When the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up onto the shore of Bodrum, Turkey, in September 2015, the photograph of him went viral, sending a shockwave through a part of the world that, until then, had largely ignored the civil war the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) António Guterres has called “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”
Four thousand miles east in the Rakhine state of Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims, a stateless minority, endure widespread massacre and the decimation of their villages; more than 500,000 have fled to Bangladesh in what has been characterized by some as an ethnic cleansing. The United Nations deems Rohingya Muslims “the most persecuted people in the world.”
Syria and Myanmar are only two of the dozens of source countries from which people have fled persecution over the last few years. According to a report from the UNHCR, at the end of 2015, over 65 million people had been displaced from their homes. The five source countries with the highest number of refugees were Syrian Arab Republic (nearly five million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), Somalia (1.12 million), South Sudan (778,700), and Sudan (628,800). People flee because of war, hunger, religious/gender/sexuality persecution, and natural disasters related to climate change.
What is a refugee? In the United States, the several pronged, unwieldy legal definition is embedded in the US Immigration and Naturalization Act. Essentially, persons from outside of the US who hope to attain refugee status must demonstrate that they were persecuted or feared persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. (Until they are officially granted refugee status, they are considered to be asylum seekers.)
Five works of fiction and three works of nonfiction published this year about refugees and asylum seekers go well beyond photographs and statistics to explore the myriad issues displaced people face when they are forced out of their homes. All of these books demonstrate how difficult it is to prove persecution or fear of persecution, particularly when important documents such as identity cards, marriage certificates, and medical records are lost or destroyed during flight. Grief, memory, trauma, and community feature heavily in these resplendent stories. The shifts in the characters’ lives are tectonic: family heirlooms are lost, relationships fracture, and customs, traditions, and languages are forgotten, oftentimes never to be retrieved or repaired again.
The self-immolation of Muhammed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 sparked a wave of protests throughout Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Three months later in Daraa, a southwestern city in Syria, a group of boys spray-painted “Ejak Al Door ya Duktur,” (“You’re next, Doctor”) on a school wall. (“Doctor” referred to President Bashar al-Assad, who had trained in ophthalmology.) The Political Security Directorate rounded up the fifteen boys it deemed responsible and detained them in Damascus where they were tortured. Protestors in Damascus organized a march to demand their release—as well as the repeal of the 1968 emergency law, which severely punished those who expressed dissenting views. These marches soon came to the streets of Daraa.
The demonstrations in her hometown ignited something within sixteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel. “Her whole life she had been told that the people of Syria would never defy their government and that she had to accept things as they were. But as she stood there watching the demonstrators file past her, for a moment she felt the urge to step off the sidewalk and join them, to be a part of what would be a new Syria.” Doaa’s journey to freedom is the subject of Melissa Fleming’s exceptional book, A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival.
With a newly awakened revolutionary spirit, the third daughter of Shokri and Hanaa ignores her parents’ pleas to stay away. She assists demonstrators who’ve been tear-gassed and throws canisters back at the soldiers. “For the first time in her life, she felt a sense of larger purpose, and she was determined to play a part in what she hoped would be a movement for peaceful change in the country she loved. The more demonstrations she attended, the bolder Doaa grew.”
25 April 2011 would mark a turning point in her life. Security forces seized Daraa. Soldiers rooted out “terrorists” by ransacking homes to search for evidence of complicity. The power was cut off and Doaa and her family had little food and water. The following June, Shokri’s barbershop, the family’s only source of income, was destroyed by missiles. In the fall of 2012, the Al Zamels reluctantly decided to flee to Egypt.
Under President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt warmly welcomed the flood of Syrian refugees. According to the UNHCR, in 2013 it registered 125,499 Syrian refugees in Egypt; the Egyptian government, which includes unregistered refugees in its count, puts that figure closer to 300,000. In the summer of 2013, after mass demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi orchestrated a coup overthrowing Morsi. Overnight, Egyptians’ tolerance toward Syrians turned to distrust. Daily life for the Al Zamels, who had settled in the Gamasa district of Damietta, became terrifying. Doaa and her sisters were routinely harassed in the streets and received death threats. “What had once been a country of refuge was now just one more place of menace for Doaa and her family.”
