"Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality." - Ian McEwan
What does it mean to be an immigrant? How does it feel to leave your family behind in a state of crisis while you flee to a foreign land? How do you reconcile your past with your new present when integrating with a different culture?
With so much talk - and misunderstanding - about immigration in the public and political spheres, these are questions that sorely warrant closer investigation. News reports, investigative features and personal testimonies about refugees are available in abundance and yet fear, suspicion, myths and the misconceptions are the primary influences on public attitudes and government policies.
Unless you have direct experience of losing your home and being forced to build in another in less than welcoming circumstances, it can be hard to genuinely engage with the notion of immigration. Much as we might proclaim a common humanity, the reality is that compassion fatigue can set in once people from outside our own borders enter our world.
Fighting fiction with fiction
The power of fiction to develop our moral imagination has long been celebrated - and scientifically verified - as a uniquely effective way of levelling our sense of a shared humanity with people and places that otherwise seem alien. Our natural curiosity, desire for escapism or yearning for fantasy motivates us to delve into worlds so complicated as to be impenetrable in any other format - news, documentaries, lectures are not the mediums that the majority turn to.
That’s why Dinaw Mengestu’s novel, 'Children of the Revolution', is utterly compelling reading for anyone interested in, or indeed unaware of, the experience of struggling to belong. The 2007 novel is a perfect example of how the neutral medium of fiction can develop one’s empathy and understanding of the Other.
Sepha Stephanos is the reluctant owner of a general store in a rundown Washington neighbourhood. He fled Ethiopia 17 years ago after witnessing the brutal murder of his father and now spends his days reading, serving the occasional customer and otherwise suspended in a state of drunken narcosis, reminiscing about old dictators and revolutions with his friends Joseph, formerly of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kenneth from Kenya. The American dream was never the lure for any of the characters, who ended up in rather than chose America, but it remains constantly on the periphery of their daily existence, taunting them with ideals and prospects that are forever out of reach.
Himself of Ethiopian descent, Mengestu grew up in America where his community were never able to speak about their past. His own experience of Ethiopia was of a place that was essential to who he was but which rejected him because of his binary culture.
Lives of quiet desperation
In 'Children of the Revolution', Mengestu artfully uses his characters to explore this experience of yearning and desperation - each character is nervous about being rejected by American culture, all the while still trying to hold on to something of their African heritage.
The story is ultimately about the experience of being both physically and metaphorically lost. Sepha, Joseph and Kenneth are struggling to redefine themselves, trying to find meaning in work and in need of love, all the while existing in a state of trauma. Even if you don’t identify with the cultural experiences of an Ethiopian, a Congolese or a Kenyan, you can relate to the complexities of such emotional battles that transcend any border or identity. For the immigrant, routine and order are a lite raft in an uncertain world. In Sepha’s store, the three men drink to remember, they drink to forget. It’s a ritual they all crave for the familiarity and comfort it brings:
“As much as Kenneth has ever needed anything in his life, he has needed order and predictability, small daily reassurances that the world is what it is, regardless of how flawed that may be.”
Change though is inevitable. As Sepha’s neighbourhood begins to alter, he contemplates “the passive and helpless observations of people stuck on the sidelines,” epitomised by himself and his neighbour’s distress at noticing the influx of immigrants.
For Sepha, the pointlessness of his own existence overshadows any prospect of change, even when Judith, a white woman with her mixed race daughter Naomi move in and strike up a friendship with him. Sepha stands by while children, prostitutes and vagabonds steal from his shop. He surrounds himself with lives of equally quiet desperation. His frequent suicidal thoughts, disaffection and indifference to his life, indicate how apart he feels from everyone, an insignificant tall skinny Ethiopian whose place on Washington’s fast paced streets is a painful reminder of his difference.
By contrast, there are the immigrants who have created a microcosm of their abandoned world in a bid to reimagine something familiar and safe, living in a tower block where the floors are like villages and the gossip circulates to keep the reality of their current existence at bay:
“It all amounts to one thing: proof of a vanishing culture. TIme, distance and nostalgia have convinced these women that back in Ethiopia, we were all moral and perfect, all of which is easier to believe when you consider the lives that most of us live now. With our medial jobs and cramped apartments, it’s impossible not to want to look back sometimes and pretend there was once a better world, one where husbands were faithful, children were obedient and life was easy and wonderful.”
A life of lost dreams
Sepha’s own life is measured out in the books he reads, in the quiet hours of his redundant store. He always has enough books to hand to blot out the silence and loneliness of his life:
“so that every hour of even the quietest days has been filled with at least one voice other than my own….the silence becomes a cocoon in which you can hear only your voice echoing; the real world in which you live begins to fade into a past that you have tried to put to rest….Left alone behind the counter I was hit with the sudden and terrible realisation that everything I had cared for and loved was either lost or living on without me seven thousand miles away, and that what I had here was not a life but a poorly constructed substitution made up of one uncle, two friends, a grim store and a cheap apartment”.
He submerges himself in the shadows of the poverty stricken area he lives within, because there are no demands on him there to succeed or be anything other than who he is: “I was poor, black, and wore the anonymity that came with that as a shield against all of the early ambitions of the immigrant, which had long since abandoned me, assuming they had ever really been mine to begin with.”
While his friends dream of returning to a new Africa, which they imagine to have changed in the time of their absence. Sepha simply resigns himself to sitting “behind a counter and read[ing] as silent as a god until the world came to an end”.
We’re repeatedly reminded of how this sense of abject desolation has set in over the past 17 years. Where he once had ambition as a proud student in America, gladly discarding the label of immigrant, he now lives under the permanent shadow of hopeless solitude. And yet the other characters in the novel are no more secure than he, for all their apparent right to the world they inhabit.
Judith is equally lost despite owning a lavish home. She carries around with her at all times a handbag containing her and her daughter’s birth certificates, immunisation forms: “everything one could ever need to assert her identity and place in the world.”
The novel is essentially concerned with themes of home, love and loss but it is also a careful observation of the impact of departure. We see 16-year-old Sepha watch his beaten and bloody father turn to face his family one last time as he is escorted to certain death by government soldiers; we see Sepha transfixed by Judith as she fumbles for her house keys; and we see Sepha abandon his unlocked store with a deliberate carelessness. In Sepha’s words: “few things are as important as the last impressions we make when leaving.”
Many who fear or suspect immigrants as the threatening Other in our midst would do well to read 'Children of the Revolution'. The dialogue and the scenarios may be fictional but they are a powerful imagining of people who are otherwise so often dehumanized and sidelined.
“It is always the first and last steps that are the hardest to take. We walk away and try not to turn back, or we stand just outside the gates, terrified to find out what’s waiting for us now that we’ve returned. In between, we stumble blindly from one place and life to the next. We try to do the best we can. There are moments like this, however, when we are neither coming nor going, and all we have to do is sit and look back on the life we have made.”