Ghosts of the road, spectres at the feast

This article originally published by The Economist discusses Viet Thanh Nguyen’s new collection of essays by refugee writers, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives.

If the world’s 65.6m forcibly displaced people formed their own country, it would be the 21st-largest—smaller than Thailand, but bigger than France. One of the many things that this imaginary nation lacks, in comparison with others, is a literary canon. In this collection of 17 essays (one consisting of cartoons) by writers who were forced to leave their homes, Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Pulitzer-winning novelist and himself a Vietnamese refugee to America, begins to assemble one. In so doing he gives ordinary Westerners a heart-wrenching insight into the uprooted lives led in their midst.

To judge by the roster of contributors, this disparate nation consists mostly of distinguished literati. But though their stories often end in coastal, cosmopolitan America, they begin amid distant violence, persecution and despair. This original trauma is the thread that binds their testimonies, which stretch from 1940s Germany to present-day Zimbabwe.

Some are grimmer than others. Fatima Bhutto, niece of a former Pakistani prime minister, admits her displacement was “comfortable”, if born of peril. This could not be said of the “Candide-like” succession of horrors that befell one Bosnian fugitive from the Balkan wars, recounted by the novelist Aleksandar Hemon. Mr Hemon details how his compatriot was beaten almost to death in prison, used as a human shield by Serb fighters and blown up by a Bosnian rocket-launcher. He then walked through barren countryside for six days to besieged Sarajevo; eventually he found his way to America, where he suffered near-suicidal post-traumatic stress.

The best contributions approach such calamities from unexpected angles. Ms Bhutto’s report of her experience in a virtual-reality art installation, which simulates an illegal crossing of the Mexican border, is compellingly weird. The outstanding piece is by Maaza Mengiste, an Ethiopian-American who gives a lyrical, erudite and unsettling reflection on refugees as Lazarus figures whose existence is forever defined by a single miracle.

Out of these diverse histories, shared motifs emerge, like recurring dreams in a collective unconscious. The most striking is the ensemble of ghosts that haunt the book: ghosts of those who perished on the journeys it describes, ghosts of irrepressible memories, plus the sense that the refugees themselves are unwelcome spectres. In his essay Vu Tran observes that refugees are often seen as invaders from obscure worlds, bearing traces of past lives. Like phantoms they are either invisible and forgotten, or conspicuous and threatening. As in many ghost stories, the menacing presence often turns out to be a projection of the beholder’s own neuroses.

The headline politics that feed on such fears remain largely in the writing’s background. In an encomium to a pan-Latin-American supermarket in North Carolina, Ariel Dorfman rejoices in the colour and variety of the “undocumented food”, a benevolent invading army of burritos and taco bowls. For most of the contributors, however, politics is personal, never more starkly than for Porochista Khakpour, who was born in Iran. Her indictment of American racism is withering, spitting out what she sees as the indignity of coerced gratefulness to an often intolerant society.

The vast majority of refugees end up in poor countries; they are not represented in this volume. Still, the collection succeeds in demonstrating that this dispersed community in some ways resembles other nations. It has its founding myths, but its citizens all have their own tragedies, victories and pain—and each has a story to tell.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline “Out of many, some”

Category: Reviews

 

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