion than to borrow liberally from the sciences. They claim that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are regarded. Several universities now have so called neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids. The message is this: cognition is literally the tissue that connects all sorts of humanistic endeavors.

And yet there are dissenting voices such as that of Thomas Nagel’s controversial book Mind and Cosmos wherein Nagel has the courage to question the neo-Darwinian belief that consciousness, like any aspect of adaptability, is evolutionary in nature. To the contrary, Nagel affirms that it is highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. Rather, he believes in a teleological universe with nature predisposed to give rise to consciousness, given that no mechanistic explanation seems commensurate with the miracle of subjective experience and the ability to reason. Bit his, alas, is the voice crying in the desert.
To be sure, other scientists have hypothesized that human life is inevitable and that biochemistry is wired into the universe. Stuart Kauffman, for one, believes that all molecules must sooner or later catalyze themselves in self-sustaining reactions or “autocatalytic networks,” crossing the boundary between inanimate and animate. But the more common view among academic scientists is that evolution has no direction, no goals, no set outcomes; our preferences and bias are due to our oversized brains. There are precious few professors who today continue to defend objective values. The zeal for ideas is fast declining. What deeply concerned intellectuals two or three decades ago is now considered anachronistic. Where are today’s Paul de Man, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Hilton Kramer, Isahia Berlin, Susan Sontag, Annah Arendt? Nowhere to be found I am afraid. The liberal arts is no longer where the action is. In 2010 only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities. The ideas that engage us and seem essential today are primarily scientific.

The passionate issues that galvanized intellectuals thirty or forty years ago seem now far removed from our daily lives. Those ideas engendered by the Enlightenment as regards epistemology, government, aesthetics, alas, no longer engage our best minds, except when we speak of the brain or the meaning of consciousness. We seem to have lost the appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature as metaphysics too continues to decline in academic worth and estimation. Will somebody arrive on the scene with the transformative power of a Descartes, Vico, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kant, Wittengestein, Kuhn or Derrida? As the song goes “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”
 
There seems to be at work in the humanities nowadays a troubling skepticism, almost a desperation of not being on the right track, of not being able to go anywhere. That in turn leads many humanists to rely on the old-fashioned methods of hard data and the empirical certainty of scientific research. Yet the questions of art, beauty, ethics, our innate capacity for wonder at existence, persist. The question “why is there something rather than nothing” still fascinates a few traditional philosophers. Perhaps it lies in our very genes and will never be suppressed. But overall, for the moment we have yielded those philosophical questions to biological and cognitive science and we have thereby achieved a certain amount of peace. Intellectuals no longer indignantly reach for their pens to debunk materialism and positivism, but it is a pseudo-peace, it is the peace of the cemetery and quite desperation. It is a peace which has put too much trust (or faith if you will) in the human brain, and in doing so it may have given up on the idea that only the mind, and not the brain, will some day be able to fathom the human condition.
How do I know that the neo-positivists of the 21st century are on the wrong track and just as misguided as those of the 19th and 20th century? It is actually quite simple: whenever I inquire of a neurosurgeon if he believes that ideas exist and cannot be denied as existing, the answer is always a resounding yes. But whenever I follow-up and ask if he has ever seen ideas floating around some place in the brain when he operates on it, or reflected in his brain scanner, a perplexed look seems to appear and there is usually no answer to the question. At best one gets an ambiguous: “give us some more time and eventually we’ll find them.” My reply to that statement is: good luck!

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Police Reforms: “All Lives Matters.”

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Credit: Fibonacci Blue / flickr

Police and law enforcement agencies play a vital role in maintaining stability and peace in society. It is human nature to violate, but police and judiciary are there to arrest the violators and deliver justice to the victims.

Unfortunately, when Law enforcement agencies are provided extra powers, they tend to miss-use. The examples of misuse of powers by police, law enforcement agencies, and the judiciary are available in almost all countries, with a different degree or intensity.

