Tag Archives: breach

The Cut by Anthony Cartwright: A tale of two countries

The Cut is the second in the Peirene Now! series, books commissioned by the publisher’s founder, Mieke Ziervogel, in response to the questions shaping our world. The first was Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ collection, breach, based on the stories they’d gathered in Calais and the now defunct ‘Jungle’ refugee camp just outside the town. This one addresses the profound dismay many of us felt after the result of the EU referendum here in the UK a year ago. Ziervogel commissioned it because:

‘The result of the EU referendum shocked me. I realised that I had been living in one part of a divided country. What fears – and what hopes – drove my fellow citizens to vote for Brexit? I commissioned Anthony Cartwright to build a fictional bridge between the two Britains that have opposed each other since the referendum day.’

The result is The Cut, funded through crowdsourcing.

Cartwright’s novel opens dramatically with a woman in flames, running down the street. A man is filming her, no one tries to stop her until someone on a mobility scooter throws a blanket over her. From there, the story of Grace and Cairo unfolds. Grace is the archetypal privileged young professional woman, a film maker who has come to Dudley in the Midlands to make a documentary about what was once a prosperous, industrialised town, now living off scraps. She meets Cairo, working-class, already a grandfather in his forties and firmly rooted in Dudley. Cairo stands a little apart from his raucous workmates: well-versed in the history of his home town and articulate with it, he makes an excellent interviewee, agreeing to fill in the background information Grace lacks. These two disparate people, each apparently on opposites sides of a deep divide, become attracted to each other but it’s clear there can be no happy ending here.

Cartwright’s narrative flashes forward and back to before the vote and after, telling his story in the main from Cairo’s point of view with the occasional interpolation from Grace. Through Cairo, Cartwright carefully constructs a view of a very different Britain from the one I inhabit: rundown; few opportunities; full of men and women fed up with being told what to do and think by people like Grace – people like me, if I’m honest – and firmly in the Leave camp not because they’re stupid but because they’re angry or see no hope for a future for themselves and their children.  ‘These people’ is a refrain that haunts the novel, a contemptuous dismissal, which has cost us all a great deal. Cartwright is careful to avoid painting the two sides in black and white –  the issue of immigration is neatly dealt with, far from the only factor in Leavers’ decisions; Cairo’s daughter seems likely to vote Remain while we never learn how Cairo voted. The relationship between Cairo and Grace is a very effective way of representing two opposing sides of an apparently unbridgeable argument and Cartwright uses it well.

It’ll come as no surprise if you’re a regular reader of this blog that I voted Remain. I’m not naïve enough to believe that the EU is perfect but you can’t reform an institution of which you’re not a member. Like Ziervogel, I was shocked and horrified by the result, but I felt that we should try to understand how it came about. I’ve thought long and hard about it over the past year, coming to much the same conclusion that Cartwright seems to in The Cut. I’m still a staunch Remainer, still European and still angry about the way in which our politicians mishandled and continue to mishandle the referendum and its result but I know I’m guilty of ignorance of the discontent that clearly marks our country and the reasons for it. We Remainers need to try to understand how that has come about rather than dismiss all Leavers as racist and stupid because they’re not like us. That said, it was a close result. The people may well have spoken, as we’re constantly reminded, but 52% of those who voted wanted us to leave the EU, 48% of us chose to remain. We have also spoken.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Listen up, Mr President

Cover imageIt was impossible for me to read this collection without thinking of breach, Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ short stories about refugees living in Calais’ now disbanded Jungle. Whereas breach is based on Popoola and Holmes’ research carried out in and around Calais, The Refugees was written by an author who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Comprising eight stories written over a period of twenty years, it explores the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. A particularly timely read given the current state of affairs in America

Nguyen considers themes of memory, love, family, identity and belonging – or not belonging – from a variety of points of view. In ‘Black-eyed Women’ a young woman who resolutely refuses to believe in the ghosts her mother insists she sees, is forced to reconsider when the brother who died protecting her suddenly reappears. A young man is disconcerted to discover that he’s living with a gay couple, one of whom is his sponsor, in ‘The Other Man’ then finds himself behaving in ways he doesn’t recognise. ‘War Years’ sees a man remembering his mother challenging a fellow Vietnamese asking for money to combat a Communist resurgence then thinking better of it, faced with her own relative good fortune, while in ‘The Americans’ a Vietnam vet is invited to visit his daughter, now living in the country he last saw from a B-52, and bitterly resents what he sees as her accusations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative stories which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before.

