The heart of the exile
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 8, 2020 - 12:00am

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature edited by Dohra Ahmad is the first anthology of its kind. It contains poems, short stories and novel excerpts from people who have left their homeland to sink new roots in another land. Such a diaspora (from the biblical “scattering of seeds”) and migration characterize much of life in the 20th century onwards. And such movement, which involves leaving behind family, community and country, can cause psychic and emotional trauma for many people.

Every year, millions of people move to a new country. From war refugees to corporate expatriates, migrants constantly reshape their places of origin and arrival. Ranging widely across centuries, continents and literary genres, this book gives its readers a unique and visceral understanding of our changing world, through the eyes of those at the center of the change.

Among the writers included here are literary stars like Zadie Smith, Marjane Satrapi and Salman Rushdie, along with emerging writers like Warsan Shire and Deepak Unnikrishnan. In her foreword, the Caribbean novelist Edwidge Danticat calls this “an indispensable anthology full of intimate and deeply moving poems, short stories, novels and memoirs about what it’s like to live on the margins of borders today.”

The book is divided into four parts: Departures, Arrivals, Generations and Returns. The poems and stories in Departures deal with the reasons why people leave their country behind – or they do not. This section shows homelands that are idyllic (as in Equiano’s “Interesting Narrative” and Eva Hoffman’s “Lost in Translation”). Or they can be troubled, as shown in Shire’s moving and memorable “Conversations About Home” and Danticat’s excerpts from her novel, “Krik! Krak!”

Many migrants are motivated by misleading myths generated in their countries of destination. California was called the Gold Mountain and the United States was seen as “the land of milk and honey.” Otsuka’s travelers believe that “in America, women did not have to work in the fields” and rice and firewood was available to everyone.

In his story “Under the Wire,” Francisco Jimenez’s brother tells him that “people there sweep money off the streets.” Djamila Ibrahim, in her short story “Heading Somewhere,” writes of “young women who’d left Addis Ababa to work as house maids in Saudi Arabia, Syria and elsewhere, light of luggage and high on anticipation for a better life.” These dreams are also familiar for many of our overseas Filipino workers.

Under Arrivals, many migrants find that their destination falls short of the promises. The women of Otsuka’s story learn that “the letters we had been written had been written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts.”

In Baldwin’s “Montreal 1962,” the narrator notes that “this was not how they described emigrating to Canada… No one said then, ‘You must be reborn white-skinned – and clean-shaven to show it – to survive.” Migrants find themselves reduced to the menial work they can do, as seen in Emine Sevgi Ozdamar’s “The Bridge of the Golden Horn.” The narrator has this surreal observation: “While we were working we lived in a single picture: our fingers, the neon light, the tweezers, the little radio valves and their spider legs.” It grimly shows how dehumanized some migrants become because of their work.

Everyone who has left his or her homeland experiences homesickness. One feels it while in a supermarket and one sees the mangoes being sold and recalls that the ones in the Philippines have the color of sunlight – and are the sweetest of all. Or one remembers it when your father’s or mother’s favorite song floats in the air.

Indeed, migrants are torn by homesickness, as Claude McKay’s persona tells us in the poem “The Tropics in New York,” when “hungry for the old, familiar ways,/ I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.”

Generations, the third section, deals with works that show the experience of children and adults with migrant parents, the clash of cultures. Many of these children are caught between worlds. Many Filipino-Americans feel they are not American enough; nor do they feel they are Filipino enough. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls this condition like “standing on fish,” a slippery existence indeed.

In “The Time of the Peacock,” Mena Abdullah explores the control – or the lack thereof – over one’s milieu. For young Nimmi, who is growing up in an Indian family in rural Australia, “the hills were wrong.” For Zadie Smith’s teenaged character, Irie Jones, in “White Teeth,” it is not the landscape that is wrong. It is her body – the color of her skin, the very texture of her hair.

In “Green,” Sefi Atta’s young narrator distances herself from the embarrassing “they” of her Nigerian immigrant parents: “What’s it like being African?” my friend Celeste asked when we used to be friends. “I don’t know,” I told her. I was protecting my parents. I didn’t want Celeste to know the secret of Africans. Bones in meat are very important to them. They suck the bones and it’s so frustrating I could cry.”

However, some writers turn things around and appropriate artifacts from the new land. Tato Laviera’s “AmeRican” defies a simplistic model of assimilation. His poem says that “we blend/ and mix all that is good!” It is not the melting pot model of old, but an active and thoughtful appropriation of what the host country can offer, combined with what they brought over from the old country.

Laviera shows how Puerto Rican migrants have changed their destination as well as themselves. This is also seen in Selvon’s migrants who transform Britain into Brit’n. Food, music, religion, names, language: every element of both original and host cultures changes as the new generation grows.

Returns is the last part of the book. Some of the migrants are just temporary, as seen in the works of Unnikhrisnan and Lewycka. Homelands still linger on in the world of the emotion, so some of them return home.

This is an important collection. However, it needs more representation from Asian writers. Only Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart” represents the Philippines. There are no other works from Southeast Asia, which is now the origin of many migrants finding their way in a brave new world.

(Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” will be published this month by Penguin Random House. His email is danton.lodestar@gmail.com and his website is www.dantonremoto.com)

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