Reviews

INK KNOWS NO BORDERS: POEMS OF THE IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading some amazing middle grade and young adult books. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favourites. Some are in translation and some are written originally in English. I’ve also expanded my reading to include poetry, which isn’t an area I’m usually drawn to, and I’ve not been disappointed. So that’s where I’m going to begin.

INK KNOWS NO BORDERS: POEMS OF THE IMMIGRANT AND REFUGEE EXPERIENCE
Edited by Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond (Seven Stories Press)

Referred to by Kirkus Reviews as a “symphony of poetry” this collection of 65 poems has been written in English by poets from across the world, all of whom are first or second-generation immigrants and refugees. There is a real mix of heritages, including Hispanic, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, but also poets from the US territories of Puerto Rico and Guam who talk of feeling “foreign in a domestic sense” (Craig Santos Perez – Off-Island Chamorros).

The collection has a clear progression, opening with a poem by Joseph O. Legaspi entitled Departure: July 30, 1984. From there, the poems discuss childhood, schooling, family dynamics, pride and longing. A particular theme of identity emerges, grappling with acceptance and love for one’s own being. There is also defiance that grows out of shame, a call to be proud and unapologetic for who you are. Franny Choi’s Choi Jeong Min opens with:

“in the first grade I asked my mother permission
to go by frances at school, at seven years old,”

As mum to a seven-year-old, I find this especially moving, highlighting the effect discrimination has on children. Even at such a young age, Choi Jeong Min feels she needs to change her name and escape her identity because of the way she is treated by others.

The poems often speak of this reaction from other people, an assumption of who you are based on a name, an appearance or an accent. The line of white people in Bao Phi’s Frank’s Nursery and Crafts, tutting at Mom as she insists she’s been over-charged, irritation changing to sympathy as it turns out she’s right. Marianne Chan’s When the Man at the Party Said He Wanted to Own a Filipino makes you gasp with horror. Ethnic Studies by Terisa Siagatonu is another stand-out poem, a criticism of people who sit and talk about race but that forget “we’re sitting right behind you”.  

Many of these poems shine a light on behaviours that should not have to be tolerated and yet with these poems having been published in their original forms over a span of more than 20 years, we see that little appears to changing. I really liked Brian Bilston’s Refugees, the physical act of reading the poem top to bottom and then bottom to top, encouraging us to upturn our own thinking and see refugees and immigrants differently. In his afterword, Emtithal Mahmoud says: [to make a difference] “You just have to reach out and recognize people. Recognize our fellow humans around the world who are fighting for the right to live.”

Many thanks to Seven Stories Press for the review copy.

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World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day, a time to celebrate the contribution of refugees to our communities and to stand in solidarity with refugees around the world. The theme for this year’s Refugee Week 2020 has been “Imagine”, with the organisers inviting us to join in with the Simple Acts we can all do. Normally I talk about books in these posts, and I will come to a few of my current recommendations later on, but today I’d also like to share with you a couple of films that I have watched this week.

These are two films that I have had the option of watching previously but which, I must admit, I’ve been too scared to watch. I’ve read lots of books, and I meet people who have made these journeys; I didn’t know if I was strong enough to see the real-life images captured by these film makers. But the people in these films don’t have a choice about whether they are strong enough to face these conditions, and if I want to come closer to understanding their experiences, while accepting that from my position of privilege as a white British person, I can never truly understand what they have been through, I need to see these images and hear these stories. And so this week, I set out to do just that.

The Movement produced by Sharon Walia is a documentary that follows individuals who volunteer their time with grass-roots organisations that offer help refugees. She spends time with the crew of Sea-Watch, a boat that operates in the Mediterranean Sea, rescuing migrants who would surely drown without their help. These groups have come under fire from European authorities, accused of helping the smugglers. In 2019, after the release of this film, the German captain of Sea-Watch 3 was arrested after defying the Italian ban on search and rescue boats docking on their shores. But as the volunteers in the film repeatedly highlight, there is nobody else out there to help.

As well as reporting from the sea, Walia also spends time on the streets of Paris, a major European capital, where migrants sleep under bridges, often in plain view of the traffic streaming past. She talks to volunteers and refugees in Rome and in Greece. It is a damning view of the response by Europe to this situation which, two years after the making of this film, shows no sign of abating. Available to watch free on Amazon Prime.