Whereas the stories in breach are very immediate – its subjects still in flight from recent conflicts – Nguyen’s collection combines a thoughtful distance with first-hand experience which lends it a quiet power. His writing is beautifully polished, both eloquent and elegant: ‘In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories’, thinks the young ghostwriter in ‘Black-eyed Women’; ‘Marcus had the posture of someone expecting an inheritance, while Liem’s sense of debt caused him to walk with eyes downcast as if searching for pennies’ in ‘The Other Man’. Nguyen shows not tells, subtly alerting his readers to the ordeals his characters have endured: a character’s water phobia, another’s compulsion to own more than he could ever need having left so much behind. A son’s casual assumption of American peace and prosperity since infancy contrast with his father’s quiet acceptance of a job far beneath his capabilities signalling the gulf that can open up between generations. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic. Every refugee – from Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or any of the many conflicts that afflict our world – has their story which will continue to reverberate for many decades. We need to hear them.

breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes: Nuanced, empathetic stories from the Calais Jungle

Cover imagebreach is based on Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ exchanges with refugees who have lived in the camp known as the Jungle and the people of Calais where it’s based. Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press commissioned the book to, in her words, ‘distil [their] stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.’ The result is a collection that is both heartrending and enlightening. It’s the first in a series called Peirene Now! from a publisher who already has quite a reputation for fiction in translation.

In the first of the eight stories comprising the collection an unnamed Sudanese narrator ponders the fractured dynamics of his small group as they wait for the right conditions for the eleven-minute dash to the French border. The following six explore the world of the refugee camp from the many and varied points of view of those who live in and around it. In ‘The Terrier’ for instance, Eloise, happy to supplement her income by taking in a young Kurdish boy and his sister, struggles with suspicions fanned by her less tolerant friends but is won over after hearing their story and visiting the Jungle to see it for herself. From the young Ethiopian woman who wishes that volunteers would understand that she wants to dress fashionably, to the Afghan who has compromised his UK asylum application hoping to get home to see his sick mother; from the Kurd who when warned about walking on the motorway joyfully tells a British policeman that he’s illegal, too, to the young people smuggler keeping a close eye on the his boss’ weaknesses – everyone has an opinion and a story to tell. Set in the UK, the final story bookends the first, picking up Alghali who we last met counting down those eleven minutes, now learning English from a ninety-four-year-old convinced that ‘Europe is being overrun’ but who always offers Alghali a biscuit. It ends with news of the Paris attack.

Used as we’ve become to wrenching pictures of refugees rescued from appallingly flimsy crafts or walking through baking temperatures only to be turned back by soldiers and barbed wire or, in the heady days of the German welcome, greeted with teddy bears and welcome packages, it’s easy to see this crisis in easy shades of right and wrong. Popoola and Holmes offer a more nuanced view filtered thought the experiences of the people involved. The camp is a microcosm of society. There are places of worship, a school and a hospital in the making. There’s money to be made: shops and cafes prosper as do, on the dark side of the camp economy, prostitution and people smuggling. Refugees are good, bad and in between. Volunteers may be well-meaning but they can be irritating in their assumptions of what is best, or in the case of a white dreadlocked Muslim convert, unrealistic idealisation. Through their empathetic, vividly written stories Popoola and Holmes offer a multifaceted insight into the experience of refugees and our response to them. Part of the Jungle was bulldozed this year and there’s much talk of the rest of it being demolished by the end of 2016. It’s an intractable problem with no simple, obvious solution but a little more compassion would not go amiss.

If you’d like to know more about the background to breach, you might like to read Melissa’s interview with Holmes over at The Bookbinder’s Daughter.

The next Peirine Now! project is a Brexit novel by Anthony Cartwright, due to be published in June 2017. The funding for this one is to be crowd sourced. If you’d like to make a pledge, thereby securing yourself a copy, just click here.