These Immigrants

Posted on 26/02/2015
By Commonwealth Foundation

CROpMigration is, to many of us, a fact of life, as nation states and border controls are recent facts of history.

Yet we know that politicisation has ghettoised and vilified certain forms of migration – making it something that other people apparently do, illegally, invasively, against our ways of life (all over the world).  We do not here solve either the hypocrisies or the tragedies of that discourse.  Instead we simply remember how many of us are migrants ourselves.

In this thread writers – a group sometimes even glamorised for their migrations – speak of moves they have made in their own lives, whether by choice or necessity.  These are not lifelong stories, but brief encounters with writers on the move.  We’re defining migration very simply, as moving somewhere to live for however long or short a time.

We will post stories here, whenever we can, until we run out.  We don’t think we will. That is our point.

We are thrilled by the warm responses we have received from writers, who’ve seen what we are trying to say and sent us accounts on the spot, without ceremony (or payment).  We thank them sincerely for their efforts.

How to Never go Home

DW Wilson has lived in Canada and the UK. He is the author of Once You Break A Knuckle and Ballistics.

wilson_dave (cred. Mark Pringle)
(Image credit Mark Pringle)

Four years, two books, and one engagement after moving to England, my life as an expat begins on the London Underground. I’m heading for Paris with my fiancee, Queen Bee (as in the heroine of D.H. Lawrence’s travelogues), to attend the launch party of a literary mag and to spend a few days adrift from the British propensity for room-temperature ale and french fry sandwiches. We’re trapped on the platform of one tube line or another: Queen Bee adjusts her backpack as we wait, hooks her thumbs under the straps to redistribute the pull on her shoulders. —The Underground never runs on time, she tells me in her sophisticated English accent. —It’s the oldest in the world.

I, who have never lived in Vancouver, say: —In Vancouver, we have a train in the sky.

This does not please her. For three years now – as long as we’ve known each other – I have waxed lyrical about the Great White North. She’s heard me praise our education, our stance on immigration, the way we insulate our walls against the cold with blocks of interlaced styrofoam. But Queen Bee has also seen it first hand: a few summers she and I hiked the Rocky Mountains and fished for salmon off the coast of Gabriolla Island, with the author Bill Gaston, where she caught three fish and learned from that maniac wordsmith how to operate a down rigger. I’ve heard her describe us as a land of liberal intellectuals. I’ve heard her describe us as a land of polite savages.

Then a fellow stranded passenger asks me, —Where are you from? And I tell him, —Canada, originally

Scary word, originally. Scary implications. During the final draft of Ballistics my editor flagged up another word: suss.² He said, (picture him folding his big, hockey player’s hands, one atop the other, his voice as baritone as a raconteur), —Dave, this is not a Canadian word. Other examples haunted the text, looped with red ink: rogue t’s in place of simple-past (think burnt,dreamt), full stops³ on the outsides of quotation marks, a few references to mobiles when I meant to talk about cellphones. Two years ago the same editor combed through Once You Break a Knuckle, my short stories, and didn’t notice any Britishisms. Language, like cold air through brickwork, finds its way in.

Not that it surprises me. After almost half a decade I have more or less adopted the lingo: you’ll catch me take the piss out of a buddy, or I might say it’s time to sit down in my flat and crack on with this piece of writing. I no longer go to fancy dress parties dressed in fancy clothes. Once or twice I’ve let slip some trousers, and I have learned that the English do not like poo jokes (sex jokes are okay, under exceptionally lubricated circumstances). In my own defence, I use these Britishisms with my indistinct west-of-the-Rockies drawl; last summer, Gaston praised my complete absence of accent. I do not call it ice hockey (I’ve got standards), but I’ve accepted football as an appropriate name for soccer. Much to everyone’s horror, both times that I’ve met Her Maj I’ve asked, —How’re you doing?

Honestly, I have a hard time knowing what to say when asked where I’m from. To hell with where is home; tell me, what is home? I’ve read other answers: that it’s the place you go to hang your hat, that it’s where you feel most ready to anticipate change. I end up guessing. Victoria, Vancouver, sometimes the Kootenay Valley where I was reared in the shadow of the Rockies, sometimes London where I have many friends and were my career took off. Not Norwich, though I lived there for a time. If I fear anything, I fear what affect this will have on my fiction. Many British readers have told me that my writing has a distinctly Canadian voice. I don’t know what this means, either, or if that’s even possible in a country as large and diverse as the True North Strong and Free. Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. Queen Bee calls it exotic; this, to me, makes more sense, is more personal.

I have always written voice-first. Only when gripped with a narrative voice can I craft a sentence, and even then there is precious little room to wiggle, as if each sentence – like laying bricks – necessitates the placement of the next. If, like me, you’re wondering what exactly I mean when I say voice, I’m afraid I can’t easily articulate it. It’s not style nor diction nor sound, though these factor in. It’s not the narration, it’s not the semantic field, it’s not register. Some writers describe it as the personality of the writing. Some call it ventriloquism. I’m inclined to say it has to do with seduction and intimacy and the way strong voices seem so paradoxically recognizable. These are hard concepts to identify. You don’t find many readers who point at a novel and say, —Ah ha! Here be the seduction!