The worst example was the brutal murder of George Floyd. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A video of the incident depicting the officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for an extended period attracted widespread outrage leading to local, national, and international protests and demonstrations against police brutality and racism in policing. The unrest began as local protests in the Minneapolis–Saint Paul metropolitan area of Minnesota before quickly spreading across the entire nation and internationally. The events are part of a more significant Black Lives Matter movement, which began after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American teen Trayvon Martin in 2012. Police reforms have been a central part of the movement’s demands, and protesters after the death of George Floyd articulated several desired outcomes, some of which have been addressed by federal, state, or local lawmakers.

This is not only one case, yet so many such unpleasant incidents happened but remain unreported., not only in America but throughout the world. The most serious countries are Israel and India, where the killing of innocent people by Security forces has become a daily routine.

The most precious creature in this Universe is Human beings. God has created everything else, just for human beings. The animals are designed to provide milk and meat to human beings. Crops are created to offer us grain, fruits, and vegetables. Sun is created to provide us light and heat, and rivers are to give water to humankind. To all mighty God, Human beings are the highest priority and valuable assets.

Unfortunately, what we see today is the most un-valuable thing is human life. The killing of human beings is happening all over the world, either in the form of the imposed war, or un-declared terrorism, or systematic genocide, or excessive use of force by a state against its own people, like Police brutalities, the human beings are the victim.

We all are born with the same biological process, and all mothers have suffered the same pains; all parents raised their children with immense efforts and sacrifices. A newborn baby can not survive without the unlimited mercy of his or her parents (I an father of 4 children, hope, if you are a parent, you might understand it better). All parents love their children in the same manner. We need to learn that all lives are precious, irrespective of their color, race, ethnicity, religion, or social status.

It is need of the time. We must respect humanity and formulate policies with the focus “All Lives Matters.”

It is appealed to the UN, the International Community, and all individuals with human conscious, to struggle to save human lives, not only in their own country but globally. Police reforms, accessive use of force, immunity to law enforcement agencies, extra-judicial powers, must be reviewed carefully. A uniformed policy needs to be formulated, with a focus to protect humankind, and a strict mechanism must be applied to enforce the unified code of conduct.

Intellectuals, professionals, volunteers, and people with humanity-love may come forward and give their recommendations and struggle for the safety of human lives globally.

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Societal Impact of Covid-19: Stigma, Ostracism, fear – all parts of ‘New Normal”

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As the world grapples with combating the coronavirus or Covid-19 and the number of infected persons and deaths around the world continue to soar, the pandemic has left with serious societal consequences that make human life more difficult. Though most countries in the world have been affected, there are exceptions as well. Vietnam has not seen a single death. The world in the coming years is not going to be the same again as human life styles have started undergoing dramatic change. There is going to be a new normality. Fiji, North Korea and New Zealand also claimed zero fatality, though North Korea’s claims are under suspect. And with this, many old social mores are being rewritten, perception changing and new ones sculpted, though these new norms have not gained universal acceptability. While countries are taking measures to tackle the virus from spreading further, and stimulus packages are being announced to beef up the economies, there are some downslides which often are either being overlooked, if not ignored but definitely less talked about. Humanity world over is getting used to the “new normal”, though the definition of what this means could vary from country to country.

The societal impact of the virus is as damaging as the virus itself, which is why this neglected narrative needs elaboration for public awareness and understanding so that human dignity is respected. There is no denying that the nature of the virus is such that there is a sense of fear among the general populace. Unfortunately, this sense of fear has been stretched a bit too far to the extent of those falling victims of Covid-19 are ostracised in the community and on social media. Also, seen differently, the fear of social ostracism of those falling sick automatically put pressure on them to submit to government regulations. The sense of fear is so much overbearing that people are afraid even to deal with cash as the virus could be transmitted through human touch of bills and coins as there is no way of knowing who has touched them before, though there is no specific research finding to prove this. The fear has prompted some businesses to shift away from hard currency in favour of “touchless” payment options. This practice could accelerate steady flight by consumers away from cash notes and coins to online payment platforms.

