Posts Tagged Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ten Books*

*Disclaimer – there are a lot more than ten books.  I don’t automatically have a problem with compliance, but to attempt to distill 57 years of reading into just ten books would be just silly.  Far harder, in a way, than the Ten Albums thing I did a while back.

Anyway, despite all of that, reading other people’s selections on Facebook did get me thinking about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, made me the person I am.  So I’ve devised a plan.  I’ve picked some of the books I read as a child or in my early teens, during those years of eager discovery, every book a new world to explore.  I’ve grouped them not into genres (I have no truck with categorisation by genre) but in terms of ten themes and ideas that these books encapsulated and which set me on quests that I’m still pursuing today.   Secondly, I’ve picked ten(ish) of the books that I’ve read as an adult that have inspired me and that have informed my politics.   Neither of these lists represents The Best, but all the books here have been truly significant.

A Childhood with my Head in a Book

How to Be a Girl

The books I read as a child gave me some interesting and contradictory models for how to be a girl.  It’s something I was never very good at – my Christmases and birthdays always brought cookery books, dolls and sewing kits, none of which inspired anything other than indifference in me.  I only ever completed one bit of knitting – my treasured Forest scarf.  You can tell which end I started at, from the loose, uneven stitches.  I tired rapidly of the pious and/or relentlessly cheerful heroines that an earlier generation of writers so often presented to me, but found among that generation nonetheless the likes of Anne Shirley and Jo March who gave me the notion that being a girl might involve reading a lot, using your imagination, defying convention, being contrary, not being Good (at least not all the time).

I read Jane Eyre – another awkward girl – at a young age. (This was one of a number of classics which were technically too old for me, but which, because they began with the protagonist as a child, were accessible even if their full depth and complexity were only revealed through later re-reading – see also Great Expectations, David Copperfield.)  Jane Eyre led me to read the rest of the Brontes (though only recently in the case of Anne, I’m ashamed to say), and the Dickens I read as a child led me to read all of his work, and to explore the world of the nineteenth-century novel, particularly George Eliot, who I read as a teenager but whose Middlemarch vies with Bleak House for the title of Greatest Novel in the English Language (spoiler – BH wins.  Just).

And I Capture the Castle, in which we meet Cassandra Mortmain (sitting in the kitchen sink) at the age of 17 (‘looks younger, feels older’) – a marvellous mixture of naivety and wisdom.   Far older than me when I read it first, so I grew up with her, catching up and then overtaking her.

L M Montgomery – Anne of Green Gables; Louisa May Alcott – Little Women; Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre; Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle

Travellers in Time

I was always entranced by the notion of slipping from now to then, from present to past.  And these three books all share something in common – that the slippage is related to a very specific and real place, a place in which the past is still very present.  Dethick, in Derbyshire, is the real counterpart of Alison Uttley’s Thackers (A Traveller in Time); Philippa Pearce’s Victorian house (Tom’s Midnight Garden) is based on the Mill House in Great Shelford, near Cambridge,  and Lucy Boston based Green Knowe (The Children of Green Knowe and its sequels) on her home,  The Manor in Hemingford Grey, also near Cambridge.  My very talented friend Clare Trowell now lives in Hemingford Grey, and this gorgeous linocut is her tribute to a book that is as magical for her as it is for me.

hemingford grey

Clare Trowell (linocut) – Hemingford Grey

In each of these novels, the present-day protagonist encounters past inhabitants of that house, and there is both a sense of magic and a deep sadness that comes from the knowledge that those people are in today’s reality long gone. Although in Tom’s Midnight Garden, there is an encounter between the boy and the elderly woman who was/is the young Victorian girl who had become his friend, which brings about one of the most poignant endings in children’s literature (yes, up there with the final pages of The Railway Children about which I cannot even speak without choking up).  I found Dethick in my early teens and will never forget the sense of magic, just out of my reach, when I stood in the Tudor kitchen of the old house, where Penelope had stood, where she had encountered the Babingtons.  And I still get that same feeling when I see the ruins of Wingfield Manor on the skyline.

I’ve read many books since then that play with time travel (the most powerful is probably Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife, whose ending made me sob like a baby), and it’s a staple of the sci-fi I watch on screens large and small, but the magic these books hold is different.  It’s not about the intellectual tease of time paradoxes, or parallel dimensions.  It’s about a place, and the people who inhabited that place, and whose joys and sorrows still inhabit it long after they’re gone.

