Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

434. Friends from Way Back

In Books, people, reflections, Stories, United States on May 26, 2019 at 9:59 am

In Chinua Achebe’s modern classic, Things Fall Apart, the hypermasculine, highly-strung protagonist Okonkwo has a best friend and agemate, Obierika, who is the only person who can speak home truths to him without making him fly into a rage. They are both well-placed, well-respected family men, but Okonkwo, bull-headed and defensive, is perpetually falling afoul of the community because of his uncontrollable temper, while Obierika is a much more deliberate, thoughtful man, with a wry sense of humor. Even though he is the stereotypical strong silent type, Okonkwo will regularly go over to Obierika’s place where they may share kola nut and palm wine and sit quietly for a while, until Okonkwo blurts out what’s on his mind, or his friend raises the subject more delicately and then gives Okonkwo a piece of his. In Igbo society back at the turn of the twentieth century, agemates had gone through the circumcision rituals together in adolescence; having shared that arduous coming-of-age experience, there was little they could hide from each other ever after.

As I get older, the people in my life who have known me since childhood and youth get fewer but all the more precious. Yesterday old friends visited who go all the way back with our family. The parents were good friends of my parents, who met them on the IIT campus in Kharagpur in 1955 when they were still newlyweds and I was just six months old and “still crawling”, as Mona remembered yesterday, visiting us with her daughter Ginny on her 92nd birthday. Mona’s son Jim, just a little older than me, was my playmate, and when our families miraculously crossed paths again in the U.S. after having lost touch with each other for fifteen years, we took up the friendship as if it had never been interrupted. By now each of them had had another child, and the two daughters were also agemates whose lives proceeded to take parallel tracks. Fast-forward 33 years, and Mona and Bajirao attended my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration, bearing the ceremonial cake. Like my parents, they had a mixed marriage, Bajirao coming from the same part of the country and the same community as Dad, and Mona, like Mum, a foreign wife in early post-Independence India, though Mona was American and Mum English. Bajirao was the first to pass away, nearly nine years ago, and as my sister Sally and I drove back in the snow from his wake, Sally pointed out that our friends had shown us the way we, as fellow half-and-halves, might honor the passing of our parents in a foreign country. At Dad’s memorial both Jim and Ginny spoke eloquently, and Jim’s heartfelt words for our father brought tears to his family’s eyes as they no doubt remembered their own. Now, after our families’ lives have been intertwined for nearly 65 years, there is little that we can’t share with each other.

This is Old Home weekend for us. Today we are eagerly awaiting the arrival of our dear friend Michael, Andrew’s best friend from eighth grade on, sharer with him of teenage exploits of all kinds, who now lives in New Mexico and is driving down to us from Maine where he has just scattered his parents’ ashes by the ocean. Michael and I go way back, too, back to 1970 and my very first day at Brookline High, a new immigrant entering an entirely foreign school system mid-year. I took the first joyride with Michael and his then-girlfriend Laura the day they got their drivers’ licenses, an important American rite of passage, and when I met Andrew it turned out that he and Michael were best friends and that they had built a treehouse together, a dream of a treehouse in which we three shared many happy hours and which helped us all survive high school (see TMA#4, The Tree House). Later in the decade, Andrew and I drove out to New Mexico in our 1950 International Harvester milk truck (which Andrew had bought at the same time and from the same man who sold Mike a 1964 Triumph TR-4 sports car) and lived with Michael in Albuquerque for nearly a year, sharing another defining period of our lives. His parents retired to Portland, Maine, so as they grew older, Michael made the pilgrimage Back East to visit them more and more frequently, and we got together almost every time. Once he brought his parents to visit us in Amherst, where his father had attended “Mass Aggie,” as UMass, then the state agricultural college,was called, and he pointed out some of his old haunts. We gathered to toast his parents’ on their 50th wedding anniversary, celebrated landmark birthdays with them, and attended Mike’s father Pete’s funeral. Pete, who managed the farm and greenhouse on the Brookline estate where Andrew’s family rented a house, was Andrew’s first employer, and later, for a few months after college when I worked at the same greenhouse, he was my employer too. The last long car ride Mike’s mother Velma took was down to Amherst with him to attend Andrew’s father’s memorial, and we went up to Maine to dear Velma’s funeral just before my own mother passed away. This weekend I look forward to the three of us sitting out back just hanging out, Andrew and Michael agemates from way back, both men of few words, and for once I think I will quiet my chatter and be content to just be.

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers singing My Old Pal. Thinking of all my old pals with love and gratitude.

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430. Walls

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Inter/Transnational, people, Politics, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 28, 2019 at 5:17 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. You can catch up on the posts you’ve missed here. Today the letter stands for Walls.

I suppose I can’t write a post on walls without addressing the wall that’s sucking all the oxygen out of the room—the current U.S. President’s border wall. At every one of his campaign rallies his supporters are whipped up into a frenzy, chanting  “Build the Wall, Build the Wall,” replaced periodically by “Lock them Up” or “CNN Sucks.” But it emerged recently that Donald Trump’s speechwriters  originally put forward the “wall” not as a policy proposal but as a metaphor–in fact, as a mnemonic to remind him to talk about border security in the course of his rambling speeches. Apparently the fans loved his fairytale so much that he got locked into it as a campaign promise that he had to deliver.

I am anxious to turn my attention from this particular wall, but thought you might like to see this little bedtime story, Donald Trump and the Big, Beautiful Wall, courtesy of Late Night with Seth Myers.

Now that we’ve dispensed with that, where was I? Oh yes, fictional walls.

