John Domini Considers the Work of Viet Than Nguyen, Teju Cole, Dubravka Ugresic, and More
Continue reading "The Literary Risk-Takers: On New Migrant and Refugee Fiction"
I can’t attend, for the road between my poem and Damascus is cut off for postmodern reasons.
–“I Can’t Attend,” by Ghayath Almadhoun
No ISBN sequence can keep track the world’s recent homeless, but the books won’t stop coming. As the refugee crisis grows unremittingly, with people out of Syria, El Salvador, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Bosnia… as the numbers mount, so do the novels and short stories. Fiction that grapples with the dislocation, the desperation, has surged over the past decade or so, and the output includes some celebrated recent titles. This year, our purgatorial 2020, has seen a fresh flurry, and several prove highly distinctive, both fine and strange.
Myself, attracted to such imaginations (and perhaps prodded by the ghost of my father, an economic refugee out of Southern Italy), I’ve been struck especially by that last element: the strangeness of these creations. Dream passages, nutty exaggeration, linguistic somersaults, disorienting shifts of frame and focus—these devices and others distinguish a surprising number of the imaginative works that struggle with these broken lives. That goes as well for authors working in their second or third language, a situation that you’d think would make them rely on the simple and standard. Instead, they embrace the subversive, and this refusal to conform gives me my essay. I’d argue that a norm-busting impulse distinguishes the most authentic fiction about migrants and refugees.