Review: Migrant voices echo with wit, nostalgia


We are a world of migrants, a planet of comings and goings. The itinerant carry stories of pain and remembrance, cruelty and kindness, renewal and possibility. They move among us, a constant pulse, escaping war, persecution and poverty or striking out on an adventure to build a better life in a distant land.

They flow by the millions every year across borders. Their identities lie between departure and arrival. Some live in penthouses; others in tents at the edge of conflict. Some pick our fruit; others heal our sick. Their languages and histories are diverse but each has a different story, a treasure or scourge they bring with them to either bury or celebrate on the path to the unknown.

Migrant voices echo with wit, nostalgia and at times startling poignancy in “The Penguin Book of Migration Literature,” a collection of stories, memoirs and poems from writers including Salman Rushdie, Zadie Smith and Edwidge Danticat.


Edited by Dohra Ahmad, the book explores the lives of people in motion: a slave in a ship’s hull, an unaware young woman venturing from Ukraine to the United Kingdom and Indian-born Deepak Unnikrishnan, whose chapter from “Temporary People” lists the faces of migrants: “Lorry Driver. Shopping Mall Cashier. Carpet Seller. Hitman. Junkie. Flunky. Fishmonger.”

“Part of my purpose with this anthology is to break the United States’ monopoly on the idea of being a ‘nation of immigrants,’” writes Ahmad, an English professor at St. John’s University in New York City. Her introduction reads with a prophet’s passion and an academic’s sense of order. Ahmad calls for “understanding migration within a global scope” to explore commonalities and differences and to dispel misconceptions by empathizing with the pressures and desires that tug people away from their homes.

The affecting power of “The Penguin Book of Migration Literature” — the publisher calls it the first global anthology of migration literature — is in its intimacies and observations. An immigrant is often keener-eyed than a native at spotting a nation’s character, cruelties and inconsistencies. These excerpts resonate when read alongside today’s headlines of Kurdish refugees streaming out of Syria, families escaping shootings and squalor in Guatemala and Honduras and Africans fleeing drought, broken governments and the harsh consequences of climate change.

“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” Warsan Shire, daughter of Somali parents, writes in “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center).” “I know a few things to be true. I do not know where I am going, where I have come from is disappearing, I am unwelcome and my beauty is not beauty here. My body is burning with the shame of not belonging, my body is longing. I am the sin of memory and the absence of memory.”

The world is a history of forced wanderings, and the book challenges notions that most migrants embrace their journeys and that life is better in a foreign land. Assimilation can be withering and defeating; the syntax of a foreign tongue can prick and sting. Many of the stories here play on yearnings for a dissolving past, a hollowing out that is not easily refilled. The endpoint, the saving grace, is endurance, wry humor and a piece of something tucked away from a place once called home. That is not enough for some, and they return from where they had left. Others raise children in their adopted lands even as rifts of identity rise between generations.

In “Green,” Sefi Atta, a Nigerian-born writer, tells the story of a child waiting impatiently in a New Orleans immigration center for her father to receive his green card. Two worlds, one ancestral, the other newly found, whisper inside the girl, who represents her parents’ hopes and sacrifices and her own feelings of belonging and identity. She glides on a cultural tightrope.

“‘What’s it like being African?’ my friend Celeste asked when we used to be friends,” says the girl. “‘I don’t know,’ I told her. I was protecting my parents. I didn’t want Celeste to know the secret about Africans. Bones in meat are very important to them. They suck the bones and it’s so frustrating I could cry.”

In the eyes of many, America under President Trump has betrayed migrants with talk of walls and the politics of “the other.” But they are ever there, peeking out from wars, adrift on seas, marching through jungles. Others come for opportunity and, with proper papers, enter at passport control. This book is a reminder that many who arrive — whether to the U.S., Europe or Asia — have been forced into flights not of their own making. Journeys are hard, fears multiply. Selves get lost in gradations, and they hope, although they don’t expect, to find refuge in a land of strangers.


The Penguin Book of Migration Literature

Edited by Dohra Ahmad. Foreword by Edwidge Danticat

Penguin Classics: 320 pages; $17

Fleishman is a senior writer on film, art and culture and a former foreign correspondent for The Times. His most recent novel is “My Detective.”