There are two stories that humans have, since the first civilizations, been telling ourselves about migration. One is about the curse of wandering, the loss of Paradise when expelled from one’s birthplace. The other recounts how, in order to create anything new, we must break away from our suffocating places of origin and set out on a journey into the unknown.
Like so many other migrants throughout history, I have been faced with these two alternatives, desperate to return to or remain in some mythical homeland and yet perpetually compelled to search for meaning elsewhere. This dilemma became clear to me when I was given something that few of the myriad uprooted people of the planet are afforded: the choice to define the sort of migration I was about to embark upon. That occurred one morning in early October 1973, and its improbable location was the Argentine embassy in Santiago, Chile, where I had sought refuge a couple of weeks after the September 11 coup that overthrew the government of President Salvador Allende. I was reluctant to take that step, not only because I wanted to be on the front lines of the struggle to restore democracy to my country, but also because of a personal history of deracination that I had thought was behind me.
My father had been forced to leave his native Odessa at a young age when his parents, educated, bourgeois Jews, emigrated to Argentina at the beginning of the twentieth century in search of better prospects. My mother’s family, Jewish as well but less prosperous, took a long route to Argentina from Kishinev (in what is now Moldavia) for similar reasons; the pogrom of 1905 (during which my great-grandfather was killed by the Cossacks) weighed heavily on their decision. My own life had followed a similar pattern, though marked by more overtly political circumstances. Born in Buenos Aires, I had ended up in New York at the age of two and a half after my father ran into trouble with the fascistic Argentine military, and then I found myself in Chile ten years later when McCarthyite persecution drove our family into yet another momentous move from yet another country.
It did not take me long to fall in love with that new land at the end of the world, with one woman in particular, and with the huge social movement for justice that culminated in Allende’s election in 1970. An entire nation, it seemed to me, was emerging from an inner exile, a state of dispossession that had made strangers of the workers and peasants and intellectuals who had built it. By joining that march toward a communal future, I was certain the malediction of migration and exile that had hounded me and my family was coming to an end.
The illusion of a permanent home vanished with the death of Chilean democracy, and here I was now, in the Argentine embassy, sitting in front of a functionary from the United Nations who had come to offer refugee status to a thousand or so men, women, and children, most of whom had fled to Allende’s Chile from their own oppressive Latin American countries. I was not that different from them—just as fearful for my life, just as bemused and afflicted—but even so, when my turn came, I rejected the very idea that I could become a refugee.
I chose to distinguish myself not as a refugee, like those festering in camps set up for the famished of Biafra or for displaced Palestinians, not like those who, since time immemorial, had escaped war, starvation, or extreme civil conflict. Nor did I want to cast myself in the prototypical role of migrant, the choice my grandparents had made when they craved a better life abroad. Buffeted by historical demons, akin though I might be to millions setting out unwillingly from a land they called their own, I grabbed hold of the one shred of agency I had extracted from the rubble of my existence and the catastrophe of my country, and decided I would henceforth be an exile, a term that, I thought, would preserve my dignity and freedom, and allow me to take my place in a romantic and heroic tradition.
Years of wandering would follow, with my wife and young son in tow, from Argentina to France, and from there to Holland (where another son was born), and next to the United States, living precariously, on the brink of insolvency, adapting to languages we had not been born into, always wondering what our fate would be tomorrow, dependent on bureaucrats for visas and documents, spending hours and days in waiting rooms with others obediently lined up to see if they could obtain some form of residency. Even if these were years of trauma and insecurity, it is also true that their painfulness and uncertainty were mitigated by several factors: our privileged education and ability to speak perfect English, the network of solidarity among supporters of Latin American freedom, and the blessings of a literary vocation, the consolation of being able to forge words I hoped could defeat silence and overcome the ravages of distance.
At some point, as often happens to writers who emigrate, that distance became indispensable for nourishing and expanding my literary vision, leading us to settle permanently in the United States, though we only did so after several failed attempts to return to Chile, both during the dictatorship and once democracy was restored. I have now learned to accept that I can no longer cast myself in the valiant role of an exile that I embraced for so long; coming full circle to where my grandparents started out more than a century ago, I am merely someone who has chosen to live elsewhere, more fully, safely, and creatively than if I had remained in my homeland.
