How to Convey the Refugee Experience Without Resorting to Refugee Tourism
What would the goals of "American Dirt"—making the migrant experience compelling and relatable—have looked like if someone from inside the story held the pen?
The project of American Dirt was noble: make the migrant experience compelling and relatable for those who might otherwise turn away. The prose is slick, the story structured. The only problem––well, one of many cited as the novel’s infamy snowballed––was how far the writer was from the migrant experience, despite a marketing campaign that positioned her as an expert. Author Jeanne Cummins has Puerto Rican ancestry, but had not made it part of her identity before American Dirt, previously identifying explicitly as white. To convey her emotional stake in the topic, she cited fears that her immigrant husband would be arrested and deported; according to a Vulture postmortem in January, publishing staff at Macmillan were later shocked to learn he was Irish.
What would have happened to this project—compellingly conveying the migrant experience—if someone from inside the story held the pen? A new autofictional novel by the Iraqi writer and former refugee Hassan Blasim gives us an alternate model. God 99 (translated by Jonathan Wright) seeks to counter the “refugee tourism” that critics ascribed to American Dirt. It depicts these tourists in the form of a character named Heidi, who is described as “full of ambiguous feelings towards the refugees” with a tendency to speak “about them as if they were a homogenous mass, not individuals with differences.” But it’s those individuals, not Heidi and her ilk, who are the focus here. Blasim recomplicates stock images of cages and orange life vests by portraying a multitude of ex-refugee characters––a techno DJ, a video game developer. Complex characters require a complex home; Blasim does not adhere to the narrative structures held dear in commercial and book club fiction. Instead, he deliberately sidesteps Western storytelling conventions to reveal the intolerable randomness of pain––how, for example, stopping to help an injured fellow migrant might result in another’s death. Instead of trying to appeal to Midwestern housewives, God 99 asks readers to tolerate living without resolution. It is a limbo analogous to that of many refugees, one foot in their new country, the other one lifted, ready to return to a home that might never again exist.
God 99 alternates between two genres, internet journalism and the epistolary novel. In alternating chapters, a translator of Romanian literature emails an Iraqi writer in Finland named Hassan Owl (a stand-in for the author, Hassan Blasim). Her missives are printed without Owl’s replies, leaving the reader to imagine his interiority. Omitting Owl’s replies adds to the realism of of the text; in an actual inbox, one is mainly confronted by the words of others. This mirrors the situation of refugees, who are often spoken to and on behalf of by journalists, governments, and NGOs. Refugees are left with little space to speak, or are granted space with the expectation they stick to a certain kind of story. Owl cynically and realistically describes how a blog project called “God 99” takes off after refugees came to Europe in large numbers: “The doors of finance opened up here in Finland, because the migrants or refugees might have voices, faces, and stories to tell. I received a reasonable grant because of the disaster.”
That blog forms the other half of the novel. Interviews are presented as they would have appeared online, with Owl’s questions in bold, followed by stories from other refugees or people in the places refugees have left behind. One of the interviewees is Owl himself, sometimes referred as Mr. Palomar, a name taken from Italo Calvino’s novel by the same name. Mr. Palomar is structured as an expanding triptych, with three chapters per subsection and three subsections per section. The mathematical composition attempts to fit reality’s complexities into neat and regular units. God 99, while also aimed at coming to grips with philosophical concerns, also acknowledges the act’s impossibility––that no number of stories, even 99, could contain the multiplicity of refugee experience.
The splitting of a protagonist into two characters is employed elsewhere in fiction about escapes: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer shifted point of view from first to third person to reflect the dissociation that occurs when people are subjected to extreme pain. A dual self also reflects the split identities of immigrants: how they balance multiple homes, tenses, and languages in a single body. This duality is also part of the act of writing, which is as much Blasim’s subject as the refugees themselves. A writer creates on the page a second self, one to hold stories too difficult for the writer to bear. “Writing brings relief,” Owl/Palomar says in an interview with himself. “It is the indirect revenge of those who find shame unbearable and who use words to rebel against themselves and those like them.”