***

There is a brilliant metaphor of a wall in Amitav Ghosh’s 1988 novel, The Shadow Lines. After the Partition of India and Pakistan by Britain, two brothers in Dhaka, East Pakistan (formerly partitioned by the British as East Bengal, later to split off from Pakistan as Bangladesh), have become estranged, and the hostility between them is so great that one brother partitions the house. The resulting wall runs straight through the lavatory, “bisecting an old commode,” obviously making it exceedingly difficult for any of the house’s residents on either side to perform their natural bodily functions

Then there is Wall, an actual character in Pyramus and Thisbe, the play-within-a-play in William Shakespeare’s 1595 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A story of star-crossed lovers performed by rude mechanicals, skilled

PTTP production of “A Mid Summer’s Night Dream” by Shakespeare.

laborers, on the occasion of a royal wedding, it indirectly provides the means of reconciliation for the three pairs of estranged lovers in the main plot. In Pyramus and Thisbe, the parted lovers, separated by a wall, manage to commune with each other through a chink in it, after which the wall exits the stage, to hilarious effect. In the end, the heartbroken lovers both kill themselves, and Wall is left to bury the dead. But to please the king by turning the tragedy into a comedy, Bottom the Weaver assures him that now “the wall is down that parted their fathers.”

Indulge me in one more wall story, this time a real one from my boarding school years in India: one night, in one of the built-in clothes closets in the girls’ dormitory, we discovered a small hole in the back wall. On the other side of the wall was a backstage room of the main chapel where students rehearsed school plays in the evenings. What a thrill! Some of our boyfriends happened to be rehearsing in there, and we were able to whisper to them clandestinely through the wall.

What is  the upshot of these three stories? Walls are ridiculous and unnatural; they only serve to divide us; and though they may have parted our fathers, we must find a way to get through them, or to take them down. Otherwise, tragedy will surely ensue.

Marathon, Bethlehem, April 21, 2013. (Photo: Ryan Rodrick Beiler)

And now, from fictional walls to an all-too-real one: the heavily militarized Israel-Gaza border barrier that runs between Israel and the Gaza Strip, controlling movement from the Palestinian Territory to Israel. This wall, constructed to make Israel more secure from armed incursions, has done nothing to improve the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians or to help resolve the underlying conflict over the land, which both groups claim. Today, most Israelis and Palestinians  hoping for a resolution look to a two-state solution; however, not only is there currently no constructive movement in that direction, but that in itself would not get to the heart of the matter. The current regime in Israel, led by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, is taking a hardline stance whereby he has declared Israel to be a Jewish ethno-state, rather than a democracy in which all its citizens have equal rights. Sadly, his “solution” to the problem of Palestine appears to be not so different from the Nazi Germany’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The late Edward Said was an important commentator on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and a rare voice in the U.S. who spoke for the Palestinians; sadly, he died in 2003 and his clear and erudite voice of reason is sorely missed. Said advocated for a one-state solution to the conflict, in which everyone learned to live together in one democratic state. While that solution may seem wildly utopian today, it’s worth revisiting. In a 2014 article in the Middle-East Eye, In Memory of Edward Said: the One-state Solution, Ibrahim Halawi wrote:

Edward Said described the claim that Palestine is “principally and exclusively” Arab as a nationalistic myth and a radical simplification of “a land of many histories”. This is not to feed the Zionist myth either, but it is to acknowledge the rich multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious nature of Palestine which is perpetually threatened by Zionist hegemony. In a realistic yet principled stance, Said admits that both the claims of a God-promised land for the Jews and of an Arab land for Palestinians must be “reduced in scale and exclusivity”. This can be done while preserving both the Jewish culture and the Palestinian culture, and all the other diverse subgroups in between…

Said believed that the most important social feature for a successful one-state in Palestine is the practice of citizenship in a modern sense of the term. In other words, by sharing rights and responsibilities under a law that treats all as equal, citizenship prevails over ethnic and religious chauvinism. When the same privileges, resources, and opportunities are available to all, the legitimacy of nationalistic ideologies and exclusionary dogmas will be forever lost.

In order to trigger a citizen-driven culture, Said suggested drafting a constitution and a bill of rights that acknowledges both peoples’ right to self-determination – as in the right to practice communal life freely under the law…This humanistic alternative that Said and many other scholars from both sides argue for is the alternative to further outrageous colonial partition and/or continuous war. (Halawi)

In a 1999 article in the New York Times, The One-State Solution, Said himself wrote:

The alternatives are unpleasantly simple: either the war continues (along with the onerous cost of the current peace process) or a way out, based on peace and equality (as in South Africa after apartheid) is actively sought, despite the many obstacles. Once we grant that Palestinians and Israelis are there to stay, then the decent conclusion has to be the need for peaceful coexistence and genuine reconciliation. Real self-determination. Unfortunately, injustice and belligerence don’t diminish by themselves: they have to be attacked by all concerned.

Waiting near the Bethlehem checkpoint to attend Ramadan prayers at Al-Aqsa Mosque         Aug. 10, 2012. (Photo: Anne Paq)

Given the conditions in Israel and the Palestinian Territory today, one might ask, How realistic is Said’s vision? However, the alternative does not bear contemplation. Said felt strongly that in this shrinking, globalized world of greater mobility, growing population, and dwindling resources, different peoples were inevitably going to rub up against each other, and that attempts to keep them apart would only be disastrous. Learning how to live together in one democratic polity was the only way forward.

To this end, I offer examples from a 2016 Guardian article, The Israelis and Palestinians who work together in peace. Against all the odds, “in hospitals, schools and businesses, Israeli Arabs, Jews and Palestinians are working side by side to forge a better future” (Shuttleworth).

Nadira Hussein with her students at Max Rayne Hand in Hand school. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

Siham Sheble Masarwa, an Israeli Arab and head technician of Hadassah Ein Kerem’s catheterisation lab, teaches Jewish Israeli students. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

Children playing at Max Rayne school. (Photo: Kate Shuttleworth)

***

Together We Stand is one of my favorite songs by the band Canned Heat. Listen, and take heart. Building walls is no solution; working together is the only way forward.

And a reminder: every wall will eventually fall. Here is Paul Robeson, singing Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. 

