In 2017, the number of international migrants – voluntary and involuntary, travelling channels official and irregular – grew to 258 million worldwide. Seven recent books offer seven different angles on those who cross borders.
Internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei knows what it means to be displaced, as both the child of a dissident and later a critic of the Chinese government’s human-rights record. Refugees are a theme of his recent work, including the massive lifeboat installation, Law of the Journey, and the film Human Flow. In Humanity (Princeton, 168 pages, $16.99), a collection of Ai’s thoughts on refugees, he reminds readers they cannot distance themselves. “The so-called refugee crisis is a human crisis."
Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast (Oneworld, 240 pages, $37.50) looks at a particular thread among the boatloads of people crossing the Mediterranean: the young, mostly uneducated Nigerian women recruited with promises of working in European hair salons, only to realize once they arrive in Italy that they have been sold into sex slavery. This is not a book that blames the victims: Author Barbie Latza Nadeau points out that this operation would not be possible without organized crime – and the Italian government’s indifference.
Homes: A Refugee Story (Freehand, 218 pages, $19.95) offers a unique view on the conflict in Syria. In 2010, Abu Bakr al-Rabeeah moved with his family from Iraq to Syria, hoping for a safer life. Then, when Abu Bakr was 10 years old, his new home descended into civil war – soccer matches replaced with gunfire in the streets. Eventually, the al-Rabeeahs would settle in Edmonton. Abu Bakr’s story, as told to one of his English teachers, Winnie Yeung, offers a rare glimpse of coming to Canada today as a child refugee.
The daughter of activists fighting South Africa’s apartheid regime, Sisonke Msimang grew up in Zambia, Kenya and Canada before studying in the United States. Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election brought euphoria to those who fought for equality, however postapartheid realities challenge Msimang’s sense of belonging in South Africa. Always Another Country (World Editions, 368 pages, $25.50) is a memoir of finding home when all one has known is exile.
Also set in Canada is Pamela Mulloy’s debut novel, about a U.S. Army vet haunted by memories of the battlefield who crosses the Canada-United States border to escape a second tour in Iraq. When Dean finds work in New Brunswick restoring an inherited farm, he discovers that attitudes toward deserters have changed in the small town since the draft dodgers of the Vietnam War. The Deserters (Esplanade, 196 pages, $19.95) explores desertion in multiple forms, whose is excused and whose is punished.
France’s victory at this year’s World Cup once again highlighted the significance of immigration to the success of Les Bleus. Yet, immigrants from former French colonies in Africa and the Middle East are not so celebrated off the pitch. Jim Wolfreys’s Republic of Islamophobia (Oxford, 208 pages, $21.95) tracks the rise of “new secularism” – a far cry from the constitutional promise of laïcité but an effective means to exclude Muslim immigrants and their children. The growth of the newly respectable French far-right holds further implications for Jews, gay people and women, Wolfreys notes. Canadian readers will find alarming echoes in Quebec, including the recent direction of Maxime Bernier’s politics.
In its broad strokes, Immigrant, Montana (Hamish Hamilton, 320 pages, $32) is the closest of these books to the immigrant story readers have encountered before: A young Indian man travels to the United States on a student visa in the early 1990s, where he encounters a gulf of difference between his new home and what he left behind. But in the details Amitava Kumar reinvents the immigrant novel here, as our narrator comes of age among the readings of grad school, highlighting the way an immigrant story is a responsive self-fashioning to the stories that came before.