Other examples of downslide are related to cremation of dead persons resulting from Covid-19, increase in domestic violence on women during the lockdown period, social boycott of persons suspected of infection of the virus and many more. There was even a case of a family in the Sambalpur district of Odisha where a family head returned from a separate state with great difficulty during the lockdown period only to find his wife not allowing him inside home for fear that he might be carrying the virus and would expose her and her daughters. The wife had to call the police when the man continued to persuade his wife, until he was taken away for quarantine arranged by the state for 14 days. Even home isolation was feared in this case. In normal circumstance, this would look bizarre but this is a different time where fear is all pervading. This is in sharp contrast when doctors, nurses and other paramedical health workers dealing with Covid-19 patients in hospitals voluntarily keep themselves away from the family members for fear of infecting them and prefer home isolation. Even governments have made special arrangements for the medical personnel for temporary stay in special facilities after work to keep them away from their dear ones. Reports of a son in New Delhi unwilling to perform the cremation ritual of his mother, a victim of the Covid-19, make uncomfortable reading. Examples galore are aplenty.               

While governments in many countries are announcing measures to support the poorer and deprived section of the society by either cash handouts or other means, there are peoples in the entertainment industry who are either spurned by the society or by the governments. This commentary focuses on what and how the government of Abe Shinzo in Japan did and approached to support the people in the entertainment industry, thereby demonstrating human dignity in this service sector.

After the initial announcement of cash handouts, it transpired that the sex workers were not included in the recipient list of this government support. Following uproar and protest by opposition parties, NGOs and social activist groups, the government agreed to offer financial aid to sex workers, though the amount offered was not enough for them to survive the coronavirus pandemic. 

The protagonists for sex workers’ cause argue that sex is unlike any other commodity. It is for some people tied to emotional beliefs about morality and pleasure and power. It is for many others tied to those same things, but it can also be transactional and unsentimental too, just a service. Yet, political and social stigmas limit the recognition of their basic rights as workers. There is an opinion that most labour is exploitative under capitalism. That includes peoples in the entertainment and service industry too.

In some countries, sex workers or entertainers can be registered, which could make them eligible for government schemes. However, in a pandemic situation, their economic and financial situation could be chaotic as they remain at the marginal section of the society, making them deprived from support when they need the most. In such a situation, they often fall back upon on the generosity of past clients and mutual aid from within their communities. Human rights issues are often ignored or not addressed properly. Poverty is the main reason that drives sex workers into this industry and they continue to suffer stigma and social prejudices for life. There is normally no protection in dance bars from owners and exploitation from business owners who are often men. And the sex workers are often scared as they do not want to lose their jobs. Generally, men do visit to enjoy but they are too conservative too when it comes to their personal social life because of status, reputation and social standing.

Sex workers are used to live through a series of crises throughout their lives and will survive the pandemic too as they do not expect support from either the governments or the owners. They are the society’s orphans.

So what are the lives of the sex workers in Japan during the pandemic? As people started avoiding close contact, they suddenly find themselves out of clients and thus of money. With little savings and no other source of income, they look for other jobs but nobody hires them in the middle of an economic crisis, leaving them to live with borrowed money and falling into debt. During this strange time, survival comes first before thinking about their health. Across Japan, sex workers are hit hard by closures and restrictions due to the pandemic.

When the Abe government launched a massive stimulus package worth $989 billion or 108 trillion yen to soften the economic blow, sex workers were not in the mix of cash handouts as was for every household. After some controversy, sex workers became eligible to apply for aid under certain conditions. The move was well received by activists who hailed the government decision as a sign of progress for an industry that has long suffered social stigma. The package offered little reassurance as the rules for eligibility looked opaque and restrictive.      