In September 2014, Doaa made the fateful decision to flee on a fishing boat to Greece with her fiancé, Bassem, a former opposition soldier in Syria. The boat was brutally attacked and almost all of the passengers drowned. Doaa, who survived the attack, was left floating in the sea holding two infants, and praying for rescue.
Author Fleming, chief spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is a skillful storyteller. She patiently parses the trust between Doaa and her parents, who come to support their daughter’s activism, the tenderness she shares with her siblings, and the love she develops for Bassem. Homelessness, fear, and near starvation take an enormous toll on Doaa’s mental health, and Fleming sensitively relays the transformation she makes from a spirited young rebel to a woman desperate to find a safe place to live. By the time Doaa steps onto the fishing boat, it’s evident that the Mediterranean Sea is the only option if she wants to survive.
Syria will always be Doaa’s country, as she relays in her own words at the end of the book: “Every family in my country has lost so much that they have had to rebuild their homes in their hearts,” she says. “One day, I hope to return to Syria so I can breathe again. Even if it’s just for one day. That would be enough.”
The Iranian Revolution began with the ouster of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in January 1978. He was replaced with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, changing the form of government from a monarchy to a theocracy, the Islamic Republic of Iran. In 1980, on the heels of the revolution, Iraq invaded Iran in what would turn out to be an eight-year war. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians immigrated in the United States, and many sought asylum.
Author Dina Nayeri was born during the revolution, grew up in Isfahan, Iran, and left Iran for the US when she was ten years old. Her enchanting debut novel Refuge is inspired by her emigration and assimilation experiences.
In Refuge, the Hamidi family breaks apart in 1987 when mother Pari, targeted by the moral police for her medical career and her Christian beliefs, decides to flee Isfahan with her eight-year-old daughter Niloo and younger child, son Kian, “under a scratchy blanket, in the back of a brown jeep” to escape to America. On the eve of their departure, Young Niloo has no idea that her father, the poetry-loving dentist Dr. Bahman Hamidi—with whom she shares a “secret other world of spatula ice creams, hunting foreign candy, birthday pranks on neighbors, and disappearing in the Ardestoon orchards to pick mulberries and raw almond buds”—has no plans to join them in America. Their complicated and at times estranged relationship is at the heart of Refuge.
In the next twenty-two years, father and daughter meet only four times—in Oklahoma City in 1993, London in 2001, Madrid in 2006, and Istanbul in 2008. These cities accommodate Bahman’s visa restrictions (due to his Iranian citizenship) and Niloo’s desire to keep her father as removed as possible from the places where she’s built a life. If she can physically and emotionally exile her father, she feels she may be able to preserve more of herself:
[T]hese trips had drained me. Did they bring me any closer to Baba? Did they restore my roots or the childhood I had missed? All they did was tarnish my memories. The Baba I had known was trapped in the past, forever thirty-three, as I would be forever eight years old to him. Having never grown together, all we could do was rehash, returning to old ground, and changing each other back to a faded snapshot after every goodbye. We couldn’t fathom each other as we were now. Our visits, far from renewing us, were hastening our decay.
Over the years, their relationship evolves, or more accurately devolves. Niloo dissociates from her heritage by throwing herself into teaching dental anthropology at a new post at the University of Amsterdam. (Ironically, she comes to share in Bahman’s passion for teeth.) She ignores his attempts at meaningful correspondence. Bahman, consumed by nostalgia for a country he no longer recognizes and despondent over a string of broken marriages, continues to find solace in opium. Niloo finds comfort in control. She makes incessant lists and carefully guards important documents from each chapter of her life:
She flips through the file folder with her passport and naturalization certificates, her marriage license, her Yale degree, the deed to the new apartment in the Pijp, and the construction contracts. She counts them again: nine documents that entitle her to her life. She gathers her backpack to her chest and hugs it tight, takes a breath until her lungs ache, holds it for a beat and forces it out.
Nayeri’s passages are luminous as she gracefully moves through the decades of father and daughter’s periods of solitude and reconciliation. The four visits are placed within the narrative at crucial turning points in Niloo’s adult life, and in these reunions Nayeri delicately evinces how a close parent-child relationship can crumble under such harsh constraints of time and geography.