Alison Uttley – A Traveller in Time; Philippa Pearce – Tom’s Midnight Garden; Lucy M Boston – The Children of Green Knowe

Thresholds to Other Worlds

And then there are the books in which the protagonists slip not just out of our time, but out of our world and into another, or into a version of our world where magic is real, if invisible.  Harry Potter was obviously not a part of my childhood, so the first doorway into myth and magic that I encountered was a wardrobe door, and it led to a place of permanent winter, always winter but never Christmas.  I know there are issues with the Narnia books – and when reading them aloud to my own children I did skip one or two sentences of egregious sexism or racism.  But they are a part of me, read and re-read, fuelling my imagination and my curiosity, still shared reference points with family and friends.

Not long after discovering Narnia, I found in the pages of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen the gates to Fundindelve on Alderley Edge and stories that were not only magical but genuinely spinechilling.  Like the time-slip stories mentioned previously,  Garner’s stories are absolutely rooted in the landscape he knew, and steeped in the multilayered mythologies of the British Isles – Celtic and Norse and Saxon.   Many of the places referred to in The Weirdstone and The Moon of Gomrath can be found not only on the frontispiece map provided (I do like a story that comes with a map) but on the OS map of the area.

 

One can go on a pilgrimage – as I did – and find these locations and feel that frisson of magic again.

Whereas Lewis’s protagonists are largely unencumbered by adults, as is so frequently the case in children’s literature, in Garner’s narratives the adults can be allies, however reluctantly roped into the struggle between good and evil that is being played out around them, or they can be obstacles or enemies.  Those encounters with evil are all the more terrifying when they encroach upon the ordinary, everyday world – something that Stephen King knows very well.  Garner’s approach is similar to that of Susan Cooper in her marvellous The Dark is Rising series, which is only not included here because I didn’t encounter those books until my late teens. I grew up with Garner’s books – in the  literal sense that the transition from Weirdstone/Moon to Elidor and thus to The Owl Service and Red Shift was a gradual transition from childhood to young adulthood in terms of the themes and the sensibilities of the protagonists.

C S Lewis – Chronicles of Narnia; Alan Garner – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen

Other Worlds

Whilst Narnia could be accessed from our world, via a wardrobe or a painting or a summons, Middle Earth exists outside our world altogether.  I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child and was utterly terrified by the Dark Riders, and Shelob.  Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea was another other world that I came to late in my teens – it led me to her adult science fiction novels which are beautiful and profound and which make the reader think and question.  Lord of the Rings doesn’t really do those things but it catches you up in the archetypal quest narrative with the archetypal quest hero, not a warrior or a king but someone (literally) small and naive, someone whose resolve is strong but yet falters and who needs other people (friends and enemies) to achieve his goal.

lord of the rings

J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

The Past

Some of the books I read took me into the past, unmediated by a present-day interloper.  Rosemary Sutcliff illuminated the Roman period and its aftermath, and Henry Treece the Vikings.  Rosemary Hawley Jarman’s romantic take on the Wars of the Roses and, particularly, the mission to clear the name of Richard III (see also Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time) captivated me.  Leon Garfield’s protagonists weren’t real historical figures but inhabited a richly drawn eighteenth-century world.  And Joan Aiken introduced me to the notion of alternative history, with her splendidly Gothic Wolves of Willoughby Chase set in the reign of James III.  I loved Edith Sitwell’s studies of Elizabeth 1 in Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive.  I loved Margaret Irwin’s take on the same period in her Queen Elizabeth trilogy, as well as her accounts of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and Minette (sister to Charles II).  All of these writers fed my fascination with history and led me to contemporary writers such as Hilary Mantel and Livi Michael.

Rosemary Sutcliff – The Lantern Bearers; Leon Garfield – Smith; Joan Aiken – The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Henry Treece – Viking’s Dawn; Rosemary Hawley Jarman – We Speak no Treason; Edith Sitwell – Fanfare for Elizabeth; Margaret Irwin – Young Bess

Displaced and Endangered

Whilst it’s far from unusual that the protagonists of novels for children are parentless, either permanently (a heck of a lot of orphans) or temporarily, some of the novels I encountered as a child took that trope of children pluckily dealing with perils of various kinds, and gave it a much darker context, and a much more real peril.

