Tag Archives: immigration

Booker Prize 2015: Modern Britain

The Americans this year are all about family. There are no big state-of-the-nation novels about America here this year. The Brits, though, seem to be in a more self-reflective mood, and there’s a particularly nice piece of symmetry that the two novels here are are written by Granta Best Young British Novelists—Andrew O’Hagan in 2003 and Sunjeev Sahota in 2013.

Andrew O’Hagan was last shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our fathers. Sixteen years later, The illuminations, a novel about, amongst other things, the Iraq War, is in contention.

Anne lives in a nursing home, where her neighbour Maureen comes over to help her remember what she’s forgotten. Together they go to the Memory Club to remind themselves what they no longer know—for Anne, this means remembering her life as a photographer, as well as her husband, who was killed during his service in the army. Now, her grandson Luke is in Iraq, though she often forgets this. Meanwhile, Anne’s estranged daughter Alice is doing all she can to keep it together, sandwiched between her increasingly forgetful mother and her always-in-danger son.

For the most part, The illuminations flits between Anne’s life in this drearily small apartment in which she lives and Luke’s more muscular adventures in Iraq. It is the latter set of sequences that really bring this novel to life, and highlight the affect this ridiculous war has not only on the people who fight it, but the people who live it vicariously at home in Britain. It’s strange that there are still so few good novels about our time in both Iraq and Afghanistan (The yellow birds springs to mind for the Americans, and I am struggling to think of any Australian equivalent), but here O’Hagan has written something horrifyingly believable.

Luke himself is only in his late 20s, but already cynical and world-weary, seeing the war as an endless conflict between drugged-up young men brought up on FPSs and Red Bull, brought to a foreign land to fight an enemy they don’t understand, with young men who can’t even read, brought up on rhetoric they don’t understand. It’s a thoroughly depressing point of view, and though Luke tries to make sense of it with his direct superior, Major Scullion, he only finds a man broken by the repetition of conflicts stretching back decades.

When Luke does eventually return to Scotland, ruined by one particular experience, it is up to his mother and grandmother to help him reintegrate into a nation that is still struggling to work out what it wants—this is, after all, post-referendum Scotland, reaching out for an identity in modern Britain.

The illuminations reminds us that we are still at war, that there are still young men and women in far-flung places fighting for something that no one can really remember anymore.

If Andrew O’Hagan is concerned with what happens when young Britons go out into the world, Sunjeev Sahota is far more interested in seeing what happens when young Indians come to Britain. The year of the runaways, as the title suggests, takes a year in the life of three young Indian men—and one young Indian-English woman—who run away from their lives in an attempt to make a better one. It’s a surprisingly timely novel, considering the recent mass movements of people from war-torn places into Europe.

What is good about this novel is that Sahota doesn’t try to draw too large a bow when choosing his three leads. There are, of course , similarities between them, but this is not a novel using characters to make a point. Each of them is given the space to be their own person.

Both Avtar and Randeep have made their way to England on legitimate visas, but have no intention of keeping to the rules. Despite being accepted into a college, Avtar is there to make enough money to send back home to his family, where his father, a former government worker, is mentally ill. Randeep, too, is here to make money, on a spousal visa via a marriage that looks real only on paper. Both are exploited as cheap labour, and the struggles they go through to keep their heads above water are touching, considering what they went through to get where they are. (Sound familiar?)

Tochi, though is an illegal immigrant. Fleeing northern India, where his family was massacred by extremists, he moved to the West on the promise of a safe—and rich—life. (Sound familiar?) Of course, once he gets there, it becomes clear he has been sold a lie, particularly since he comes from a lower caste. The old prejudices are still alive and well in England.

The other main character, Narinder, is Randeep’s visa wife. Raised a devout Sikh in England, her story acts as a counterbalance to these three tales of migration. Still a runaway, she has married Randeep to help him come to England . Her narrative opens a completely new line of questioning, as we watch her move from being a quiet, devoted religious young woman to something a bit more human. It is here that one of the driving forces of the novel comes to the fore, exploring what happens to individual when they have been cut off from their communities and forced to flee to another. How do people cope with this upheaval?