Prostitution, or the exchange of sexual intercourse for money, is criminalized in Japan but other types of sex work are legal. According to Havocscope, a research organisation on the global black market, the sex industry in Japan generates an estimated $24 billion a year. The entertainment industry operates under the guise of many names: “delivery health”, a euphemism for escort services that stop short of intercourse or “fashion health”, which offers services like oral sex in massage parlours. When the Abe government announced the relief package, it excluded those legally in the adult entertainment and sex industries, drawing criticism from activists and opposition members. They called the exclusion as “occupational discrimination”.

Subsequently under pressure from activists the government reversed the proposed plan and included those working legally in the sex industry. New guidelines were drafted, making sex work agencies and employers to receive subsidies for those who have to stay home to care for children during school closures. Sex workers also became eligible to apply for the cash handout that was available for people who lost income due to the coronavirus.      

Expectedly the move polarised public opinion in Japan. Though Japan is a modern country, it still remains socially conservative. Some public figures and TV entertainers protested the use of taxpayer money to support sex workers. There were others who defended the night business as people need to work for a living.

Many sex workers found government rules for financial aid and eligibility as confusing and difficult to navigate. It was confusing for them if the handout was only available for those who lost a certain amount of their income, or who were dismissed from their jobs entirely, such as losing agents who liaise between the clients and sex workers. The plan also required applicants to show proof of their salary and lost income, a significant challenge for sex workers who are often paid under the table and whose salaries could fluctuate.

The salary components in this industry are also opaque as sex workers are often reluctant to disclose their full income due to the nature of their work and fear of repercussions. Even if some are within legal bounds, a pervasive sense of shame and stigma means that many are reluctant to identify themselves as sex workers on record. This lack of documentation prevented many from receiving financial aid. If those hid their real income information for tax purposes reveal now, that could have led to its own set of consequences. They are destined to remain society’s neglected orphans.

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Migration is a mirror held up to all nations: Insights from migrant writers

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Authors:Ash Narain Roy and Aishwarya Parihar*

Great Indian poet and first Asian recipient of the Nobel Prize in literature Rabindranath Tagore’s words are highly instructive for our discussion on migration and its manifold manifestations. He said, “No one knows at whose call so many streams of men flowed in restless tides from places unknowns and were lost in one sea.” In fact, one could argue that the great dispersal of homo sapiens out of Africa and throughout  rest of the world marked the beginning of humanity itself.

Migration has taken place since the dawn of time. Seeking safety, shelter, food and human freedom, people have sought to escape hunger and persecution in search of a better life. History is a struggle between those who tried to overcome boundaries and fences and those who tried to restore them; those who erected walls and those who dismantled them. The native people were wary of recognizing national borders. The nomads and early settlers, ranchers and hunters had different notions of what constitute borders, authority, territory and identity. Quite often borders are political and historical, not geographical. The rivers, mountains and deserts don’t separate, they unite. On the other hand, the French and British cut Asia Minor to bits as if they were dividing a cake.

As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie says ingeniously, “human history is a history of movement and mingling…We are not just bones and flesh. We are emotional beings. We all share a desire to be valued, a desire to matter. Let us remember that dignity is as important as food.” Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid and author of Exit West takes the issue on a very different plane saying how human beings undergo many migrations and how we are all migrants today, even those of us who have never moved.  British novelist Hanif Kureishi says a migrant is stripped of colour, gender and character. She/he has been made into something an alien and an example of the undead  who will invade, colonise and contaminate. In a way, nobody is actually a native.

As British-Somali poet Warsan Shire puts it, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of shark. You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.” Time has come to recognize this reality. It is equally important to focus attention on the forces that motivate the young people to risk death, slavery and sex trade in the hope of a safer life.

The coronavirus pandemic will further aggravate the migrant crisis all over the world. The International Organisation for Migration says that travel restrictions due to the pandemic have left people on the move “more vulnerable than ever.” It further says that “There are thousands of stranded migrants all over the world  because of the closing of the borders.” The world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years, warns the UN, urging governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster.