But I digress. The Piccadilly Line to Cockfosters rolls up and I chuckle when the voice announces it – childlike, I know; I also love how the British pronounce Uranus – and Queen Bee boards, a few steps ahead, and bids me follow. I tighten my own pack on my shoulders, nod a farewell to my fellow stranded passenger. Okay.

1 I’ve stolen this, unabashedly, from Peter Ho Davies’ “How to be an Expatriate,” which appears in his collection Equal Love. You should read this if you’re an expat, or have a soul.
2 As in, to suss something out. To puzzle, or figure.
I’m so kidding – I don’t use full stop instead of period.
4 To describe the Canadian Football League to a Brit, I have to say, “Canadian style American football”

Not A Migrant

Sunny Singh has lived in India, the USA, Mexico, South Africa, Chile, Spain and the UK. Her newest book Hotel Arcadia has just been published by Quartet Books.

(Image credit: Walter White)
(Image credit: Walter White)

What does it mean to migrate as a woman? Growing up, women left homes when they married, even at times moving countries. But somehow, migration, like travel itself, seemed a masculine enterprise.  There were many songs and stories, in folk and literary traditions, of course about daughters moving to lands far away, but they always left as brides.  And yet somewhere, that is precisely what I dreamed of: to go places on my own, not as immigrant or expatriate, but a traveller, self-contained and whole, experiencing worlds that were not my own, tasting and touching and holding all that I could not begin to imagine.

I felt particularly fortunate when I discovered fellow travelling women and their songs, especially Meera Bai, a sixteenth century poet, who wandered all over India, composing and performing her poetry. While accounts varied about her life and end, I prefer the least romantic version, in which she lived out her days, on her own, within sight of the sea, composing poetry.  I found myself, and my ambition in that image: a rebel, an artist, and an independent human being, surrounded by serenity, solitude and creativity that few of us from a clamorous nation like India can dream of.

I have since that teenage discovery of my kindred spirit, travelled and lived in many places, including USA, Mexico, South Africa, Chile, Spain and the UK. In each land, I have loved, and laughed, and lived fully.  And in no land, have I considered myself a migrant, expat, émigré, or immigrant. My body and my mind are my only home and where these take me, and where they grow, are nobody’s business but my own.

For a woman – like me – from a feudal, semi-rural background, there can be no greater migration.

Leaving Home

Ceridwen Dovey has lived in South Africa, the UK, the US and Australia. She is the author of Blood Kin and Only the Animals.

(Image credit: Shannon Smith)

At college in America, while I was still in the throes of my obsession with my South African roots, even a passing mention of Mandela, or 1994, or the rainbow nation, was enough to make my heart beat a little faster with possessive pride. I joined the gumboot-dancing troupe started by the African Students Association. I read and wrote voraciously about South Africa in my student papers, spent my summers making documentaries about South African farm workers, and declared in an interview with the student paper at my graduation: “My passion for filmmaking is linked to South Africa and making some kind of difference, adding value to that country somehow.” Even though my parents were living in Sydney, and I’d spent large chunks of my childhood and adolescence in Australia, I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town in 2004, committed to settling there forever.

And then I arrived in Cape Town and the country’s magical pull on me was instantly weaker. I wasn’t a visitor anymore, a student with a camera there for a few months, with another life back in America to which I could return. Nobody was forcing me to stay – in fact, my parents would have preferred if I didn’t – but I had invested so heavily in my South African identity that I felt the moral core of me would collapse if I admitted that I was feeling less South African in Cape Town than I had in the many years away from the country, in Melbourne and Sydney, Boston and New York. I felt increasingly like a white cliché, scared of walking beneath the bridge at the bottom of my road because of the packs of homeless kids, high on glue or ice, rumoured to have knives; afraid of getting out of my car until the security gate had closed behind me.

Whether this fear was irrational or a realistic response to surroundings that were uncanny – utterly familiar, terrifyingly strange, and therefore both attractive and repulsive – bothered me constantly. Instead of a homecoming, my two years in Cape Town began to feel like an exorcism of the part of me that was South African in an illusory way, the left-over dreams and desires of the young teenage self who had left South Africa ten years before, who had romanticised her connection to her birthplace. Compared to my parents’ complicated lifelong relationship with South Africa, I had to admit that my own claim to belonging there, my belief that I could contribute something worthwhile, was tenuous and, at its worst extreme, narcissistic. I returned to America sheepishly, with the mental image of having my tail between my legs, and tried not to feel too guilty about my exhilaration at walking home alone from the subway near my apartment at any hour of the night.

