This month we publish Refugee Tales III, the third book in the ‘Refugee Tales’ series which sees acclaimed authors retell the stories of real lives affected by indefinite detention. We spoke to contributing author Lytton Smith, who offers the first American perspective in the series, about the state of Immigration law in the US.
With Obama’s old reading lists lost on a president like Trump, Lytton has helped us to shape a Summer Reading List of books that Trump should be reading, books that we will have to read on his behalf in order to gain broader perspectives on our current world.
Let us begin the shameful story of detention in America today with some statistics:
- 2,000, the number of children detained at any one time this year.
- 18,000, the recent total tally of detained humans.
- 900, the number in a facility designed to hold 125.
- 24, the number of hours a day the lights remained on in that overcrowded facility.
- $750, the cost per day per child of detention at what are known as influx facilities (a figure that does not include soap, sun hat, toothbrush).
- 100, the number of miles from the U.S. border Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials are allowed to enter private property, stop and search people, set up checkpoints.
- 65.3, the percentage of Americans who live within this border zone, subject to its rules.
Non-citizens in America all too easily become numbers rather than humans; A-numbers, Alien numbers. Take Homestead, Florida, a city 30 miles south of Miami, population just over 6,000,000. This city’s very name promises pioneer warmth; its official website proclaims the city “a desirable place to live, work, and raise a family.” Within the city limits, humans are being monetised at America’s only for-profit migrant detention centre for children, a facility whose parent company, Caliburn, boasts John Kelly, former White House Chief of Staff, on its Board of Directors.
The official name of this facility is the ‘Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Minors’ and is run by Comprehensive Health Services. None of the words in that sentence operate according to their dictionary definitions. The minors here are children, unaccompanied after being separated by design from their parents. They are housed indefinitely rather than briefly, housed in a place that is no home, no steadying space. There is no service, no health; the only thing that is comprehensive is the dehumanisation.
Such is the reality of America’s immigration policy today. America’s version of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” is what Democratic Senator and Presidential Candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has described as a plan to “impose maximum pain on our fellow human beings.”
The work of Refugee Tales has, across its three volumes, set out to remind us that when human stories emerge from such execrable situations, those situations can change, and that land and language can be reclaimed by those who use words carefully, which is to say on behalf of, rather than against, others.
Donald Trump has been almost gleeful about not reading books: “I read passages. I read ― I read areas, I read chapters,” he explained in an 2016 interview, pre-election. And yet he tried, in a 2005 op-ed in the New York Times, to position himself as a bibliophile: “I’ve read John Updike, I’ve read Orhan Pamuk, I’ve read Philip Roth.” There’s little reason to take him at his word.
The books listed below present words that Donald Trump should be wrestling with. Given he won’t, it’s up to us to make reading as close to activism as it can be — to let loose stories that make the imposition of maximum pain first visible, and then untenable. History has taught us what happens if those stories are ignored.
- The Ungrateful Refugee by Dina Nayeri (Canongate, May 2019)
“With surprising and provocative questions, The Ungrateful Refugee recalibrates the conversation around the refugee experience. Here are the real human stories of what it is like to be forced to flee your home, and to journey across borders in the hope of starting afresh.”
2. My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo (Pajama Press, 2017)
“Behind Sami, the Syrian skyline is full of smoke. The boy follows his family and all his neighbours in a long line, as they trudge through the sands and hills to escape the bombs that have destroyed their homes. But all Sami can think of is his pet pigeons — will they escape too?
A gentle yet moving story of refugees of the Syrian civil war, My Beautiful Birds illuminates the ongoing crisis as it affects its children. It shows the reality of the refugee camps, where people attempt to pick up their lives and carry on. And it reveals the hope of generations of people as they struggle to redefine home.”
3. Others: writers on the power of words to help us see beyond ourselves (Unbound, July 2019)
“It doesn’t take much familiarity with the news to see that the world has become a more hate-filled place. In Others, a group of writers explore the power of words to help us to see the world as others see it, and to reveal some of the strangeness of our own selves.