Refuge also asks an essential question: When does one cease being a refugee? Is it after signing a lease to a new home, upon gaining citizenship in the new country, or after returning to the homeland (if such a return is possible)? Two decades after leaving Iran, Niloo still searches for an answer:
Maybe that’s the difference between refugees and expats. The difference isn’t Yale or naturalization papers, a fat bank account or invitations to native homes[. . . .] When you learn to release that first great windfall after the long migration, when you trust that you’ll still be you in a year or a decade, even without the treasures you’ve picked up along the way, always capable of more—when you stop carrying it all on your back—maybe that’s when the refugee years end.
Ian Bassingthwaighte’s gripping debut novel Live from Cairo illuminates the mind-numbing bureaucracy of refugee resettlement alongside the mass chaos of a political revolution in Tahrir Square. The protagonist Hana arrives in Cairo in 2011 to begin her position with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees soon after President Mubarak is ousted. She is an Iraqi-American whose father had been killed in Baghdad in 1980, a few months before her birth, and whose mother, an Assyrian Christian, fearing persecution by the Baathists, fled with Hana’s older sister Leilah to the US. Despite this formidable family history, Hana brings a rose-colored naïveté to her position as a UNHCR resettlement officer.
Her duties sound simple enough—she must send refugees to a safer place. But on her first day, her boss drops a bomb. “Sadly, that won’t happen,” she says. “Not now. Probably not ever. There’s no room, politically speaking. Not in any country.” Within minutes, Hana finds herself buried under an avalanche of files, the next one more grievous than the last:
Refugees came like dust blown from other deserts. Iraq, Sudan, Somalia. The men had survived abduction and torture. The women had survived abduction and torture and rape. Aggravating circumstances included missing relatives or children, various psychological disorders, arrhythmia. The average heart, it seemed, was unable to normalize after the shock of learning what people could do.
In a twisted paradox, people who suffered the most, and who had documents to back up their testimonies, are more often than not the “good” cases that Hana can process more quickly and successfully. The UNHCR will likely decide to send them to a safer place. The “bad” cases fall into two main categories. Either the applicants lack adequate “proof of origin, proof of trauma, or proof of flight,” or the United Nations has declared their homeland safe for repatriation, which revokes their refugee status and mandates the return to the source country. Such a mandate, which relieves Hana from rendering the unfavorable verdict herself, “slightly reduced the considerable feeling of guilt” she feels. Nevertheless, holding the fate of so many people in her hands takes a serious toll on Hana’s emotional health.
The first applicant Hana interviews is thirty-four-year-old Dalia from Baghdad. Her husband Omran worked for the American Army building water mains, and through a special program was eligible for resettlement in Boston—but Dalia could not join him because the couple didn’t have a document verifying their marriage. During the interview, it becomes clear to Hana that Dalia’s case is ill-fated. Her written testimony contradicts her verbal testimony, which means her file will be flagged for unreliability. “A single-file queue almost a million people long appeared in Hana’s mind. Dalia was an invisible dot in the distance, with no chance whatsoever of leaving Egypt.”
While awaiting the UNHCR’s decision on her application, Dalia imagines an alternate life. “She’d go back and kiss Omran. She ’d go back and kiss him again. She’d go back, much further this time, and tell a younger version of herself to leave Iraq before the war started. When the younger version protested—the disbelief, the pride, the desire to finish school—Dalia would slap her so hard the pain would knock her and Omran north into Turkey or west into Syria.” In the meantime, Dalia clings to hope, and puts up with the bizarre antics of her attorney at the Refugee Relief Project, Charlie, whose obsession over her case borders on impropriety.
Live from Cairo provides an important critique of a system that fails far too many endangered people, for applicants must not only experience trauma or injury, they must be able to seamlessly articulate it. It’s a nearly impossible standard that stresses Charlie: “They wanted to leave Egypt. Charlie’s imagined job was to make that happen; his real job was to very occasionally make that happen. He took solace in the daily grind to forget the likely outcome.”
At times, Bassingthwaighte’s prose tend toward a dizzying pace, one that not even page breaks can alleviate. But when the author slows down, allowing us to catch our breaths and settle into the interiority of the characters, he doggedly dissects the multitude of worlds and identities in which his characters find themselves. Hana’s work with refugees fills her with feelings of regret and inadequacy:
Her father had perished on his way to beseech God for a cease-fire. That his country might know peace! . . . Hana’s mother had perished, at least on the inside, from the frantic need to stay faithful. That she might relentlessly pray for the dead! What sacrifice had Hana ever made to earn her place in such a family?