I now live in Sydney, and still sometimes find myself caught up in the vortex of that old debate of privileged (mostly white) diasporic South Africans: stay or go? Return ‘home’ or invest in a second, safer citizenship somewhere else? I try (but often fail) not to justify my own decision in this regard, not to be defensive about the year my family left – pre-1994 equals good South African; post-1994 equals bad South African, which makes me half of each. But it is a strange diaspora; not the same as other communities formed by immigrants and exiles who fled their countries of origin as victims, who feel morally secure about their reasons for leaving. No matter when they left or under what conditions, white South Africans always feel the double sting of loss and guilt.

“Have you ever been to Moscow?” An extract from an unpublished memoir

C.J. Driver was born, brought up and educated mainly in South Africa.  Since 1964 he has lived in the UK.  He was a prohibited immigrant in South Africa until 1992.  His latest books are My Brother & I (a memoir) and Citizen of Elsewhere (selected poems).  See for more.

Jonty Driver
(Image credit: Ellen Elmendorp)

My first teaching post in England was at Sevenoaks School in Kent. The general view of friends and family was that the twenty month stint I had done as President of the National Union of South African Students  (NUSAS) was long enough;  I was so much in the public eye – indeed, had managed to earn the personal opprobrium of the Minister of Justice, J.B.Vorster – that I was probably doing NUSAS no good, and certainly was myself in line to have my passport confiscated, and probably gain a banning order too.

So I accepted by telegram the offer, booked myself on the Union Castle liner leaving Cape Town for Southampton on 13th August, and wrote a letter of resignation, explaining that my position would be taken over by the Vice President, my friend and ally, Maeder Osler, who had already been elected President to succeed me in January.  I had for weeks been expecting to be arrested as part of the general round-up of the African Resistance Movement, even though I had never been a member; but when it hadn’t happened I assumed that the Security Police had realized they couldn’t prove any involvement on my part, even though politically it would have been very useful for them to do so.

I was arrested at midnight the night before the liner left, and held under the Ninety Day law, which allowed detention without charges or recourse to lawyers, in solitary confinement. I was held for a week before I was taken from Woodstock police station to Roeland Street police headquarters for a long session – some eight hours, I seem to remember – of questioning. With their usual heavy sense of humour, the police chose to question me on what they knew was my 25th birthday.

The story of that detention is not part of this narrative.  It is enough to say that the headmaster of Sevenoaks, L.C.Taylor, had kept the post open for me, had told the newspapers he was doing so, but – because he was a sensible headmaster – had quietly found a replacement in case. In the event, I was released a few days before the start of the academic year, and – using the passport I had managed to hide away when the police detained me – flew out of South Africa to London.

Partly because my work permit was waiting for me at school, I had considerable trouble at Heathrow with an immigration officer who wanted to know if I had ever visited Moscow.  Having spent weeks avoiding answering questions from the security police, I wasn’t going to answer this one:  I explained that lots of Africans who had been to Moscow came away convinced anti-Communists.  He asked the same question again:  on the other hand, I explained, lots of convinced Communists had never set foot in Moscow.  He asked the same question again.  After more than an hour, I got fed-up and said, Of course I haven’t been to bloody Moscow;  look at my passport. Then why didn’t you say so when I asked you first? he said, as he stamped my passport allowing me into the country for a year, providing I reported once a week to the local police station.

I remember very little of the detail of that year. One doesn’t do five weeks in solitary confinement in police detention without damage.  Years later, the ex-wife of one of the housemasters at Sevenoaks said to me, “You know, Jonty, you were quite mad in those days:  you were there, all six foot four of you, but you weren’t all there.”

There is a kind of record of that in a sequence of poems which was published in the London Magazine in 1965, called “Through Tall Fires”. Re-reading them now I remember especially the aggravation of the weekly practice-night of the bell-ringers at St Peter’s down the road – that, and the constant nightmares, where policemen would once again come thundering into my bedroom to wake me with their questions. I remember a man who shared the bachelors’ house saying, over a drink in the local pub one evening, “You woke me again last night, shouting in your sleep.” Sometimes, when the bleak English winter and the apparent smallness of life got too oppressive to bear, I would take off into Knole Park next to the school, and walk through the wet bracken and the woods round the edge of the park until I knew weariness would help me sleep. Later, I found an English girlfriend who owned a car, and sometimes on Sundays she would drive me down to the Kent coast so I could look at the sea and imagine the distances of Africa.

I’m told I went into my first class, scowling and saying, quietly, “I take it you know I’ve just been released from gaol. I’m not going to have any trouble with you lot, am I?”

Us and Them

Salil Tripathi has lived in India, Singapore, London, the United States, Hong Kong, and Switzerland. His latest book is The Colonel Who Would Not Repent (Aleph Book Company, 2014) on the Bangladesh liberation war and its aftermath. He is working on a collection of travel essays to be published later in 2015.

