John Domini Considers the Work of Viet Than Nguyen, Teju Cole, Dubravka Ugresic, and More
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.
Yet no sooner do I define my subject than it begins to warp. One of the novels that first sucked me into the project, wouldn’t you know it, is by a man who’s never abandoned his homeland. The Syrian Khaled Khalifa admits, in an Electric Literature interview, “I feel the terror strongly.” Nevertheless, he’s remained in country through both Assad regimes (the current monster took over from his father) and their counterinsurgencies, while refashioning his “terror” into three novels that have yet to see print in Damascus or Aleppo. My introduction was Death Is Hard Work, a 2019 US publication; the Arabic appeared in Lebanon three years earlier. The Work of the title is transporting a corpse, the father to three grown Damascenes. They pack the deceased onto a minibus for what once would’ve been a few hours’ drive. The man asked to be buried in his hometown, out by the border with Turkey.
But theirs is no country for honoring the dead. Revolutions and crackdowns have left “souls… moaning under the rubble,” and as for the living, they haunt the landscape worse. Khalifa’s roving intimacy allows us to share each sibling’s mounting chills at every new checkpoint. Most are staffed by the dictator’s goons, Mukhabarat, brandishing heavy weapons and assessing “fees.” More dangerous still are the freelancers who wave them off the road, the Russian mercenaries or jihadi cells. At one of the latter stops, the trembling sister has to “cover-up completely… her headscarf around her face.” Both brothers suffer their own degradations, and throughout, the text makes cunning reference to Dante’s Inferno.
The pilgrims do find some relief when they reach the zones “held by the Free Army,” along the frontier. The rebels, “good-natured,” could provide safe passage out, and in fits and starts the siblings broach the subject. To quit the country looks easier than the journey they’ve just endured. Their denuded former village and its cemetery afford little uplift. On the other hand, have they really reached such an extreme, beyond dread, beyond discouragement? Tattered as their family ties are, don’t they still provide some consolation?
Suspended between flight and inertia, Khalifa’s novel generates an exquisite tension even when the elements at work are unconventional. Throughout, there are off-the-wall flashes of humor, and the three protagonists prove educated and adaptable—just sort of people who could make a life abroad. That goes for the sister as well, despite how hard Syrian society can be on women. She provides her own glimpses into an inferno, the angle of view odd but the sensitivity transcendent. Indeed, as I read more of this author, unable to resist, I found exceptional women central to his accomplishment.
Both his earlier novels had women in the lead: first In Praise of Hatred (Arabic 2008, English 2012), and second—the one I’d call his Everest—No Knives in the Kitchens of the City (2013/2016). Each traces a woman’s sidewinder’s route to maturity and exile, via a chronology that runs both forwards and back, between illuminated moments and anxious longueurs. The unnamed narrator of In Praise is in her teens most of the way, though a conduit for stories that range over generations. She joins the opposition, does a stretch in a women’s prison that mixes hallucination and grit, and ends up an outlaw. Perhaps she’ll join the Free Army—and yet she looks almost ordinary beside Sawsan, the protagonist of No Knives.I’d argue that a norm-busting impulse distinguishes the most authentic fiction about migrants and refugees.
Like all Khalifa’s women, Sawsan knows her resources, in particular the spell cast by her looks. Around the neighborhood, she inspires the recurring term “irrepressible,” a word that in Arabic seems likewise binary, heroic and diabolic. It suits not just a character given to extremes, but also a novel teeming with incident yet concluding in ruins. Changes of heart are rendered with the glittering detail of a Persian miniature, but come together in the collapse of “a family which had been in Aleppo for a thousand years.” One relative joins the fight against the Americans, in Baghdad, and returns a broken man; another, a greatly gifted queer musician, suffers betrayal by those closest. As for Sawsan, her teachers are of necessity Assad loyalists, their urges left unchecked, and so her primary instruction concerns the “lethal bliss” of intimacy. The woman graduates to a strutting paratrooper, almost Mukhabarat herself. Yet the man she believes will make a winning match turns out hapless, and the shifting winds of power carry Sawsan to Dubai, to Paris, and finally to rebel sympathies. On every return to Aleppo she encounters fresh ravages of the regime she’s served, turning the notion of home ghostly: “the souls of great cities will haunt their destroyers to the grave.” By the time she’s 40 she’s settled in the EU, in a sham of a surrogate family.
