There are many amazing stories about moving from somewhere to elsewhere, about the process of elsewhere becoming somewhere.
Take Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy – literally, amazing. It’s right there on the cover.
It’s a real favourite of mine, in which seventeen-year-old Samuel reads comic books in Trinidad to prepare for his new life in Toronto, and although his lingo falls short of the mark (“Oh gosh. That’s swell. Thanks, Buddy. How awful. You gotta be kidding. Great Scott.”) he persists and endures.
“Make contact. I liked the phrase and it made me feel like a shadowy hero with a secret identity. Shy and often puzzled on the surface but understanding everything, all the confusing Canadian customs and laws, in my hero identity.”
Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican (1993)
Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers (2007)
Sharon Bali’s The Boat People (2018)
Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen (2009)
Reading these stories of discovery is sometimes made more powerful when they are combined with the kind of discoveries one makes growing up
Books like Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir and Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy spend significant time in the formative years. It’s especially easy to relate to this kind of disorientation and unease.
But Maharaj’s other books, like Homer in Flight, consider adjustments that newcomers face in the working world too. Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen is told from the perspective of a kitchen manager whose relationships with the workers in his restaurant (immigrants, all) must change as he comes to understand the difficulties they face in the present and the horrors they carry from their pasts.
There are some young characters in Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans, too, and a child in Sharon Bali’s The Boat People.
The narratives in Thuy’s Ru and Lahiri’s The Namesake move back in time to provide some context for the older characters, and Adichie’s Americanah eventually includes another young character as the story unfolds in a startlingly powerful direction.
In Bezmozgis’ The Free World, the characters are older, but in his first collection of linked stories, Natasha, readers “come of age” with the family over time.
Why people chose to emigrate is a part of these stories, but often it is summarized succinctly or implied via short scenes in memory. Occasionally, the traumas experienced in the past are directly referenced, even described (one kitchen worker in Monica Ali’s novel describes scenes that “a friend” endured and survived) but the emphasis is not only on today, but tomorrow.
Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah’s Homes (written with Winnie Yeung, a teacher in Edmonton) devotes the bulk of the narrative to his boyhood experiences in Syria (in Damascus and Homs), the process of emigration and the long wait for his family to be approved to leave.
The story opens in the middle, with a memorable scene of violence. Most people, in the face of chaos, run from it, he explains, but people in Syria run towards it, towards a site where friends and family may need assistance. The story, then, flashes back to establish Abu and his siblings (including Maryam, Abeer, Aiesha, Asmaa, Abrar and Naser) and older family members and their life in Baserah, where the divisions between Muslim denominations carried great weight.
“I never really realized how bright, crowded, and colourful my world was until I had to leave it.”
There is a chapter called “My First Massacre” and there are scenes with bullets and patrols, shelling and sobbing, and weapons and rebels.
There are “rules to follow, danger to avoid”. And there are “terrifying muffled sounds outside bedroom doors”.
But there are also video games and bike-riding, hijabs and abayas and brightly coloured fabric, geraniums and oranges.
And so many cups of steaming, spiced black tea, generously sweetened.
Winnie Yeung includes references for further reading but reminds readers that this is not a journalistic work but a collection of family memories.
As such, the details which stick with me are not the ones I searched for in an atlas or online (for images of Umayyad, a mosque in Damascus).
The sensory details pulled from everyday life are the parts which pulled me most completely into this memoir.
In the bakery in Homs, for instance, where Abu “would watch the bakers pull and stretch the dough, tossing it back and forth, hand to hand, not a movement wasted.”
You can feel and taste not only the dough but the air in the bakery.
“The pale disc of dough would be slapped onto the sides of the searing hot tabun oven, and just as the bread started to bubble, the baker would deftly flip it with the trusty paddle. I loved breathing in that tangy sweetness with a hint of smoke.”
But, these are not the only details about the bakery:
“Once, a man came into our bakery and bought some bread. He went across the street to eat it in the park and was killed by a stray bullet.”
There are many adjustments after the family moves to Canada, and sensory detail makes this experience of immigration real too:
“Here, it was so quiet. No rumbling explosions, rattling gunfire, or wailing sirens. But also no boisterous crowds or rowdy gangs of cousins.”
Abu Bakr Al Rabeeah’s memoir is a short and evocative peek into a rich and eventful life: Homes reminds you to appreciate both the quiet and the bustle and to listen to young people’s stories, amid all the rest of the noise.