Salil Tripathi
(Image credit: Preston Merchant)

Expatriates are like us. Immigrants are like them. We like expatriates; we don’t like immigrants. Expatriates pay taxes; immigrants take away our jobs. Expatriates contribute to the economy; immigrants depend on our welfare state. Expatriates work in high-rise buildings and sit behind computer screens; immigrants clear their trash cans and fill the trucks full of our garbage. Expatriates speak our language; immigrants struggle to learn our language.

Writers are expatriates – they live in exile, like dissidents do; they receive cheques at American Express Bank, like Ernest Hemingway did; they enliven parties, like foreign correspondents do. Labourers are immigrants – they live in ghettos, like the poor do; they receive welfare payments, because we don’t allow them to take up jobs; they drive our guests home in minicabs, even if they are trained as doctors or teachers.

The distinction between an expatriate and an immigrant has always been about class. But it is also about free will. The term ‘expatriate’ implies choice – of someone living in a country other than the one where one was born, out of choice. That choice is dictated by personal desires, economic necessity, and a need for political space.

The same forces drive immigrants to leave their country – personal desires such as improving the lot for their children, economic necessity brought about by hyperinflation, climate change, or a famine, and the need to be away from a country where their families are discriminated against because of the god they worship, the language they speak, or the colour of their skin. The choice for the immigrant is often forced.

And yet we see them differently, because we want to reinforce our worldview, about who should do what, who belongs where, who can sit at the table with us, and who can serve us when we sit at the table. All this, without realizing, that the expatriate might leave for another profession, elsewhere, their children making homes in yet other countries; the immigrants, on the other hand, will be with us, and their daughters as doctors will treat our children, and their sons, as teachers, will educate them some day.

I left India as a student for America, when I was neither an immigrant nor an expatriate. I left India again for Singapore, and then London, most certainly as an expatriate – I had the choice. But I was surrounded by many who looked like me, in Singapore and in London, who were considered immigrants. In Singapore, the migrant labourers built roads and buildings; the immigrants had become citizens; the expatriates stayed in a bubble. That bubble formed its own exile. In London, a city that is a collection of villages, I became an Asian – a term Singaporeans were reluctant to bestow upon Indians easily. In Singapore, Asians were dynamic and entrepreneurial at a time when India was socialistic and autarkic. In London though, I was an Asian, blended with not only Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, but separated from the Chinese I knew in Singapore, and indistinguishable from the Indians from East Africa, who came here, carrying different stories and pasts. To feel at home, I had to step out of that village in my mind; but I could not do anything about the assumptions others carried about me, based on how I spoke, the way I looked, and what I might or might not eat.

We all came from some place else. We all wish to leave, when we want to do so. It is a right, and its collective exercise makes our world fluid, multi-everything, interesting, and lively. May these flows continue; some day, it will force us to change our worldview too, and see beyond passports, beyond faiths, beyond languages, beyond our skins.

Migrating to Myself

Minna Salami has lived in Finland, Nigeria, Sweden, Spain, USA and UK. She is the founder of MsAfropolitan, a multiple award-winning blog covering contemporary Africa and Diaspora society and culture from a feminist perspective.

minnasalami-300x238I do not recognise myself in the term ‘migrant’. To my mind’s eye, a migrant is someone who leaves his or her home due to financial, cultural or political hardship. Furthermore, to migrate in this sense is to be met with criminal hostility—closed borders, detention centres, rape, you name it—in the very place that the migrant aspires to resettle in.

In my case, wherever I have wanted to go, borders have been open for me. But I have migrated severally. I was born in Finland, grew up in Nigeria, and have lived in Sweden, Spain and New York before moving to London.

Which is not to say that I have not, with every move, felt disruption, un-belonging and discomfort. In each new country I have encountered the sense that a stranger has entered my body with a thud. Furthermore, as a citizen of the African diaspora, my migrations are woven into the politics of dispersal, which span not only different geographical places, but also different eras, and the many layers of what it means to live in these. I would not have left Nigeria had the country not fallen into the hands of the great peril that still suffocates it. In fact, every Nigerian migrant would rather live in Nigeria if our country were not dealt such damning hands.

What I want to say, then, writing this in times when anti-immigration sentiment soars; when Europe’s many barricades exclude and divide; when the death tolls of migrants to Europe are so devastatingly high that, as the Maltese prime minister put it, the Mediterranean sea has become a cemetery, is that the tapestry of my own privileged migrations have merely offered me two very simple truths, which I now offer you. Firstly, that external barriers are a reflection of internal ones. In other words, the more walls we construct, the more fear settles into our hearts. Secondly, the only way to overcome fear is to open up to our shared humanity. We are all migrants in this sense, desperately trying to leave a place of fear, to a place where we confidently say, I am at peace with myself because I am at peace with others.

A Huge Hotel

Pauline Melville has dual citizenship, Guyanese and British. Her latest novel is Eating Air.