Now, just as novels so rich as Khalifa’s resist thumbnail summary, Sawsan doesn’t fit the stereotype of a “refugee.” Europeans and Americans tend to picture something more destitute, perhaps living in a cardboard box, though Merriam-Webster says only: “one who flees for safety, esp. to a foreign country.” The yearning for a true haven, something more than survival, is what drives these Syrians, and on reflection their range of outcomes seems only to be expected. Humanity in all its variety, “irrepressible”—what else should concern a storyteller? Just as the author continues to hang on in Damascus, the runaways he imagines all upend expectation.
To put it another way, Khalifa’s daring and unusual stories fit neatly among the work that interests me most, on this sorry subject—but his living situation looks out of synch. The incongruity, however, doesn’t much distress me. Rather, I see it as another of the earmarks of the best writing about people either under threat or in exile. As I say, by now their numbers run into the tens of millions, and surely this means a rambunctious diversity is entirely apropos, when it comes to the authors among them. Just as any good artist is sui generis, raising their own complications, so these all have their own personal journeys and cultural frameworks.
Then too, given how such creative output is growing, no essay can speak to it all. I know better than to try and compile a bibliography. I’ll consider only a handful of recent narratives, all as convincing and eccentric as the three I’ve discussed so far. Looking again at No Knives in the Kitchens of This City, for instance, I perceive an ungainly and provocative aesthetic in its very title. My epigraph suggests the same, from a poem by Gayath Almadhoun, a refugee Palestinian (translated in Adrenalin, 2017): the old road just won’t do, to escape a place of devastation—even if the escape is solely by story.
To put it another way, the subject may be the wretched of the Earth, to echo the famed title from Frantz Fanon, but the stories keep smashing his honored old icon. Fanon’s 1961 polemic tore into colonialism, and of course the argument remains righteous, but its call for violent overthrow and new nationalism, over recent decades, has had some hideous consequences. What drives Sawsan from Aleppo isn’t the French Mandate of 1919. Rather, that legacy is just one more piece in a mosaic composed of gleanings from many different eras. Contributing to the effect is the dodgy point of view, now his, now hers—and isn’t that device also experimental? Around most workshops, at least?
Working outside the norms, one way or another, has also served a few creative writers out of “the North,” when they’ve tackled fleeing “the South.” A recent splendid example is Go, Went, Gone (2017) by Germany’s Jenny Erpenbeck. In the US, however, the best-known such novel could be American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins. The controversy around that book seems, in retrospect, instructive.The yearning for a true haven, something more than survival, is what drives these Syrians, and on reflection their range of outcomes seems only to be expected.
Cummins took an imaginative risk, as an author raised in suburban Maryland, writing about desperate Mexicans. A laudable risk, you’d think, even given the flawed effort that resulted. But the schism between subject and storyteller was made toxic by money, a fat advance and promotional budget; it’s this that triggered the public outcry, and that I find telling. I find American Dirt, as narrative, entirely conventional. In tracking an illegal border-crossing, its motives and ordeals, the novel relies on worn-out tropes like the hustler with a heart of gold, and on a thriller’s structure and pacing. It’s industry-friendly, in short. This hardly makes the book evil, but it illuminates the challenges of such a subject, especially when compared to an American novel by a recent refugee, a narrative with a number of the same elements, like gunplay and close scrapes—namely, Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (2015).