In the end, Dalia alone is left to determine how to rescue her own life, to find a place where she and Omran can live together, safely, to start a family someday. “It was a quiet, invisible obliteration. Even Dalia didn’t notice it. Not until the screen door opened and slammed closed again. The sound reminded Dalia what was waiting outside: the same unknowable fate that had always been waiting there. Somehow it was nearer than it had been. Would she ever leave Egypt? Would Egypt ever change? For the better?”
La Bestia (The Beast), also known as El Tren de la Muerta (the death train), is the network of freight trains that transport millions of asylum seekers—many of them unaccompanied children—from El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala to the northern border of Mexico. Some begin the journey as far south as Tapachula and Tenosique, the Mexican cities closest to the Guatemalan border. Since the surge of migration began in 2014, some half a million each year ride La Bestia, switching trains up to a dozen or more times to make the complete two-week journey. Many of those who fall off the trains’ rooftops lose limbs or die. All unaccompanied children travel with a paid coyote. Some also travel with siblings, other relatives, or friends.
The accomplished Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions recounts the experiences of Valeria Luiselli, author of The Story of My Teeth, who in 2015 became a New York City immigration court volunteer interpreter for unaccompanied minors crossing the border to seek asylum in the US. Her position requires that she ask the children a series of questions in Spanish (Why did you come to the United States? When did you enter the United States? With whom did you travel to this country? How did you travel here? What countries did you pass through?) and translate their answers into English—“But nothing is ever that simple,” she writes. “The children who cross Mexico and arrive at the US border are not ‘immigrants,’ not ‘illegals,’ not merely ‘undocumented minors.’ Those children are refuges of a war, and, as such, they should all have the right to asylum. But not all of them have it.”
While volunteering, Luiselli and her husband apply for their green cards. Though their residency limbo is far less nerve-racking (or life-threatening) than the unaccompanied children’s, the application process prompts her to reflect on the ways status and language impact one’s sense of being and moving throughout the world. “We joked, somewhat frivolously, about the possible definitions of our new, now pending, migratory status. Were we ‘pending aliens’ or ‘writers seeking status’ or ‘alien writers,’ or maybe ‘pending Mexicans’?”
Some 102,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the border between April 2014 and August 2015. When Luiselli peruses articles to learn more about them, she reads about the protestors near border towns that want the US to refuse them: “We wonder if the reactions would be different were all these children of a lighter color: of better, purer breeds and nationalities. Would they be treated more like people? More like children? We read the papers, listen to the radio, see photographs, and wonder.” The callous response of Americans near the border rears its ugly head again at a Roswell, New Mexico diner, where Luiselli overhears a server inform a customer that the unaccompanied minors, who she describes as “aliens,” will be sent back via a millionaire’s private jet on the same day, as if they are unwanted baggage, items to be discarded with no regard to their humanity, no acknowledgment of their traumatic journeys.
Having her own children makes Luiselli acutely aware of the courage these young asylum seekers possess. As she watches her children sleep, she wonders how or if they would have survived such a treacherous journey:
Children certainly take the risk. Children do what their stomachs tell them to do. They don’t think twice when they have to chase a moving train. They run along with it, reach for any metal bar at hand, and fling themselves toward whichever half-stable surface they may land on. Children chase after life, even if that chase might end up killing them. Children run and flee. They have an instinct for survival, perhaps, that allows them to endure almost anything just to make it to the other side of the horror, whatever may be waiting there for them.
“Did anything happen on your trip to the US that scared you or hurt you?” This is the interview question that fills Luiselli with the most shame. Some 80 percent of women and children are raped crossing to the United States, and though an exact figure is unknown, several thousands have disappeared or have been killed. “All I want to do is cover my face and my ears and disappear,” she writes. “But I know better, or try to. I remind myself to swallow the rage, grief, and shame; remind myself to just sit still and listen closely, in case a child does happen to reveal a particular detail that can end up being key to his or her defense against deportation.”
In the coda, Luiselli deeply reflects on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, an event she confesses she could never have predicted. Here, she writes with the kind of despair she seems to keep at bay in the book’s main narrative. “The world is so upside fucking down that Trump somehow became president of the United States, and President Enrique Peña Nieto, in Mexico, restitched the entire Mexican landscape—previously tattered—to turn it into a warm welcome doormat for Trumpland.”