The children in Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword escape occupied Warsaw and after the war is over have to try to find their families amidst the chaos and mass displacement, as well as the emerging tensions between the former Allies.  It’s tough and powerful, whilst also being a cracking adventure.  The protagonist of Ann Holm’s I am David escapes (with the collusion of a guard) from a prison camp in an unnamed country and crosses Europe to try to find his mother.  The novel does not flinch from the ways in which David has been affected by his life in the camp and how difficult he finds it to trust given his early experiences.  An Rutgers van der Loeff told the story of a group of children who found themselves on the Oregon trail alone, after their parents died on the journey (based to some extent on the true story of the Sager orphans).  It was often a harsh read, and again did not shy away from the emotional effect of having to assume adulthood at 14 and take responsibility for the safety of younger siblings in a world full of natural and man-made threats.  Meindert de Jong’s The House of Sixty Fathers is set during the Sino-Japanese war, and again tells of a child separated from his parents in the chaos of war, but in this case finding care and love from a unit of American soldiers (the titular Sixty Fathers).

All of these books pull their punches to some extent.  They don’t present their child readers with the full, unmitigated horror of war or of genocide.  And they are right, in my view, to hold back.  What they do is to open that door, just enough, so that readers can choose to find out more, and are prepared (to some extent) for what they may discover.

Ian Serraillier – The Silver Sword; Ann Holm – I Am David; An Rutgers van der Loeff – Children on the Oregon Trail; Meindert de Jong – The House of Sixty Fathers

Everyday Magic

There’s another kind of magic, that doesn’t tap into myth and legend but imaginatively imbues ordinary life with something extraordinary.  Here, the extraordinary is very small.  So small that it can be hidden from prying eyes,  it can live alongside us but without us knowing.  Mary Norton’s Borrowers series was both magical and mundane – the prosaic details of the Clock family’s life beneath the floorboards, appropriating household objects – cotton reels, hairpins, old kid gloves – and using them to create a miniature version of the life of the human beans above, was somehow so easy to engage with.  What did happen to all those tiny things that mysteriously go missing – could this be the answer? The fascination with things miniature – dolls’ houses, miniature villages (both of which feature in the narrative) is widely shared and Norton taps into this.  The small people in T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose are actual bona fide Lilliputians and our heroine, Maria, an orphan (natch) finds her own salvation linked to theirs, in the face of callous and exploitative adults.

Mary Norton – The Borrowers; T H White – Mistress Masham’s Repose

Myths & Legends

As well as novels in which myth and legend intruded into contemporary life, I read various versions of the originals.  Roger Lancelyn Green was one of the best, bringing me retellings of Greek, Norse, Celtic and Egyptian legends.  He was one of my original sources for the stories of King Arthur,  which entranced me and continue to inhabit my imagination to this day (they’ve inspired the names of both of my children). Reading both Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, which sets the tales in a medieval world of chivalric valour, and Rosemary Sutcliff’s interpretation of Arthur as Celtic warrior drew me into the complexity of the myth.

Roger Lancelyn Green – Tales of the Greek Heroes; Rosemary Sutcliff – Sword at Sunset

SciFi

Fantasy and myth led me into proper sci-fi.  The dividing lines between the two are often blurred and disputed but I guess at its simplest it relates to an interest in causes and process to ‘explain’ the phenomena that myth might simply present to us as a given.  My first introduction was probably reading a volume of H G Wells’ science fiction, and it was The Invisible Man that had the most impact upon me (slightly surprising, perhaps, in view of my interest in timey-wimey narratives).  From my parents’ bookshelves I scavenged John Wyndham’s novels, and his first three in particular (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, and The Chrysalids).  These prepared the ground for so many dystopias and disaster movies to come…

H G Wells – The Invisible Man; John Wyndham – The Chrysalids

Reading the Detectives

As my current reading is often dominated by crime fiction, I was interested to explore the origins of that interest in my childhood reading.  I was lucky enough to encounter Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in the volumes of the Strand Magazine that my mother had inherited.  Also through my parents I discovered Dorothy L Sayers’ Peter Wimsey novels, which I re-read happily today, because whether or not one can remember who did it, one can relish the writing, the dialogue, the wit.  And linking in with my historical interests, Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time introduced the idea of a review of a very cold case, of challenging accepted views of history through radical reinterpretation of sources.

Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time; Arthur Conan Doyle – Sherlock Holmes; Dorothy L Sayers – Strong Poison

If anyone notices the preponderance of Puffin logos in the images above (which are where possible the covers of the very books over which I pored), that’s very apt.  I relied upon regular dispatches of Puffin books to our various homes in West Africa to keep me supplied with enough quality reading matter.

 

 

Adult Life with my Head in a Book

I’ve divided this group of books into fiction and non-fiction.  Again, I must repeat that these are not necessarily the Best, but they’re all books that had a huge, often visceral, impact on me, that changed me.

