The Migrant’s Story in Literature

Manchester Literature Festival has teamed up with Amnesty International for an event looking at exile and asylum. The Skinny takes a look at the migrant story in literature

Feature by Holly Rimmer-Tagoe | 09 Oct 2015

A man steps off a boat, wide-eyed and tired. Children are handed over to strange men in protective white masks; some cry, many expressions remain motionless and unsure. We don’t know how long these people have travelled for, and can only guess at the conditions they have left. The scene is familiar: these newsreel images have been seared onto our retinas in recent months as Europe’s refugee emergency reaches crisis point.

Fiction may seem a tad trivial at a time of such upheaval, but it’s more vital than ever. With platitudes from politicians and the commentariat replacing the voices of the refugees themselves, we take a look at the novels and stories telling the migrant’s story in their own words.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (2000)

This semi-autobiographical graphic novel juxtaposes the slow creep of oppression and censorship in post-revolution Iran, with the coming-of-age story – and eventual escape to Europe – of a spirited young Satrapi, whose mind is otherwise occupied by American pop and punk rock. The images of Persepolis disrupt the pictures of suffering and desolation we have come to associate with the Middle East; instead, the black-and-white panels of Satrapi’s drawings are filled with colour, as she shows us events we never get to see in the Western world – joke telling, dancing and parties. A tour de force of wit and sarcasm, Satrapi’s voice is one you won’t forget in a hurry.

The Lonely Londoners, by Sam Selvon (1956)

Breaking ground in the post-colonial tradition by using creolised English, Selvon’s novel looks at the lives of London’s post-war West Indian immigrants. The promised Eden of London swiftly turns into a version of Dante’s Inferno when the protagonist, Moses, is forced to confront loneliness and racism in the city’s grey smokes. Selvon’s depiction of the journey of an immigrant can tell us all something about the difficult mismatch between expectation and reality.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2001)

Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel is an extraordinary feat of imagination, managing to personify a Bengal tiger and pace an isolated shipwreck as if it were a crime thriller. The novel parallels a number of journeys across Pi’s life; we trail his migration from India to Canada, the dangerous expedition across the Pacific Ocean and the metaphorical journey of surviving adversity against all the odds. As to the eternal question: is it an allegory? Well, that’s up to you.

The Pickup, by Nadine Gordimer (2001)

Gordimer follows the relationship between the middle-class protagonist, Julie Summers, and her partner, Abdu, who is an Arab immigrant. Visa troubles force the couple to return to Abdu’s homeland and the roles are reversed. Confronting an unfamiliar culture, Summers has to deal with her biases and prejudices as they begin to surface. As always with Gordimer, expect a twist that will dash any expectations you may have prepared.

By the Sea, by Abdulrazak Gurnah (2001)

Gurnah’s novel is a shape-shifter, resisting any moral platitudes or easy answers about the nature of migration. Asylum seeker Saleh Omar has adopted a shield of silence, which Gurnah fills with lengthy, twisting sentences that are a work of intricate beauty. A series of events leads Omar to face his past and leave behind the ‘half-life of a stranger.’

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003)

With the high notes of a Shakespearean tragedy, Hosseini’s book explores the father-son relationship, betrayal and redemption. The first Afghan novel written in English, Kite Runner is a poignant story about the resilience of the human spirit amid a background of violence, tribal factions and brutality.

Bidisha and Gulwali Passarlay will be in conversation discussing asylum and exile on Sat 17 Oct at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, 2pm, £8 (£6)