Book review: fiction captures the complex realities of Calais life

This summer, an independent publishing company in London released a book of short stories in an effort to bring more attention to the refugee crisis in Europe.  Titled breach, the book, though fiction, is based on the interviews that authors Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes conducted in the Calais refugee camp in northern France, in the purgatory that has become known as “the Jungle” – the camp that was recently demolished amid protests and concerns of human rights abuses.  The eight stories collected here were commissioned by Peirene Press as the first in their “Peirene Now!” series tackling contemporary socio-political issues.  breach seeks to foster “that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life,” aiming to relate both the hopes, fears, and daily lives of the refugees themselves while also seriously considering the perspectives of those who want to close their borders to them.  It successfully accomplishes this goal by presenting a variety of viewpoints through which the reader experiences different aspects of the contentious situation in and around Calais.

breach’s eight stories deal with refugees of varying backgrounds, from the horrors of the war in Syria, to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, to genocide in Sudan, and beyond.  Yet despite their different pasts, most describe themselves as stuck in a seemingly never-ending present, trapped in a refugee camp that they all mistakenly thought would be a quick stopover on the way to their real destination: England.  In one story, a refugee-turned-smuggler wonders why another man bothers saving money, as he feels there is no future for them, no happy ending to their stories but rather, “there’s only now.”  In “Lineage,” an Afghan and an Iranian compare how long they’ve been living in the camp, both for weeks longer than anticipated, concluding that “[n]o one is supposed to be here.”  And in “Oranges in the River,” a Syrian man risking his life to be smuggled into England in the back of a refrigerated truck poignantly insists that he “must begin his interrupted life.”

breach_web_0Yet despite their common current circumstances, the refugees know that they are not all alike.  The final story in the collection, “Expect Me,” relates the experience of a refugee who finally makes it to England, only to be punched in the stomach by a pub-goer who only provides the simple justification, “For Paris.”  When the victim points out to an acquaintance that he is Sudanese, not Syrian like the men accused of killing Parisians in a coordinated terrorist attack earlier that evening, he realizes that “[p]eople don’t make that distinction.”  For those who oppose the resettling of refugees in Europe, the foreigners fleeing en masse towards their countries are often seen as a homogeneous throng, sure to include those who wish to harm “us” among those who might truly need help.

The perspectives of such individuals are presented in breach as well.  One elderly English man seems to hold a single individual refugee responsible for the illegal entry of all into his country, while in another story, the conservative father of a camp volunteer repeats his mantra, “Not our fault, not our responsibility.”  “The Terrier” is written from the point of view of a French bed-and-breakfast owner struggling with her own feelings about the refugees flooding into her city.  The shortage of tourists visiting Calais at the moment has left her inn empty, so she agrees to house a pair of Syrian siblings in the interim, at the expense of the French government.  She believes that the older of the two is lying about his age, as he looks years older than the 17 he claims to be, leading her to warily wonder what else the two could be lying about and whether she might be harboring someone with sinister motives in her home.  It is only when she learns of a law allowing minors, and only minors, to reunite with their families in the UK that she understands the real motivation for the siblings’ apparent lie.  breach’s willingness to grapple with these points of view gives the book a refreshing dose of realism, sometimes missing from other pro-immigrant narratives.

Another rather unique feature of the book is the inclusion of some ambivalent responses to the Europeans volunteering at the camp.  In several stories, refugees wonder why so many people donate items like “old clothes” instead of offering “real help” – the “opportunities” that they desperately want and need – to earn money, to continue on their journeys, and to help the family members so often left behind in perilous situations in their home countries.  While realizing their lives in the camp would certainly be more difficult without such volunteers and donations, many of the characters in breach’s stories question the volunteers’ motivations and conclude that they’re often just doing it for their own benefit.  In “Paradise,” a lefty volunteer brings her teenage niece to work with her at Calais, perhaps in part to annoy the girl’s conservative father and in part because she wants to influence her niece’s own political views.  Another story deals with a white French volunteer who recently converted to Islam and has decided to live in the camp with his Muslim “brothers” until their papers come through, at which point they will come stay with him and his family.  He calls the Jungle a “laboratory” that teaches him myriad lessons about life and faith, but the other refugees he encounters simply cannot fathom that someone with “a real home” in France would ever willingly live anywhere else.  As one of the camp’s inhabitants sneers in a separate tale, “Me, I’m an involunteer.  You understand?  I’m here, yes, but involuntarily.”

Most affecting is “Extending a Hand,” the only story in the collection to focus on female refugees.  Written in the second person to allow the reader to more convincingly put herself in the characters’ shoes, it follows two young Eritrean women as they desperately try to escape from the camp, whatever the cost.  Early in the story, the narrator silently rails against the loose-fitting donated clothing that the volunteers think is most appropriate for the camp, preferring the dignity of at least choosing her own clothes, “something that would make you feel like you were still twenty-four and not just a refugee squatting in a camp that the locals want gone.”  She finds it incomprehensible that someone else would think they know what’s best for her when they are not her.  Later when her friend is in desperate need of money, she reluctantly agrees to sell her body to one of the truck drivers known to pay refugee women for such services.  The man she encounters starts off polite but later calls her a “little spoiled slut” and jeers, “You’re lucky I’m a nice guy” and mocks her when she objects to the going rate of 10 euros per sex act.  The truck driver’s refusal to help the woman without getting something out of it for himself is presented in an uncomfortable juxtaposition to the camp’s volunteers “who all need acknowledgement, who need you to engage so they can feel that they are doing the right thing.”  Everyone is in it for themselves, and the meager help they provide never seems truly worth it.

In sum, breach does not shy away from tricky subjects, broaching refugees’ legal difficulties, the horrors they’re fleeing in the first place, and even including one story written from the point of view of a ruthless human smuggler.  Overall, breach is a thought-provoking, kaleidoscopic portrait of the lives affected by atrocities throughout the world – both the people fleeing such horrors and those affected by their arrivals in other lands.  It is a moving contribution to the public discourse surrounding the European refugee crisis at a time when such discussions are, sadly, still necessary.

breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

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