For Sama directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts. I’m not going to lie, this isn’t an easy watch. For Sama documents the siege of Aleppo in Syria as filmed by a young female journalist. Compiled from over 500 hours of footage, this is a personal story of a young woman growing up, finding the love of her life, marrying and having a baby but all against a backdrop of war. Al-Kateab shows the physical devastation of bombs dropped in a built up city, often focusing on a aircraft flying over and releasing its weapons. She also depicts the human suffering, showing badly wounded people arriving at the hospital, blood stains across the floors as the medical staff, her husband included among these, struggle to keep up with demand.

Just as harrowing as these bloody images are the reactions of relatives whose loved ones are killed. Mothers refusing to put down their dead children, a pair of young brothers, covered in dust, mourning their younger sibling. Al-Kateab talks to young children whose vocabulary already includes words to describe bombs, shells and death. These images will stay with me.

As well as watching these films, I have also read a YA book that focuses on a different part of our globe but that is no less deserving of our attention. The Other Side – Stories of Central American Teen Refugees Who Dream of Crossing the Border by Juan Villalobos translated by Rosalind Harvey. It tells the true stories of teenagers who are trying to cross the border into the USA. The children, for that is what they are, come from different parts of Central America, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and at their time of crossing are aged between 10 and 17. These short stories give an insight into the lives these youngsters are fleeing – gang violence, extortion, discrimination – and their experiences of trying to escape. In many cases they are trying to reach relatives in the USA. Many of these young people are passed from person to person, vehicle to vehicle, along a seemingly endless chain, with the potential to end up being sent back to where they have come from. They talk of fear, of vulnerability and of courage.

For younger children, I would also recommend the book What is a refugee by Elise Gravel that I reviewed back in March. Gravel emphasizes the fact that refugees are people, “just like us”. With clear, concise sentences, Gravel takes us through the sort of situations that refugees might be fleeing, one idea to a double spread page. The accompanying illustrations are bright and bold. From here, she goes on to depict people at a closed border, in a refugee camp and she discusses simply what refugees are hoping for – a school, a job, a safe place to live. This is a great introduction for anyone wishing to have a conversation with children about refugees and migration.

For more reading suggestions, please take a look at my recommendations.

If you feel you would like to support the work of organisations working with refugees, particularly during these challenging times, please take a look at the Care4Calais website. If you are local to Derbyshire and wish to get involved, please visit Derbyshire Refugee Solidarity.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Dazwischen: ich by Julya Rabinowich

Today’s book is one of my favourites. This is a young adult book from Austria, which rightly won the 2017 Österreichische Kinder- und Jugendbuchpreis (Austrian Children’s and Young Adult Book Prize). Today’s book is the as yet untranslated Dazwischen: ich by Julya Rabinowich (Hanser).

My suggested title is “Torn between two lives” and the story begins like this:

Wo ich herkomme? Das ist egal. Es könnte überall sein. Es gibt viele Menschen, die in viele Ländern das erleben, was ich erlebt habe. Ich komme von Überall. Ich komme von Nirgendwo. Hinter den Sieben Bergen. Und noch viel weiter. Dort, wo Ali Babas Räuber nicht hätten leben wollen. Jetzt nicht mehr. Zu gefährlich.

Where do I come from? That isn’t important. It could be anywhere. There are many people in many countries who live through what I have lived through. I come from everywhere. I come from nowhere. Beyond the seven mountains. And much further still. A place where Ali Baba’s thieves wouldn’t want to live. Not anymore. Too dangerous.

What a way to begin a book!

In her debut book for young adults, Rabinowich depicts Madina’s arrival in a new country and the struggles she now encounters. These are not just the physical difficulties regarding language and the conditions where she lives, but also the pull of family and tradition against the desire to discover more about her new surroundings and engage with her new friends. As the narrative unfolds, we are offered glimpses of the journey she has undergone to reach this point and the life she has left behind. Madina is a strong female protagonist who must ultimately work out a way for her family to stay in their new country, pulling together the women in her family and those around her to ensure their safety.

This narrative is a moving account of the difficulties faced by young people as they arrive at their destinations. We never discover where Madina comes from and other than the references to learning German, we never learn where she has arrived. For young people across Europe, who are coming into contact with new arrivals from distant lands, this book opens their eyes to what life may be like for their new schoolmates and neighbours. A particular favourite passage is this one, which tells of how some days, Madina can’t get in the bathroom to have a shower before school and how her friend, Laura, helps her out:

Wir haben jetzt ein Seifenversteck ins Klo gemacht, damit es nie wieder passiert. In der dritten Kabine vom Mädchenklo ist eine Kachel in der Wand locker. Dahinter hat sie eine kleine, in rosa Papier verpackte Seifenkugel versteckt, und ich schleiche in der ersten Stunde auf die Toilette und wasche mich mit dieser kleinen Seife, die so toll nach Rosen duftet, als würde ich in einer Wanne voller Blumen baden. 