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429. V is for Vigilante

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Music, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 26, 2019 at 6:59 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter stands for vigilante.
Vigilante Man (recorded in 1940) is one of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads. In it, he bemoans the armed man who lies in wait for hapless migrants, who has hunted, chased, and “herded [them] like cattle,” and killed Preacher Casey, who sought to unite and organize them. Casey’s murder was also mentioned in John Steinbeck’s 1939 Dust Bowl epic, The Grapes of Wrath, in which the Joads were one among many desperate migrant families driven West from their homes in Oklahoma by the climate catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, looking for honest work in the fertile fields and vineyards of California.

 migrant family, 1930s

In this excerpt from the novel, Steinbeck describes the response of local people to the migrants:

The moving, questing people were migrants now…. And the hostility changed them, welded them, united them — hostility that made the little towns group and arm as though to repel an invader, squads with pick handles, clerks and storekeepers with shotguns, guarding the world against their own people.

        In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants. And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything. They’ve got no sense of property rights.

         And the latter was true, for how can a man without property know the ache of ownership? And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. How’d you like to have your sister go out with one of ’em?

      The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them — armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t get these Okies get out of hand.

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Critical Library, 1972, pp. 385-386
(originally published in 1939)

Steinbeck’s migrants were his own countrymen, not migrants from South of the U.S.-Mexico border; but their plights and the reactions of the vigilantes were startlingly similar.

A group of migrants in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the United Constitutional Patriots, an armed rightwing militia, patrol the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Paul Ratje/Getty Images)

Last week, a story about armed vigilantes made national and international news headlines for a couple of days. Members of a right-wing militia group were caught on video posing as U.S. Border Patrol (CBP) agents to detain migrants and refugees at the New Mexico-Mexico border and then coordinating with the CBP to apprehend them. The Border Patrol could not be reached for comments but sent an email saying, for the record, that it “does not endorse private groups or organizations taking enforcement matters into their own hands.” However, the vigilantes themselves not only seemed to be working closely with the CBP but declared that they were doing their civic duty in the absence of adequate federal law enforcement; and a spokesperson for the city in New Mexico said, “I think they are just out there exercising their constitutional right.” Clearly, the Wild West mentality with civilian posses dispensing “rough justice” extrajudicially, still seems to be alive and well in the Southwestern borderlands. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico has called on the state’s Governor and Attorney General to investigate the “fascist militia,” saying, “we cannot allow racist and armed vigilantes to kidnap and detain people seeking asylum.”

However, even preliminary research into the problem reveals that vigilante violence against people crossing the border has been a reality since the 1970s, something of which locals are very aware, but which has been insulated from the nation as a whole. However, in the past couple of years the groups have grown, organized, formed broad coalitions (joining the Tea Party, for instance), and become much more heavily armed and more closely enmeshed with law enforcement officials. In this February 2019 excerpt by Greg Grandin from his new book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America, the author claims that many of the vigilantes are veterans of U.S. wars, with “fortress mentalit[ies]” and post-traumatic stress disorder, or worse:

In the last years of the Obama presidency, as fallout from Iraq worsened and Central American children arrived, vigilantism surged anew in a more aggressive form. Its ranks were filled with younger, angrier men than its earlier version, outfitted with military hardware and desert camouflage, intent on stopping “f***ing beaners”, obsessed equally with Isis, Central American gangs, Mexican cartels and Black Lives Matter. Most have done multiple stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. “For me, it is therapeutic to come down here and join my fellow veterans,” said one veteran, who after four tours in Iraq was left with brain injury and stress disorder.

You can listen to the piece here as a podcast if you don’t want to read it. And you can watch and listen to Ry Cooder’s rendition of Vigilante Man here.

A closing thought: It’s worth remembering that New Mexico was only granted Statehood in 1912, and was part of Mexico until 1848, when it was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War (New Mexico Joins the Union). Local Native American peoples fought hard against U.S. colonization, but were defeated in 1886, with the surrender of Geronimo. Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for some time in 1978-1979, and it did not feel like the United States; it was a multilingual, multicultural Borderland—Land of Enchantment—with a character all its own. Today, 47% of the state’s population claims Hispanic ancestry, and nearly 10% more are Native American. Additionally, for decades there has been a pattern of circular, seasonal migration between Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, in which Mexicans would migrate north as temporary farm laborers and return home when the season was over. Apparently the recent crackdowns at the Southern border have disrupted this pattern and actually driven up the numbers of Mexican migrants who stay in the United States.

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427. T is for Temporary Status

In blogs and blogging, Books, Immigration, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 25, 2019 at 11:20 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter T is for temporary status.

When you have status, you have standing, some kind of place in society. There is so much talk about the 11 million “illegal” immigrants in the United States, who have no status and must keep their heads down at all times, lest the authorities catch up with them. There are those with legal status, 37 million strong, who have papers to show when they are stopped at checkpoints. The administration wishes they hadn’t been let in, but now that they’re here it’s best to keep them on edge, rattled, remind them that they’re here on sufferance, show them what will happen to them if they step out of line. And then there are those people who are neither authorized not unauthorized, but who have some kind of temporary status that may or may not be renewed, depending.

There are 1.42 million temporary foreign workers in the U.S. who do not have immigrant status, under 10 different visa classifications. (In another nasty move recently, the Trump Administration has moved to stop granting work permits for the nearly 100,000 spouses of the more-than-400,000 people who are working in the U.S. on hi-tech H1-B visas, and have applied for Green Card status.) There are some 700,000 young people with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status, which means that they do not have legal status or a path to citizenship, but can obtain work authorization, defer deportation proceedings for two years, and then renew their status—at least they could, until September 5, 2017, when President Trump announced the phase-out of the program. Now it’s tied up in the courts—on again, off again.