Luiselli’s provisional work permit expires before her green card arrives, which means she is no longer legally allowed to work in the United States. In a state of uncertainly, she asks herself the same question she’s posed to countless children—“Why did you come to the United States?”
“Perhaps no one knows the real answer,” Luiselli admits, though she takes comfort in the answer a little girl gave her once: “Because I wanted to arrive.”
In Shanthi Sekaran’s impressive debut novel Lucky Boy, eighteen-year old Solimar “Soli” Castro Valdez reluctantly decides to abandon her Papi—a corn farmer like his father and grandfather—her Mama, and their small, depressed village of Santa Clara Popocalco, Mexico: “[D]ecay had spread like the valley fog, until it found its way to Soli. She’d breathed so much of it in that she couldn’t breathe it out again. She was filling up with silence and heavy bones.” With her parents’ blessing, she decides to travel to Berkeley, California, to build a life for herself with her cousin Sylvia.
After two days in the car with her smuggler Manuel, he veers east instead of west, and Soli comes to the frightening recognition that an arrival in United States would not come so easily to her:
Sitting in the cool cushion of the car, she realized that her parents could not have begged, borrowed, or stolen enough money to pay for a chauffeured, air-conditioned ride through the border. It was a conclusion that could come to light only when she’d broken from her parents, when the speed and sky and solitude of her journey opened new vistas of logical thought. When they took the eastern route Monterrey, she knew for sure that polite Manuel, handsome Manuel, Manuel with the gleaming, purring lion of a car, had told her father a big sweaty lie.
After a harrowing journey, Soli makes it to Berkeley. Sylvia sets her up with job as a maid and nanny for Mr. and Mrs. Cassidy, and their precocious young daughter Saoirse, a kind family that doesn’t flinch when they learn, soon after Soli begins working for them, that she is pregnant. And when Soli’s son Ignacio is born, they let Soli bring him with her to work. When the Cassidys begin to question whether Soli has papers, she strives to be as indispensable as possible in the hopes her efforts will alleviate their suspicion. Soli’s relative good fortune comes to an abrupt end when Saoirse and her playmate go missing at a park under Soli’s care. Soli is soon arrested, separated from her beloved son, and sent to a detention center.
Elsewhere in Berkeley, Kavya Reddy and her husband Rishi lead charmed lives and have fulfilling careers, but can’t conceive. During a foster home visit, Kavya falls for a toddler boy named Ignacio.
When she pulled him closer, the cavity that she ’d been carrying around for so many months—for so many years, she realized now—opened itself and was filled. Kavya and Ignacio weren’t born in that room on that evening. An outline of her desire had been building for years now; it was clearly delineated and multidimensional and lacked the one thing, the real thing, the child at its center. Ignacio climbed quietly into that outline, and Kavya knew she was his.
She and Rishi become Ignacio’s foster parents. Little do they know that the boy they call Iggy is the son of an undocumented mother named Soli, who is being held at a detention center and awaiting deportation.
The conditions of the detention center are deplorable. Soli, Alien 127676, is bereft without Ignacio, her “Nacho.” “Nothing is lonelier than not knowing where your loved ones are. . . . She filled with ache on the inside and had no room left for food. She was saturated with sorrow . . . Soli shut off part of her mind so she could live.”
Lucky Boy is a sublime investigation into how the generosity of well-meaning people can quickly morph into evil. Sekaran refuses to outright demonize the Cassidys and the Reddys—this is what makes the novel so compelling. The Cassidys pay Soli during her maternity leave and help her prepare for her son’s birth. Even Soli describes them as kind, and “she felt that she didn’t deserve them.”
Kavya, who recently miscarried, endures an overbearing mother and a gossipy tight-knit Indian community that demands to know why she hasn’t yet given her husband a child. The pain of her infertility is palpable, and when she announces she wants to adopt, she’s met with a dismissive, condescending response. She blatantly ignores Rishi’s concerns about adoption, specifically, his fear he won’t be able to love another person’s child, and decides her own dogged determination and maternal instincts will carry them both through the process. “Kavya ignored the worried cleave in Rishi’s brow. He was being cautious, she knew. Nevermind, she told herself. Let him be the cautious one.”