Fiction:

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things/Reservoir 13

For my money, Jon McGregor is one of the finest contemporary novelists.  If Nobody… was the first and still has the power to floor me emotionally, however many times I read it.  Reservoir 13 is the most recent, and having read it the first time, I could only turn back to the beginning and read it again, to immerse myself in the turning of the seasons and the warmth and humanity of the writing and the characterisation.

 

The Stand

the standI’ve written previously about how my prejudices were overcome once I actually read a Stephen King novel.  No matter how schlocky the cover (these days the cover art tends to be rather subtler), the narrative was so compelling that I had to keep reading, hunger and tiredness were irrelevant, I had to keep turning those pages.  I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written, but this was the one that got me started – having read it cover to cover, I re-read it almost immediately, being conscious that the compulsion to find out what happened next had made me rush through the pages. King is a consummate storyteller, and there’s a moral focus too.  Whilst he doesn’t avoid the gross-out, he always retains that sense of the distinction between good and evil, the choices that confront ordinary, flawed human beings.  And he can make those ordinary flawed human beings who confront evil believable, lovable, not just admirable.

L’Emploi du Temps/The Emigrants

Obviously I had to include these two, since the first, Michel Butor’s 1956 novel set in a fictionalised version of Manchester, has been the focus of my research during my part-time French degree, and now my PhD, which explores the connections, the dialogue, between Butor and W G Sebald.  Many of my blogs, particularly the earlier ones, talk about Butor and/or Sebald in various contexts (music, maps, labyrinths, Manchester, Paris, the Holocaust…).  Butor made me read Proust, Sebald made me read Kafka (I think of the two I’m more grateful to Butor, but both are essential to understand twentieth-century European literature).

Half of a Yellow Sun

half of a yellow sun

This is a brilliant, powerful novel.  For me it had a personal, visceral impact, in its account of the massacres carried out in the north of Nigeria, during the bloody prelude to that country’s brutal civil war.  Because I was living at the time in Zaria, in the north, and whilst my parents shielded me (I was 9 years old) from the horrors, I nonetheless knew that there were horrors, and learned as a teenager and an adult more about what my parents had witnessed, about the context and the history, and about what came after, too.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a splendid writer and a clear and strong voice, drily humorous and perceptive.

 

 

The Womens Room

womens room

Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room isn’t one that would make the list solely on its literary merits.  It’s well enough written, but its presence here is because I read it just at the point when I was not so much becoming a feminist, but realising that I was one.  I read everything I could get my hands on – Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Susan Brownmiller, Shulamith Firestone (best name ever!), Sheila Rowbotham, Simone de Beauvoir and more.  But there are things that only fiction can do, and The Women’s Room illustrated and encapsulated so many of these arguments in the story of Mira and her friends.  French herself said that it wasn’t a book about the women’s movement, rather a book about women’s lives today. And because there isn’t just one voice here, but many, we are free to disagree with the most extreme viewpoints without rejecting the whole thing.  The novel was accessible in a way that most of the feminist writers listed above, frankly, aren’t.  And whilst it attracted plenty of criticism, it changed hearts and minds, it made so many women feel that they weren’t alone in the way they felt about the way the world worked.

 

Fiction can do things that non-fiction, however well-written, however accessible, can’t.  But very often fiction leads me to non-fiction – I want to know more about the place, the period, the events that the fiction describes.   The next list is of books that illuminated what I read in the newspapers and in novels,  and what I watched on TV and at the cinema.  They may not be definitive works, they may have been overtaken by subsequent research, and for various reasons they aren’t books that I will read again and again, but they were my way into topics which have preoccupied me over very many years.  If the overall impression is that, well, it’s all a bit grim, I can only acknowledge that as a true reflection of what I read. I don’t immerse myself in grimness for the sake of it but from a deep need to understand and the sense that as privileged as I am in so many ways I have no right to look away, to choose not to know.  I still believe in humanity, despite everything.

We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda

I read the newspaper reports coming out of Rwanda in 1994 but it took me a long time to seek out the full story of what had happened there.  Perhaps that’s partly because I knew how powerfully it would connect emotionally with what had been happening around me in Northern Nigeria in 1966.  Philip Gourevitch’s 1998 book is not a definitive history of Rwanda, and arguably lacks some of the context that is necessary to understand why the genocide happened.  But it’s clearly unreasonable to expect every book on a complex issue to cover everything, to be everything.  Gourevitch’s focus is on the testimony of survivors, and thus on the accounts of specific atrocities.  It’s vital and horrifying and heartbreaking.