And then there are the approximately 417,000 people with TPS (Temporary Protected Status), from ten different nations where there have been life-threatening political upheavals or natural disasters. Since September 2017, President Trump has been trying to terminate six of them. (Listen to this podcast by immigrant and union leader Jaime Contreras.) Further, there are between 840 and 3600 Liberians with DED (Deferred Enforced Deportation), a dispensation President Trump announced would expire at the end of March, 2019 but which has now been extended to March 31, 2020, when it is set to terminate once and for all.

That’s more than two and a half million people, many of whom have been living in the United States for decades, who are living in extended limbo, their hearts in their mouths, not knowing whether they are going to be able to stay or whether they will have to go. How does one make plans, living like this? Get a college education, marry, put a downpayment on a house? Everything is on hold, all the time. Status: Unprotected.

This is exactly how this administration wants it for all immigrants and would-be immigrants. None of us must have a chance to settle or start feeling secure. We must think of ourselves as sojourners, living here on borrowed time.

Jaime Contreras (Photo: Darrow Montgomery)

The targets of these policies and their allies and advocates are resisting these high-handed dictats, getting them blocked in the courts, holding them at bay, winning small victories that postpone or push back the expiration dates of their residency status. However, because the current government has made no secret of the fact that its ultimate goal involves a drastic and permanent reduction in the number of immigrants to this country—legal, illegal, or otherwise, these efforts can only be holding operations. Even immigrants with U.S. citizenship cannot rest easy. According to the American Friends Service Committee “a new denaturalization task force has begun working to strip citizenship from naturalized U.S citizens”(Ibe). Until Trump and his cronies are no longer in power, we all have temporary status, never knowing when the knock on the door will come to send us on our final, one-way, journey.

That was a gloomy conclusion! Here’s an alternate one:

At the end of the delightful title story in Gish Jen’s collection, Who’s Irish?an Irish American grandmother befriends and opens her home to a Chinese American grandmother after a falling out with her daughter and son-in-law. After a long, hard working life in the U.S. running a restaurant, the now-widowed Chinese grandmother, also the narrator of the story, still doesn’t feel at home in her adopted country. But for the first time, living with Bess, she starts feeling a sense of belonging. Bess’ deadbeat sons keep asking when she is going home, “but Bess tell them, Get lost.

She’s a permanent resident, say Bess. She isn’t going anywhere.
. . .I don’t know how Bess Shea learn to use her words, but sometimes I hear what she say a long time later.
Permanent resident. Not going anywhere. Over and over I hear it, the voice of Bess.”

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426. S is for Stranger

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, writing on April 23, 2019 at 9:38 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter is for stranger.

The stranger is said to be the quintessentially, existentially modern figure. So many twentieth-century
works give us that romantic anti-hero, the angry, alienated man (strange, he always seems to be a man), at odds with society, a stranger to himself. But if the modern era is the era of migration, then its quintessential figure is that of the migrant, the refugee, the exile—stranger in a strange land, a long way from home.

It is dead lonely to be a stranger, and not in the least romantic. The newly arrived immigrant is a complete unknown; but unlike in the song, he is not like a rolling stone who keeps movin’ on. Instead, he tries hard to settle and put down roots, but still remains a stranger.

Although the words “stranger” and “outsider” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Apparently, a stranger is a person one doesn’t know, while an outsider is someone who is not part of a community or organization. But the modern stranger, the one recognized by immigrants and refugees, is both. In an influential 1908 essay, German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel:

James Baldwin (“Stranger in the Village”)

differentiates the stranger both from the “outsider” who has no specific relation to a group and from the “wanderer” who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger, he says, comes today and stays tomorrow. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from other–“native”–members of the group. In comparison to other forms of social distance and difference (such as class, gender, and even ethnicity) the distance of the stranger has to do with his “origins.” The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group and even though he is in constant relation to other group members; his “distance” is more emphasized than his “nearness.”As one subsequent interpreter of the concept put it, the stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group. (The Stranger—sociology)

In the United States, Simmel’s stranger became Chicago school of sociology Robert Ezra Park’s marginal man. First discussed in his 1928 essay, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” he was a hybrid figure who, like the newly arrived African Americans from the American South, like the pre-WWI wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, lived cheek-by-jowl with others in the new society, and yet “was not quite accepted due to racial prejudice” (Goldberg 201). Richard Wright, a migrant to Chicago in 1927, credited Park with having influenced his thinking in his novel Native Son, while Park credited the black writers of the American South with helping him understand how human civilizations advanced (Warren).

How many years does a person have to live in a land, how many generations of his or her kinfolk have to die there, before they are no longer strangers?

Here are three songs that make me feel less of a stranger, and at the same time remind me that strangeness is part of being human.

People are Strange (The Doors)

I Was a Stranger (Doc Watson)

Wayfaring Stranger (Rhiannon Giddens)

 

I can’t resist one more S word: S is for SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive. By collecting the histories of South Asians in the United States, it makes us less strange, our stories more fully a part of the many-stranded history of this country. Of its many initiatives, its First Days Project collects the moving first-person accounts of people’s arrival in the United States, before they found their feet and got over the initial culture shock. Supporting SAADA tells our stories, fights hate and helps to build a more inclusive future where no one is a stranger.

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425. R is for Refugees

In blogs and blogging, Books, Inter/Transnational, Music, Politics, Stories, Words & phrases on April 22, 2019 at 1:40 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter R is for Refugees.

‘Refugees’ are like ‘the Homeless’—always thought of in the mass. Refugees are people who have not only been displaced from their homes, but from their countries, because the conditions there threaten their safety, often their very lives. An asylum-seeker is a person who claims to be a refugee but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been evaluated. People apply for refugee status either to particular nations or to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who, if their claim is successful, will attempt to resettle them permanently, or at least for some time, so that they can resume relatively normal lives. I read yesterday that the most common adjective in the British media that qualified asylum-seeker’ was the word ‘failed;’ Britain has taken a particularly hard line toward refugees. In this piece, British Home Minister Sajid Javid appears to blame the refugees themselves for taking such a dangerous journey: “we won’t allow them to succeed.” How devastating to have reached that state of desperation that makes one decide to pull up roots and risk everything, leave everything, only to have one’s claim for refugee status denied. While awaiting the processing of their asylum claims, many people wait for years in overcrowded refugee camps or are placed in detention facilities. If their claim is turned down, they may be sent back to their original countries for all their efforts.

