by Audrey Fisch
What’s worse: waking up in the morning and reading yet another news story of the brutal separation of families and treatment of refugees in and by the United States or not reading one of those stories and wondering whether we are becoming inured to this issue? As the child of a refugee, I feel particularly devastated by the normalization of our current policy towards refugees. Moreover, I feel, I think like many, impotent.
But then I remember the power of stories and my unique position as a teacher of literature.
We know the power of stories. Information generally and stories in particular have a unique ability to reshape hearts and minds. If they weren’t so powerful, then so much energy would not have been and continue to be expended to silence stories.
Think, for example, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the ways in which Stowe’s novel, building on the genre of African-American slave narratives, brought slavery into the U.S. consciousness. The abolitionist movement is a complex story of social change, but there’s no question that Stowe capitalized on and in turn mobilized public opinion. Her story had immense cultural power. The prohibition of certain texts (like her novel) and of literacy for slaves in the American South make clear that people intent on maintaining the status quo knew well (and continue to recognize) the power of stories to change the world.
So, in my sometimes despair about the current refugee crisis, I have turned to stories for solace and inspiration. And I look forward to the opportunities I will have to bring these and other texts into the classroom to share with my students. Here are a few that I recommend to others who are gifted with the opportunity to bring stories to young readers.
Two picture books stand out for me (and remind me of how powerful picture books can be for readers of all ages). Marwan’s Journey, by Patricia de Arias, with evocative illustrations by Laura Borras, tells the story of Marwan, who walks from his home across the desert with a photograph of his mother, who comes to him only in his dreams. Marwan’s story is brutal in its lack of detail and richly suggestive in its language. Marwan is one of many; “Hundreds of people, thousands of feet” make this journey on foot. He is one in a “line of humans like ants crossing the desert.” One particularly dark and poignant illustration depicts tanks: the night “they came” and the “darkness grew colder, deeper, darker.”
My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo who created the amazing illustrations in polymer clay and acrylic, tells the story of Sami from Syria. Like Marwan, Sami walks (all day and all night) from his home, “`Just like follow-the-leader,’ says Father.” Sami’s home has been destroyed, but his father insists that Sami’s pigeons, his beautiful birds, “escaped too.” In a refugee camp, Sami tries to paint his birds, but he struggles to do so, and Del Rizzo offers readers a picture of his work: a bird, covered in black paint, “black smears edge to edge, swallowing everything underneath.” Sami begins to find his birds, however, in the clouds and in his dreams. He builds new nests and paints birds on kites.
The balance between despair and hope is always tricky in these stories. It’s not just that these texts are written for young people. All writers want and need us to connect with their subjects, yet the brutality of the reality these people face is unfathomable, unspeakable, unable to be fully rendered. Always on the edges of these stories is the ugly unsaid: people are not ants, although the world is treating them that way; Sami’s birds no doubt failed to escape, like so many people in Syria.
Grappling with this issue of how to represent the unrepresentable horrors of war, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, published in 2007 about his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, seems incredibly powerful. At the end of his book, Beah tells of his experience at a rehabilitation center where he struggles to reconcile his horrific experiences and actions in the war with the repeated line: “None of what happened was your fault. You were just a little boy.” At one point, Beah dreams of the violence, feeling the pain of his victims, and seeing himself covered in blood. In the dream, he then sees his family, “all smiling as if nothing had happened,” as if they “didn’t seem to notice that I was covered with blood.” Beah struggles to reconcile himself and his reality: Can he really be a faultless little boy, with a smiling family, given all that has happened, given all the blood?
And Beah’s reality refuses to stay in the past. War overtakes him again, and, this time, Beah decides he must flee, despairing that “I couldn’t return to my previous life. I didn’t think I could make it out alive this time.” Yet some of his friends from rehabilitation rejoin the army. Beah somehow seizes on a nearly hopeless attempt to find refuge; his peers, children who were manipulated into serving as the cruelest of killers, see no option but to return to war.
The cycle of violence, and the recurring plight of the refugee, is the center of Alan Gratz’s 2017 and wildly popular Refugee, a text that is accessible to young readers, despite its sometimes graphic depictions of the experiences of his three refugee protagonists and their families: Josef, a Jewish boy from Nazi Germany whose family manages to find a temporary escape on board the St. Louis, bound for Cuba; Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to make its way by raft to the safety of Florida; and Mahmoud, a Syrian boy whose family hopes to make its way across the Mediterranean and then to a future in Europe.
From different time periods, political contexts, and geographical areas, all of Gratz’s refugees find themselves in the water, landless humans, struggling to find safety. The brilliance and poignancy of the novel is how Gratz uses the sea to underscore the similarities of their journeys, while never erasing the differences of their plights. Moreover, in a closing that connects these three families (I won’t spoil it), Gratz reminds us of how linked we all are, across place, across history, across time.
This connectedness resonated strongly for me in my favorite of the texts I read, Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai. In magnificent free verse, Lai tells the story, inspired by her own experiences and memories, of Ha, whose family manages to flee Vietnam and ends up in Alabama. Ha is a feisty, furious girl, and her story is full of both brutality and kindness. Her tales of school in Alabama reminded me so much of my mother. Lai writes, “So this is what dumb feel like,” when Ha is placed in a class to learn the ABCs and numbers, “unable to explain I already learned fractions and how to purify river water.” Ha’s acquisition of English cruelly enables her to understand the taunts of her peers and to “wish I could go back to not understanding.”
This was my mother’s experience in New York City. Rebellious, angry, and no doubt traumatized, my mother arrived in the United States and started a new life. She, like many Holocaust survivors, spoke little about her experiences. But she did tell me how she hated when the American children would call her stupid, a word she understood because of the year she spent as a refugee in Italy (the Italian word for stupid is stupido/a), as part of her journey out of Nazi Austria.
As all of us struggle to grapple with our complicity in the U.S. government’s systemic brutality towards refugees, I relish my role as an educator and my ability to transform my mother’s shame and silence by sharing the powerful stories and voices of other refugees.
New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English