The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945

My introduction to the Holocaust was, as for so many, reading Anne Frank’s diary.  But her diary can only raise questions, not provide answers.  She knew so little of what was happening to Jews in Amsterdam and across Europe, only what the adults with whom she shared the Annexe themselves knew and allowed her to hear.  When we read her words we are encountering a real person, a child on the verge of adolescence, a bright child, who might have been ordinary or extraordinary, who knows, but whose circumstances were so extraordinary that we read her words weighed down by our own knowledge of what was happening around her, and what would happen to her.  The simple questions – why did they have to hide?  why did they have to die? – require answers not to be found within the pages of the diary.  My next step was the TV series Holocaust – controversial and flawed but hugely valuable to a generation who suddenly saw how what happened to Anne Frank fitted within this huge picture, in which the members of one Jewish family between them encounter Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Sobibor, Terezin, Auschwitz…

Holocaust led me to Lucy Davidowicz’s 1975 account of the war against the Jews.  This is not the definitive study – as if there could be such a thing – and has been harshly criticised by Raul Hilberg in particular, for its lack of depth and rigour.  But it got me started, it gave me an overview and led me to read extensively amongst the vast literature on the subject, exploring not just what happened, but why and how and who, and the implications for the generations since (Middle East politics and international law in particular).

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1980–1985)

I remember during the mid-1980s the first newspaper articles about a ‘gay plague’, and the emerging moral panics, the information leaflets and the ‘tombstone’ advert on TV.  Randy Shilts’ 1987 book was what made sense of that mess of misinformation, prejudice and ignorance.  It’s a work of investigative journalism, particularly in relation to the response and actions of medical researchers, but it’s also, always, personal.  As a gay man in San Francisco, Shilts was not writing about something that was happening to ‘others’ but something that was happening to his own community and, ultimately, to him (he was confirmed to be HIV positive in 1987, having declined to find out his status whilst writing the book in case it skewed his approach, and died in 1994, aged only 42).  It’s an often shocking book, heartbreaking and as compelling a page-turner as any detective novel.

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West

James Michener’s massive, sweeping novel based on the story of a Colorado town, Centennial, was my introduction to many aspects of American history. Michener transposed many historic events, in particular the Sand Creek massacre to his fictional location so that through the lives of people in that one town (more or less) the great themes of US history could be touched upon.

I was fairly well-versed in the Civil Rights movement, having read not only about Martin Luther King but about the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and George Jackson.  But my knowledge of the story of the Native Americans was patchy, to say the least.  I knew enough to be sure that the portrayal in the westerns I’d watched as a kid was at best simplistic or romanticised and at worst racist, but Centennial made me want to know much, much more.

Dee Brown’s book is explicitly an Indian history (published in 1970, when presumably that terminology was still felt to be OK….) in which the Native American peoples are at the heart of the story of their own land.  It’s a brutal story – they were lied to and stolen from, they were forced into dependency and then vilified for that dependency, and they were murdered in huge numbers.  Brown’s history takes us up to 1890 and the Wounded Knee Massacre (sometimes referred to as the Battle of Wounded Knee which gives a rather false impression) which is seen as marking the end of the ‘Indian Wars’ – though not the end of conflict or of killing.

I found out recently about a series of murders of Osage people in Oklahoma  in the early 1920s, motivated by the discovery of big oil deposits beneath their land and involving legal trickery to secure the inheritance of the victims (whose deaths were initially seen as being from natural causes).  David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon is a fascinating read, a true-crime account which takes the story of the genocide a generation onwards, a small-scale version of what happened to the indigenous peoples across the continent.

All the President’s Men

This could scarcely be more pertinent, as Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters responsible for this account of the Watergate break-in and the scandal that brought down President Nixon has just published Fear: Trump in the White House… At the time it was all happening I followed events avidly, finding it hard to credit that such a plan could have been dreamed up, executed (incompetently) and then covered up (incompetently) at such high levels of government.  The intervening years have made it easier to believe such things…  This book, which appeared as the story was still fresh and new, was a brilliant piece of journalism, with all of the tension of a detective story.  There was a follow-up, The Final Days, describing the end of Nixon’s presidency, and many other books, including from some of those implicated (such as John Ehrlichman, whose account was the basis of the 1977 TV mini-series, Washington: Behind Closed Doors, in which an all-star cast portray President Richard Monckton and his aides, associates and accomplices).

