Tag Archives: Olumide Popoola

Six Degrees of Separation – from The Tiger in the Tiger Pit to And the Wind Sees All

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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Kate has set us something a little different this month. We’re all starting from the point at which each of us ended last month. For me that was Janette Turner Hospital’s The Tiger in the Tiger Pit which I had to confess I’d read so long ago I could barely remember it but Google came to the rescue reminding me that it’s about a fraught family celebration.

I’m using the author’s unusual last name as my jumping off point, linking to Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing, which is set in a hospital, about a clinical researcher brought uncomfortably face-to-face with the disease he’s studying.

Workplaces rarely seem to feature in fiction although I’ve read several novels set in restaurants including Merrett Tierce’s Love Me Back narrated by Marie – smart, professional and hard-working on the outside – who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse.

Kim Thúy’s lovely Mãn also features a restaurant, owned by the husband of a Vietnamese woman who has left her homeland to marry him without ever having met him, a match made for security rather than love.

Which leads me to The Refugees written by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over twenty years, Nguyen’s stories explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances and its legacy.

From there it’s a very short leap to Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes’ breach, a collection of stories based on interviews with residents of the Calais refugee camp which came to be known as the Jungle, now disbanded.

breach is published by Peirene Press who produce just a handful of books a year, one of which was Guđmundur Andri Thorsson’s And the Wind Sees All in 2018. It takes place over the brief bicycle ride that Kata takes to the village hall in preparation for the evening’s concert, taking in the stories of the villagers who catch sight of her out of the corner of their eyes

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from the familiar fictional territory of family reunions, secrets and lies to a two-minute bicycle ride around an Icelandic village. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the routes other bloggers take from each month’s jumping off point, although this month we’ll be starting from entirely different places. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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.