Pauline MelvilleAt three o’clock in the morning on a cold December night, a black Guyanese friend of mine tried to hail a cab. He stood in the Strand, one of London’s main thoroughfares. The streets were deserted. After about ten minutes he spotted the welcome sight of a black cab, the ‘For Hire’ sign brightly lit, sailing towards him. He hailed it. As the taxi approached he reports that he could see the forces of capitalism and fascism waging war in the driver’s face. The capitalist forces in the driver wanted him to stop and make money. The fascist forces forbade him from picking up a black man. The cab did not stop.

Counter-intuitive though it is, capitalism – and imperialism too, if you count the forced migration of slavery – is not against migration. The system thrives on waves of cheap labour from anywhere until some local balance is upset that jeopardises the profiteers or rocks the status quo and then the doors are pulled shut. The multi-cultural face of contemporary London is a reflection of this, not of any liberal notion of freedom and open borders. It can be reversed at any time. The German term ‘guest-worker’ is an accurate phrase describing the hopes that these guests will do what guests normally do. Depart. It is only a tiny minority of people from the wealthier nations who migrate for the adventure, or for a gap year or to enjoy retirement years in the sun.

London has an enormous, fluctuating, work-force constantly on the move. It resembles a huge hotel with the added advantage to the hotel owners that the wonderful, often temporary, mix of people and disparate languages discourages any organised solidarity that might offer resistance to the system of global capitalism.

My heritage is one of migration. Some of my forebears even migrated from one race to another, producing an interesting mix.  As a writer and reader, I can migrate into a book or a movie or a daydream. But in realpolitik terms of flesh and blood and housing and settlement, most migration is economic. Global capitalism sucks them in and spits them out. It’s that unjust economic system which needs to be challenged. In other words, it’s not the economy, stupid.  It’s the stupid bloody economy.

An Accidental Migrant

Romesh Gunesekera has lived in Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Britain and the USA. His latest book is Noontide Toll.

Romesh Gunesekera, Judge 2015CSSP‘You must never go back, always forward,’  my mother used to say. She, like my father, was always ready to go on an adventure into the unknown just to see what it was like. My parents had an extraordinary wanderlust that must have come from the new possibilities of travel offered by the steam ships and aeroplanes of the twentieth century. They wanted to see the world, and would ‘up sticks and go’ whenever an opportunity presented itself, relying on luck more than money. Assuming, I guess, that they could always go back home if they wanted to, although neither of them ever did.

I was lucky enough to be able to tag along, never quite knowing what I was doing wherever it was I found myself. As a child I used to think an airline seat was my home.

Then, around 1970, like one of these sixteenth-century explorers with poor navigation, I took a left turn instead of a right out of Manila and discovered Britain when I was really out looking for California. I checked out the island and set up camp in London to earn a living and to write. Thirty years or more later, I find I am still here staring at a piece of paper, looking for words — but luckily everywhere I’ve ever been around the world now feels like part of the neighbourhood.

I like that.

Migration is the way we make the world our home. People have done it ever since human beings stood up and noticed the horizon. Migration is one of the oldest and most enriching of human experiences and one to be celebrated, unlike the weird mania for ring-fencing nation states and scrutinizing passports that sometimes seems to afflict even the most charming of people.

Illness In A Foreign Tongue?

Chika Unigwe has lived in Nigeria, Belgium, the U.S  and Canada. Her latest book is Night Dancer (Jonathan Cape). She is working on a historical novel.

Chika UnigweAfter my degree exams, I moved to Belgium to be with the man I had married in my final year. J had moved back to his native country only the month before and I was eager to join him. My life was one of a marathon runner, nervous, excited but never doubting that once the whistle went, It would be off, never looking back. I was, after all, going to begin a new life with the man I loved. When friends and family asked if I wouldn’t miss home, I gave the same self-assured response: Of course, I’d miss my family. Of course I’d miss my friends, but I believed in looking forward, not backwards. And wasn’t love the one thing that would ensure that I did not miss home? Home, after all, is where the heart is.

My first week in Belgium, I fell ill. I woke up feverish and nauseous. Back home, my mother would try to break down the walls of any illness by tempting me with all of my favourite dishes. At university, my closest friends would try to get me to eat. It was common knowledge that one did not leave an ill person to starve. And so I expected J to coax me to eat, perhaps even feed me himself.

When he called me to breakfast, I said I had no appetite, I did not think I could keep anything down. I did not have to eat if I had no appetite, he said. He brought me some pills, and said he hoped I felt better soon. Did I think it could be malaria? Did I want to see a doctor perhaps? That was when it hit me I was in an alien place where even the etiquette around illness was completely different. The marathon runner who had taken off swearing never to look back, began taking furtive glances backwards. Home might be where the heart is, but some things are stronger than love.

The Pavement

Nadifa Mohamed has lived in Somaliland and the UK. Her latest book is The Orchard of Lost Souls.