 

 

 

So, that’s my ten books…  Ten themes in the books I devoured as a child, ten books (five – oh, OK, seven if you’re going to be picky – fiction, five non-fiction) that I read as an adult that have in one way or another stayed with me.  I was never going to be able to pick just ten, was I?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Refugee Week 2017 – reflections

We’re living in strange times.  Last year’s Refugee Week took place in the aftermath of Jo Cox’s murder, and midway through, we found out the outcome of the EU referendum, which for so many of us, perhaps falsely reassured by the predominance of Remain sympathies in our social media bubbles, was profoundly shocking, as well as filling us with dismay and fear about the future.  Our world was further shaken in November by the outcome of the US election – again, we were unprepared for a Trump victory, and fearful of the impact it would have – we still are, although straightforward incompetence and inefficiency seem to have mitigated some of the potential harm so far.

This week Refugee Week takes place in the aftermath of terrorist attacks which have claimed innocent lives in Manchester, on Westminster and London bridges, in Borough Market and Finsbury Park.  And then there’s Grenfell Tower, a human tragedy of unbearable proportions.  That’s not even to mention a General Election and the start of the Brexit talks.

This time last year I wrote these words, which are still pertinent:

I said a week ago when I started my annual Refugee Week blogathon that it felt different this year.  As Refugee Week draws to a close it feels unimaginably different again.  We are in, as so many people said during the long hours as the result of the referendum emerged, uncharted territory.  We are in uncertain times.

For refugees and asylum seekers there is no charted territory, there are no certain times.  But as anecdotal evidence mounts of racism and xenophobia seemingly legitimised and emboldened by the vote to leave the EU, as we wait for those who would lead us into this brave new world to give us a clue as to what it will be like, I know I am not alone in being afraid. …   But many of us do share the belief that how we treat people who seek sanctuary from war, persecution and starvation is a measure of what kind of country we are, what kind of people we are.  And many of us do believe that generosity, empathy, compassion are qualities that represent the best that we can be, individually and collectively.

So as this Refugee Week ends we will be continuing to say that refugees are welcome, saying it louder if we need to, if the voices against us are more numerous or more vociferous.

I’ve returned this year to some of the themes I regularly write about.  I’ve revisited the work of Cara with at-risk academics, for example, prompted by my own University’s engagement with their current campaigns and its funding of scholarships and fellowships for refugee academics and students.  I’ve talked again about child refugees – remembering the Kindertransport in light of this government’s shameful reneging on the Dubs amendment.

I’ve tried to celebrate the work of so many superb organisations, large and small, who are working to support refugees around the world and here in the UK, addressing the politics and the practicalities, making a huge difference against the odds.

Each year I approach this entirely self-imposed task – to post every day during Refugee Week about some aspect of the crisis faced by so many millions of people forced to flee their homes – with a certain amount of trepidation.  Who do I think I am, really, to speak about these things?  I’m no expert, I’m merely a keyboard activist, I have no direct personal experience of the things I write about.  And who am I writing for?  Preaching to the choir, surely, given that my readers, my social media contacts, by and large are people who share my world view.

But as much as I berate myself for hubris in taking the task on, I cannot relinquish it.  I write, that’s what I do.  I use this blog to talk to whoever might be listening – and if I change no one’s mind, perhaps the information and ideas and links that I gather for each piece will be useful to someone else, somewhere along that chain of communication that we build as we share and retweet – about the things I care about and the things that trouble and grieve me.  And this issue is something I care about, passionately.

Perhaps it is personal, after all.  My first Refugee Week blogathon recalled events which, even though I cannot claim to have directly witnessed them, or even to truly remember them, still shaped me:

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

 

As a teenager I pieced these stories together, from the recollections that my parents were finally willing to share without holding back, and the fragmentary memories that I did have suddenly made sense.  And I’ve been piecing it together ever since, as I see the people who fled from the town I lived in over and over again, in the faces of those seeking refuge from war and persecution today, as I see them in the faces of those who fled war and persecution generations ago.

And once you do that, you become aware of the connections, of the way in which everything that is happening around the world is interlinked.

As Daesh suffer military defeats and the loss of their territory, they increase their terrorist attacks in the west but far more often in the Middle East and Africa, killing ‘Crusaders’ but far more often Muslims who happen to be the wrong sort of Muslim.  And as one of the major forces creating refugees, they are also used as a reason to mistrust those very refugees.  Because, so they say, they could have pretended to be refugees, paid a fortune to traffickers, risked drowning in the Med, lived on minimal rations in a refugee camp, simply in order to launch attacks in European cities…  The uncomfortable truth, that attacks in European cities have been carried out by long-term residents of those cities, isn’t allowed to disturb the anti-refugee narrative, and the call in the wake of every attack for borders to be closed, etc.