The Pulitzer winner needs no plot summary here. For my argument, what matters is its unnamed narrator protagonist, recalling In Praise of Hatred, and the similarity between this “Captain” and Sawsan. Like Khalifa’s knotty lead, Nguyen’s confronts no end of painful ambiguities, thanks to his undercover work for Communist Vietnam. Once disillusion sets in, he even sounds like Sawsan: “A revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing.” Then too, for a novel about the tragedy of America in Southeast Asia, The Sympathizer startles us with its comedy. Nguyen brings off a picaresque, with a screwball twist or two. His knight-errant knocks around Saigon and LA before ending up with the boat people, in yet another attempt to flee that gets badly complicated. Granted, things also get ugly, out on the water. There’s bloody business throughout, and while the Captain’s cross-cultural insights can fetch a smile (the Hollywood material especially), they often deliver a burn. Still, what most renders this novel non-traditional is its easy way with a laugh.
Is this a stretch, calling Nguyen experimental? His novel does without quotation marks, but otherwise isn’t the rhetoric orthodox (though devoid of cliché) and the chronology straightforward (though with flashbacks and shocks)? At first glance there appears nothing outré about his follow-up, The Refugees (2019), a set of stories with a dedication that wears its heart on its sleeve: “For all the refugees, everywhere.” Yet the collection opens with a ghost, in a tale that insists on its reality: “As they haunt our country, so do we haunt theirs.” Otherwise, Nguyen’s shorter work may lack for outright fantasy, but not for fantastic surprises. A transplant saves the life of a no-account card-player, but it tumbles him into more nefarious scams. A refugee in San Francisco discovers his homosexuality, in the process betraying families both back home and Stateside—and yet confronts deceit still uglier in a letter from his father in the “new Vietnam.”
Audacious invention is what links The Refugees to the more flamboyant Sympathizer, while at the same time setting it apart from hackneyed fare like American Dirt. Another way to put the point would be to say, simply, that Nguyen’s better. Fair enough, but “better” in this case includes embracing an inclination towards the wild and freewheeling. The author has lately announced, on social media, that he’s working up a trilogy out his Sympathizer materials; all the books will continue his toying with the stuff of Le Carré and other espionage masters. Clearly he’s not reining in any impulses, and for all I know, that’s the healthiest outlet for an imagination so scarred.
Another well-known transplant case, also a prizewinner, is Teju Cole. His narrators are forever up in their heads, and in place of plot he offers an entertaining meander, inviting comparison to W.G. Sebald. His debut Open City (2011) inhabits “Julius,” born like Cole in Nigeria. A migrant with status, completing an advanced degree at Columbia U, his capacious thoughts take on Mahler, Malcolm X, and much else, including several wanderers like himself. The first may appear in the opening pages, as Julius meditates on the geese over Manhattan. Among the humans, none tell a more tragic story than the young Liberian Saidu, now awaiting deportation. The narrator, however, visits this detainee in a professional capacity; Julius mouths a few sympathies but never returns. Here and throughout, he’s a latter-day M. Teste, his every interaction at a remove. When the med student finds himself in a club with Rwandans, “teenagers during the genocide,” he claims the discovery “changed the tenor of the evening,” yet all that comes of it is another long walk, full of musings. “What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting?”
Or behind the narrator’s disconnect? Cole himself, I must point out, can engage with the heartache of dislocation. In a September think piece for the Times Magazine, ostensibly an essay on Caravaggio, the sight of a shipwrecked migrant boat set him weeping. But we don’t see either of his novels’ protagonists breaking down like that, and in this the work finds a fresh embodiment for exile trauma. Over the last half-century, stories about the displaced have tended to burn with intensity. See Salman Rushdie, when his setting’s contemporary, or for that matter The Sympathizer—or Mohsin Hamid’s new Exit West.
