In a growing period of intolerance towards immigrants and asylum seekers this book, edited by Jennifer Langer (herself the daughter of an asylum seeker), tries to understand not just the pain of asylum seekers’ experience – manifested in alienation, marginalisation and identity through the poetic rhythms and prose – but also the complexity and diversity of literary styles, cultures of writers, and their concerns from different regions. The collection includes a wide range of writers, from Angola to Iran. It is arranged into two major sections. Part one is mainly poems and prose organised into different subheadings, from ‘Conflict and Oppression’ to ‘New World Order’. These post-9/11 poems engage with a growing consciousness and questioning of the world.
The second part I found a real delight. It contains ten pieces by writers in exile. Sulaiman Addonia takes the reader through the difficulties faced by contemporary African writers – both in exile and in Africa – when attempting to engage with the burning issues of the continent and ‘write what they feel’. This motto was coined by Steven Biko in apartheid South Africa. Biko was killed for using his writing as a tool for political change.
‘Neither Here or There’, by Himzo Skorupan, is a diary of an exile with his body in London but his mind in Bosnia. Skorupan uses his worries about who is living in his old house as an extended metaphor for the uncertainty of what he can call home today. Following this is the writing of the Angolan poet Sousa Jamba and his experience of trying to find a girlfriend in Britain. The process confronts him with many problems, not least trying to change his identity, when he begins to seek advice from a fellow African friend: ‘These people are stupid. They have never heard of Angola – they will think you come from one of those countries where people walk naked. But Nigeria they know it.’ This is dealt with with humour and honesty, and is an experience a lot of men from a refugee background can relate to.
I find the book resourceful, revealing, and quite funny in places. For example ‘Circular Nature of All Roads’ by Nazaneen Rakhshandeh is a sweet satire on his wonder and experience of freedom and imprisonment – not in Iran (where he is from), but in London’s Holloway Prison. As the son of an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, I found it intriguing to adventure into the poetic minds of people ‘neither here or there’ and relate their experience to mine.
Other poetry anthologies by exiles and refugees tend to leave the poems in their original languages with translations alongside, perhaps adding a touch of authenticity. This collection only includes the translations, but one does not feel the need for the originals – the poems and the prose convey the messages as effectively in English as in any language. The editor probably did this to include as many poems as possible. The result is an anthology that reflects well the experience of people trying to make sense of a puzzle and where they fit in in a new country with different values and social behaviour patterns.
They also remind us that, despite the fear of terror in the west, we (the exiles) have been victims since long before 9/11.
Women between revolution and counter-revolution
Animated film retells Anne Frank’s story
A pick of the highlights