The ruthless forces that rip Soli away from her son and threaten to make their separation permanent begin with a ripple, not a wave. The Cassidys and Reddys feel the lapping at their ankles, turn away, and simply move further up the beach. This is perhaps Sekaram’s most salient point—even the most benevolent people with the best of intentions can so mercilessly derail another person’s life. And love—even honest, unconditional love—is not immune to cruelty.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel The Sympathizer won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award in the general nonfiction category the same year. Nguyen, who came to the US in 1975 at age four with his parents and brother as refugees, has not only contributed some of the finest works in contemporary American literature, he’s spent considerable time and energy attempting to dismantle the white American perspective of both the Vietnam people and the Vietnam War.
“Literature plays an important role as a corrective to this ignorance,” wrote Nguyen in an essay published earlier this year in the New York Times, referring to the fact that what most Americans know about Vietnam derives from people who are not Vietnamese. “For most Americans and the world, ‘Vietnam’ means the ‘Vietnam War,’ and the Vietnam War means the American war, with novels written by American men about American soldiers. While their experiences are important, they are hardly representative of the Vietnam War, much less Vietnam.”
The majority of the short stories in his incisive new collection The Refugees take place in the United States, but like Nguyen, the characters have one foot in Vietnam, a country that both haunts their memories and shapes their identities.
“Black-Eyed Woman,” the dazzling first story, recounts the ways in which a Vietnamese family with a knack for storytelling avoids revisiting the one story that tore their family apart. The unnamed narrator is a ghostwriter, who pens the memoirs of others but is not credited as the author. While writing the story of Victor Devoto, the sole survivor of an airplane crash which killed almost two hundred other passengers, she’s being haunted by her brother, who died twenty-five years earlier during the family’s escape on a boat leaving Vietnam:
The last time I had seen him he was taller by a head; now our situations were reversed. When he said my name, his voice was raspy, not at all like his adolescent alto. His eyes, though, were the same, curious, as were his lips, slightly parted, always prepared to speak. . . . When he said my name, I trembled, but this was a ghost of someone whom I loved and would never harm, the kind of ghost who, my mother had said, would not harm me.
“Fatherland” introduces Mr. Ly, a father who brings two sets of three children into the world. The first set is absconded to America by their mother after the war while Mr. Ly was in prison. He sires the second set later, in Vietnam, after he’s released from prison and divorces his first wife. Oddly, Mr. Ly gives his second set of children, also one girl followed by two boys, the exact same names as the first. The two families make for a perverse version of the Brady Bunch, but also a trenchant analogy for the dualities of hyphenated American identity.
The oldest child from the first family, Phuong, an American who now goes by Vivian, takes a trip to Vietnam to meet her half siblings for the very first time. The younger Phuong sees this as an opportunity to bond with her older American sister and confess a long-held secret. “Phuong searched for the words to say what she had never told anyone before, how one day she, too, would leave, for Saigon was boring and the country itself not big enough as the desires in her heart.” However, what she finds in the deft “Fatherland” is that her older American sister is as real as a mirage, and America may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.
In the exceptional “War Years,” set in 1983, an old woman named Mrs. Hoa weasels her way into the lives of a thirteen-year-old narrator and his parents. Her mission is to collect money for a guerrilla army of anti-Communist South Vietnamese soldiers training in Thailand. And her method falls just shy of extortion. If the narrator’s parents don’t donate to the effort, says Mrs. Hoa, customers may boycott their grocery store. The threat looms large over the narrator’s mother, who bristles and bucks and rages over the fact that she’s being pressured to give away the family’s hard-earned money. The narrator wishes his mother did not always have to experience such unrelenting hardship:
I yearned for the woman she once was in that old photograph, when my sister and I were not yet born and the war was nowhere to be seen, when my mother and father owned the future. Sometimes I tried to imagine what she looked like when she was even younger, at nine, and I could not. Without a photo, my mother as a little girl no longer existed anywhere, perhaps not even in her own mind. More than all those people starved by famine, it was the thought of my mother not remembering what she looked like as a little girl that saddened me.
In “I ’d Love You to Want Me,” Nguyen nimbly studies memory. Mrs. Khanh is troubled when her husband, Professor Khanh, a Vietnamese instructor with dementia, begins accidentally calling her by the wrong name. She’s plagued with the thought that he’s recalling a former student, a possible object of infatuation, but over time she begins to question herself: “The more she listened to him, the more she feared her own memory was faltering. Perhaps they really had eaten ice cream flavored with durian on the veranda of a tea plantation in the central highlands, reclining on rattan chairs. And was it possible they ’d fed bamboo shoots to tame the deer in the Saigon zoo?”
