It’s ironic, that while so many are longing to safely travel these days, others are longing to stay put and continue to safely reside in their homelands. On the page, throughout last year, I travelled to twelve different cities, prompted by a local artist’s desk calendar, which inspired a variety of themed expeditions in print. But, increasingly, what interested me even more was the sense of being between places. Refugees’, emigrants’ and immigrants’ experiences embody that urgently and poignantly.

A Map Is Only One Story, edited by Nicole Chung and Mensah Demary, includes Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home (Catapult, 2020). “Launching remarkable writing” is Catapult’s tagline and this anthology serves as an excellent ambassador. It puts paid to the idea that all immigrants’ stories are the same. What is consistent, however, is the direct and engaging tone; throughout the volume, these writers (emerging and with multiple publications to their credit) command attention. These are personal stories, most in the first person, but culminating in Porochista Khakpour’s “Iranian America; Or, The Last Essay”, which is told as though from one part of the writer to another part of her. “Begin by writing about anything else,” she begins. “Go to the public library in your Los Angeles suburb and ask for all the great books people in New York City read, please.” (And it’s true that any essay which mentions a library immediately pulls my heart into its tentacles, but I truly enjoyed this one for so many more reasons besides.) Other favourites: Say It with Noodles (the graphic contribution by Shing Yin Khor) and Kenechi Uzor’s “This Hell Not Mine”, which ends “And if I am better off I cannot tell.” But the volume as a whole would make a great addition to your bedside table: read an essay every few days and allow the varied experiences to unfold with time and attention.

The Globe & Mail, while I was reading this memoir

The title of Samra Habib’s We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir (2019) led me to expect a different kind of narrative, one with a community focus as the backdrop. Instead, this is a very personal story which presents her childhood memories in Pakistan in the Ahmadiyya community, followed by her struggle to reorient herself when her identity shifts dramatically. With her family’s immigration to Toronto, new possibilities emerge for her: queer communities, romance and sexuality, and studies in journalism. The latter influence her tone and style, and the emphasis on a psychological journey means that the reader is consistently in step with her later-life evaluation of earlier experiences. So, readers don’t inhabit earlier scenes; we hear that she felt it was her job to “put her [mother] at ease, to help her make sense of this new reality” after their family immigrated. The emphasis remains on the kind of searching that young readers and seekers will find particularly resonant: “But for most of my twenties, Islam felt like a parent dishing out conditional love.” And as a bookgroup selection, it would spark discussion. (How, for instance, does the sense of conditional love as a child later transfer into a string of romantic detachments.) For me, however, the balance between “me” and “we” is struck perfectly in this next essay collection.

Laila Lalami’s Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America (2020) contains eight essays worked up from previous publications in The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker online. Lalami invites readers into a personal situation (for instance, an author event, in which an attendee asks her to comment on ISIS) that leads to reflection against a backdrop of history, sociology and psychology. She concisely summarizes the development of political movements, electoral proceedings, and religious sects, and she illuminates patterns that affect her everyday life. “Conditional citizenship is not unique to Muslims in America,” she writes in “Allegiance”: “Millions of people in this country live with the terrible reality that their relationship to the state is at least partly determined by the color of their skin, the nature of their creed, their gender identity, or their national origin.” She writes about her relationship with her mother-in-law, about the differences between the policing of the northern and southern political borders of the United States; she writes about a nylon nightgown and an earthquake, as well as Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The personal experiences add an urgency and vibrancy to these pieces, and the broader context invites readers into the process, affording a degree of intimacy, with substantial endnotes and a list of resources in the back: she knits together searching and belonging.

The Eat Offbeat Chefs’ Book of Recipes and Stories from Refugee and Immigrant Chefs, The Kitchen Without Borders (2020), made for wonderful browsing one afternoon, with its photographs and proverbs, its anecdotes and memories. I loved reading about Chef Minata’s life in Kankan, Guinea before she came to the U.S. and began working at Offbeat; I loved drooling over her recipe for Boflot (Fried Dough Puff puffs, rolled in cinnamon-sugar dust). It’s interesting to read about Chef Rachana’s role as “Mami” in the Offbeat kitchen; she was born into a traditional Brahmin family in Nepal, with about 45 people in their well-off household, and grew up in a family where the girls competed to inherit the fryer their mother used for making sel roti (sort of like a doughnut, in a ring, made of rice flour). Her recipe is Chari Bari: Chicken Meatballs in Nepali-spiced cashew sauce. Meat/fish and dairy/eggs are integral to these recipes, which strikes me as ironic; with so many people forced to leave their homes now because of the climate crisis (and conflicts related to resource depletion and extraction), and with direct mention of starving families left behind, I’d like to have seen more than a nod to resource-conscious food production. However, the impetus for the collection is to highlight the chef’s childhood memories of food and feasting, so looking backwards also reflects an old-fashioned set of priorities.

Paul Yoon’s Run Me to Earth (2020) opens in 1969 and contains stories of starvation and torture, pistols and prisons, and animals taken to slaughter—in Laos, where fields become gravesites. There’s also a fountain pen hidden in the eaves, a tiny ceramic teacup in a soldier’s pocket, and a dusty, out-of-tune piano. Two men—one twenty-something and one nearly forty—fresh from captivity, barely recognize themselves in a mirror, with their faces gaunt, their bodies all bones; they order multiple dishes from the menu of a hotel, feast and drink Fanta together. It’s about past and future, but also about feasting when you can. “All this time, it had never occurred to him that if he lived long enough to reenter the world, this new country, it would be empty.” It’s a plotty story, presented from different viewpoints, with subtle artistry, like the echo of motion near an ankle or a small creature’s motion in and out of sunlight or moonlight. Some different life, yet, through it all, the sky “enormous and unbroken”. Miriam Toews’ blurb is spot-on: “fierce, tender, wise earth-shattering, pulsating with love and hope.”

At the end of this year, I expect that Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2020) will appear on my list of most remarkable reading and viewing experiences. As a film, the viewing experience captures an artist’s perspective, including moments of beauty amidst hardship and devastation. As a collection of interviews, the book presents more than one hundred individuals’ perspectives—refugees, aid workers, politicians, activists, doctors and others—from twenty-three countries. This is not comfortable reading. It is compelling reading, however, and for me that’s due as much to Ai Weiwei’s (and his team’s) dedication to the project, as to the inherent urgency of the situation. His manner and his compassion are ever-present as are the vulnerability and desperation of the participants, though these are expressed in contrasting ways. The film is heartfelt but not sentimental, clear-eyed but not brutal. The book is direct, with its Q&A format and journalistic line of questioning, but it’s the uncluttered, ordinariness of it all that leaves an indelible mark. Ai Weiwei is renowned internationally for his art and the human rights issues raised by his installations and imagery; this is where I begin to explore his dedication, and I expect to delve deeper this year.

How about you: have you read (watched) any of these? If not, which are you most curious about now? Or, do you have another recommendation on the theme instead?