According to the UNHCR Global Trends 2017 Report, there were 25.4 million refugees and 3.1 million asylum-seekers in 2017, but only 102,800 refugees resettled. That means that there were 28,387,200 people who were still in limbo, waiting, without any settled status.

Between 1980 and 2016, the United States resettled more refugees per year than all the rest of the countries in the world combined. However, it is no longer the world leader in this effort. In 2016 it accepted nearly 85,000 refugees. But in 2017 that number fell to just 33,000; in 2018,  22,491; and the Trump Administration has announced that in 2019 it will accept no more than 30,000 refugees. At the same time, it is cracking down on asylum-seekers, narrowing the criteria for eligibility, treating them like criminals, and even deporting them before hearing their cases.

Maisa organises monthly distributions of toys for Syrian children who live in poor neighbourhoods of Istanbul. She also sings famous Syrian songs with them. (MARIE TIHON/AL JAZEERA)

Meanwhile, between 2011 and 2017, Turkey took in 3.5 million refugees, mostly from Syria; Pakistan and Uganda hosted 1.4 million each; tiny Lebanon hosted one million; and war-torn Iraq, 979,400 refugees.

To give a human face to this global crisis, here are some links to pieces in which

(Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff)
Mr. Qaiconie’s mother and sister, whom he aided in fleeing from Syria to Turkey.

refugees tell their stories directly. In October 2015, Talk to Al-Jazeera interviewed refugees along the railroad from Greece to Macedonia. In October 2017, The Atlantic ran this story featuring video interviews conducted in 2016 with a number of Syrian refugees. Also in 2017, Kristen Chick of the Christian Science Monitor followed Syrian refugee Muhannad Qaiconie on his long and dangerous journey from Syria through Europe to Germany.

The refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, a challenging area to house hundreds of thousands of refugees.(Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC)

 

In December 2018, ABC News’ Nightline covered the Bangladesh government’s relocation plans for 100,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar to the remote “floating island” of Bhasan Cha. As of March 2019, more than 909,000 stateless Rohingya refugees are sheltering in Bangladesh, the largest number in Cox’s Bazar, currently the world’s largest refugee settlement. There is no hope of their returning to Myanmar anytime soon.

 

 

It’s a long read, but worth reading Daniel Trilling’s Five Myths About the Refugee Crisis in The Guardian (podcast here if you

A symbolic border crossing in protest against Austrian plans to deploy its military in the area to block refugees from entering the country. [Fabian Wagner]

prefer to listen). Here are his five myths:

Myth 1: The crisis is over.
Myth 2: We can neatly separate ‘refugees’ from ‘economic migrants.’
Myth 3: Telling ‘human stories’ is enough to change people’s minds.
Myth 4: The crisis is a threat to European values.
Myth 5: History is repeating and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It is worth reading his conclusions, in which he reminds us:

Wars produce refugees. People will continue to move to improve their quality of life – not only because of extreme poverty, but because they are connected to global culture and global networks of communication. Climate change has the potential to create far greater displacement than we have seen in recent years; as with refugees from war, it is likely to be poorer countries who feel the greatest impact. We cannot control whether these things happen; what matters will be how we respond, and whether we repeat the errors of this crisis.

Trilling points out that the security measures to keep the “barbarians” out only reveal a “regression from civilization” (quoting Hannah Arendt) on the part of the host[ile] countries themselves.

I leave you with:

—Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West

—Viet Thanh Nguyen’s short-story collection
The Refugees

Refugee Tales: Vol. II, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus.

 

Woody Guthrie’s Ramblin’ Round, sung by Linda Ronstadt;

 

and a prayer for love and unity in this world where climate change alone will be creating many more refugees in the years ahead. Who knows when our time will come, when we too will hope to be treated like human beings as we arrive at those gated cities?

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419. Three Ks: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on April 15, 2019 at 4:29 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Arriving at the letter K, I refuse even to utter the name of, let alone consider naming a blog post after the abhorrent white supremacist organization that thrusts itself forward rudely, seeking my attention. The only three Ks that come to mind are names of world writers who are themselves migrants, whose works have migrated, and who—among other things, for they cannot be pigeon-holed—have explored the experiences of people displaced or marginalized in a changing world: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie.

Kamala Markandaya was the pen name of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor (1924-2004), a novelist and journalist who was active in the Indian independence movement and then moved to England in 1948, after Independence. She published 10 novels between 1954 and her death in 2004 (with one additional work discovered and published posthumously). However, she is remembered by her very first novel, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), an international best-seller and probably the best-known and most widely-taught work of Indian literature outside of India until Salman Rushdie came along in 1982 with Midnight’s Children.

Sadly, the rest of Markandaya’s writing career was a casualty of Nectar in a Sieve’s success. Global publishers and readers alike wanted more of its desperately poor, stereotypically fatalistic peasants, eternal victims (note the representations of Rukmani, the Indian heroine, on the covers of 1956 and 1982 U.S. mass-market paperback editions of the novel); but Markandaya’s subject matter did not oblige. In Feminize Your Canon: Kamala Markandaya, Emma Garman discusses the currency of her 1972 novel, The Nowhere Man, set in the 1968 of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. But it was a flop; it wasn’t exotically Indian, and the English weren’t ready for Indian colonial subjects to tell them what was wrong with their country.