The year of the runaways might, at first blush, sound a like a ripped-from-the-headlines novel, but Sahota is smart enough, and good enough, to make sure that these characters are not ciphers, but real people. By bringing a human face to problems that so often seem intangible, he show his gifts as an emerging chronicler of Britain and its people.

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We Need New Names (2013) – NoViolet BULAWAYO

Booker Prize season is on again! I’ve only read one longlisted book (Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire), but I have a gap in my reading pile, so I’ll be filling it with a few choices off the list. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Voices, is the only African novel on the longlist, and I figured that’s as good a place to start as any.

Darling and her friends live in Paradise, a slum in the midst of Zimbabwe’s lost decade. Mugabe is in power, and the poor are just getting poorer. Darling and her friends roam the streets, dealing with poverty, hunger and sickness in the only way they know how—telling stories and playing games to escape. But Darling finally goes to America to live with her aunt, she finds herself missing her friends.

There is no reason to compare Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to NoViolet Bulawayo. The latter is a good ten years younger, and Nigeria and Zimbabwe almost could not be further away from each other on the continent of Africa. And yet, here are two women who, within the space of several months, have published novels on the immigrant experience in America. But while Americanah felt like a polemic disguised as a novel, We Need New Voices is a much more coherent volume.

There are, of course, many similarities: both are frustrated by the constant generalisation of an “African” experience, and the repetitive conversations they have with white Americans who think they know everything about “Africa” because they saw a BBC new item the other day—though Bulawayo seems less angry about it than Adichie.

Both find themselves longing for their homeland, though while Adichie misses it for the comfort of her family and the life she was leading, this yearning sits more uncomfortably in Bulawayo’s novel: Darling’s experiences in Paradise, the ironically named slum in which she grew up, are the bottom of the bottom. With her friends, they go around stealing guavas off trees, even though a diet consisting solely of this fruit gives the eater chronic constipation, because they have nothing else to eat. One of her friends, at the tender age of 11, is pregnant because her grandfather raped her.

I feel bad about my reaction to We Need New Names. I don’t know if it’s because I have Poorly Treated Child Novel exhaustion (see Past the Shallows, Floundering, The Mary Smokes Boys etc.), but I had trouble being shocked by what Bulawayo was writing about. There is no doubt that the situation in which these children find themselves is horrific—particularly the pregnant 11-year-old girl—but it also felt somewhat unreal, removed from reality. Bulawayo is trying too hard to get us to emote, to feel something for these children, and forced emotion never rings true.

Darling leaves Zimbabwe just after the 2008 reelection of Mugabe. The realities of this election are witnessed by the kids, whose parents’ hope for the future, held in the promise of a new government, is crushed when votes are rigged and retributions for “incorrect” voting are meted out.

The America sections are much better, as we watch Darling come to terms with the huge amount of wealth on offer in the country, but just out of her grasp. She has heard stories of being rich in America, and assumed she would simply become rich by being there: her disillusionment with this is shown in tandem with her becoming more American, to the point where the final chapters are written in a language where all Zimbabwean patois has been erased. Darling’s uneasy transformation is complete.

There can be no question that Bulawayo is a talented writer, and every now and then, there is a passages of such pure brilliance, you forget that this is her first novel. Let’s hope these passages are the ones Bulawayo takes on board in the future.

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Americanah (2013) – Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE

It’s been seven years since the release of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent novel, Half of  a Yellow Sun. It has become so popular, it is about to be released as a film, which I am very much looking forward to. I loved it, and was very excited to hear that she had finally written a new novel. What made me even more excited, though, was that this was to be a book about race in modern America: something that interests me greatly.

Ifemelu and Obinze meet each other in high school, and quickly fall in love. But when Ifemelu is accepted to an American university—a dream Obinze has had for many years—their relationship peters out as Ifemelu finds herself in a new and strange land. As she settles down into American life, she quickly realises that this is not the land of the brave and free at all. Particularly if you are not white.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way: I don’t think Americanah is going to be as popular as Half of a Yellow Sun, but to be fair, I don’t think Americanah is as good as Half a Yellow Sun, particularly if we critique it in terms of what we expect from the modern novel. Anyone reading the blurb and expecting a love story spanning decades and continents is going to be sorely disappointed. The relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze is nice at the beginning, but once the two grow up and Ifemelu moves to America, there is a sense that their relationship has come to a natural end, a move that makes narrative sense. The scattered chapters we get of Obinze’s new life without Ifemelu simply distract from the main thrust of the novel.