Hamid checks all the boxes under “Refugee Novel,” starting in a proud city gone to pieces, where loved ones get blown to bits at random; from there in moves to tent camps and other shadow-spaces. Between every rock and hard place, however, Hamid inserts a kind of Star Trek transporter. A nervy move, yet it never makes cartoon creatures of its central couple. On the contrary, their anguish drives the narrative, a love story on tenterhooks. While catching the nuances between Saeed and Nadia, the text rises to moments that reach beyond: “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
A terrific novel, really, Exit West seems to have its own smooth round hole waiting, among the texts I’m considering. Nevertheless, it too feels rather like a square peg. Its author never suffered ethnic cleansing, an ISIS purge, or anything of the sort. Granted, in shuttling between Lahore and London, his two homes, Hamid must’ve crossed paths with many less fortunate. His latest no doubt has personal connections. Still, it’s no cry from the heart, and in that sense a very different animal from novels like Khalifa’s, or especially The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree (Australia 2017, US 2019), the debut of the Iranian Shokoofeh Azar.
A finalist for the Booker International (the Booker for work in translation), Greengage stands out as the most didactic among those I’m looking at. Scene after scene castigates the Ayatollahs for their destruction of the ancient Persian culture. Not that Azar lacks the gift of amazement, not at all. Her model is Garcia Marquez, but when she cites his Hundred Years, she’s by no means professorial: the scene is a book-burning. Another barbaric act, destroying a luthier’s shop, gives the novel its narrator, a ghost. This phantom allows for breathtaking shifts between worlds, now groaning with a father under torture, now watching his daughter turn into a mermaid. Yet whatever their metamorphosis, none of Azar’s people quit the country; even the mermaid dallies along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Rather it’s the author who got away. Her Acknowledgments thank “the free country of Australia”—and so like the other narratives here, it both fits and doesn’t.
The Congolese Alain Mabanckou, now based in LA, likewise sets his novels in the old country, with one notable exception. Online at the latest Brooklyn Book Festival, the novelist spoke of his murdered family and of an identity “erased” by writing in French. These hard knocks, however, have provoked him to playful fiction. Line by line, he’s a rule-breaker, and his narratives crackle with irony. Still, a fine piece of work like Broken Glass (2010) keeps the focus on the neighborhood, either Brazzaville or some smaller town. Only one novel travels abroad, Mabanckou’s debut Blue White Red (France 1997, US 2010). Here a local boy makes good up North, or so it appears. Every year on his return, “the first thing we noticed was [his] color… nothing like ours…, oily and black as manganese. His was extraordinarily white…, the brilliant skin of a Parisian.” Ah, but the brilliance is only skin-deep. When the young narrator tries his own luck in the French capital, his comeuppance suggests a comic reimagining of Kafka’s Trial. A remarkable cultural mélange, really, this novel reminds us that though the monsters of racism and colonialism still have their claws in the current generation of refugees, the struggle to get free has grown complicated.
The work of Dubravka Ugresic, a Croatian, often returns to an evening in early 1990s, as Yugoslavia imploded, when she had to slip out of her apartment carrying “a bag with the bare essentials.” That particular description comes from The Fox (Croatia 2017, US 2018), a novel according to Ugresic, though its unnamed narrator shares her author’s literary vocation, Amsterdam address, and more. Regardless of genre, anyway, the text locates its center in her hair’s-breadth escape from Zagreb (or wherever). Around that circle other recollections and fixations, finally generating a poignant awareness. “To never, never wish for a home,” concludes our narrator (or whoever), “was simply impossible.”
Ugresic belongs among the uprooted and bereft, certainly, but she doesn’t lack for idiosyncrasy. Her dozen titles include as much non-fiction as fiction, and in her way she’s a standard-bearer for tradition. All European culture provides her material, her intellectual range broader than Teju Cole’s. The Fox capers through a history of the arts, from fables concerning the title creature to the arcana of Russian Modernism to the author’s own moment, in which she’s more than sharp enough to spot how her story’s gotten pigeonholed. Writing about forced migration, she notes, has entered “the faddish slang of literary scholarship;” it’s called “miglit.” Very much a wised-up postmodern, her project pairs up well with Mabanckou’s.