I taught Nectar in a Sieve once or twice while I was in graduate school. But I was enamored of Midnight’s Children by then. Nectar was already old-fashioned to me, and I can’t teach novels if I have too many reservations about them. I did read Markandaya’s second novel, Some Inner Fury, and her fourth, Possession (A.S. Byatt, your Booker Prize-winning title was already taken), but there my familiarity with her work ends. Such was Markandaya’s fate. After that early success, she lived a quiet life in England, out of the limelight; but despite sickness, despite being lost in literary oblivion, as Manu S. Pillai discusses, she kept on writing. Eleven novels, not counting her early stories and her journalism; nothing to sneeze at.

Coincidentally, Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924, the same year as my father, and travelled to England in 1948, the very same year he did. I must seek out The Nowhere Man, belatedly, and return to Nectar In a Sieve with fresh eyes. Perhaps in the nativist climate of post-Brexit England Markandaya’s work will receive belated recognition.

(photo: David Levene for the Observer)

While Kamala Markandaya was my father’s contemporary, Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954) is mine. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, of Japanese parents, who moved with him to England when he was 5 years old. To date he is the author of seven novels and one short-story collection, as well as some screenplays. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his third novel, the quietly devastating masterpiece, The Remains of the Day; and, in 2017, the Nobel Prize for Literature (here’s his Nobel lecture). I jumped for joy when I heard the news, since I was teaching The Remains of the Day at the time. Apparently Ishiguro himself, unassuming as he was, thought at first that it was a hoax.

The Nobel Committee said of Ishiguro that: “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” I confess that although I have almost all of his novels in my possession, I have only read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: knock-outs, both. Why I haven’t yet read them all is inexplicable; but in the last year of his life my father read, one after the other, just about all of Ishiguro’s works, including his most recent, The Buried Giant.

If you’ve read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, you’ve probably read The Remains of the Day, so anything I say about itis likely to be redundant. But if you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, and know, or think you know, the consummate Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman through his character Jeeves, then check out Ishiguro’s Stevens, and see what you think of his inner life. As Salman Rushdie said, of the novel, contrasting it to the Downton Abbey genre, The Remains of the Day, in its quiet, almost stealthy way, demolishes the value system of the whole upstairs-downstairs world. You may know the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film production starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. I must confess that I fell asleep during the movie, but the novel I was riveted to throughout.

Kamila Shamsie (b. 1973) is the youngest of my three K’s, born in 1973, nearly two decades after Ishiguro (and me). Born in Karachi, Pakistan, educated in Pakistan and the United States, and now living in London, Shamsie has already published seven novels and one book of non-fiction. She has worked to uphold the rights of free speech for writers at risk and has contributed to Refugee Tales II, in which poets and novelists  interview and retell the stories of asylum-seekers in Britain being held in indefinite detention. In November, 2018 she delivered the 2018 Orwell Lecture, Unbecoming British: Citizenship, Migration and the Transformation of Rights into Privileges.It is well worth watching in its entirety.

It was with Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel Burnt Shadows that I fell in love with her work. It is a novel of epic scope that starts out in Nagasaki just before the dropping of the atomic bomb, travels to India on the eve of Partition, to Pakistan in the 1980s during the period when the United States was providing covert aid to Afghan resistance fighters (or mujahideen) against the Soviets, to a training camp in Afghanistan, and to New York City in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. How it links them all together is brilliant and beautiful.

Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire (2016), has become her most highly acclaimed. Home Fire is a contemporary reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone, but also an almost-prescient story that seems to anticipate the rise of British Asian Conservative MP Sajid Javid to the position of British Home Minister and, most recently, his controversial act of stripping a British subject of her passport. Life imitating art indeed. If you are moved to read the novel, I wonder whether you will be moved to empathize with a number of wildly differing characters, some of whom you could have sworn you would never feel for in your wildest dreams. But that is what great art does; and the works of these three postcolonial writers make us empathize with characters on the wrong side of wealth, power, and geopolitics.

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418. J is for Journey

In blogs and blogging, Books, Family, Immigration, postcolonial, reflections, Stories, Words & phrases on April 13, 2019 at 1:22 am

I have just received the sad news that dear Nana, my paternal uncle, just two years younger than my father, has passed away in India. He was the last of my seven uncles to complete this life’s journey, four on my father’s side, three on my mother’s. Nana was a high-court judge, who commuted to work by train on Mumbai’s fantastically busy locals for years, long after most people retire. One day, during catastrophic monsoon flooding, he went to work but didn’t return. He was in his eighties by now, mind you, and the family were beside themselves with worry. Nearly 20 hours later he called from a family member’s house many miles away. He had had to get off the train and walk for hours in chest-deep water.

In 2007, the year he turned 80, when my father was 82, Nana came to visit, with Tarakaki my aunt, and their 13-year-old grandson Prathamesh. In all the years Dad had lived out of India, Nana was only the second of his seven siblings to visit him, and Dad was overjoyed. He waited on him hand and foot and delighted in serving him fresh, local corn-on-the-cob, which Nana loved. After dinner, they would sit side-by-side, reading the newspaper—they were both avid readers—thoroughly content.

The last time Dad had travelled back to India was in 1996, the year my nephew Tyler was born. On his previous journey back, 12 years earlier, he had missed his first grandchild’s birth, Nikhil having arrived a couple of weeks before he was expected; this time he was determined to return in good time, so as not to miss this second birth. Before returning, though, he was able to participate in the celebration of his brother Nana’s grandson’s second birthday. As it turned out, it was his last trip to India. He was 72 by then, and India, especially the cities, had changed quite a bit since 1984. Dad was deeply shaken by the whole experience and when he returned he said that it would be his last visit. He never fully explained why, but said that it was the noise and the crowds and the pace of life, and the pollution. He had taken a videocamera with him to film the family and when he returned we were eager to see what he had recorded. To our disappointment, the screen was completely black. “What happened?” I asked, with dismay.
“Shhh, listen,” he said, impatiently, as he did when I made gratuitous comments while he was watching TV; “Can you hear the bird singing?”
It turned out that he had risen in the dark to sit quietly on the back verandah to record a bird that sang before dawn.