Nadifa MohamedWhat does it mean when a taste floods your mouth and returns you to a time that is irrevocably lost? I walk down a tatty street crowded with vegetable displays and hanging animal carcasses and rattling pushchairs and cheap shoes, with my mind caught between the past and the present. A man singing to himself in Spanish and rolling a bike beside him overtakes me at the crossing and we acknowledge each other’s presence in silence, adjusting the distance between us in millimetre increments. He has his songs and I have my flavours. The pavement, black and glossy under the lights of the gaudy Moroccan bakery and the phone repair kiosk, deliquesces beneath me and I am just a spirit floating through London, trying to place this taste that glows green then yellow then red in my mouth.


Ru Freeman has lived in Sri Lanka, Australia, and the United States. Her latest book is On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf, 2013)

Ru FreemanThis summer I stood on the shores of Puget Sound on the Pacific North West coast of the United States, and said these words aloud: This is where I was meant to live. I had spent a total of two and a half months there, where the depths of blue glacial lakes and the rustle of waves coming to grey misty shores had mended my very soul. For one month I, a non-runner, a dancer, in fact, had run at dawn, two miles to the water. The gift? The twenty minutes that I would spend picking up pastel-colored pleated shells joined at the hip, listening to that water, re-living, before running back.

I had gone from a tropical paradise to New England, where the snow turned into dunes around me, and I had aquired a second citizenship in a country where I would always be cold. There was no water anywhere in America where I would swim. None. Except on the Olympic Peninsular, where the “feel” of the place and its people, not the temperature of the water, warmed my heart. “This,” then, was not really a place, not really that water, but the feel of kinship and near-water, the memory of my island home of Sri Lanka.

They say that babies are soothed by the sounds that simulate the beat of their mother’s heart, heard in utero. I imagine that for islanders like myself, the music we seek harkens to a similar memory. I had spent most of my American years living on the East Coast; I had to ride the magic carpet of a second book to reach the opposite shore. I may never live there, but I know that if I could, it would be the closest I’d ever get to returning home.

For the Next Generation

Leila Aboulela grew up in Sudan and now lives in Scotland. Her new novel The Kindness of Enemies is due for publication in Summer 2015. 

Leila Aboulela, Judge 2015CSSPIn 1990, I arrived in Aberdeen with a two-week old baby and a four year old son. My husband was working off-shore on the North Sea oil rigs. Whenever he came back on-shore, it felt like an adventure to set up home in a new city, to live a life different than the one we had known in Sudan. After ten years, we moved (now with three children) to Jakarta. My husband’s job was mostly office based and when he visited the oil rigs they were in the middle of jungles, rather than the sea. After four years, we moved to where the rigs were in the desert. For a combination of eight years we lived in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha. In 2012, we moved back to Aberdeen again. The children (no longer children) have been to international schools and universities in different continents. On Facebook, they have an accumulation of friends in other time zones who watch the same films and play the same computer games – sometimes even against each other through the internet. Whereas I see myself as an immigrant from Sudan to the UK, stretching out across cultures and distance, for them the world is seamless and accessible.

Guyana To Wales via Poetry

Maggie Harris has lived in Guyana, England and Wales. Her latest books are Sixty Years of Loving (Cane Arrow Press), and Canterbury Tales on a Cockcrow Morning (Cultured Llama Press).

Maggie Harris, 2014 CSSP Regional WinnerMigration has made me the writer I am.

I was 17 when I left Guyana, in 1971. Britain had come to me through stories, a colonial education, letters, movies, pop music, a Scottish great-grandfather and romantic ballads, chunks of which we learnt, Caribbean-fashion.

It was pointed out to me, after I wrote Kiskadee Girl, my memoir, that my adolescence mirrored Guyana’s: breaking free from the Crown in 1966, taking unsteady steps towards Independence, bearing the cost of freedom, gritty reality, impassioned spirits, dreams of prosperity and growth.

In 1971 I was fearless and passionately romantic, two explosive ingredients that see the downfall of many. I would hitchhike, talk to strangers, be endlessly pessimistic and optimistic in turn. Hippie philosophy gave credence to a teenager who, although considered ‘wild’ by elders back in Guyana, was also highly moral, liberal, seeing the ‘right’ thing to do as a simple decision between wrong and right. My dream was to go to Art College. Instead my life took a different path. I got married and had children, and it wasn’t until 1991 that I went to university and focused on my writing.

Who would I have become if I had stayed? Guyana has continued to inform my writing, but it is my migration that has made me what I have become, widened my perspective. I was extremely fortunate to be able to study at an age impossible for many women across the world.

It is poignant that my story ‘Sending for Chantal’ was chosen as the Caribbean winner of this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Although it is not the type of forced migration that is now sweeping borders on an un-imaginable scale, it is a glimpse into an individual life where family life is interrupted, highlighting the fact that freedom of movement, which should be a human right, has now become much more complicated.

