Friday, April 28, 2017

X is for “Xenophobia (And Books To Combat It)”

Welcome to the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Every day in April (except Sundays), I’ll be sharing a short bookish memory with you. 

X? What am I supposed to do with X? Normal English words don’t start with X. X is for weird, pretentious, hard-to-pronounce words.

I had nothing for X. Luckily, way back in the planning stages of this challenge, Elliptical Man suggested “Xenophobia.” So, let’s do it. Books to combat xenophobia.

Xenophobia is kind of a huge topic. It’s hard to break it down into something blog-post-sized. I decided to focus on fear of refugees because that’s what I’m seeing in the US right now. In my opinion, education is the best way to combat fear, so I’m going to show you two books about refugees I’ve read and four books on my to-be-read list.

Books I’ve Read

What is the What – Dave Eggers

In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he's driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety—for a time. Valentino's travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation—and a string of unexpected romances. 
Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.

This is a must-read if you want to understand what happened in Sudan, but it’s not an easy read. Parts of it are brutal. Other parts are slow and dense. Also, it’s only a semi-biography, so the author fictionalizes parts of Valentino Achak Deng’s life. The publisher classifies the book as a novel. I didn’t love What is the What, but I’ll always remember it. I’ve recommended it to a lot of people who are interested in the refugee crisis.

The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma-Jane Kirby

The only optician on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean is an ordinary man in his fifties, who used to be indifferent to the fate of the thousands of refugees landing on the coast of the Italian island. One day in the fall of 2013, the unimaginable scale of the tragedy became clear to him, and it changed him forever: as he was out boating with some friends, he encountered hundreds of men, women and children drowning in the aftermath of a shipwreck. The Optician and his seven friends managed to save 47 people (his boat was designed to hold ten people). All the others died. This is a poignant and unforgettable account about the awakening of conscience: more than that, it brings home the reality of an ongoing refugee crisis that has resulted in one of the most massive migrations in human history.

This is one of the most enlightening books I’ve read in 2017. The author is a journalist who interviewed the optician. The book is short (under 200 pages), but it packs a punch. The story shows that we have a tendency to ignore the world’s problems until they show up on our doorstep. By that time, it might be too late to solve the problem. 

Books On My To-Be-Read List

Crossing the Sea: With Syrians on the Exodus to Europe – Wolfgang Bauer

Award-winning journalist Wolfgang Bauer and photographer Stanislav Krupař were the first undercover reporters to document the journey of Syrian refugees from Egypt to Europe. Posing as English teachers in 2014, they were direct witnesses to the brutality of smuggler gangs, the processes of detainment and deportation, the dangers of sea-crossing on rickety boats, and the final furtive journey through Europe. Combining their own travels with other eyewitness accounts in the first book of reportage of its kind, Crossing the Sea brings to life both the systemic problems and the individual faces behind the crisis, and is a passionate appeal for more humanitarian refugee policies.

The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria – Janine di Giovanni

In May of 2012, Janine di Giovanni traveled to Syria. It would mark the beginning of a long relationship with the country, starting with her coverage of the peaceful uprising and continuing as the situation quickly turned into one of the most brutal internecine conflicts in recent history. Drawn to the stories of the ordinary people caught up in the conflict, Syria came to consume her every moment, her every emotion. Speaking to those directly involved in the war, di Giovanni relays here the personal stories of rebel fighters thrown in jail at the least provocation, of children and families forced to watch loved ones taken and killed by regime forces with dubious justifications, and the stories of the elite holding pool parties in Damascus hotels trying to deny the human consequences of the nearby shelling. Delivered with passion, fearlessness, and sensitivity, The Morning They Came For Us is an unflinching account of a nation on the brink of disintegration, charting an apocalyptic but at times tender story of life in a jihadist war and an unforgettable testament to human resilience in the face of devastating, unimaginable horrors.

The Raqqa Diaries: Escape From Islamic State – Samer

The Raqqa Diaries began as a series of short broadcasts on Radio 4’s 'Today' Programme. Now one of the most isolated and fear ridden cities on earth, no-one is allowed to speak to western journalists or leave Raqqa, without IS’s permission. Those caught breaking the rules face death by beheading. 
Despite this, Mike Thomson, with the help of BBC’s Arabic Service, found a young man who is willing to risk his life to tell the world what is happening in his city. Part of a small anti-IS activist group, the diaries were written, encrypted and sent to a third country before being translated. 
The diarist’s father is killed and mother badly injured during an air strike, he is sentenced to 40 lashes for speaking out against a beheading, he sees a woman stoned to death. They show how every aspect of life is impacted – from the spiralling costs of food to dictating the acceptable length of trousers. 
At one point, the sale of televisions is banned. As Samer says, 'it seems it’s not enough to stop us talking to the outside world, now we can’t even look at it.’ Having seen friends and relatives butchered, his community’s life shattered and the local economy ruined by these hate-fuelled extremists, Samer believes he’s fighting back by telling the world what is happening to his beloved city.

The Refugees – Viet Thanh Nguyen

In The Refugees, Viet Thanh Nguyen gives voice to lives led between two worlds, the adopted homeland and the country of birth. From a young Vietnamese refugee who suffers profound culture shock when he comes to live with two gay men in San Francisco, to a woman whose husband is suffering from dementia and starts to confuse her for a former lover, to a girl living in Ho Chi Minh City whose older half-sister comes back from America having seemingly accomplished everything she never will, the stories are a captivating testament to the dreams and hardships of immigration. 

Do you know any books about refugees that I should add to my list? I’m especially interested in books written by the refugees themselves. Most of the refugee books on my to-be-read list are written by journalists.


  1. Interesting list. I feel like I'd really have to prepare myself to read these. Have you seen Shawn Tan's "The Arrival"? It's a wordless book that is sort of sci-fi or surreal, but all the same hits at a lot of truth.

    1. I looked at The Arrival in a bookstore. I really wanted it, but it was expensive. I have to find a cheap copy.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. Xenophobia - very clever word for an ugly situation. Here in S.Africa we periodically have outbreaks of xenophobia as our locals break out a turf war on some of the illegal residents from neighboring African states. They resent the illegal guys making money (which they work hard for) while they don't make money because they're not working. I sense you have a similar situation brewing in the States. Not nice. X is for the X factor as you Build a Better Blog. #AtoZchallenge.

    1. Yeah, there are a lot of people in the US who hate immigrants and refugees and don’t want them in the country. I think that’s sad. My ancestors were immigrants and refugees.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  3. The xenophobia usually is fear at its loudest. Education is a good way to combat the negativity abounding these days (and will always exist in some form, btw. Sad but true.)

    1. Yep. I think people would be more understanding of each other if they spent more time reading.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  4. Great post! You are right that we really need to learn more about other places. I think you did a great job with "x"!

  5. As part of my Children's Literature course I read The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo. It's about two children who come to the UK from Nigeria as political refugees after their mother is killed.

    It wasn't really something I'd ever read about until I studied it.

    Cait @ Click's Clan

  6. I haven't read any of these. I'll have to look into them---I'm especially interested in The Refugees.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  7. I believe it is a problem, and one a lot more people have than they believe they have in this day and age. I wouldn't want to peg the entirety of Brexit on that problem a lone, but it did make a major contribution.