More people are refugees than ever before, and more people are able to publish and read books than ever before. Many other brilliant essayists have looked at how the dislocation of migration has showed up in the form as well as the content of literature.
How can writers most effectively craft pieces that inspire people to care about refugees and internally displaced people? Which genre best allows authors to share the psychological truths of their experiences: fiction, memoir, or some hybrid of both? Do writers tackle these subjects differently when writing for children, young adults, or grownups?
Are the structures of stories different depending on whether the protagonists traveled by choice or were forced to flee war or other disasters? And, as climate change promises to shift the landscape of our planet, how is climate-related dislocation showing up in literature?
Here, in this piece, through interviews with three emerging authors whose work grapples with travel or migration, we explore three very different ways to answer these questions.
We look into how Rajesh Naiksatam, Elika Ansari, and Kiran Bhat have answered these questions for themselves in their writing.
Elika Ansari is a humanitarian professional working with migrants in refugee camps in Greece through Doctors without Borders. She’s had the (mis)fortune of hearing many touching stories about hardship and perseverance.
Born in Iran, she’s lived in over 10 countries in her lifetime, including Dubai, Spain, and the UK.
A fan of learning and education, she has earned four masters’ degrees, from four different European universities, in International Relations, Anthropology, Development Studies and Cultural Narrative Studies.
She describes how her latest book, the middle-grade story Seacity Rising, touches on migration and displacement in an interview with author Camilla Downs.
“Imagine your world is so incredibly small and sheltered, that you can only begin to fathom murmurs of adventures abroad in storybooks and legends of old. It may be a dull life, but it is certainly a familiar and comfortable one, and one that does not easily invite danger. That is, of course, until danger appears at your doorstep, and you are forced to leave your home behind searching for answers on how to save it.”
Seacity Rising introduces a varied cast of talking animals, each with different personalities, who work together in this colorful and complex tale to save their world from ecological disaster.
The craft of writing draws Elika to books as much as the content and message. When describing why she appreciates the work of one of her favorite authors, young adult writer Tahereh Mafi, she said she fell in love with Mafi’s style, much as someone would come to love a character or setting.
Elika Ansari has said that fiction can actually allow writers more latitude to share the emotional truths of their journeys. Unlike memoir, which comes with the expectation of a fact-based narrative and usually categorizable, linear storytelling, fictionalized stories allow writers to use extended metaphor and literary devices to help readers from different backgrounds grasp the author’s experience.
She introduces some humor while pointing out the absurdity of prolonged armed conflict, especially among people who have more in common than they realize and no real reasons to fight, through a chapter with embattled ants.
Also, she has developed a powerful metaphor for climate change and ecological disruption that encompasses their unpredictability as well as the risks they pose to people and other living creatures.
“In Seacity Rising, I spent a great deal of time visualizing ways to capture climate change in a symbolic way that captured the severity, the urgency of the issue without compromising the flow of the narrative. I came up with a personified black smog as the metaphor for climate change, that would strike sporadically and wreak instant destruction on different land and waterscapes.”
The talking animals in Seacity Rising become, in a way, climate refugees, or environmental migrants.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) proposes the following definition for environmental migrants.
“Environmental migrants are persons or groups of persons who, for compelling reasons of sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or choose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad.”
Environmental migrants don’t always receive the same legal protections per international treaties as other refugees. Treaties protecting refugees were created before people were aware of ecological disruption as a reason for people to be displaced and often don’t include these migrants in the categories of protected people.
Also, many environmental migrants are technically internally displaced people (IDPs) rather than refugees as they flee to locations within their home countries. Thus, they can fall into different legal categories and receive fewer protections for that reason.
Currently, many climate refugees and other environmentally displaced people, especially those who are driven from their homes by slow-moving processes such as desertification rather than by storms or other disasters that make the news, have to rely on each other rather than international aid. Seacity Rising conveys this reality as the animals work together to figure out how to save their home, driven by mutual empathy as much as survival instinct
In Rajesh Naiksatam’s novel The Cloudburst, the teens who nearly drown in a massive Mumbai flood are also environmental migrants, displaced within their own country.