The global economy could shrink by up to 1% in 2020 due to Coronavirus, a reversal from the previous forecast of 2.5 % growth. The economy may contract further if the pandemic is not brought under control. According to various estimates, coronavirus could push about 400 million people into extreme poverty. And its impact will be most severe in developing countries. The Eurozone economy will shrink by 8 to 12 % this year. The pandemic has triggered a recession twice as deep as after the 2008 financial crisis.

 The Western world too faces a moment of new reckoning. The 2008 crisis exposed its real flaws and weaknesses. After the coronavirus pandemic, the scab has been peeled off and the wound is worse than one thought. No country is an island of prosperity which can live in perpetual advancement. The developed world needs new ideas and action and a new approach to managing the future.

What is worrying is that the Covid-19 health crisis may alter the parameters of discussion on migration and mobility. At a time of populist upsurge, political elements are exploiting the crisis for political gain using migration, globalization as scapegoats. Blame games and conspiracy theories have gained new currency.

The Runnymede Report on Race and Immigration says that the history of migration can’t be separated from that of the empire. Large number of Britons moved to colonies due to economic hardship, land dispossession, ethnic and social cleansing, labour exploitation and wealth loss. The gap was filled by African, Asian and Caribbean communities. A predominant number of migrants today have similar reasons to seek a better life in Europe and North America.

A migrant also fits the British anthropologist Mary Douglas’ definition of dirt as “matter out of place.” A migrant becomes less than human by being out of place, unwanted where he/she is working, and unwelcome at the point of origin.

Our world is fast becoming a ‘No Go World.’ Fear is redrawing our maps and infecting our politics. Remote zones of insecurity are becoming central to the new world disorder.  Rich countries are reinforcing their borders and severing contact points with the zones of insecurity. What is also emerging is what journalist Todd Miller calls ‘Empire of Borders’. Big powers are now exporting their borders around the world. They are extending their zones of security beyond their physical borders. To them, borders are the last line of defence, not the first line of defence.

The world is distressed by the double whammy of the migrant crisis and the Covid-19. The pandemic represents a new battlefield in international politics that will determine the rise and fall of nations. It is also a contest to determine what type of state and society will prove to be most resilient. Countries that have robust democratic institutions and high levels of social cohesion and that can handle the migrant crisis and climate crisis imaginatively will do well. It is a new defining moment. Not confronting the warning, countries and societies risk becoming lost in the labyrinth of moral bewilderment. Tomorrow could be too late.

Literature as a Lens of Analysis

This paper analyzes the contemporary migrant crisis in Europe and elsewhere employing literature as a tool of dissecting the different nuances of what Brazilian scholar Menara Lube Guizardi calls “the age of migrant crisis.” Literature is the quintessential reflection of society and has served as a critique of the socio-political events from time immemorial. It has pioneered the revolutions that have shaped the world into what it is today.

As Turkish writer Elif Shafak says, a writer’s job “is to ask questions about different issues. By raising honest questions, literature makes invisible visible and make the unheard more heard”. Migration is a major topic in literary works. Also, writers are good at making new maps of reality.  Salman Rushdie says in ‘Imaginary Homelands’ that “our identity is at once plural and partial. Sometimes we feel that we straddle two cultures, at other times that we fall between two stools.” The excluded and the prohibited are always marginal to our collective imagination. 

The migrant literature has emerged as a genre of its own.  It’s literature above anything else, the narration of the essence of humanism that lends insights into the conflicts, conspiracies and complexities of individuals.

Migrant literature has manifested itself in a plethora of forms: cautionary tales of dystopian fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, prose and children’s literature. In these variations are enmeshed the different themes related to refugees and migration such as displacement and statelessness, conflict-ridden homes, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, loss of identity.