The question’s a joke, naturally, in keeping with the bumptious storytelling, the trompe-l’œil, that figure so largely in this fiction. As for an answer, wrapping up my overview, I’ll consider three new texts that make as good a fit for the “miglit” library as any of the titles here. Each appeared in the States this year, each speaks from authority about a life in dire 21st-century straits, and each finds an alternative variety of narrative.
Though the monsters of racism and colonialism still have their claws in the current generation of refugees, the struggle to get free has grown complicated.
Silence Is My Mother Tongue (UK, 2018), the second novel from Sulaiman Addonia, takes place entirely in a refugee camp. A raddle of huts in a parched corner of the Sudan, such a place was the author’s childhood home, as his dedication acknowledges. He was driven from Eritrea by the long and lunatic war with Ethiopia, yet while his narrative depicts that trail of tears, it never feels like a slog. Rather, the disruptive humanity in what’s going on calls to mind Tadeusz Borowski, the way he whistled past the graveyards of Auschwitz, in This Way for the Gas, Ladies & Gentlemen.
Addonia’s Silence opens with one of the strangest sustained passages in any of these texts (more outlandish, too, than the Saudi coming of age in his first novel). A fluttery omniscient perspective drops in here and there throughout a trial that plays like vaudeville, with a glimpse of masturbation and other shenanigans. Yet what’s at issue is no joke. The defendant is Saba, the “mongrel” daughter of an Eritrean and an Ethiopian, far too smart for her own good—she hopes to attend college. Now Saba must prove herself worthy of marriage; a fundamentalist Muslim midwife must confirm that her hymen’s intact.
Suffocating social roles besiege Saba on all sides, though she’s a long way from ordinary society. Once the novel’s chronology circles back to the arrival in camp, the first challenge is to find water and the next to make it safe to drink. Everyone scrapes along hand to mouth, yet at the same time flourish plumes of culture. Back in Asmara the common language was colonial, Italian, and in camp there’s both a polylingual bibliophile and an opera singer. A tragic case, that singer, a victim of the water’s toxins, but as the woman dies she bursts into an aria. A similar fate befalls the “cinema,” a shadow-puppet theater of remarkable sophistication—too much so for the camp imam. He and his acolytes close the show, and drive Saba almost to giving up. Lying “supine,” she reflects, “perhaps this was the natural position of a girl… If not, why did surrendering feel so much easier?”
Insofar as this girl resists, and gets off her back, it proves Addonia’s neatest trick, the equal of those in Viet Nguyen. You might say Saba enters another culture before leaving camp, she achieves savior faire, and in a wild touch nonetheless just right, she scribbles her hopes in fractured beginner’s English: “hide me black in skin of Europe.”
The protagonist of They Have Fired Her Again, by the Salvadoran Claudia Hernández, hides her brown in the skin of New York. Her very name, Lourdes, takes some hunting to ferret out, in the dizzying rush of the style, its shifting points of view suggesting the blur inside a passing subway:
I go to some classes around here, on Fourth Avenue…. I’m learning more quickly and meeting more people, Latinos, especially. Good people, although they’re kind of boring. They only like going to Hispanic places and to spend as little as possible. I don’t understand them. They say that’s how us who come here with a visa and by plane are—we don’t understand. We don’t know what it’s like walking in fear and being hungry for many days. We throw away our money because it hasn’t cost us much.
“We,” “they,” “I”—who? Seeking stability, a reader notes the name of the title character, which contains a miracle. And doesn’t the same hold true for the title? To live off the books is to depend on miracles, just as to get fired again implies getting hired as well. Everyone here, whatever the pronoun, plays hopscotch among paying gigs and other arrangements. A woman stays “in the bedroom that the bookseller from 53rd and 5th found for me in the apartment of his friend,” and gets “messages that the owner of La Flor leaves for me.” So the bookseller and florist, like nearly every face whirling by, are both “we” and “they”: both an employer or landlord, holding some small advantage, and at the same time just another wayfarer, struggling to keep their fixed address and green card.