Surfacing: A Migrant Girl Outrunning Her Guises

Irenosen Okojie has lived in Nigeria, the UK and the US. Her debut novel will be published in 2015 by Jacaranda Books. @IrenosenOkojie

Irensosen I recall my first time in England through the instruments of my arrival; the sound of suitcase wheels spinning in the distance we’d travelled from Nigeria to the UK and our green passports tucked away in the inside pocket of my father’s jacket. Later, I would try to adjust to the cold that numbed my fingers, sweets that had to be weighed in quaint, pastel coloured shops on winding, blustery streets. This was far removed from the hum of pidgin in bustling markets, drinking coke out of bottles; street vendors that sold you bruised fruit in their left hand and performed magic tricks in their right. Norfolk was further distance still, from pepper soup and plantain, birthday parties that shook verandas and trying to outrun the sun on a yellow BMX bike with a busted wheel.

At Norwich, I remember my father and I piling into a taxi, suitcase overfilled, fit to burst in the dark boot. We jostled towards a future where boarding school life awaited, seeming to have outrun the searing heat. Absorbing my surroundings, I realized then that I was different. Nobody looked like me. This otherness cropped up repeatedly in the days that followed. On the drive into Norfolk, it was a mere curiosity, a thing my father didn’t address. Instead, he made conversation with the driver in that charming accent you couldn’t quite place. His slow, loosening grip did not prepare me for chasing my mother’s laughter on rolling green fields wielding a hockey stick, or thinking of home under the covers at night in a dormitory full of impressionable girls.

Now, I stand beside my eight year old self, telling her the instruments of arrival will change once more; an empty notebook in Greece, a gutted wallet in Portugal, three weathered photographs of my mother my grandmother and I in Cabo Verde, sharing the same mouth, brandishing different languages and colliding in corners of the world that somehow feel pre-destined. I tell her that these versions of herself she’ll encounter along the way will stumble, struggle and adjust to pixelated settings she may not identify at once. At home she will feel foreign and on foreign soil she will make a home. I tell her that her ideas of identity and migration will be malleable. That there is beauty in the word migrant, a boldness to explore what is unknown, uproot and that this slackness in the fabric, this freedom to transcend and reinvent ourselves beyond the borders we impose are all part of her personal movement and a greater flight.

A Migration to the Margins

Pico Iyer has lived in Oxford, Santa Barbara, a boarding-school near London, Boston, New York and, for more than 27 years now, in Western Japan. His latest book is The Man Within My Head.

Pico IyerWhen I moved, at 29, from a 25th floor office in Midtown Manhattan, and a small apartment on Park Avenue, to a single room—minus toilet, telephone and even bed—on the back-streets of Kyoto, I was one of those migrants lucky enough to move out of choice rather than necessity. My parents, born in India, had moved to England, where I was born, for college, and then, when I was seven, to California, for work, training me in migration and preparing me for the duty of seeing the virtues of being a foreigner wherever I happened to be and the permanent exile’s glass as half-full.

But when I left behind the security of a glamourous-seeming job and career for a life of stillness in Kyoto, I was migrating in a slightly different way from my forebears. They had enabled me to grow up in California, to enjoy a solid English education and then to feel myself surrounded by a life of possibility. Now, having been fortunate enough to enjoy all these things, I wanted to leave them all behind.

As soon as I arrived in Japan, I was an illiterate, almost a deaf-mute (able to speak Japanese only as a 2 year-old girl might) and an undesirable; with my Indian features and my shabby demeanour, I was searched (sometimes strip-searched) every time I appeared at Customs. To this day, after 22 years in my Japanese neighbourhood, the local dogs bare their teeth and howl every time they smell my alien odour on my daily walk.

Yet as an outsider, I find everything in my adopted home—even its horror at seeing me—fascinating, deepening and often impenetrable. I could never be bored here and I can never take too much for granted. I can even, at times, begin to imagine the world a little better, as it comes to those who know new sufferings after being forced out of their homes by poverty or oppression or war.

In many ways, the increasing number of people who are like myself – self-chosen migrants redefining the meaning of belonging – is a positive sign, amidst all the rending, often tragic stories we hear of refugees and involuntary exiles. We fortunate ones can bring cultures together as earlier generations have not always been so able to do. We can craft our sense of home and self instead of receiving it as a given. We can try to understand the circumstances and perspectives of people radically different from ourselves and even to give voice to those who do not have such ready access to a platform.

When I checked into a tiny bare room in a tiny temple in Kyoto—one year before, I’d been writing cover-stories for Time magazine in New York—I was reminded that the man after whom my parents had named me. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, had set a liberating example for all of us by leaving his gilded palace at 29, to encounter suffering, real life and the way to come to a lasting peace with both of them. Home, he was suggesting, is less about where we live than where we stand.

Missed Connections

Michelle de Kretser was born in Colombo and lives in Sydney. Her most recent novel is Questions of Travel.