All through the twists and turns of this decades-long peregrination, I never ceased to devour everything I could find that might help me make sense of what my own odyssey revealed about the human condition—every word, story, poem, novel, epic, memoir, play, song, or metaphor written or spoken by so many others who had also been subjected to or had chosen a parallel saga. I was therefore excited when I heard about The Penguin Book of Migration Literature, edited by Dohra Ahmad. I had immensely enjoyed her previous book, Rotten English (2007), a sizable collection of verse and prose that demonstrates how the standardized language of Shakespeare and Johnson has evolved into an exuberant wilderness of local vernaculars and permutations. Migration, after all, had been crucial to that process of appropriation by people who, under the weight of colonialism, slavery, and goings and comings across the globe, had made that tongue their own. And it seemed providential that her new book was appearing at a time when many millions were on the move across the globe, trying to escape bombs and drought and misery.
Ahmad, in her introduction, explains that her selection—an “inevitably subjective” one based on what she likes to teach in her university classes—is intended to rebut “existing discourses and stereotypes about migrants and migration,” by presenting “a more complex and multilayered picture.” In this she has succeeded, juxtaposing works by well-known authors and others completely new to me.
In Salman Rushdie’s enchanting story “Good Advice Is Rarer Than Rubies,” an orphaned Pakistani woman, pledged to an older man in London she has never met, is one of a throng waiting outside the gates of the British consulate to ask for a permit to enter the United Kingdom. She strikes up a conversation with a con man (oh, how these abound among those who prey on the homeless!) “who specialised in advising the most vulnerable-looking of these weekly supplicants.” Instead of being scammed by him, she cannily navigates his false promises, extracts the information she needs, and proceeds, ultimately with his support, to carry out her plans to avoid that distant marriage. A similar resilience can be seen in the excerpt from Persepolis 2, the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, which follows her misadventures far from her native Iran. We witness how the protagonist at first tries to blend in and lie about her past, until at some point she feistily confronts her tormentors and defends her identity.
One of the characters from White Teeth, Zadie Smith’s translucent homage and dissection of teeming diasporic communities in London, will go through an analogous evolution. Irie Jones, the fifteen-year-old offspring of a white father and Jamaican mother, is part of a generation that is consumed by “the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere,” and she must learn to reclaim her blackness by appropriating a Shakespeare sonnet. In Eva Hoffman’s piercing memoir Lost in Translation, we eavesdrop on the author as, at the age of thirteen, she departs her native Poland aboard a ship bound for Canada and laments the loss of her Paradise, being “pried out of my childhood, my pleasures, my safety, my hopes for becoming a pianist.” Not everyone has the luxury of nostalgia: Edwidge Danticat’s story “Children of the Sea” is split between the perspectives of two Haitian lovers doomed by the political repression of the tonton macoutes and the merciless rage of the sea, a sea that reappears over and over again in this anthology.
The most notable of these ocean voyages is “Come, Japanese!,” the first chapter of Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Because it is told from the ever-shifting perspectives of young brides-to-be on a boat heading for California from Japan, we are offered a multiplicity of versions of that crossing—the doubts and certainties, the sexuality and prudishness, the beliefs and secrets of a protean collective character. Just as innovative is Deepak Unnikrishnan, a forty-year-old Keralan novelist, whose stylistically challenging chapters from Temporary People offer a portrait of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates. Several hundred possible professions for these economic émigrés cascade on the reader with a hallucinatory effect: Coffin Specialist, Disco Bouncer, Imported-Caar-Tyre Fixer,1 Festival Consultant, Brick Layer, Checkout Girl, Forklift Driver, Lentil Seller, Pedicurist, Table Wiper, Marriage Broker, Chicken Decapitator, and Porno Dealer (among myriad others). All jumbled together, they bring home to us both the tragedy and absurdity of the diasporic condition.
Other writers employ more traditional narratives to delve into the dilemmas that distance imposes on humans desperate for closeness, refuge, and familiarity. Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s teenage heroine in The Bridge of the Golden Horn escapes the Turkey of her birth with dreams of becoming a famous actress. Instead, she finds herself one of many Gastarbeiter in Germany. The shattering of her delusions can be heartbreaking:
Ever since I had been a child in Istanbul, I had been in the habit of praying to the dead every night. I first of all recited the prayers, then recited the names of dead people whom I had not known…. In the first nights in Berlin I prayed for the dead, too, but I quickly grew tired, because we had to get up so early. I fell asleep before I had said all the names of my dead. So I slowly lost my dead in Berlin.
