Migrating into fiction

For years, while driving south on Witherspoon Street, I’ve seen a number of men in the same location, presumably waiting for someone to pick them up for work. Like most people, I suspect, I never gave them much thought because I’m too preoccupied with my own daily rituals, and getting to work on time. But now, with the news that the Trump administration is ending protection for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans, many who have been in the country for the last two decades, it is time to open our eyes.

The library is proud to be one of more than 20 community partners for the forthcoming Princeton Migrations Project. Spearheaded by the Princeton University Art Museum, the project will be a community-wide investigation of the theme of migration, a topic that couldn’t be more timely or relevant. An appearance by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sonia Nazario  launches the project on Feb. 1. The library is co-sponsoring that event as well as book discussions around town leading up to Nazario’s appearance. The discussions will be about Nazario’s non-fiction “Enrique’s Journey,” the story of a Honduran boy and his treacherous journey across Mexico to find his mother who left 11 years earlier to find work in the United States.

As the facilitator of the library’s fiction book group, I wanted to choose a title for our January discussion that tied in to the Migrations Project. I considered “Exit West,”  by Mohsin Hamid who describes the book as “a world where anyone can move. A world of mass migration…” It follows a young couple “who are fleeing a city that has fallen to intolerant militants” and would have been an easy choice for the group (even before it ended up on so many “Best of” lists). Ultimately though, I decided on Sunjeev Sahota’s “The Year of the Runaways,”  a book that provides a penetrating look into the intertwined lives of three young men, Avtar, Randeep, and Tarlochan, and one young woman, Narinder. Each make their way from India to the United Kingdom, the men looking for a way to make money either to send home to their families or just to survive, the woman intent on helping one of them get a visa in a fake marriage. Like Junot Diaz in his “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” Sahota doesn’t make it easy for readers with no familiarity with the linguistics of his characters. The Punjabi words and phrases used throughout the text can be disorienting, initially, but readers quickly decipher their meanings.  

After reading, albeit, fictional accounts of the daily challenges faced by Sahota’s characters, it is not hard to imagine that these stories are closer to reality than not. Reviewers agree, with The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani, stating, “No recent novel does a more powerful job of capturing the day-to-day lives of such immigrants,”  and NPR’s Nishant Dahiya, declaring that, “Sahota also does a masterful job of dissecting the immigrant experience. These are economic migrants in search of better lives, but by exposing the casual violence inflicted on these people, their wariness, their isolation, their daily humiliations and fears, their desperation to keep their dignity intact, Sahota also demonstrates how complex and often dangerous that experience can be…”

Whether it is through the lens of literature, an event, or personal stories of your neighbors, friends, or family, migration is a topic we can all explore. Join us for our next fiction book group meeting Thursday, Jan. 11, and don’t miss any of the events that make up the Princeton Migrations Project

Photo by Don Ross III on Unsplash

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