But in many ways, this shallow love story is not the point of the novel. Adichie has spoken before in interviews about the two kinds of black America: African-Americans, people whose ancestors are slaves brought from Arica during the slave trade era; and American-Africans, people who have migrated from all parts of Africa in the twentieth century, either to escape persecution and unrest, or simply for work or education. To many non-black Americans, there is no difference between the two groups. In response, it seems, Adichie has written a book about the second group of people—the African immigrant coming to America.

It could be argued that this novel is the immigrant take on the Great American Novel. This is certainly not a novel of Nigeria—of that, there can be no doubt. It is a novel about ostensibly the most prominent divider of American society—skin colour. From Ifemelu’s first experiences of going to America to try and get a better education, Ifemelu is privy to incidents that are awkward and painful to read, no matter how well-meaning some participants might be.

Perhaps the first hint that Ifemelu is being discriminated against because of the colour of her skin is the face that she cannot seem to get a job, no matter how often she applies, no matter how well behaved or well-presented she is.

I keep wanting to call Americanah an angry novel, though I’m not sure why. In many ways, it reads like Adichie finally releasing some of her own pent-up anger about how she has been treated by people in America. As an author surrogate, Ifemelu acts as a cipher for Adichie, and it’s not hard to extrapolate many of Ifemelu’s feelings and thoughts to Adichie herself.

As I mentioned in my review of Questions of Travel, it’s nice to see that we’re getting good novels about the internet. Adichie deftly draws the disconnect between real-life and blog Ifemelu, particularly in relation to her speaking about her own feelings about the way she is treated in America. And lo and behold, her blog suddenly becomes a site for other people with similar stories to come and share their own experiences in a country still divided quite sharply across racial lines. It is not until the latter half of the novel that we get to read some of these blog posts—which is a shame, because many of them are mini-essays talking about race in modern America. It would have been great to have one at the beginning of each chapter, scattered throughout the book as food for thought.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who doesn’t necessarily consider Adichie to be a great stylist of the English language—she is not a bad writer, but I don’t go to her novels to find vast tracts of lyrical prose pushing the boundaries of the English language. In many places in Americanah, she almost veers off into a tone suggestive of personal non-fiction. No, I don’t really know what I mean by that either—tonally, in many places, it reads less like a novel, and more like a non-fiction piece about race and representations of race in America. It’s very odd, but it’s a testament to Adichie’s passion that it never feels too out of place.

That is not the point of her novels, anyway. Interestingly, Adichie makes reference to this in the novel itself, suggesting that people writing about race in America can only do so if they do it in an indirect, lyrical way, so as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the (largely) white audience for whom they are writing.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with the novel is the way in which Adichie seems to gloss over the racial tensions that still exist in Nigeria. She sets up Nigeria as a place where everyone is Nigerian, and America as a place where not everyone is necessarily American. This is a weird thing to assert, particularly considering the fact that the novel for which she is most famous is a novel about the Nigerian Civil War of the 1960s, the effects of which are still being felt in modern Nigeria. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the lines between the three main ethnic groups, the Igbo, Yoruba and Harusa remain in sharp relief. Racism and discrimination against people because of race/tribe exists in every country, so the slightly idealised version of Nigeria presented here rings a little hollow at times. Of course, once you read the end of the novel, which seems to advocate a return to the homeland, then this makes more sense.

I have no idea how to review this. As a novel, Americanah shouldn’t work: the characters are little more than ciphers for Adichie to get her message across; the pacing is all over the shot, particularly the final return to Nigeria; and the structure doesn’t quite work. But I don’t care. This is an important novel, if not for the way it is written, but for the potential it has to start a conversation, not just in America, but in the West, about race and immigration.

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Black Flower (2003) – KIM Young-ha

It’s safe to say that, by far, this was the novel I was most looking forward to reading when the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist was announced. A fan of Kim’s previous novel, Your Republic is Calling You, the idea that he was turning his gaze to an obscure moment in Korean diaspora history made me very, very excited. And it’s because of these expectations that I was a little disappointed in what I found.

