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.
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.