We’ve made a hidey-hole for some soap in the toilets so that it never happens again. In the third stall of the girls’ toilet there’s a loose tile on the wall. Behind it, she’s hidden a little bar of soap, wrapped in pink paper, and I sneak out to the toilet during the first lesson and have a wash with this little bar of soap that smells so sweetly of roses, as if I had bathed in a whole tub of flowers.

At a time when we here in the UK seem to be closing our borders and shutting people out, this book can help our young people to understand and welcome those who so badly need our support.

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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Refugee Week Book Blog: Butterfly. From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph by Yusra Mardini

Before I read this book, I had a certain perception of who refugees were. This book really opened my eyes.

Yusra Mardini hit the headlines when she competed in the swiiming events as a member of the Refugee Team at 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Originally from Syria, this book is her story of her previous life in Syria and how all that changed. She fled from Syria, boarding a small dinghy headed for Greece. When the boat’s engine cut out still a distance from shore, her and her sister, as swimmers, slid into the water and pushed the boat to land.

Not to downplay this heroic act, Yusra herself comments, it is this feat that the journalists always hit upon and want to know more about. However, this book tells of more than simply this courageous act. It tells of the people Yusra and her family used to be and tells of the people they become as they begin their new lives in Germany. It outlines the difficulties of accepting charity when it was once you doing the giving.

It was this book that made me realise that the people fleeing lived very similar lives to ours – they had computers, they went out to restaurants, they had money. She is quite clear when she states that those fleeing on boats are the ones who can afford to pay the smugglers. Those who have no money cannot escape as her and her family are able to. It makes me reflect on what we would do if this were to happen here…

An amazing account of determination and drive and another example of a personal story behind the facts and figures.

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Picture Books, Reviews

Flucht by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner

In 2018, my kids and I carried out 30 day challenge reviewing 30 books in 30 for #WorldKidLitMonth. This was one of the books we looked at and I think it’s one that’s worth revisiting for #WorldKdiLitMonth 2020. This picture book comes from Austria and is yet to be translated: Flucht (Flight) by Niki Glattauer and Verena Hochleitner (Tyrolia Verlag).

This book is a little unusual in as far as the story is told from the cat’s perspective. His name is E.T. like the alien in the film who calls for help. E.T. leads us through the family’s preparations to leave their war-torn home and make the journey across the sea. We are told and shown an illustration of what is on Daniel’s packing list:

1 pencil case with pencils, crayons and felt-tip pens, 1 notebook, 1 bag of Lego Minecraft, 3 shiny stones, 1 mobile phone, 1 laptop, 1 pair of jeans, 2 pairs of shorts, the Messi T-shirt, 5 other T-shirts, 1 black leather jacket, shoes with the green flashing lights, 1 other pair of shoes, pants and socks, 4 large bottles of water, 1 small envelope of documents and
1 large envelope of old photos. 

Seeing these items laid out with the rucksack underneath really brought it home for me how very little this family are taking with them, but also what they are taking. For Daniel, the Lego and his Messi T-shirt, but photos, a phone and a laptop. Sometimes we have an image of refugees as people who had nothing to begin with. We perhaps picture them as poor, living in a rundown hut in the middle of nowhere. Of course, some people do live like that, but many come from societies which are, or were, just like ours. And if I were leaving in a hurry, I know I’d grab my mobile phone – it’s a map, a torch, a phone, a camera and I can use it to access my emails – an essential piece of kit!

The illustrations are very powerful – one page shows a single small boat on an expanse of blue.

What is really powerful about this book comes right at the end (spoiler alert!). Throughout the book, we as the reader make assumptions about who these people are and where they come from. Perhaps it’s Syria, perhaps it’s Africa. But Glattauer and Hochleitner turn this on its head, revealing that the family are not fleeing from Africa to Europe, but from Europe to Africa. It challenges us to consider how we would respond to such events: what would we do? And I think it’s really important to do this, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and empathise with them.

What my (then) eight-year-old son had to say:

They are leaving their home because their country is in war. It must be bad where they are living. They are not taking much stuff with them. I think travelling on the sea must be a bit scary.

For any interested publishers, the English rights for this book are still available from Tyrolia Verlag and I have a mocked up book with my translation available. Please get in touch!

For more World Kid Lit titles, you can also visit the World Kid Lit blog.

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