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Books Tales of our shared Exodus narrative may just be how democracy fights back

In this file photo taken on Dec. 11, 2018, migrants look on near the border fence in Playas de Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.

GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images

Four years ago, I was given the chance to get out of my writerly room. Then deep into mid-career, with 11 books published and another under contract, I was offered a position running the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC), a national not-for-profit organization based in Toronto. The offer fell from the sky and I had few formal qualifications for the role, at least regarding management experience.

I took the job. I liked the ICC’s mission, especially its work with new Canadians and its desire to frame public conversations around the benefits of immigration and the project of inclusion. My own writing had long been preoccupied with cultural identity and dislocation, and by 2015 the world had awakened to the “crisis” that consumes us still – the largest forced movement of humans across borders since the end of the Second World War.

For me, this wasn’t a crisis at all – it was Exodus, the book after Genesis in the Bible. According to that story, humanity was born in the garden. Not long after, we started relocating.

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The American author John Gardner is often credited with declaring all of Western literature to be variations on exactly two tales. One tale is of a person who goes on a journey. The other concerns a stranger coming to town. Both are about people on the move and the challenges and changes that inevitably ensue.

Gardner’s count is probably a few stories short of the spectrum of archetypal narrative arcs. A scholar named Christopher Booker spent 34 years completing The Seven Basic Plots, a more accurate number. Two of his seven – “The Quest” and “Voyage and Return” – are directly about passages. Among the others, “Overcoming the Monster,” “Rags to Riches” and “Rebirth” also usually involve travel, much of it one-way.

In other words, I came into the job with a feeling for the narrative underpinning the Institute’s mission. Though not an immigrant, I have been telling versions of it in my own fiction for three decades. That the narrative has also been the engine for Canada, or at least for settler Canada, from its onset, was another attraction. Alongside the United States, we are the longest continuous experiment in immigrant nation-building.

Now, with my tenure at the ICC wound down, I am in equal parts changed and chastened by direct, shared experiences of how this story is unfolding. What I know much better about it now – know in my heart and mind, rather than my imagination – is mostly the result of meeting the people who are living the narrative with courage and dignity.

For this reason, I am forever grateful to the Syrian family who, during a visit we organized to Parliament in Ottawa, briefly welcomed a stranger into their circle. A four-year-old girl, struggling to keep up, asked if I would carry her on my shoulders. I did so for almost two hours, and deposited her on the bus at the end – all without her parents identifying themselves to me. Afterward, I learned this was a sign of their trust in the village to help raise the child.

Then there was the young man at the 6 Degrees forum we held last month in Berlin who took the microphone and explained to 400 people in broken German that he had walked up through Europe to escape the disastrous civil war in his homeland. Now he was sleeping on couches, and sometimes in the streets, in the capital, lost and afraid. Was he welcome in Germany? Would he ever be welcome anywhere?

No surprise, our decade to date has produced a burgeoning shelf of novels telling us of the news that will stay the news – that is, the narrative of displacement, relocation and rebirth that is our shared reality, now and into the future. The German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck calls this reality “the central moral question of our time.”

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But so far, the official response in many countries has been to vilify the story and those involved. This is especially true at the political level, where politicians are building walls and passing laws to deny what is happening and why, usually citing righteous fears and dire local circumstances.

When the U.S. President sanctions the holding of the children of migrants as hostages and recasts a caravan of desperate people as an invasion, he is doing his own ugly, ahistorical storytelling. He is also accelerating a campaign of vilification into one of criminalization.

And criminals aren’t like us. They aren’t like our family ancestors either, who, it is true, were once immigrants, and mostly arrived in distress, and without much welcome or legal sanction, never mind language skills or professional qualifications or the right religion or skin colour. Criminals are law-breakers and wrong-doers, threats to security, even to the state itself. Why would such people deserve our empathy?

Two battles are under way on the eve of 2019, and they are related. The first is around the language we use to explain concepts such as immigrant, citizen, refugee and inclusion. The words we use, in short, to explain the particulars of our particular age. They make all the difference to how people think about these processes and, more importantly, these lives.

The parallel battle is over narrative. Which stories do we listen to in order to frame how best to negotiate, as citizens of the

spaces we call countries, the routine and quite natural business of change and evolution? I wish I could say it was just a struggle to create more empathetic fellow travellers for this negotiation, the usual ambition for art when it intersects with politics and power.

