Despite the troubling time in which we live, we’re fortunate that publishers such as Abrams are providing a platform for minority voices. Last year saw the release of the likes of Why I March and 200 Women and this month sees the publication of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, in time for the upcoming World Refugee Week.
The Displaced, edited by Viet Nguyen, is published today. Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, and a refugee himself, has brought together a host of refugee writers from around the world to highlight the refugee experience. And the result is an anthology that really should be required reading.
I was sent an early sample of this book for review purposes, which features ten of the 17 essays. From reading just the first page of the sampler, a note from the Executive Editor of Abrams Press, I was aware of the importance of this book: “Today the world faces an enormous refugee crisis – 22.5 million people, the highest number of refugees ever, fleeing persecution and conflict from Myanmar to Syria. Yet the United States is increasingly closing the golden door. President Trump has radically reduced the number of refugees allowed to resettle here each year, from 110,000 under President Obama, to only 45,000. Each of these is a person in a desperate situation, and each of them is someone who could enrich our country in countless ways.”
The Displaced humanises the refugee experience. It’s one thing to read the shocking figure of 22.5 million people but it’s another to hear about their experiences firsthand. I want to share with you a snippet from each of the ten essays and encourage you to read the full accounts for yourself.
1. Joseph Azam discusses his family’s history, the importance of his grandfather naming him Mohammad Yousuf Azam and how his name has shaped his life.
“Most days I hide in plain sight. I am a Muslim refugee from a war-torn country – the sum of many fears – camouflaged by the trappings of Anglo-American-ness: fair skin, a mastery of the American vernacular, a picture of my blue-eyed wife and daughter on my desk at work, and called by a name that my late grandfather would not recognise.”
2. Fatima Bhutto recalls a VR experience created by Alejandro G. Inarritu and the emotional impact as a refugee herself.
“I was fourteen when my father was killed outside our home. He was a member of parliament and a critic of the government’s corruption and violence.”
3. Ariel Dorfman writes about Trump’s threat of a physical wall and the effect on Latin Americans.
“Your wall, Senor Trump, has already been breached, your wall has already been defeated by our peaceful invasion.”
4. Reyna Grande reflects on a childhood with an estranged father who left to build a better life for his family.
“I had to stand before this clean, well-fed stranger wearing a tattered dress, my head infested with lice, my belly swollen with tapeworm.”
5. Aleksandar Hemon shares a story he was told by a man who struggled with his sexuality in Bosnia, witnessed horrific crimes and spent years trying to discover the fate of his brother.
“The recent upsurge in bigotry directed at migrants and refugees is predictably contingent upon their dehumanisation and deindividualisation – they are presented and thought of as a mass of nothing and nobodies…”
6. Joseph Kertes talks about fleeing his homeland at the age of five. His family were only able to take what they could carry.
“I saw a Hungarian soldier hanging from a lamppost, and he was staring right at me, as I was at him, but he could no longer see. He would remain a constant reminder that we still had our lives. And a chance for freedom lay ahead.”
7. Marina Lewycka discusses her difference as a child raised in a “displaced persons” camp after the end of WW2, travelling around Europe as a teen and receiving a British passport at the age of 22.
“When I used to read the stories of refugees, mothers and children being plucked from leaky boats off the coast of Turkey and Libya, or young people’s bodies washed up lifeless on Mediterranean shores, it was all terribly sad, I thought, but nothing to do with me.”
8. Dina Nayeri spent her childhood living in Iran and London before seeking refuge in Dubai and Rome and then moving to Oklahoma.
“I had grown accustomed to the bomb sirens, the panicked dashes down to the basement, the taped-up windows. And the time that followed, the years in the refugee hostels, felt peaceful, a reprieve from all the noise.”
9. Vu Tran arrived in America at the age of five and never thought of himself as a refugee growing up.
“I quickly forgot the six days my mother and sister and I spent at sea, on a fishing boat with ninety people. I quickly forgot the deserted Malaysian island where we lived for four months, in a refugee camp of thousands.”
10. Kao Kalia Yang writes about a childhood in a refugee camp, an alternative sense of family and the bravery of the children.
“People died all the time in the camp, the old ones, the young ones, the sick ones, even the healthy ones.”
The additional seven writers featured in the finished copy are David Bezmozgis, Porochista Khakpour, Thi Bui, Maaza Mengiste, Lev Golinkin, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma and Meron Hadero. I’ll be back with a review of the finished book for World Refugee Day on 20 June.
I was sent a sample of this book for review purposes but all thoughts are my own.
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