Insights from Migrant Writers: Mehta and Lalami

Suketu Mehta, New York-based author and one of the finest thinkers and writers on migration, comes from a family which, in his own words, has moved all over Earth, from India to Kenya to England to the US and back again and is still moving. His words resonate with every human and the children of every human who attempted the audacious road of escaping misery that life had become and dreamt of passing on a better one to their children. It might as well be criminal to dream of that, for such a journey is on a path of miseries itself.

As Mehta says, if a migrant or a refugee is somehow able to make it through the barbed wires to the point of destination, his heart brims with the hope of finally having a better life. For if the hearsay is  to be believed, the destination must be a paradise. That is what they claim too, that’s what the fuss is about, protecting it from your savagery and your barbaric family, you migrant. He says,

“Look, in a few years, with luck and hard work, you, too, can rise here.”

Mehta draws our attention towards a hardcore truth –how every 30th human is living in a country they were not born in. The turn of the century has made displacement via harsh climate change, war-torn continents and gross political instability leading to ethnic persecution of peoples. As we go forward from here, it only appears that we are only getting closer to a dystopia. We are nomads of circumstances. As he puts it succinctly, whether you’re running from something or running toward something, you’re on the run.”

What greets these travelers at the borders is uncertain.  An economic migrant might  not be good enough to be granted clemency of circumstances, his case not severe enough. On the other hand, a refugee might be a fearful, brutish alien.

Refugees settle for less at their new destinations. They make peace with cleaning the bedpans at a hospital regardless of having qualifications of a doctor. That is simply out of question and there are rules in place for nations to protect their own people of this thievery. Rewarding the country providing you with a safe haven by stealing the jobs of their people is a big no.

The “foreigners” become the easy target as possessors of criminal attitudes. Suddenly, all the failures of the criminal infrastructures in place, are all on the refugee. The refugee amidst the saintly population, so to say. As Mehta says “Mug shots of dark-skinned criminals, whether Moroccan or Mexican, somehow strike more terror in the Western imagination than those of homegrown white rapists.” The leaders of some of these “superior” nations are propagating this tale, because “blame it on the outsider” is an easy out.

 Why are all these migrants from these poor countries, coming to our prosperous nations that we built, they ask loudly. It is because “we are poor because of you.” The game is rigged indeed as Mehta grieves, “This is how the game was rigged: First they colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries.”

The powerful argument that Mehta makes is that migrants and refugees are shunned because they remind us of our worst fears.

We reject the refugee in the orderly nations because he is the sum of our worst fears,…. he is a reminder that the same thing could happen to us, too.”

A haunting sentiment is corroborated by Moroccan-American novelist Laila Lalami when she says, “I am an immigrant. Someday you might be one, too.” It is high time we shunned the antiquated ideas about migration and refugees. What awaits in the coming decades might become a cause for role reversals, with the temperature of Earth permanently rising with each year, might be an invitation to uncountable calamities. These, in turn, will only cause displacement, conflicts and more displacement.

Sitting at our homes right now, of the fear of the unknown, we might as well take a moment to pay attention to what she’s urging:

“Those who are safe from displacement — at least for the moment — must confront the roles they want to play in this unfolding global story.”

Grasping the Matter: Nostalgia and Choicelessness

In Americanah, Chimamanda Adichie explores some grim realities of modern-day migration. In the central protagonist, Ifemelu, we see some of Adichie’s nostalgia, they both hail from Nigeria, move to the US for educational pursuits, opinionated and clever young black women in America. Adichie carefully voices the narrative of a willing migrant separate from that of a refugee. Why are the miseries of migrants downplayed? Why are their experiences disregarded on the scales of severity? In representing this, along with Ifemelu, another central character Obinze becomes an important tool.

Obinze is Ifemelu’s high school sweetheart. They both part ways in pursuit of a better life, they are well off individuals in their homelands who move to the west for “the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness.” That’s the dilemma that wilful migration poses to their critics, they can just dismiss the gravity of circumstances attached to economic migration.

