Voice to Books: Refugees
They are displaced, sometimes hunted, persecuted. Peoples forced from their homes due to war or violence. And if they come to the United States, only a fraction of them get in, and fewer still are welcomed by the masses. Here, those who survive poverty, politics, and ruin in their homelands are then confronted by those who spread violence, use them through their desperation and duress. You may not find them in the news or know of their troubles, but they exist all over the world. These are some of their stories.
We Are Displaced by Malala Yousafzai
Reviewed by John McBrian
We Are Displaced by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is the sort of book that must be set down from time to time. The book is a mosaic of essays, windows into the lives of women and girls displaced from their home by hardship – people whom Yousafzai has met since she was displaced from her native Swat Valley in Pakistan. Each has her own story, captured in words with brutally effective simplicity and directness.
The first story in the book is Yousafzai’s, a recounting of the fall of the Swat Valley to the Taliban. Her description of a normal, happy life gradually but inexorably upended by extremist ideology – from the news of extremists in far-away regions, to Taliban patrols enforcing women’s face coverings and restrictions on girls attending school, to her family’s flight from their home town as violence breaks out – the sense of dread is palpable, and the reality that the dangers Yousafzai faced were that much greater simply because of her gender.
This introduction sets the precedent for the rest of the book, and all of the stories in We Are Displaced are bound together by the common experience among women the world over – that regardless of country, creed, or station in life, their autonomy and freedom are never secure and are often the first casualties of any crisis.
The book is not long, complex, or metaphorical – it is straightforward, even blunt, because it does not need to be anything more. The book is easy to read at a technical level but not an emotional one. The scenes painted on the pages can be difficult – painful even – to read, describing the deeply personal effects of war, genocide, and other existential hardships, and the specific terror inflicted on women and girls through these catastrophes.
Beyond the Mountains: A Hmong Memoir by Khoua Thao
Reviewed by Luree Scott
War-torn mountains. The enemy closing in. Leaving everything you once knew and loved. Then being left behind to fend for yourself. This was author Khoua Thao’s reality in 1975, when the Communist regime began taking over the mountains in his home country of Laos. The last rescue plane took off, and neither he nor his family was on it. It was an event fraught with desperation and high anxiety.
Beyond the Mountains: A Hmong Memoir is not only a story about perseverance in adversity, but one about the power of memories and family ties. Thao’s father is a central figure in this story, for he rose to the occasion and led his family to refugee camps in Thailand. Despite the heartache of leaving their home and the dangers of both the jungle and war, the author recounts how his family held onto their humanity and compassion as they escaped their impending doom by moving to the United States of America. As Thao so eloquently puts it, “Our journey beyond the mountains meant we might never see our friends, relatives, or beloved homeland again. But it was a journey of hope.”
The narrative is nonlinear, first plunging into that frightful day of the air lifts, then revealing stories from the past that demonstrate how hard it was to leave the mountains that had become so dear. Their livelihoods were made and built on those beautiful jungle lands. From the interesting details of the Hmong culture—such as the sights and sounds of the jungle, frying beetles, village life, planting rice fields, and clearing farmland—to the fascinating descriptions of fatherly wisdom and family love, there is a story for everyone within these pages.
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story About War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya
Andréa Ferrell Gannon
Clemantine Wamariya’s co-authored memoir begins unexpectedly with an Oprah appearance. “It was all so arbitrary. You should be killed…” writes the author. “You should be fabulously educated and heaped with praise…” Such surrealism snakes hypnotically through two entwined timelines. The result is a thrilling if disconcerting account of a woman’s experience of genocide.
One timeline traces the seven years during which Wamariya and her sister are forced to crisscross pockets of war and brutal lack in East Africa. Evil made a bewildering appearance at the narrator’s childhood home, subtly changing the faces and landscapes she loved. Gone were her innocent preoccupations with pineapple cake, bathrobe buttons, and bedtime stories. She writes, “You go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all…. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.”
The other timeline brings an older Wamariya to the American landscape as student, writer, atrocity educator, and eventually, as bruised and defiant witness who returns to Africa with new eyes and new understanding.
The pacing is brisk; incredible lived events speak to our too-human desire for a happy ending tied with a bow—impossible, of course. Moments of healing and respite are truncated by the urgent need to flee yet again, and again.
As all valuable literature should do, this novel explores some of humanity’s most necessary questions—questions about times when forgiveness might be impossible, about tolerating the intolerable, about how to mourn, and questions about society’s need to engage in charity if sharing allows for more dignity. Anyone could become a refugee, no matter wealth or country. And, Wamariya’s powerful voice, her bold “I,” challenges the reader to experience that possibility as well.
We Are Not from Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez
Reviewed by Michael Medina
La Bestia. The beast. The Death Train, El tren de la muerte. It is how hundreds and thousands of Latinx refugees journey to the border of the United States. Author Jenny Torres Sanchez builds a very real representation of the kinds of tragedies refugees face as they flee the danger and poverty of their hometowns in her novel We Are Not from Here. Sanchez takes a clear, unconvoluted plot and weaves it into a masterpiece of heartwarming, heart-stopping moments following three teenagers who are so desperate for safety and peace, they would risk losing their families and their lives for a better opportunity at life.
In the book, Paqueña, Chico, and Pulga leave their tight-knit but threatening home in Guatemala and travel through city ghettos and the perilous landscapes of Mexico. Sanchez draws compelling characters, each with their own motivation, origin, and clear point of view. Through poetic moments of prose and multiple points of view, Sanchez has each of her characters pull at readers’ heartstrings. Through careful consideration of her words, she depicts the real and honest atrocities refugees often face without shying away from the pain and brutality they endure or being obscenely graphic. These fictional characters feel immensely real and relatable—like one’s own familia—because of Sanchez’s clear familiarity and love for each of them. Their humanity is built through their flaws, their desires and their dreams.
Their humanity serves as a reminder that hundreds of thousands of real people ride atop the beast train each year, just to stay alive, healthy and secure.
Voice to Books is a periodical short list of reviews from a variety of voices, created by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana and curated by Michael E. Medina. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquires to Michaeledwardmedina@hotmail.com
Michael Medina is a queer writer and purveyor of all thing’s storytelling (from theatre to podcasting to putting words on paper). Pursuing his MFA in creative writing at the University of California, Riverside-Palm Desert’s low-res program, he is a self-proclaimed nerdy social justice warrior who’s goal is to infiltrate heteronormative genres with queer, colorful, and inclusive themes.