A very different take on what it means to labor in a land one only knows from films and songs is the sample from Marina Lewycka’s Strawberry Fields. Her story of a robust Ukrainian adolescent who journeys from Kiev to Kent as a seasonal agricultural worker is scattered with mordant and often hilarious observations that remind us that migration is not only a story of trauma and bereavement but can also lead to a joyous, energizing, bold reinterpretation of the world. An echo of that insolence and creativity is found in “Out on Main Street” by Shani Mootoo, who was born in Ireland in 1957 and ended up in Canada via Trinidad and Tobago. In an excerpt that would have fit seamlessly in the Rotten English collection, the lesbian narrator cannibalizes, transmogrifies, and feasts on the English language as she describes an excursion with her girlfriend into the streets and sweet shops of a confusingly hybrid and picaresque Vancouver.
Just as amusing but in an entirely different register is Sefi Atta’s “Green,” a monologue by a nine-year-old American-born girl accompanying her Nigerian parents to an ICE office in New Orleans to find out if they have been approved for residence. As she sulks about missing her soccer game back in Mississippi and ponders many childish—and a number of adult—questions, we are slyly introduced to the limbo in which those between legal and undocumented status live. Another revelation is the Trinidadian author Sam Selvon. Using a colloquial, salty patois in “Come Back to Grenada,” Selvon narrates the plight of George, who works at night in a London factory and dreams by day of going back to his native country, all the while gradually adapting to cosmopolitan life in a city brimming with vibrant West Indian hustlers, all of them extremely entertaining. Selvon’s craft allows the reader to realize, as George does not and perhaps never will, that such a return to his island in the sun will never happen.
We emerge from these stories with a glimpse of migrant life on the edge; of the inevitable doubleness and even duplicity fleshed out by wanderers and settlers, refugees, and displaced persons; of the restless tension between two places (at least) that tear at the allegiance of migrants.2 In this span of voices I could recognize what my family has endured and witnessed during our own nomadic search for a semblance of home. And yet despite this maelstrom of inspiring encounters, I was also left with the sense that the vastness and depth of migration literature was inadequately epitomized and understood in this book. Too much seemed to be missing.
There are thirty-three selections in this anthology, of which only four are translations (one from Arabic, another from German, and two from French). The rest are all by English-speaking writers, twenty-one from the Commonwealth, with the Caribbean providing ten excerpts. It is disappointing that most of the tongues of the world are not represented in a compendium that strives for geographic diversity. Such narrowness not only diminishes the importance of the linguistic struggle that is at the core of every migration,3 the need to render the new by way of the old and the old by way of the new, but also drastically reduces the global scope and ambition of the collection.
For instance, Latin American literature in Spanish and Portuguese—an obvious obsession of mine—is scandalously absent. Migration is central to the very existence of Latin America, the many lands that since the Iberian conquest have been shaken by mass movements of its people, fractures constantly expressed by its greatest literary figures, who also happened to write many of their major works from afar. Could the compiler not have made space for even one from south of the border? As for the border, why did Ahmad restrict her selection to a solitary, rather unsurprising testimonial about Mexican farmworkers in the United States, instead of including Gloria Anzaldúa or Esmeralda Santiago? Why not give readers a sense of how English is refashioned and subverted in the groundbreaking fiction of Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, or Francisco Goldman?
There is nothing from the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas (Mahmoud Darwish, Edward Said, Bernard Malamud, Nelly Sachs, Ilan Stavans). Nothing from the colossal aftermath of the partition of India, which has left a legacy of memorable narratives. Nothing from what was arguably the most consequential intellectual movement of ideas in history, the German intelligentsia’s emigration to the United States after the rise of Nazism in their country.4 And what about the many other flights out of Europe: the Spanish who left Franco’s dictatorship, the French in their colonies, the Russians and Eastern Europeans fleeing communism?
