Why you should care
These new books show you the human stakes behind the headlines.
If there’s one reason you should pick up one of these new books about refugee experiences, it’s to remind yourself that there are many sides to a journey, no matter how many times it’s been photographed and simplified into statistics and news headlines. The private, transformative and sometimes devastating choice of a person to seek refuge in often inhospitable lands strikes at the core of identity, and of literature. So here’s a proposal: Turn off political news and live in the inner worlds of these stories for a while.
At age 8 Dina Nayeri fled from her hometown of Isfahan, Iran, with her mother and her brother, while her father stayed behind. After she left, she met her father four times over 30 years, each time in a different country. Nayeri draws on this life experience for her second novel, Refuge, about the toll that displacement takes on a person’s ability to love and to change, and the ability of family members to help each other through trauma. Overall, this story is somber, driven by ways in which the estranged, deeply unhappy father and daughter protagonists self-sabotage. But the author’s original expressions of joy, in the feelings of food and words on her characters’ tongues, shine through the gloom.
Foreign journalist Deborah Campbell’s memoir is part love letter to her fixer.
Foreign journalist Deborah Campbell’s memoir is part love letter to her fixer, part reportage of Iraqi refugee communities in pre-civil war Damascus and part mystery. When Campbell’s fixer and dear friend, Ahlam, disappears one day, she begins a mission to discover what happened — Campbell suspects Ahlam may have been taken because of her work aiding journalists. This journey to find Ahlam stands in for Campbell’s testament to a loss of the places she had learned to value through her reporting. Campbell writes that Ahlam had come to represent “the spirit of the places we had come to know through her, whether Baghdad or Damascus, that were no longer what they had been, and in the deepest sense had disappeared.”
Iraqi-born author Sinan Antoon wrote his novel out of grief for Baghdad’s war-torn spirit. “A once cosmopolitan city was being divided and segregated, but the past too was being divided and injected with sectarian and Islamophobic meanings,” he says. In Antoon’s novel, this reimagined past is prologue to the novel’s devastating climactic event, which is based on a lethal terrorist attack on a Christian church in Baghdad. But the story begins with and develops an argument about nostalgia and sectarianism between two Iraqi Christians: One wants to leave the country and one wants to stay. Antoon hopes that the lives of these characters, imbued with “conflicting memories and responses to violence [in the name of religion] and to faith [Islam and Christianity] and its meanings,” will allow American audiences to “feel the complexity and richness of lives that were shattered by war.”
More Great Reads:
- The Refugees: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s incisive wit powers these short stories about Vietnam refugees living in the United States.
- The Teeth of the Comb & Other Stories: For political allegory laced with whimsy, try these even shorter stories from Syrian poet and flash fiction author Osama Alomar.
- Exit, West: This Man Booker Prize–nominated novel uses a magical realist device to dive deep into the before and after of displacement. The audiobook version, narrated by the author Mohsin Hamid, is the best way to experience it.