The first officially confirmed casualty of the Grenfell Tower disaster was Mohammad Alhajali, a refugee from Syria, who had survived civil war and the perilous journey to the UK, only to die in his own home as a result of an accidental fire and the criminal neglect of fire safety in social housing.

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And we learned that one reason for the difficulty and delays in identifying the dead, or even coming up with a reliable total of those who perished, was that there may well have been people living in Grenfell Tower who were ‘off the radar’, worried about their immigration status, unable to afford their own accommodation and so unofficially staying with friends or family but not on any list of tenants.  People like asylum seekers (those waiting for a decision, and those who have been refused), and those newly granted refugee status who have not yet got the paperwork together to get a place of their own.  Grenfell Tower sheds a harsh light on so many aspects of our society – the calls for a ‘bonfire of red tape’, the mockery of ‘health & safety gone mad’, the contempt of the wealthy and privileged for those on the margins – the culture of ‘us and them’.

I think of this, from a rather wonderful Twitter account:

5 Oct 2016

“Citizen of nowhere. You must pick an ‘us’ to be.”
“I did.”
“All humanity? Nonsense. That leaves no ‘them’.”

There is no us and them. It’s us and us. It’s all us.

them and us

That really is the heart of it all.  We can refuse the ‘us and them’, we can assert that it’s all us.  It’s the only way to be human, really.
jo cox plaque

Refugee_week_2017_A2_poster_08-1

 

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Different Trains

Kindertransport Memorial

Kindertransport Memorial (Photo credit: wirewiping)

 

I’m not a train person in general.  Not in the sense that I have any feeling for the ‘romance of steam’ or the beauty of the engines.  I’m the wrong gender to feel any urge to catalogue their numbers, or to build model railways in my attic or garden.   Trains, like cars, and planes and buses are just ways of getting where you want to go.

In general.  But in the context of the stories I’ve been posting and reading and thinking about during Refugee Week, trains have a powerful, poignant, terrible significance.   I’ve stolen my title from Steve Reich, whose composition of that name explored the journeys that he had made  and that he might have made during the war years, using recorded speech from Holocaust survivors, amongst others.

The railway station is a heterotopic space, holding together both the actual location and the destinations with which it connects.  And so Liverpool Street Station for W G Sebald’s Jacques Austerlitz connected him with his own past, as the small boy who had arrived from Prague with the Kindertransport, and with the station on which he’d said goodbye to his mother, clutching a small suitcase and a rucksack with food  in it.  Indirectly it connected him with the station at which his mother was herded onto a cattle truck and taken off to Terezin.

His name recalls the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris, where Francois Mauriac describes children being dragged from their mothers and pushed onto the trains, one sombre morning.

French Jews boarding trains bound for concentration camps in Orleans and the Pyrenees, Gare d'Austerlitz, Paris, 14th May 1941 (b/w photo)https://i2.wp.com/www.shatteredcrystals.net/images/sc_co_plaque.jpg

Not long after, on another continent, trains crammed with refugees from India to Pakistan, or from Pakistan to India, after Partition, were ambushed and their passengers massacred.  The dramatisation of those events in The Jewel in the Crown still haunts me.

Perhaps because on another continent, twenty years later, a train commissioned by an expat who worked for the Nigerian railways to take Igbo refugees south, was ambushed, and its passengers massacred.  Among them were the people who my father had found hiding in an abandoned house opposite our own, in Zaria, and taken to the army compound in the back of his car, covered with blankets, hoping they would find safety.    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her wonderful novel Half of a Yellow Sun, describes the arrival of another train full of refugees that did reach safety, but traumatised, mentally and physically.

I think sometimes of a children’s book by Susan Cooper, who can conjure up a terrifying sense of evil, enough to chill adult bones – it’s part of her The Dark is Rising series, but I can’t recall which – in which the rhythms of the train say ‘into the dark, into the dark, into the dark…’  Hard to get that out of one’s head, once it’s been introduced.  And I think of it every time I read the accounts of those trains crossing Europe, heading East, to ‘work camps’, to Pitchipoi, into the dark.

And perhaps most hauntingly, of ‘le train fantome’.  In the summer of 1944, as the Allies were advancing across Europe, with Paris liberated, the convoys were still rolling.