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But the emergence of illiberal democracies on every continent in recent years is legitimating voices, many of them actual heads of state, who are happy to tell disingenuous, fear-mongering stories about who belongs and who does not. They are fast taking control of mainstream information and storytelling mediums, both digital and analog, and will defend the realm at all costs, apparently – including to democracy itself.


New U.S. citizens stand during a naturalization ceremony on Dec. 19, 2018 in Los Angeles, Calif.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tales of the new Exoduses dominate that literary book shelf. The list of authors publishing stories of border crossings and identity evolutions in the past decade is lengthy. Notable is how many are crafting 21st-century versions of the tale from their own experiences, direct or inherited. Names such as Kim Thuy, Madeleine Thien, Lisa Ko, Nayomi Munaweera, Ocean Vuong, Sunjeev Sahota, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Gary Shteyngart represent a near-random sampling of this cohort.

By such a measure, Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone might feel a step backward – a white German writing about African refugees in Berlin. This acclaimed novel, published in English in 2017, addresses the dominant-gaze issue through the author’s extensive personal reporting of the actual journeys of refugees to reach Germany and her skillful use of these harrowing, moving accounts in the character portraits.

Erpenbeck also makes her protagonist, a retired Berlin academic, the classic pilgrim. Richard’s journey, from listless onlooker to energized participant, offers signposts for how those of us lucky enough to live unaffected by these upheavals, at least directly, can become both more involved and happier citizens. Progress along the way includes talking, listening, cooking, playing music and even sharing a roof with people now in your midst, and just like you and your friends.

Go, Went, Gone is a humanistic response to our age’s “human crisis,” as Chinese artist Ai Weiwei calls the mass displacements, not a vision of its shape into the future. Two other recent novels reflect on how that future might look, should countries and ecosystems continue to collapse and colossal numbers of citizens need to keep moving. Both the books are dystopian, and start in circumstances after democracy has failed.

Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, originally published in 2017, is fast becoming a guide for how to think postnationally about movement and belonging. His story follows young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, who flee an unnamed city savaged by war and fanaticism by stepping through magical doors. On the far side are marginally safer places: a Greek island overwhelmed by refugees, then a London so undone by uninvited newcomers it debates an extermination campaign.

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Nadia gets the fear of the English natives. “Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from around the world suddenly arrived.” When Saeed says their own country had faced similar influxes from war-torn neighbours in the past, she clarifies: “That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”

The couple end up in a barely recognizable future California, where they drift apart, as lovers do. Much has been made of Hamid’s transporter device, a signal both that he is telling a parable and is deliberately dispensing with the actual migrant journey, the source, perhaps, of too much easily sensationalized attention and pathos right now.

Less remarked about Exit West is its insistence on allowing its characters to be preoccupied most of their waking hours with the same problems of love, sex, work and faith as the rest of us. Being a refugee is not an identity or the sum of one’s humanity. It is a temporary status, albeit a distressing and consuming one.

In the background of the turmoil in the novel are countries that have lost the institutional supports, or even the vocabularies, to negotiate the challenges of a world on the move, and so have descended into chaos. Something has gone wrong with democracies in Exit West.

In Thea Lim’s 2018 debut, An Ocean of Minutes, things have gone catastrophically wrong for a United States devastated by a pandemic, descended into a shoddy corporate totalitarianism, and then riven by an internal political partition. A corporation has invented time travel, allowing people to escape the flu into the future, and Lim’s protagonist, Polly, must actually find a way back in time to locate her lost lover.

Lim’s striking plot innovation – all of An Ocean of Minutes is set in the 20th century, even the “future” sections – is as flashy as Hamid’s portals. But she, too, is more interested in the inner lives of her characters, and in speculating how it might look for America and Americans to be obliged to enact the same narratives of escape and flight and hostile border crossings as so many other nations and nationals.

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Here lies the abiding truth. Any country can fall apart. When it does, any one of us may end up recast as the illegal alien, the queue jumper, the hostile invader. Novelists keep making the same point: There are no real differences between humans. There are only the various, and often brutally unequal, hands we have been dealt by circumstance.

Countries and their leaders who suggest otherwise through their policies and their rhetoric aren’t only telling lies about their own histories and humanity. They are recklessly imperilling the only political system that insists on respecting individuals, no matter who they are or where they’ve come from, and which on its best days appreciates how diversity – of identity, thought, perspective – are strengths for a society, not the opposite.

Better language and a deeper recognition of our shared Exodus narrative aren’t only ways to counter the nativism and nationalism now holding such powerful sway. They may be how democracy fights back.

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