I kept asking Dad if he would return to India with me, promising to take him directly from the airport down to his peaceful family home; he shook his head decisively.
“But don’t you miss your family?” I asked insensitively.
“Of course, I do,” he replied, annoyed that he needed to explain to me at all. “But I have made my life outside India. If I thought about how much I missed my brothers and sisters all the time, I would only be miserable all the time. How can one live like that?”

◊◊◊◊◊

Reading, my lifelong passion, is, happily, essential to my profession as well; and transcontinental journeys feature centrally in many, many works of postcolonial literature. “The Third and Final Continent,” the last story in Jhumpa Lahiri’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Interpreter of Maladies, has always been my favorite. In it, an Indian man arrives in America in 1969 at 36 years old to start a job at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had left India to study in England five years before, right after cremating his mother. Then he had returned to India briefly, to get married, before leaving again for the States. For the first six weeks he rents a room in the house of an ancient, idiosyncratic old woman, who, despite her crotchetiness, becomes family of a kind. When his wife receives her green card she joins him, almost a stranger, since they had been married only a few days before he had left for America. They get to know each other, alone in this new country. With her, he makes a home in the States, has a son, and grows old. The old woman dies, “the first death I mourned in America.” All the rest of the elders in India die too. This country is his third and final continent. It is a quiet, sad story, but it always touches me deeply. It ends like this:

While the astronauts, heroes forever, spent mere hours on the moon, I have remained in this new world for nearly thirty years. I know that my achievement is quite ordinary. I am not the only man to seek his fortune far from home, and certainly I am not the last. Still, there are times when I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.

◊◊◊◊◊

Dad’s journey, Nana’s journey, each long and noble. Both were highly intelligent, independent-minded men, but also family men. Both had two children and two beloved grandchildren. Both had strong, loving, highly capable wives who took care of business every day so that they had time to dream a little. I don’t know if Dad was amazed and bewildered by the ground he had covered in his lifetime, but whenever I think of it, I certainly am. Everything was harder then; tickets could not be booked with the click of a computer key; you had to go and stand in line for hours. Take-out could not be ordered carelessly if you didn’t feel like cooking; you couldn’t afford it, and even when you could, you wouldn’t dream of wasting your hard-earned money on it. That money he saved for his and my mother’s old age, and to pass on to us when the time came. But now the time has come and he is no longer with us in person. His journey, this stage of it, at least, is complete, and he has passed the torch to the next generation.

Rest In Peace, dear Nana-kaka.
Heartfelt thanks to our parents’ generation.

 

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415. G is for the Great Migration

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Music, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 10, 2019 at 1:13 pm

This is my seventh entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge: G for the Great Migration.

An African-American family leaves Florida for the North during the Great Depression. (MPI/Getty Images)

An axiom of the U.S. national discourse is the statement that we are a nation of immigrants—with the exception of the Native Americans. But this oft-repeated idea (and I myself admit to repeating it just yesterday) has yet another glaring omission: the Africans taken from their homes against their will, made to travel the deadly Middle Passage, and enslaved in America. They were not immigrants fleeing persecution or looking for “a better life”;  their imaginations were not captured by the American Dream; on the contrary, better lives for the European settlers were achieved on their backs, the freedom of the American Dream depended in large part on their un-freedom. So yes, Africans were migrants, but not of their own accord. But there is a migration that they did undertake out of choice—one that, strangely, is often unacknowledged when telling the American story—and that is the Great Migration.

The Great Migration, which started as a trickle in 1916, and then grew to a flood over the next six decades, was the movement of more than six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North. As Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, has written: By the time it was over, in the 1970s, 47 percent of all African-Americans were living in the North and West. A rural people had become urban, and a Southern people had spread themselves all over the nation. Despite the end of the abhorrent institution of slavery after the Civil War, despite having been declared U.S. citizens with the right to vote, Reconstruction had been sabotaged and African Americans had been systematically impoverished, disenfranchised and marginalized from mainstream American society. White supremacy was rampant, and a reign of terror was maintained by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, supported by state governments. According to the NAACP, thousands of lynchings took place between 1882 and 1968, mostly of blacks, and mostly in the South. During that period, there were 581 lynchings in Mississippi, 531 in  Georgia, and 493 in Texas alone. Life became unbearable, and  eventually African Americans, prevented from declaring themselves at the ballot box, had had enough. They voted with their feet, and left. Building their lives anew in new environments required strength, courage, and creativity, and all those they had in abundance.

The Great Migration led to the transformation of American society in many, many ways: increasing urbanization, a cultural renaissance in almost every arena, people’s movements, notably the Black Power and Civil Rights Movement, that led to the end of Jim Crow segregation and profound political change for all Americans. The South was not forgotten, either. African American families in the north, like so many migrants, made the pilgrimage back whenever they could to visit their children’s grandparents and their extended families, to what Farah Jasmine Griffin, in her first book Who Set You Flowin’: The African American Migration Narrative, has called “the site of the ancestor.”

At this time I can only pay homage to the cultural contributions of the Great Migration through one example. Look at the formation of Chess Records in Chicago, one of the centers of the blues as it migrated from places like the Mississippi Delta through musicians like McKinley Morganfield—the late, great Muddy Waters, without whom there would not have been rock-’n-roll as we know it.

Here’s Muddy Waters in 1963, giving an inimitable performance of Got My Mojo Working, with the help of Sonny Boy Williamson on harmonica and Willie Dixon on bass, both of whom were also Mississippi natives.

And here’s Muddy Waters with James Cotton (also from Mississippi), and Muddy Waters with Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy (from Louisiana).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grateful for the Great Migration and all that has flowed from it.

 

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413. E is for Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile

In blogs and blogging, Books, culture, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, people, Politics, postcolonial, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 6, 2019 at 6:54 pm

This is my fifth entry for the 2019 Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge and since, yet again, I couldn’t settle on just one, I offer you three related words: Emigrant, Expatriate, and Exile.

