Saturday, May 7, 2016

The Year of the Refugees: Lawrence Hill and Sunjeev Sahota Tell the Story

The Syrian refugee crisis has overshadowed most political events in the last twelve months. In Europe and North America, the fate of fleeing Syrians has been a political football that leaders have both embraced and then just as quickly distanced themselves from when no longer political expedient.

After the iconic death of five year old Alan Kurdi had faded from our collective memories, the initial sympathies people felt toward the refugees have often been overwhelmed by xenophobic expressions of hate, with right wing extremist political entities using the growth of racism to mobilize against those fleeing a war torn nation and encouraging governments to shut their borders. Even traditional mainstream political parties have joined this lurch to catch the bigot constituency. During the 2015 election in Canada, the now (thankfully) former governing party faced significant criticism for poorly handling of the refugee crisis and then as its electoral fates seemed doomed pushed its campaign full racist in a desperate and pathetic effort to be re-elected. In recent days, we saw similar kind of "otherizing" by the British Conservative Party as it tried to vilify Labour's mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan for being Muslim.

So this is the context that Lawrence Hill and Sunjeev Sahota released their two books, right into the middle of a heated societal debates about refugees, immigrants and racism and it is one reason they have gotten so much attention.

Lawrence Hill became a major literary figure in Canada after the 2007 publication of The Book of Negroes, an engrossing recounting of a former slave's life from her childhood abduction from Africa to her eventual journey back to her birthplace in the waning years of her life. The Book of Negroes was a tremendous and emotionally powerful novel, so when I picked up The Illegal my expectations were high. This was only amplified when the book won this year's Canada Reads competition, expertly defended by Olympian and all-around super human Clara Hughes.

However, while Hill does say important things her, I quickly became crestfallen as I read through a book filled with lazy writing and none of the weight the subject of refugees deserved.

The Illegal takes place in a speculative near future, shifting between two made up nations (Zantoroland and Freedom State). Zantoroloand is an African nation ruled by a brutal strongman who goes out of his way to crush all oppositional voices and blackmail citizens to fill his own private coffers. Despite the heavy hand of dictatorship, the nation is also famous for its long distance runners, of which our hero, Keita is one. He's also the son of a rebel journalist keen on exposing his government's corruption to the foreign press. Sadly, Keita's father suffers the predictable fate of radical writers and Keita is forced to flee in hopes of escaping a similar life's end.

Keita goes to the primary destination for refugees from Zantoroland, Freedom State. Freedom State has recently elected a right wing anti-refugee party, keen on keeping out the boatloads of Zantorolanders escaping their dictatorship. With anti-refugee sentiment high among the population, Keita must lay low and seek sympathetic individuals in hopes of surviving while also trying to win long distances races in hopes of garnering enough prize money to pay a ransom the Zantoroland officials have asked for his sister being held in captivity.

Hill should be commended for what is an important political contribution, being released right as the Canadian election campaign began and the refugee crisis emerged. Elements of the story, the rampant xenophobia of Freedom State especially, serve as a cautionary tale for how quickly a society can be whipped up to embrace its worst instincts and although we can be heartened that the vile efforts of Harper in Canada and Cameron in the UK have failed, economic and political instability in the future could very quickly open the door to that brand of politics. Hill also used the press around this book and Canada Reads to do much good, raising significant funds for a refugee family in the City of Hamilton (Hill's and my home city). Hill is a fantastic person, who has put his name on some pretty amazing campaigns (co-writing The Deserter's Tale with Iraq War Resister Joshua Key for example), so it really pains me to have to say what I have to say about The Illegal.

Frankly, The Illegal is a poorly written book, whose predictable yet unbelievable plot is equaled only by its one dimensional characters, who are easily categorized as angelic heroes or cartoonishly evil villains.

I realize that Hill chose to write a rather conventional commercial work but I hope that even readers of popular fiction don't expect to be talked down to, because that is how the prose felt. Hill shows no shame in asking the readers to accept the implausible, whether it is Kieta's friend John's (super child and  eleven year old scholarship student) ability to manipulate the Minister of Immigration through the plucky yet illicit recording of  illegal transactions or Keita's own ability to avoid capture for months from government authorities (or the sports agent he fled from) despite being a high profile marathoner who jogs regularly in the open (he's not in hiding but his elusiveness would beg to differ).

And while the plot's ridiculousness gets tiresome, it pales in comparison to the irritation one feels when Hill drags out the various tropes disguised as characters. We have our hero (Keita), who has no fault and no ambition beyond the safety of his family. He's aided by the do-good white liberal Ivernia Beech, love interest/good cop/fellow marathoner Candace Freixa, a way too mature eleven year old wiz kid John Falconer, and the plucky wheelchair bound journalist Viola Hill. There is absolutely no substance to these characters. They are merely there to fill plot points and move the story along. The lack of complexity leaves the reader without much to like (or dislike) and it really made it tough to really care when things went badly or well for them.