Capturing this confusion, the migrant’s frets and shakes, itself constitutes quite an accomplishment for a single long story. Hernández, however, also works in traces of myth and fairytale. Power animals, here a wolf and there a cat, prowl the avenues seductively; Mister Orestes looms as well, both supernatural and pathetic, not unlike his mythic namesake. These fabulist elements feel threatening at times, at others lifegiving, and either way they help illuminate anew the hustle at the margins of the North.
A hustle, I should add, that Hernández herself has avoided. In San Salvador, she’s made her living as a teacher, though she’s no stranger to the wretched; most of her writing concerns her country’s devastating civil war. Scholastique Mukasonga, on the other hand, has endured as desperate a trial as any author I’ve looked at. She was born in Rwanda, a minority Tutsi, and she had to flee first persecution, then genocide. Her new Igifu (France, 2010) presents just five stories, call them chapters in a short novel, and the first might be a Wiki-link for the word “refugee.” In a camp as barren as Saba’s in Silence, “igifu” is a girl’s “cruel guardian angel:” Tutsi for hunger.
The episodes that follow touch down at other points along Mukasonga’s escape route; she was the lone family member to survive. Following the massacres of ‘94, it took her ten years to revisit Rwanda, and then only as a solid French citizen, but after that she began to write for publication, and over the last fifteen years she’s fashioned a monument to the lost. Her biggest success came with Our Lady of the Nile (France 2012, US ‘14), set in a girls’ school where tribal hatred counts for more than Christian charity, and the author demonstrates the same skill at microcosm in this brief text.
Mukasonga herself called Igifu fiction, during an online talk with Community Bookstore, and it features the stuff of dream and rumor, as well as leaping across decades. In the opener, fainting from hunger practically carries her to Oz: “like a tornado dragging me toward those lights, and they grew brighter and brighter and there were more and more of them, sparkling….” Another mood altogether, folksy, savvy, pervades the long centerpiece, which details the trials of a Tutsi woman “beyond question the most beautiful of them all.” We learn the nickname for the lower-caste mistress of a powerful man: his “second office.” Yet while this artist demonstrates mastery while playing in a number of different keys, her subject always comes back to grief. “Grief” serves as the title for the closer, perhaps the most directly drawn from her experience. It features a Tutsi émigré, now a teacher in France, returning after long absence to the gutted family home. The places of her heart have “become the labyrinth of her despair, with no way out”—except of course via what we’re reading.
This paradox seems a good point on which to conclude. It’s one more incidence of adaptive coloration, cloaking creation in despair. A trick like that isn’t limited to our po-mo moment, of course, it’s as old as irony, and so the most recent wave of the dispossessed has its forebears, earlier champions of aesthetic freedom. Rushdie would be the obvious case. Another is the Palestinian Elias Khoury, born in 1948, shaking things up in novels like Gate of the Sun (Lebanon ‘98, US 2005). But making a list matters less, by far, than getting a grip on the way these imaginations work and trying to understand why.
A writer so hard up, after all, would seem more likely to move the other way, towards documentary realism. Work in that mode isn’t difficult to find. Two stirring examples would be Omar Robert Hamilton’s novel of the Tahrir Square uprisings, The City Always Wins (2017), and Samar Yazbek’s memoir of surviving Syria, The Crossing (2016). Franz Fanon himself would salute such brave efforts—Yazbek, a woman, strove to be an honest journalist. Yet none of the authors I’ve considered lack for bravery, when it comes to what’s ugly, bloody, or iniquitous about running for your life. Even the frisky Mabanckou, in Blue White Red, growls at how the displaced “first had to pay a fine to recover the freedom to exist.” But watching him and these others respond the way they do, with dekes and feints, to me affirms the greater value of experiment. To refuse established approaches, predictable dramatic turns, looks ultimately like the most honest response to their upheavals, and the most to the point. Tristan Tzara, trying to define Dada, claimed he wanted to “urinate in different colors;” what distinguishes the best new migrant and refugee fiction is the wild hues in which they piss on their ugly fates.