Migrants experience a constant state of unbelonging. Even after having lived in America for more than a decade, Ifemelu struggles to identify as an American, forever an outsider looking in. From this point onwards, however, even her home in Nigeria is far left behind and she has become an outsider there as well, returnee of the great West, a perceived Americanized black woman, an Americanah. The concept of home becomes an abstract, internal feeling of longing.

Dinaw Mengestu extends this emotional feeling of unbelonging in his portrayal of Sepha Stephanos in his novel Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Mengestu himself had to flee from Ethiopia during the communist revolution of 1974, which claimed the life of his uncle, Stephanos also came to the US after having fled from the Ethiopian red terror. Mengestu’s metaphorical usage of Washington and Addis Ababa to denote “arrival” and “departure” respectively, must resonate with migrants and refugees alike. Stephanos expresses his palpable difficulty living in America and how can it possibly be done if he could never really depart from Ethiopia, his home. There’s so much psychological struggle associated with the eternal suspension between the two feelings that needs addressing.

“What was it my father used to say? A bird stuck between two branches gets bitten on both wings. I would like to add my own saying to the list now, Father: a man stuck between two worlds lives and dies alone. I have dangled and been suspended long enough.”

As  Randa Jarrar, in her novel,  A Map of Home, says, growing up for Nidali “moving was a part of being Palestinian”. The home becomes portable, an idea, travelling as the migrant goes.

“Our people carry the homeland in their souls”.

For a greater chunk of migrants and refugees, war-torn homes are an unfortunate reality that they are on the run from. They get a sense of home even through painful memories. At the back of the store that Stephanos runs, he and his friends, also stuck in similar circumstances and suspended in the memories of home,  play a game called name an African dictator and the year he seized power. This is a greater resonating feeling, one that transcends borders much like the migrants.

Thanhha Lai draws on similar feelings of her own childhood through the protagonist of her novel Inside Out and Back Again, a 10 –year- old Kim Hà who had to flee Vietnam with her family after the fall of Saigon and ends up in Alabama. The characters Stephanos and Há are different in every aspect but their longing for their conflict-ridden homes in the memories that scar is common.

“No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.”

Through literature that focuses on the narratives of migrant children, writers bring another critical site of observance– the experiences of displacement at an impressionable age. These are more prone to go unnoticed as these kids often don’t have the faculty to voice their plight, but the careful, patient observance of literature helps unfold these.

Lai’s Há experiences dislocation at an unfamiliar country and immense frustration of not being able to understand the language. A smart kid who is not able to perform well at school because of linguistic barriers has her doubting her own intelligence. Adding to these woes is the sense of alienation, of being a misfit, of looking completely different than everyone else and on top of that is the misery of being bullied for it, shatters young minds.

Dina Nayeri’s own account as an Iranian refugee in Dubai, then Italy and finally after granted asylum in the US, in her book The Ungrateful Refugee, confirms the coming of age plights of migrant children. Nayeri experiences an immense pressure to give up everything that makes her Iranian, is violently bullied and verbally ridiculed at school.

“The first thing I heard from my classmates, however, was a strange “ching-chongese” intended to mock my accent. I remember being confused, not at their cruelty, but at their choice of insult. A dash of racism I had expected – but I wasn’t Chinese; were these children wholly ignorant to the shape of the world outside America?”

This is why it becomes important to consider the accounts of the children while treading the subject of migration mired with complexities. Nayeri explains how growing up in Iran, the sound of the bomb explosion, the feeling of imminent death remained an everyday event, only to be faced these traumatic instances where a migrant seeks respite. As a young girl, alienated in her surroundings while always being reminded of that alienation, she observed her mother’s predicament whose life had become compromise and testimony. Even more devastating aspect of her story is how they must relive the war happening at their homes, always being demanded to resound their escape story and their identities simply cornered to that escape.