 

But not all of the trains took their passengers into the dark.

matthew-rozell1

This photograph captures an extraordinary moment.  The 743rd tank battalion encountered a group of civilians, skeletally thin, terrified.  They had been en route to another camp, but abandoned by their SS guards – at this  moment they understood that they were free.

And at railway stations in England, in 1939, and so many years since, the trains have brought people into hope and life and freedom.  They brought with them not just the belongings that they had managed to salvage and to hold on to on the journey but the places they had lived, and the lives they had to abandon, and the memories that would shape them.

 

For how hard it is

to understand the landscape

as you pass in a train

from here to there

and mutely it

watches you vanish

(W G Sebald, Poemtrees, in Across the Land and the Water)

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Nigeria, 1966/World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

Nigeria, 1966

During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria.  Many more fled to escape the massacres.   Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.

As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping.  I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time.  I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could.  But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity.  I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success.    I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel.  I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.

As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events.  His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of  Port Harcourt.   During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over.   His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)

Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)

Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006

 

World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012

http://takeaction.unhcr.org/

di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.

No one chooses to be a refugee

Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.

If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?

For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.

What would you do?

World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.

http://takeaction.unhcr.org/

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Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

When I was 9 years old, my family lived in Zaria, in Northern Nigeria.   It was 1966, and a series of coups d’etat were hiking up tensions between the north and south, tensions which in May and September of that year resulted in mobs seeking out and killing on the streets, in the schools and hospitals and churches, anyone recognised as being of Igbo origin.   I don’t know how many died.   Probably no one does.   Because of the civil war that followed, the pogroms in the north have received little attention – though Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her stunning novel Half of  a Yellow Sun portrayed these events incredibly powerfully.  I was a child, and my parents protected me and my younger siblings from the horror of what was happening.   But even as a child I heard and saw enough – even when the adult conversations stopped abruptly in my presence – to be haunted by what I’d half overheard, seen out of the corner of my eye.  I’ve needed to try to understand what happened, not just in Northern Nigeria in 1966, but whenever an attempt is made to wipe a group of people from the face of the earth.

We’re told that we must remember the past in order not to relive it.  It’s a lot more complicated than that of course.  In order not to relive it we’d have to understand it.   Memories aren’t necessarily trustworthy – after the Liberation, Michel Butor has spoken of how his parent’s generation said of the years of occupation, 1939-1945 was a nightmare, but it’s over, so we’ll forget all of that and pick up where we left off.  His generation of writers has been preoccupied with memory, and how we revisit,  rework and reshape as we try to master the past.   The simple imperative to remember would seem to have done us little good in the generations since Auschwitz.   It didn’t stop, or even slow down, the slaughter in Rwanda, the massacres in Srebenica, decades of pogroms in Nigeria, the devastation in Darfur, the killings in Cambodia.  But remember we must.  The important thing is that we remember right, and we remember well.

I’m reminded, oddly perhaps in this context, of a song from South Pacific: ‘You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year.  It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught.’  Frances McDormand’s character in Mississippi Burning echoes these words very closely: ‘Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation is what’s said in the Bible…  At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.’   And so we need to teach the opposite, for the sake of the future.

And for the sake of the past.  The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives.  First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity.  For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice.   Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents  is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability.  As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed.  This load may also scream.

And so, for the sake of the past, we need to give back to the victims of genocide what we can – their names, their stories, their voices.   Serge Klarsfeld reconstructed the convoy lists from the French internment camps and gave the people once herded onto cattle trucks a name, an address, sometimes a photograph, a letter.   The photographs of the children – see them if you can bear it, and I think one has to bear it – in their best clothes or on summer holidays, looking solemn or smiling for the camera, tell you everything, in a way, about genocide.  Sheffield’s wonderful Ensemble 360 performed music last spring by composers who were imprisoned at Terezin –  music created in the midst of a nightmare, by composers who had barely begun to achieve their potential before they were silenced.

Hélène Berr is one of the people I will be thinking of on Holocaust Memorial Day.   She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne.   She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise.  She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy.   It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen.   She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated.    Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers.   Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.

http://www.memorialdelashoah.org/upload/minisites/helene_berr/index.html

Hélène Berr,  Journal, 1942-1944 (Paris: Éditions Tallandier, 2008)

http://gideonklein.cz/fruvod.htm

Les 11400 enfants Juifs deportés de france (Mairie de Paris, 2007)

http://www.holocaust-history.org/klarsfeld/French%20Children/html&graphics/T0423.shtml

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (Harper, 2007)

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