Maintaining two selves is an effort, one sometimes abandoned through assimilation, the act of wholly embracing the new self at the expense of the old. One of the saddest things I’ve ever heard from a former refugee was her admission that she had stopped dreaming in her native tongue. The United States had infiltrated her down to her dreams. In lieu of integration, God 99 presents disintegration as a thing of beauty. One of the interviews concerns a recluse who invents wooden models that make unrelated sounds, such as a fish that brays like a donkey; the nonsensical creations sell like hotcakes. The idea that the fractured and illogical might be desirable is an ongoing hope for those writing at the margins, who often have difficulty forcing their experience into forms like three-act structure because of the way reality works, as well as gaps in memory brought on by trauma.
Blasim appears to enjoy not only remaking narrative, but snatching the narrative away before the reader can grasp it. One character speaks from the dead, a detail revealed at the end of a multi-page interview that recasts all the text that came before. Another interviewee walks off before finishing her tale. One describes a story told by his father: “It was a rambling, incomprehensible story, full of internal and external twists and subject to something called the disease of forgetfulness among humans. Betrayal, bloodshed, secret chambers, screams, and eyes waiting in the dark for hope or death. I felt a little dizzy and I didn’t really understand any of it.” Blasim’s fictional refugees refuse to fulfil the reader’s desire to consume their stories. Joan Didion writes that we tell stories to live. But do stories sustain, or do they suffocate? Blasim writes about how refugees must, after arduous physical journeys, undertake the final labor of persuading “the people and animals” that they deserve to stay: “If they’re convinced, you stay. Otherwise they’ll deport you to where you came from, and you have to try to reach the same place again, or go somewhere else.” In a capitalist society, refugees are sold safety in return for a perfect, polished narrative. But this final labor never quite succeeds; the novel is peppered with mentions of racists and other intolerants roaming Finland, people recognizable to anyone who has turned on Fox News.
God 99 references one form of narration from within: the traditional oral storytelling once popular in some Iraqi cafes. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein, international news became more widely available, and new media eclipsed older forms of exchanging knowledge: “The country was so full of news, pictures, analyzes and celebrities that people could no longer tell what was real and what was imaginary. The stories were distorted again, but in a different way. This time the truth was drowned out in a deluge of news and images.” Blasim replicates this deluge in his interviews, which seek to needle closer and closer to the truth.
Yet the act of storytelling, even by someone from within, can be handicapped by its tools; language can obscure even while pretending to reveal. An elderly woman, whom one character is trying to kill through heart-stopping tales in a strange reversal of Scheherazade, comments on the state of Arabic literature, which she claims is constrained by the limits of formal written Arabic (incidentally, also the language of the news). “Standard Arabic brings exaggeration, idealism and romanticism to literature that belongs to an environment that for many centuries has been torn apart by violence, ignorance and injustice!” she says. “It’s not the language of their emotions, their worries or their joys.” In other words, as soon as people begin writing in formal Arabic (or English, or any other colonial language), their project is already doomed. Instead, the fictional translator wants writers to use colloquial Arabic, which is usually reserved for contexts like text messaging and which varies across populations; a Moroccan would therefore write in a different language than a Yemeni. To be more authentic, writers must assert their difference.
In arguing for that difference, God 99 paradoxically shows how similar the refugee experience is to others. “I didn’t understand how you are supposed to carry on after your peace of mind had been stripped away, the way skin is stripped away by fire,” says one. “My memory sounds like an electric razor,” says another. Such thoughts might sound familiar to those who’ve survived other disasters: an attack, a hurricane, the death of a child. It is from the inside that people are most able to identify aspects of their stories in common with others, rather than what sets them apart. “When you lose your home and your sense of security you become sensitive, lazy, and suspicious of everything, your willpower breaks down and your ability to think properly is distorted,” says an interviewee. “Aren’t humans in general really migrants who carry around shattered fragments of their peace of mind deep inside them?”