Michelle de KretserA Room and A Half, Andrey Khrzhanosky’s ravishing cinematic riff on the life of Joseph Brodsky, contains a scene in which the exiled writer is out carousing with Russian friends in New York. They start to sing a Russian song but can’t agree on the lyrics. To settle the matter, Brodsky calls home. In Leningrad, his mother answers the phone and sings the correct words to him; his father joins in. I find this emblematic scene of connection and loss mediated by technology profoundly moving. The telephone annuls distance while underlining separation. The migrant’s desire to reconnect with home is both enabled and exposed as a dream: the call will end, the connection won’t last.

When you look at a migrant, you are looking at someone who has cut out part of themselves in order to survive. The more successfully they have integrated with their adopted country, the deeper the self-harm. Brodsky’s phone call speaks to an abiding fantasy of completion: the folk song that originates in Russia and fragments when transported overseas is made whole again when returned to the mother country.

Amputations, however, cannot be reversed. On my rare return trips to Sri Lanka, the sensual world – the vegetation, the human cries of crows, the silky air against my skin – tells me at once that I’m home. But I don’t want to live there now. For a start, I don’t want to live in a country whose dissenting citizens risk torture and extermination. I deeply and openly deplore many aspects of Australian public policy, but I don’t fear being disappeared in a white van here.

Yet the longing for wholeness persists. Last year my godmother died in Colombo. I used to call her to chat about this and that. Her husband, my godfather, lives on but suffers from advanced dementia. Those two signified continuity with my childhood. They had known my parents long before I was born, when they were all young. While my godparents were alive and in good health, I could persuade myself that part of the world I had left was still going on. Now it’s sealed up in the past, and that illusion is no longer sustainable. There’s no one left to answer the phone.

Of the Ruff and the Northern Wheatear

Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi has lived in Uganda and the UK. Her latest book is Kintu. She is working on her second novel Nnambi.

Jennifer MakumbiI once worked as a security officer at Manchester Airport. Most of my middle aged colleagues, including some young ones, kept saying that they were leaving Britain. I later found out that it was because of foreigners ‘flooding’ Britain. Because there were many of them – we were close to three hundred officers – it felt as if the British were abandoning Britain.

Now that confused me. Not because of the British mass immigration to Africa up to the early twentieth century, or the fact that, to the natives, they were immigrants from hell, but because: how can you hate foreigners and then go to a foreign country? Why would you inflict your foreign self on others? Why would you turn yourself into an immigrant? It seemed as though my colleagues were as dead to irony as the infamous Chichidodo – that bird loves maggots but shudders at the thought of shit!

I thought, hmm, they are British, you can accuse them of anything but not of being dead to irony. Then I realised that immigration was as British as the steam engine. And the British have perfected the art of emigrating by maximising the profits of their movement into foreign spaces, while minimising the supposed disruption of immigrants like myself into their space.

Recently on a visit home, I noticed that a large number of new communities had formed in Uganda since I left in 2001. Now there are Chinese, Nigerian, Sudanese, South African and Somali communities. According to new research, Uganda has the most diverse ethnic distribution in the world. I wondered whether nature is tired of homogenous communities and is shaking the earth and we are rattling about. But that would reduce us, including the British, to nothing more than the birds and the wildebeest which are at the mercy of the rhythms of nature. We are much better than that.

The Visit

Lawrence Scott has lived in Trinidad & Tobago and the UK. His latest book is Light Falling on Bamboo. He has a new book out February 2015: Leaving By Plane Swimming Back Underwater.

Photo credit: Eugene McConville
Credit: Eugene McConville

I left Trinidad in 1963, aged nineteen, a citizen of the newly independent island, having been British before independence. I left to seek God in a Benedictine monastery in the Cotswolds. I arrived in the January of the notoriously cold winter that year. The monks did not often go “out into the world”; but I had to fulfill Immigration rules, report to a police station. So instead, for about half a year, at intervals, I was summoned to the kitchen door of the monastery to be viewed by two officers of the Gloucestershire Constabulary. I remember it as a comic encounter as I stood there and they looked me up and down in my monastic habit. Were they wondering whether I was black or white? Could they be sure? The point of the exercise was to find out, that having entered the country, had I in fact arrived at my intended destination, or, had I absconded, using the monastery as a ruse? I had come to spend the rest of my life. This was incorporated into the terms of my entry.

Over time, the immigration inspections became a cup of tea and monastic cake. We talked about the weather, how my tan had not quite disappeared. Were they still thinking I might be black? My face was all they could see, my hands hidden in my sleeves. The visits stopped. I am not sure what convinced them that I was staying. Two other novices had not lasted the winter. It was not the cold that decided me to leave four and a half years later.  That’s another story. I never reported to the police afterwards. I slipped into the country, as it were, undetected. Later, I learnt about the signs hung up outside houses at that time, “Sorry. No Coloureds.”

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