Exile and invisible cities

Migration Tales

1. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

This slim book took many years to make. It’s compelling, painful and exquisite. Here’s the story of the Creole heiress who leaves the Caribbean for a life in England as the first wife of Mr Rochester. (Jane Eyre is the second.) Unpicking her like a hidden jewel from the weave, the author releases a minor character from a major text. She is a migrant bride, a misrepresented outsider, ‘the other woman’, a mad thing in the attic...

2. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

“We looked at ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy.” This haunting story is about people who are caught forever as outsiders: Japanese Americans interned during the Second World War as enemy aliens. From the mother’s ritual burning of treasures (letters, photographs, kimonos) to the children’s self-protective mask of equanimity, I love the quiet way this book captures the crisis of lost identity. Nowhere is home.

3. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

What is it about George Orwell? I think he could write a shopping list and I’d love reading it. Here, he migrates to the slums and lives with “a floating population, largely foreigners, who used to turn up without luggage, stay a week and then disappear again.” Orwell takes us deep into the dirt and poverty beneath the dazzling surface of our luxuries. As relevant as ever.

4. The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

In a story that positively heaves with collections of  things, Sontag relishes describing the diplomat’s entourage. Sir William Hamilton is not the solitary émigré clutching a shabby suitcase, but a different kind of migrant altogether. He’s as possession-prone as a Jules Verne hero — and Naples might as well be the Centre of the Earth. It’s a place of volcanic eruption, ritual slaughter and wild seductions. Hamilton writes like so many other migrants: “Letters to encourage letters... Letters that say: I am the same... This place has not changed me, I have the same home-bred superiorities, I have not gone native.” And he lives the eternal equivocation: “Sometimes it felt like exile, sometimes it felt like home.” It’s no accident that this novel is written in tenses that constantly mangle the present and past.

5. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

The heroine lives as a man, and pretends to be a priest. If that isn’t migration enough, Father Damien Modeste travels to the remote reservation of Little No Horse, where s/he settles with the Ojibwe people for more than half a century. There is mischievous joy here in foreignness, as different cultures rub together to create miraculous sparks. I love the convent built of bricks, each one etched with the maker’s name: Fleisch. And who can resist The Deadly Conversions?

(Elise Valmorbida’s latest novel The Winding Stick  features Terry who works in an all-night London garage where all the other workers are all Tamil. )

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