Through stories, poems, memoirs and essays, we look at otherness in a variety of its forms, from the dividing lines of politics and the anonymising forces of city life, through the disputed identities of disability, gender and neurodiversity, to the catastrophic imbalances of power that stands in the way of social equality.”
Contributors include: Leila Aboulela, Gillian Allnutt, Damian Barr, Noam Chomsky, Rishi Dastidar, Peter Ho Davies, Louise Doughty, Salena Godden, Colin Grant, Sam Guglani, Matt Haig, Aamer Hussein, Anjali Joseph, A. L. Kennedy, Joanne Limburg, Rachel Mann, Tiffany Murray, Sara Novic, Edward Platt, Alex Preston, Tom Shakespeare, Kamila Shamsie, Will Storr, Preti Taneja and Marina Warner.
4. The Faraway Brothers by Lauren Markham (Penguin Random House, 2018)
“Growing up in rural El Salvador in the wake of the civil war, the United States was a distant fantasy to identical twins Ernesto and Raul Flores—until, at age seventeen, a deadly threat from the region’s brutal gangs forces them to flee the only home they’ve ever known. In this urgent chronicle of contemporary immigration, journalist Lauren Markham follows the Flores twins as they make their way across the Rio Grande and the Texas desert, into the hands of immigration authorities, and from there to their estranged older brother in Oakland, CA.
Soon these unaccompanied minors are navigating school in a new language, working to pay down their mounting coyote debt, and facing their day in immigration court, while also encountering the triumphs and pitfalls of teenage life with only each other for support. With intimate access and breathtaking range, Markham offers an unforgettable testament to the migrant experience.”
5. This Land is Our Land by Suketu Mehta (Jonathan Cape, August 2019)
“Drawing on his family’s own experience emigrating from India to Britain and America, and years of reporting around the world, Suketu Mehta subjects the worldwide anti-immigrant backlash to withering scrutiny. The West, he argues, is being destroyed not by immigrants but by the fear of immigrants.”
6. Spring by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton, March 2019)
Referencing indefinite detention in the UK with a nod to her contribution to Refugee Tales I, Ali Smith “tells the impossible tale of an impossible time. In a time of walls and lockdown, Smith opens the door.”
7. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Penguin Random House, March 2019)
“From the Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of The Moor’s Account, here is a timely and powerful novel about the suspicious death of a Moroccan immigrant—at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story, informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture.”
8. No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg (Penguin, May 2019)
“‘Everything needs to change. And it has to start today’
In August 2018 a fifteen-year-old Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg, decided not to go to school one day. Her actions ended up sparking a global movement for action against the climate crisis, inspiring millions of pupils to go on strike for our planet, forcing governments to listen, and earning her a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.”
9. Educated by Tara Westover (Penguin Random House, November 2018)
“Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes with the severing of the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, from her singular experience Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.”
10. The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World by Peter Frankopan (Bloomsbury, June 2019)
“The New Silk Roads takes a fresh look at the relationships being formed along the length and breadth of the ancient trade routes today. The world is changing dramatically and in an age of Brexit and Trump, the themes of isolation and fragmentation permeating the western world stand in sharp contrast to events along the Silk Roads, where ties are being strengthened and mutual cooperation established.
This prescient contemporary history provides a timely reminder that we live in a world that is profoundly interconnected. Following the Silk Roads eastwards from Europe through to China, by way of Russia and the Middle East, Peter Frankopan assesses the global reverberations of continual shifts in the centre of power – all too often absent from headlines in the west.”
Lytton Smith is Associate Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Center for Integrative Learning at SUNY Geneseo in Western Upstate New York. He has translated nine books from the Icelandic, including works by Bragi Ólafsson, Ófeigur Sigurðsson, Sigrún Pálsdóttir, Jón Gnarr, Kristín Ómarsdóttir, and Guðbergur Bergsson, as well as various poems and short stories. He is the author of the poetry collections The All-Purpose Magical Tent (Nightboat, 2009) and While You Were Approaching the Spectacle But Before You Were Transformed by It (Nightboat, 2013) as well as the chapbooks My Radar Data Knows Its Thing (Foundlings, 2018) and Monster Theory (Poetry Society of America, 2008).
Refugee Tales III will be published 11th July, and is available for pre-order now.