This passage touches on a theme Nguyen weaves beautifully throughout the collection. Whose memory determines reality? Which memories are more valid? And, if there is no one left to hold them, did the events at the heart of those memories ever happen?
Thi Bui’s incandescent graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do—her first book—begins with Bui laboring in a hospital bed in 2005. Just before she gives birth to her son, her mother—whom she calls Má—inexplicably exits the room.
Má’s abrupt departure at a time Bui most needs her support reflects the nature of their relationship, and this schism embodies more than the typical cultural clashes between traditional Asian immigrants and their Americanized offspring. Bui and Má have never been particularly close, and at one point Bui says, “I have figured out, more or less, how to raise my little family . . . but it’s being both a parent and a child, without acting like a child, that eludes me.” Bui longs to understand the vast emotional distance between them. “[My husband] Travis and I moved to California in 2006 to raise our son near family—trading the life we had built and loved in New York for a notion I had in my head of becoming closer to my parents as an adult. I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I recognize what it is NOT, and now I understand—proximity and closeness are not the same.”
Her search for understanding takes her back to Vietnam, where in 1978, three-year-old Bui, along with her Má, her Bô, and Bui’s older two older sisters Lan and Bích, boarded a boat in the middle of the night to Malaysia. Soon after they reached a refugee camp, Mâ gave birth to her youngest child, Tam. After a few months, the family settled in the US.
Nearly four decades later, Bui harbors a deep-seated guilt for the sacrifices her parents made for their family. “My parents escaped Việt Nam on a boat so their children could grow up in freedom. You ’d think I could be more grateful.”
After taking her first trip to visit Vietnam since her family’s escape, Bui is inspired to begin the colossal task of interviewing her parents.
I began to record our family history . . . thinking that if I bridged the gap between the past and the present . . . I could fill the void between my parents and me. And that if I could see Viêt Nam as a real place, and not a symbol of something lost . . . I would see my parents as real people . . . and learn to love them better.
Each panel in The Best We Could Do captures a multitude of emotions. The hard lines and worn faces of Má and Bó speak to years of running, of working, going to school, and raising four children on a limited budget in California. The panels allow Bui to traverse easily back and forth in time, to dexterously introduce her ancestors dating back to what was then part of French Indochina, to illuminate the transformation of the lush landscape of Vietnam to the ravaged, barren soil of war. Isolation is a theme exquisitely illustrated. Puffs of cigarette smoke unspool from Bó’s fingertips as he ponders his past regrets and present frustration with his new life in America. In the dimly lit maternity room, where she is left alone with her squalling newborn son, a wide-eyed and weary Bui contemplates the full weight of new motherhood. Years of famine, prison, and war etch themselves onto the expressions of Bui’s parents as they engage in mundane daily tasks like cooking or watching television. The agony of uncertainty takes residence in the silhouettes of trees and the crashing waves of the sea. In Bui’s nimble hands, panels seamlessly bridge the hardships of each generation and they elucidate the inheritance of trauma. In her first attempt at drawing comics, Bui proves she is a master at capturing a moment in illustration when no words will do. It’s hard to imagine this story in any other form.
Eventually, Bui figures out how to make peace with the “unexorcised demons” that linger for her parents, the result of so many years of fighting to survive. “I used to imagine that history had infused my parents’ lives with the dust of a cataclysmic explosion. That it had seeped through their skin and become part of their blood . . . But maybe being their child simply means that I will always feel the weight of their past.”
There are the refugees whose trauma embeds itself in later generations, as in Bui’s graphic memoir, and there are generational refugees— grandparents, parents, and children displaced repeatedly through their lives, as if displacement were an inherited gene. This is the case in Hala Alyan’s penetrating debut novel, Salt Houses, where a Palestinian family is uprooted for decades beginning with the 1948 birth of the nation of Israel.
Alia Yacoub is three years old when she and her family must flee their beloved villa in Jaffa, which overlooks the sea, for the town of Nablus on the northern end of the West Bank. Before they leave, Israeli tanks destroy the villa’s orange grove, and it’s this event that traumatizes the young girl most. “Alia had cried not at the sound of gunfire but at the smell of the mashed oranges, demanding slices of the fruit . . . It would become the girl’s most endearing and exasperating quality, how she could become enamored of things already gone.”