But even the one-dimensionalness of the heroes is nothing compared to the cartoonishly evil bad guys. Whether it is Zantoroland president or Freedom State's Prime Minister, their motives are so ghastly and extreme and the lines they deliver could have been delivered by the villains of some bad 1980s action film that I found myself laughing at times by how bad their dialogue was when I am sure the point was to shock and evoke anger.

I feel bad having to write such a harsh review of a book but since The Illegal has mostly gotten pretty glowing praise I think a bit of cold water onto it is warranted. Hill is dealing with important issues and as a propaganda instrument the novel has a point and has played a positive role in the discussions about refugees, but a subject matter of such importance deserved better.

Thankfully, Sunjeev Sahota's The Year of the Runaways is a book that gives the refugee experience the treatment it merits.

Sahota is a British author who came to writing later in life, influenced by the works of Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, whose writing focuses on post-colonial themes among the South Asian diaspora in England. His first book received moderate attention, but The Year of the Runaways was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize even before its release date and with a blurb by Rushdie it was certain to receive significant attention. After being shortlisted for the Booker and seen as one of the stronger competitors, it quickly rose to the top of my TBR list but I had to wait for the North American release earlier this year.

And it did not disappoint.

Sahota tells the story of four South Asians in contemporary England. Three young men (Avtar, Randeep and Tarlochan) are the "freshies", coming to England to find work through nefarious means. Tarlochan sneaks into the country without documentation, eager to get away after his family of untouchables is massacred. Meanwhile, Avtar comes on a student visa after his family's business falls on hard times. He has no intention of studying, quickly leaving the campus to find work to support his family back home. Randeep leaves India after his university career is destroyed when he commits a sexual assault and is expelled from school. After his father, a highly ranked government bureaucrat, has a mental breakdown, the pressure is on Randeep to go overseas to support the family. So he finds an English citizen, Narindar (an English born Sikh woman) to be his visa bride and comes to England in hopes of securing permanent status after a year of the sham marriage. Motivated by her own religious devotion to do a good deed and make amens for a tragedy she feels responsible for, Narindar must keep her part in this affair from her very conservative family, which is keen on marrying her off. So she runs off to a near by town and tries to keep her whereabouts a secret from a father and brother angered by her disloyalty.

While Hill gives us depthless characters, Sahota takes his time exploring the four protagonists as they struggle with their life choices, eking out their existence as best the can. The "freshies" constantly worry about finding work and the consequences of failing to do so, often turning on one another and committing treacheries and betrayals to be able to get a better job, a better flat,  to pay off their creditors or buy enough tokens to recharge the gas metre. Narinder deals with pangs of guilt about the public shame she causes her father but also experiences feelings of lust and love for Tarlochan that make her question whether the arranged marriage is something she can really follow through on.

The four are not easily categorized within the kinds of archetypical roles Hill gave his characters. Instead, they make unsavoury choices that negatively affects the others, keep secrets from each other, try to out maneuver each other. They learn difficult lessons and end up with just desserts that leave them wondering whether their choices and sacrifices were in fact worth the price they paid.

Sahota's intense and dark realism turns out to be much more effective at producing the kind of empathy in the reader than Hill's work seeks to do.

Hill's Keita is able to survive relatively comfortably as a refugee, have enough money and food to train at a high level. When he falls ill, the small troop of loyal supporters he has managed to surround himself with in a matter of weeks pay his hospital bill and discourage the hospital from turning him into the authorities. The reader is pulled along with the plot and we dutifully know who to like and dislike but we aren't captured by any suffering Keita or others may experience.

In contrast, the four protagonists in The Year of the Runaway struggle to meet every bill, save money by eating roti and thin bland curry daily, and avoid (to Avtar's detriment) the hospital even when horribly ill for fear of deportation. They work dangerous jobs for sketchy contractors who keep the workers locked in cold sheds at night and take their travel documents to discourage escape. And the networks of support they find rarely offer the kind of generosity Keita so easily falls into. Sahota's four engross us in their moods, their despair, we feel their angst, we feel their pangs of hunger after the umpteenth bowl of thin curry and roti. Sahota gives us the emotional punch and forges a deep sense of empathy  that Hill sadly fails to deliver.

So if you have to choose one of these books to add to your To Be Read pile, I strongly encourage you to give The Illegal a pass and let yourself get drawn into the The Year of the Runaways.

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