According to Naiksatam, the events in the book reflect the reality of a region where swamps that formerly served as a buffer between land and sea, and thus dampened the ferocity of incoming storms, were filled in to make room for a complex of commercial buildings.
“Weather conditions mentioned in the book are real. The 2005 Maharashtra floods, refers to the flooding of many parts of the Indian state of Maharashtra including large areas of the metropolis Mumbai, the floods were caused by the eighth heaviest-ever recorded 24-hour rainfall figure of 37.17 inches, which lashed the metropolis on 26 July 2005.It intermittently continued for the next day, 25.35 inches was received within the 12-hour period between 8 am and 8 pm. About one thousand people lost their life in this storm.”
This is part of a larger issue within the state of Maharashtra. “Hundreds of acres of swamps in Mahim creek have been reclaimed and put to use for construction by builders. These ecosystems serve as a buffer between land and sea. It is estimated that Mumbai has lost about 40% of its mangroves between 1995 and 2005.”
The Cloudburst also addresses displacement caused by violence humans commit against each other, as well as social stratification and class injustice and tension within Indian society. One of the characters, the teen boy Ganpu, comes from a family who lives in a shack because they lost their home and everything they owned when their land was taken over and given to multinational corporations
As Rajesh points out, this is based in reality as well, and environmental injustice is linked to classism, police brutality and other forms of injustice in India. An example he gives highlights these connections.
“They came just before dawn on June 3, 1997. Police officers forcibly entered the homes of several women in a fishing village in western India, dragging them into waiting police vans and beating them with sticks. The only ‘crime’ committed by these women was to lead a peaceful protest against the environmental impact of a massive new natural-gas plant being built.”
When asked about possible ways to address these issues, he says we must “control corporate greed and/or help end the massive corruption on every level of the government.”
“When [displaced people’s] lives get trampled upon and no-one seems to take notice; when people just go about their lives talking about real progress and economic growth [without considering the impacts on people] that to me is just WRONG. Someone has to say something about it and stand up for the displaced people in whatever way possible.”
The subtitle for The Cloudburst is “The Will to Survive Is a Force That Never Discriminates.” The story’s characters come from a wide range of socio-economic classes, yet, like the animals in Seacity Rising, they must put aside their differences to survive the superstorm. On another level, the subtitle encourages us towards empathy: everyone wants to survive, not just ourselves.
Rajesh set out to write realistic rather than supernatural suspense because he feels that the truth of today’s world has become scarier than fiction for some people.
“I think today’s reality is so much more engaging, scary and overwhelmingly powerful. One could be visiting any city in the world for work or pleasure and could get caught in nature’s wrath or one could be sitting at home minding their business and a government or corporation could barge into the house and take away everything.”
He views the process of creating adult literature as fundamentally different from crafting a book for teens. Like Elika Ansari, approaches communicating societal and ecological messages to younger audiences with much greater optimism.
“To write a book for adults is to understand and cater to the adult thought process and smoothly try to bring them to see your point of view or your message. The writer needs to be more skillful at foxing them. Writing for adults is to entertain them, knowing things will be forgotten in a few days and nothing will change. When writing for young adults, there is a lot more freedom to do things differently. Young adults (teens) are still very much like sponges. They have the capacity, courage and the will to learn, absorb, change their ideas and opinions, and the biggest treasure they have is TIME to experiment with new ideas.”
Rajesh reflects the urban crowding of Mumbai, including the incoming rush of newcomers displaced from rural India for economic or ecological reasons, by incorporating more characters into The Cloudburst than one normally sees in a YA novel.
“I took the liberty to bend a few rules, one rule says to not work with too many characters in a story. I did just that, Mumbai is a city with a lot of people and lot more pouring into the city every day. Dealing with too many characters on a daily basis is a way of life in Mumbai, it is an in-your-face glaring reality of this city.”
Despite the reality of suffering in the narrative, Naiksatam experienced a great level of joy while writing The Cloudburst.
“All of the characters are my favorite,” he says. “I had so much fun working with each one of them, at a certain point in my writing I realized that each character was telling me their own story and I was just taking notes.”