In 1904, a ship set sail from Busan. It carried one thousand Koreans, bound for Mexico, where they have been promised a new life, away from the oncoming storm that is the Japanese Empire. But when they arrive, they discover that everything they have been told is a lie. They are there to be indentured labour, unlikely to ever return to their homes. So they must make a new life for themselves in a foreign country, halfway around the globe.

I love research. I love reading books, finding references to other books, creating a web of information and knowledge. I also know that researching is about a million times more fun than writing—you can do all this reading and call it work without anyone blinking an eye. But there is a point where you must put down your books and get writing. I think Kim probably got to this point too late in his writing of this book, leaving it full of interesting facts about the story he is telling, to the detriment of the actual heart of literature. It’s all good and well to take an historical event and turn it into a novel, but you have to remember why you did it in the first place. If you are more concerned with the event than how the event affected the people, then maybe you should think about writing a non-fiction work.

The historical background Kim is writing about is fascinating. Admittedly, I just spent the last year writing about the Korean diaspora in Japan, so I have an interest in Korean diasporic movement. But like the Koreans in Japan, and indeed, like the Japanese in Brazil, a group of about 1000 Koreans were lured to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico with the promise of hard work, then freedom and riches. Of course, as with most mass migrations like this in the early twentieth century, this was a well-executed lie to get cheap Asian labour to parts of the Western world to avoid rising wages for Western workers.

This exploitation of people who don’t know any better is a legitimate and worthy part of twentieth century to explore through fiction. There are so many stories to tell: the family torn apart, the new immigrant worked to the bone, the coming together of people in times of need, the breakdown of social and cultural mores in the face of adversity. Kim touches on all of these, but in passing—he is far more keen to fill our faces with minor details about Mexican history that, while do inform the novel, are out of place in a text of this length. The ratio of character moments to historical detail is weighted far too heavily toward the latter. I don’t say this often, but if he wanted to keep all that detail in there, he would have been much better off doing so as part of a much longer, epic, widescreen work. Too often I found myself skimming over passages about the intricacies of the Mexican Revolution that had nothing to do with any of the main characters.

The blurb of my edition suggests that this will be a love story, between a young man reborn on his trip to Mexico, Kim Ijeong, and the daughter of an aristocratic caught up in the trip, Yi Yeonsu. Their relationship certainly informs much of the novel. Their meeting on the ship is by chance, and foreshadows much of the degradation of social systems that will rapidly take place once the thousand have left Korea. Of course, as with all teenagers left unwatched, their relationship quickly becomes physical.  When they arrive in Mexico, they are taken to different haciendas, farm/estates where Koreans are used as cheap labour. They manage to meet up again, and in one of their secret trysts, conceive a child. But Ijeong is caught up in other events, and he leaves, completely oblivious to the fact that he has just fathered a child.

And the two never meet again. They go their separate ways, living their own lives, caught up in the Mexican Revolution that seems to catch so many Koreans in its wake. Or maybe that’s just Kim putting his characters where he wants them so he can talk more about Mexican history.

Unsurprisingly, the best parts of the novel are the ones where Kim ignores all the history going on and focuses on his characters. The role of religion plays a huge part in the novel, right from before everyone boards the ship, when a priest, Bak Jeonghun, is robbed of his cross, by a thief, Choe Seongil. Though, at this stage in history, not so many Koreans are Christian, they are brought to Mexico, which is. And so tension arises when the Koreans want to practice their own funeral/marriage ceremonies, even though they are what might be viewed as heathen by some Christians. It’s a strand that, actually, could have been brought out even more to highlight the cultural differences between the two groups. Sadly, this was not to be.

I feel like this is the second time I’ve said this in as many months, but if you are looking for a story about the labourer exodus from Asia in the early twentieth century, there really is no better novel than Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic. Though Kim reaches for similar heights, trying to tell the story of thousands at once, Black Flower falls short of his target. Too caught up in the macro, he forgets that the best literature focuses on the macro, the personal stories that act as a mirror for history.

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