Emigrant is a word used much less frequently than its counterpart, Immigrant. People are emigrants when they leave their country of origin. When they arrive at their destination, they are immigrants. That seems cut-and-dried, doesn’t it? But it leaves me with all kinds of questions. Once an emigrant arrives and becomes an immigrant, is her emigrant status over and done with? Or does she become an emigrant all over again whenever she returns to her country of origin? What if the person seen as an immigrant in the new country actually thinks of himself as an emigrant and inhabits the remembered haunts of his past as much as he does the physical spaces inhabited in his present? Another way to look at it might be in terms of Raymond Williams’ concepts of dominant, emergent, and residual cultures or and social structures; the social structures of the new society may be dominant; the immigrant status may be seen as emergent, as the immigrants develop interesting new fusions of culture and thought; and the emigrant status may or may not be residual, with old traditions and habits of thought persisting. The bottom line, for me, is that the immigrant and the emigrant are the same person; it’s simply that the former word privileges the place of departure while the latter privileges the place of arrival.

I’ve had an English translation of W. G. Sebald’s 1992 work, The Emigrants,on my bookshelf going on two decades, and still haven’t read it. I’m not sure why; maybe it would call me out as a fellow-emigrant. Sebald was German, studied in Germany and in England and tried to return to Europe but could not settle; he lived in Britain for the second half of his life but continued to write in German. Here’s the closing paragraph of Elizabeth Jaeger’s review of the recent New Directions edition of The Emigrants:

Here in America we think in terms of immigration, people coming to us. All too often, we lose sight of the fact that these men and women were emigrants first, leaving a place they may have loved. We focus on their expectations, their dreams of a new life, and we have written history in a way that highlights what they are running towards. As a result, we often forget or overlook the reasons they fled, the shadows in pursuit, and the memories that may never stop haunting them. The Emigrants is a reminder that many immigrants are burdened with experiences that we are fortunate not to have endured.

An expatriate is a person who lives outside their native country. This category may include people who must live abroad for work, for tax purposes, because it is cheaper to live there, because the climate suits them. It can be a temporary status or it can become a way of life. For one reason or other, expatriates don’t completely burn their bridges back to their country of origin, neither do they fully put down roots in the new country; why not? Are they dilettantes, privileged people who, unlike political exiles who have been banned or expelled from their countries, have the choice to return if they so desire? Sometimes; but expatriates certainly don’t all have lives of luxury. Consider, for instance, the many African Americans who have lived or currently live outside the United States, in search of a place where they can feel free—or at least freer—to be themselves, outside of the U.S. straitjacket of race. France Francois interviews 10 African Americans living in as many different countries in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and all of them say that they feel freer living abroad. Francois concludes her piece:

All the responses came from people who have lived abroad for years and have immersed themselves in a new society and culture, making a conscious decision to disengage from the U.S. and reaffirm their humanity elsewhere- an act that is still revolutionary in its simplicity almost 50 years after Baldwin left for Paris. Rather than remaining static, Baldwin reminded us that we have a responsibility “to move as largely and freely as possible.”

James Baldwin in Istanbul, 1965. National Museum of African American History and Culture

Kimberly Springer’s essay in The Atlantic, The Tricky Allure of Becoming a Black American Expatriate, notes that for generations African American artists and intellectuals have left the U.S.to find a place where they can be free from the toxic racism that they have to endure back “home” on a daily basis. Still, she notes that they face other struggles and no place is free from institutionalized inequities. She concludes:

Feeling free from the metaphorical shackles of American racism has lasting value. Yet, being a black expat, one who’s attuned to American racial suffering, can merely heighten one’s awareness of other colonialist histories around the world and the racial disparities that persist because of them—a far cry from actually escaping racism. Living abroad can mean becoming one’s full self and being more deeply engaged with black struggle throughout the diaspora. But after staying in London for seven years. . .I arrived at the sobering conclusion that it’s better the devil you know. And with that, I came home.

Exile is the state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons. An exile is a person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion; so, too, is an émigré: someone who has left their own country in order to settle in another, typically for political reasons.

In 1984, the late Edward Said, the eminent Palestian postcolonial scholar and author of Orientalism, Culture and Imperialism, Covering Islam, The World, the Text, and the Critic, and the memoir Out of Place, among other works, wrote, “Reflections on Exile,” later reissued in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays.  In an audio interview, Said explained that the essay

seemed to me to capture—for my purposes, anyway—the condition of being somebody away from the place where he was born and belonged to, which was my condition. And I tried to generalize out from that to a more widespread modern condition of exile, of uprootedness, of migration, immigration, expatriation, and so on.

While exile can be a terribly lonely state, in fact, as Said notes, it can be enlarged from an individual plight to the condition of our age, one in which we are all uprooted; all dislocated even if we have never moved outside of the town in which we were born, the ground itself shifting under our feet. We can choose to resent and resist the change, or we can seek to understand all the forces that have brought the world to this moment and seek, as Edward Said did all his life, to encourage people in this shrinking world to find ways to live together, with all their differences; to thrive in the insecurity of our times rather than to live in a permanent state of siege, trying in vain to shut out the feared barbarians at the gates.

Let me tell you a story of an exile. Back in early twentieth-century Japan, a man translated Marx into Japanese and was banished from the country for leftist activity. But in Japan at that time a man’s son could go into exile in his place, and so Takashi Ueda Ohta left the country of his birth forever and set out to travel the world. He eventually met and married Virginia Berry, an American woman, and together they moved to Munich, where their daughter, Toshi Aline Ohta, was born. The Ueda family returned to the United States and settled in New York City, where Toshi met and married the singer and musician Pete Seeger, and they became legends in the folk music community, living a long, joyful, engaged, hard-working life together that touched millions of people across three generations and around the world. Toshi Aline Ohta Seeger’s life was predicated on her father’s voluntary exile. But she went on to carry the best of her grandfather’s values to the world.

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