I could also plunge into a more remote past, texts from Homer, Virgil, and Dante as well as the Bible, the Koran, the Mahabharata, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and folktales from Native Americans. Not that it is reasonable to expect all of these to be part of an anthology, but one item from this legacy would have been welcome. As would a sample from the theater—perhaps a scene from Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia (a trilogy centered on Alexander Herzen, that quintessential exile) or from his other plays (Indian Ink or Rock ’n’ Roll). Or a dialogue from Mario Benedetti’s Primavera con una esquina rota, untranslated into English, a play that transgressively asks what happens when an exiled woman whose husband is a political prisoner in Uruguay falls in love with his best friend. I also missed an instance of how literature has commemorated the migration of animals, treks across frontiers that have lessons for us, as Deena Metzger has observed, at a time of species extinction.5
Given that we cannot count on any anthology, however ideal and encyclopedic, to comprise all these possibilities, one could have presumed that the extensive suggestions for further reading and viewing that Ahmad has generously supplied at the end of the book would point readers in the right direction. Again, however, there are puzzling, even maddening, omissions. Why is Bertolt Brecht, whose poems are perhaps the most poignant and mordant meditations on displacement, ignored? Why no Anna Seghers, Pablo Neruda, Constantine Cavafy, W.G. Sebald, Assia Djebar, Michael Ondaatje, Adonis, Gabriela Mistral—not even a footnote?
No Czesław Miłosz, Derek Walcott, Peter Carey, Lobo Antunes, Doris Lessing.6 Why Zoë Wicomb from South Africa but no Nadine Gordimer, no Achmat Dangor, no Breyten Breytenbach? Why only mention Fatih Akin’s film Head-On and not that Turkish-German director’s masterpiece, The Edge of Heaven? Why no John Berger, whose A Seventh Man is a cornerstone for understanding forced emigration, preparing the way for his stunning Europa trilogy? And glad as I was to find David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon cited, that only made me more aware of the absence of the French-Lebanese Amin Maalouf, whose novels, memoirs, and essays are among the most illuminating pursuits of migration available in any language.
And yet, despite these limitations, I am grateful for this anthology in our turbulent times. I had started to write about it while in Chile on a prolonged visit, aware that soon enough I would be feeling the pangs of losing the country once more, especially at a moment of widespread social revolt when Chileans seemed to be again fighting their way out of their inner exile.7 And that’s how I thought I would end this meditation when I got around to finishing it in the US (where the bulk of my library with its scores of books on exile and migration is located). But that ending has been unsettled by the pandemic my wife and I had to confront as soon as we returned to our house in Durham, North Carolina.
This plague, after all, is the result of migrations: from animal to human, from Asia to the rest of the world, moving inexorably, ignoring frontiers, spreading from one city to the next, encompassing the globe. And refugees—more than 70 million of them—are among the most affected, the least likely to have soap and water, food and medicine. A cruel paradox: those who curse the distance that has made them homeless now have no space for the social distancing that could protect their families. But I also realized that it was not only sorrow and suffering that defined migration in this perilous era. I thought as well of how much the world could learn, in the current emergency, from the knowledge that migrants and exiles have accumulated across the centuries.8
Migrants have had to learn how to forge the sort of new language that is needed when life has been broken into pieces by forces beyond our control. The displaced carry with them a reservoir of wisdom and toughness, of humor and solidarity, that can serve us well as we try to adapt to a world where we all suddenly seem to be strangers, where all can recognize themselves in the words of the Somalian Warsan Shire excerpted in this necessary book: “Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.” A world where we must all suffer the loss of some personal Eden and fortify ourselves with the hope of a reinvented existence, as I did when I set out from Chile almost fifty years ago.
This spelling of “car” is not a misprint. Unnikrishnan frequently uses such a device (one among many) to stop us in our tracks and look twice at the words pouring forth. ↩
See The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues, edited and with an introduction by Wendy Lesser (Anchor, 2005). ↩
See Anthony Heilbut, Exiled in Paradise: German Refugee Artists and Intellectuals in America from the 1930s to the Present (Viking, 1983); as well as Anya Schiffrin, “How Varian Fry Helped My Family Escape the Nazis,” NYR Daily, October 3, 2019. ↩
Among other underappreciated writings, see Deena Metzger, Ruin and Beauty: New and Selected Poems (Red Hen, 2009). ↩
Can such glaring omissions be excused by Ahmad’s commendable desire to be anticanonical? But if so, why do her suggestions for further reading include Kipling, Conrad, Steinbeck, Melville, Multatuli, Henry James, Willa Cather, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Upton Sinclair, Sholem Aleichem, and Thomas Mann (though it is surprising that Death in Venice is recommended rather than the four Joseph novels)? ↩
See my “Coronavirus Is Teaching Americans What It’s Like to Live in Exile,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2020; and “Immigrants Have Always Known the Pain of Social Distancing,” The Atlantic, May 2, 2020. ↩