“I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more. No one ever asked what our house in Iran looked like…,”

Nayeri expresses a valid disappointment that rather than given the chance and the resources to thrive, they have to spend their lives justifying their presence or be labelled an ungrateful refugee. The writers bringing their own migrant experiences, further reach out to a lot more others whose stories need to be told, just as Nayeri does for these “travellers in residence” as Maeve Brennan once called. That’s where the essence of literature is rooted after all, in telling stories that need to be told.

Thematical Linkages Bridging the Writings

All the books and writings discussed above are woven with a common thread like alienation and loneliness and a sense of homelessness that give rise to fragmented identities. The migrants belong nowhere. The sense of hollowness and dislocation that migrants feel serves to highlight the uprootedness of today’s citizens of the global village, migrant or native.

The similar sense of unbelonging portrayed by Adichie through Ifemelu is found in Mengestu’s Stephanos and Lai’s Há. Ifemelu’s movement stems out of hunger for opportunity, Stephanos’ is a painful exile, Há accompanies her family out of a conflict-ridden Vietnam. The causations behind the movement of each of the central characters are different, they come from different countries, out of different circumstances, yet a young woman’s sense of never been able to belong to America even after years of living and neither in Nigeria anymore is similar to a man’s permanent state of suspension between Addis and Washington and a 10-year-old girl’s sense of lost home, without finding solace in the newer surroundings.

 To Adichie, home exists in migrant’s memory. In Suketu Mehta’s account home is an idea. In Jarrar’s portrayal, home travels with the migrant. Stephanos longs for his lost home in Ethiopia reminiscing through memories that are painful.  Há’s innocent mind seeks a tumultuous Saigon than a peaceful Alabama. A similar longing is present in Nayeri’s nostalgia of her home in Iran despite conflicts.

 The othering of the migrant is also a common thread in all writings. Ifemelu is discriminated due to her dark skin, Há feels like the odd one out amongst other kids with her dark hair on olive skin, Nayeri feels the need to change everything about her Iranian appearance as a teenager. It is simply not that such intense questioning of their outer appearance is something that arises only out of self-awareness but because of the treatment by the hosts that comes attached to it.

  Mehta also says that the dark-skinned migrant is an easier target, assumed as the culprit and easily blamed for the terror. The migrant also suffers from self-doubt besides being marked unintelligent. Ifemelu fails to get a job even though she’s qualified, Nayeri is bullied at school.

 Conclusion

In a time of hardening borders and the fear of and contempt for the other, it is hard to imagine that the sea once served as a link between nations and societies. We need to continue telling the stories of common people, stories of continuities, not the stories of elites and their battles, the way they interacted and shared similar ways of living. These stories are a powerful way to deconstruct stereotypes and prejudices we might have about the other. Centuries ago, it was the Europeans who were crossing the sea to reach India and the Americas. Today the tide has turned.

In view of the ongoing pandemic, fast deteriorating climate crisis and the global outrage spurred by the death of George Floyd, blaming the migrants for all the ills and the demonization of the ‘other’ have become a less comfortable conversation. If nations and societies don’t deal with the migrant crisis with compassion and imagination, it will assume cataclysmic proportions whose amber will consume everyone. A combination of developments has created space and time to heal. But the lens with which the world views the issue must change. The world is “bruised and bleeding”, says Tony Morrison. But we must “refuse to succumb to its malevolence.” There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds. These are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

Some borders become a wound that refuses to heal. There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds. Migrants are often the victims of ‘radical otherness’. Othering has been used through history as a justification for boundary setting, wall fencing and for oppression based on colour, gender, nationality and religion.

It is possible to transform our ‘teething borders’ into tender fences provided we heed the cri de coeur of the indigenous poet Craig Santos Perez:

Let us bridge each other

Across the wounded borderlands,

Until those once forbidden are now

Family, and those once prohibited

Are now protected.

*Aishwarya Parihar is a Global Studies Masters student, studying under the Erasmus Mundus scholarship  currently at Leipzig University and the University of Vienna for the coming year.

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