On the eve of Alia’s wedding, her mother Salma reads the dregs at the bottom of her daughter’s coffee cup, and what she sees frightens her: “On one side of the teacup, the white porcelain peeks through the dregs, forming a rectangular structure with a roof, drooping, an edifice mid-crumble. Houses that will be lost.” Salma realizes Alia will have an unsettled life. But for the sake of her youngest daughter, she tries to push such negative thoughts out of her mind. “Doubt—beautiful doubt—glimmers now. Surely her vision was clouded. Can she even be certain of what she saw?”
Alia and her husband Atef would not stay long in Nablus. After a horrific tragedy during the Six Day War in 1967, they escape to Kuwait City, where Atef has decent job prospects. For Alia, Kuwait would only ever be a hinterland, a far cry from either Jaffa or Nablus. “Palestine has vanished for them—this knowledge crept up on Alia slowly, a new death every morning.” Alia is consumed by longing, memories, and daydreams of a land where she can build a family. “Nostalgia is an affliction. Someone said that once in front of Alia, and the words reach her now, years later. Like a fever or a cancer, the longing for what had vanished wasting a person away. Not just the unbearable losses, but the small things as well.”
Years later, Alia’s daughter Riham—an intuitive and sensitive child—senses that the adults around her keep secret the stories they hold closest. “The adults rarely speak of these things, giving vague responses to questions. It is clear they find this talk painful, and Riham isn’t the kind of girl to ask for more.” These silences loom large within the family, and at times they become the predominant narrative in the Yacoubs’ history.
What does ‘home’ mean if there is no one left to share in it? This is an elegantly rendered theme in Salt Houses, one that Alyan sensitively explores as the older generation passes on while the younger generation, seized with restlessness, scatter across the globe in search for soil to put down the kind of roots that never took hold in Palestine. Alia comes to realize that home is a pomegranate she holds in her hand, the smell of a freshly picked orange, a fig tree outside the window; home is a memory, even if painful. “A memory floats to her, unasked, of her mother’s kitchen in Nablus: sunlight streaming through the windows, tangling in the coriander and mint plants on the windowsill. The image hurts, and she shakes her head to clear it.” Home is the ultimate salve for “haunting, daylong cravings for something unknown.”
Although this octet of books cannot encompass the entire massive world of experiences confronting refugees and asylum seekers in our time, these authors succeed in delivering round, complex narratives that importantly interrogate the socio-economic conditions and politics surrounding displacement—and that strive to understand the countless people who are forced to abandon their homes. The refugee story is not and never will be a singular story.
These stories about exile can’t remediate policies or overturn executive orders, but they provide a crucial foil to xenophobic ideologies that inform legal and political action, going far beyond the interview questions on applications for resettlement—and so they must be written and read and circulated. What’s more, displaced people whose stories appear in print, whether fictional or factual, in novels or in newspapers, represent only a fraction of refugees’ lived experiences. Millions fail to reach refugee camps or the offices of the UNHCR. Their narratives of home, hope, and survival perish with them.
The goal, then, is twofold—to ensure an asylum seeker makes it to a safe land and, once there, to provide them the time, space, and tools they need to tell the story of their journey. Chronicling these stories demands patience, humility, and reflection. As Thi Bui concludes in The Best We Could Do, “It took a long time to learn the right questions to ask. When I did the stories poured forth with no beginning or end—anecdotes without shape, wounds beneath wounds.”
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*An essay-review of:
A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival. By Melissa Fleming. New York: Flatiron Books, 2017. 228 pp. $25.99.
Refuge: A Novel. By Dina Nayeri. New York: Riverhead Books, 2017. 336 pp. $27.00.
Live from Cairo. By Ian Bassingthwaighte. New York: Scribner, 2017. 336 pp. $26.00.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. By Valeria Luiselli. Minneapolis, MN: Coffee House Press, 2017. 128 pp. $12.95, paper.
Lucky Boy. By Shanthi Sekaran. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017. 480 pp. $27.00, paper.
The Refugees. By Viet Thanh Nguyen. New York: Grove Press, 2017. 224 pp. $25.00.
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. By Thi Bui. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2017. 336 pp. $24.95.
Salt Houses. By Hala Alyan. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. 320 pp. $26.00.