Wednesday, 7 December 2016

A Country of Refuge by Lucy Popescu (editor)

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: In the past few years, the issue of refugees has been brought to the attention of the Western world in a way unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Yet despite Britain priding itself on its long history as a country of refuge, and despite moments when individual images have roused us to compassion, most of what we see and hear about migrants and refugees has been overwhelmingly negative.

This anthology seeks to redress the balance and open readers to a deeper understanding of what drives ordinary people to flee their homes to make a life in a new country. It has been put together by Lucy Popescu, who for the last five years has worked as a volunteer mentor in the Write to Life programme of Freedom from Torture, hearing at first hand the terrible stories of refugee victims of torture, but also discovering their enduring warmth and resilience.

The anthology comprises a mixture of short stories, essays and poems. Given the prominence of refugees in the news, it seems extraordinary to me that publisher after publisher turned it down. So hurrah for Unbound, with their crowdfunding model of publication.

Though the authors are not, for the most part, refugees, many of the stories are drawn from the experiences of family. Sebastian Barry’s ‘Fragment of a Journal, Author Unknown’ takes us back to the ordeal of the Irish famine. Alex Wheatle recalls his father’s journey from Jamaica and Nick Barlay, his parents fleeing Hungary in 1956 as the Soviet tanks rolled in. Katharine Quarmby reflects on her family’s complex mix of migrants and refugees.

In ‘To Avoid Worse’, Joan Smith notes that the romanticisation of the story of Anne Frank obscures that fact that, before they went into hiding, her father tried desperately to get his family out of the country, but was refused visas by countries that might have given them refuge – and draws parallels with the family of Aylan Kurdi.

Hassan Abdulrazzak, who came to Britain with his family as a child refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, reflects on how easy their path now seems in comparison with those trying to escape the war in Syria.

Some of the short stories seem designed to make us squirm. The narrator in Stephen Kelman’s ‘Selfie’ wants the man selling selfie sticks on the streets of Rome to understand he is different from all the other people ignoring him, even though he’ll do nothing to help him. In AL Kennedy’s ‘Inappropriate Staring’ two people eat their lunch outside the high fence of a detention centre while discussing the detainees like animals in the zoo. In Marina Lewyska’s ‘Hard Luck Story’, a security guard turns a deaf ear to the pleas of a woman he must put on a plane back to the country she fled.

Courttia Newland turns the tables on us, and imagines British citizens fleeing towards the coast, hoping to make it to a safe haven somewhere like Syria. Amanda Craig’s 'Metamorphosis' wreaks Kafka-esque revenge on one of Britain’s nastiest media commentators.

Roma Tearne contributes two heart-rending stories about families torn apart, one from Sri Lanka, one from Iraq. In ‘Shakila’s Head’ by Kate Clanchy, a teacher running a poetry writing class confronts some of the terrible things her young charges have experienced.

There is poetry from Ruth Padel, Hubert Moore and Elaine Feinstein, and essays from Hanif Kureishi, Noo Saro-Wiwa and William Boyd.

The final essay, by AL Kennedy, updated from a lecture she gave at the European Literature Days Festival in October 2015, warns us that the path that leads to a culture of cruelty is well known and that we are in danger of following it. She calls upon artists, and writers in particular, to fight against this. “We can make dreams to lead mankind forward and expressions of individuality that can make many free,” she writes. “Without those dreams, we face only nightmares.”

A much needed antidote to mass media vitriol, and a reminder of the humanity of each and every individual forced to flee their own country.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Moving a Country by Jade Amoli-Jackson; From There to Here (Second Decibel Penguin Prize anthology); In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights, Helle Abelvik Lawson, Anthony Hett and Laila Sumpton (editors)

Avoid If You Dislike: Having your preconceptions challenged

Perfect Accompaniment: Tea and humble pie.

Genre: Short Stories, Poems and Essays

Available on Amazon

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