He does mention that he especially likes the wise and deep Ganpu and the teacher, Anu, who understands their helplessness in the face of the storm yet stays calm enough to bring out the best in each of the students.
Naiksatam’s career as a visual animator has influenced how he develops action scenes, and he says he plans out the details in his head first, visualizing before he writes.
Kiran Bhat’s interrelated story cycle we of the forsaken world could also be a cinematic experience. Bhat’s novel encourages readers to have empathy for others’ diverse experiences through its structure of sixteen separate stories. Readers eventually see these stories are all happening at once in different regions of the world, including many developing countries where people in small villages are grappling with the effects of globalization.
Far from the only beings around, we are sharing the planet with innumerable other humans, along with all the creatures of the natural world.
“If a woman in Somalia who has never been spoken to kindly by her husband even once has more in common with some retired housewife in Florida, or in Nauru, isn’t that more interesting, [telling] their stories in harmony, rather than putting them in the same narrative with characters who have nothing else in common with them than sharing the same physical space? I think globalization has absolutely changed the way we can conceive of the likelihood and the likeliness of our narratives, and it is this that I want to explore more in my fiction.”
Bhat says that the common thread tying all sixteen of his stories together is human feeling.
“I would say they are all [experiencing] human emotions, dealing with some type of trauma inside of them, or awakening, or realization. Other than that extremely abstract thought, I wouldn’t say my characters are too similar. I wanted to create a book which could represent the true diversity of life and feeling and emotion, and channel that in art.”
His characters are at once disparate and universal: while their circumstances differ widely from each other, they feel and think much the way anyone might in those particular situations. Most are not fully innocent, heroic, or evil, but rather the mixture of positive traits and foibles that we might see in any other person.
These characters, while not all forcibly relocated, are still ‘displaced’ in a sense. Like Ganpu’s family in The Cloudburst, the outside world has changed around them and larger national and international companies and governments are making decisions that affect them without their consent.
In Bhat’s own words, these people have been, to greater or lesser extents, left behind and disempowered, or “forsaken” as the world moved into modernity. They face issues brought about by extreme global inequality, such as human trafficking, and the degradation of their natural environments by larger countries’ pollution and waste.
Sometimes, not being able to leave can be as much of a hardship as being forced to flee.
Kiran Bhat believes that people, including those in the developing world, are going to have to become more mobile as time passes, given ecological, technological and economic trends. This will change our lifestyles, our cultures, and eventually our literature.
“I am of the belief that a lot of changes in our century – largely due to climate change, but yes also due to increased access to travel and globalization – are going to cause people to view themselves as fundamentally nomadic. It is one thing that the Sahara starts to desertify more and the land around Miami becomes less; it is another thing when it becomes so hectic that at one point there is an ice storm around one city and then in a few months a set of hurricanes. Humans will have to just start inhabiting whatever land is inhabitable in any given time or moment. In order to do that, we will have to change our architecture to be more effortlessly nomadic, self-sufficient, and global. And, yes, as that happens, stories will also inevitably change.”
One way Bhat reflects the level of global connectedness or isolation of the locales he depicts is through the cultural allusions characters will use in their internal dialogue. Someone from a more cosmopolitan society will have a different frame of reference than someone from an area where people rarely come into contact with outsiders.
So, as we end up moving around more in order to survive as a species, our range of metaphors will grow and become more eclectic.
Bhat says he could never see himself writing a memoir, but some of his psyche inhabits each of his characters.
“I haven’t written enough in the memoir field to know about it. I would say I am too emotionally fragile to write memoir. I would rather work with my invented characters, because they have enough of me to transmit a feeling, but too little of me to be truly me; I can enjoy them for what they are.”
His characters and settings are also loosely based on people and places from the over 100 countries he has visited while working as a corporate English instructor and living as a self-described “global citizen.”
“The places are based lightly on experiences in India, Indonesia, Peru, Kenya, and Turkey, but I would say the imagination of them, and the people these imagined regions inhabit, very much belong to myself.”
In we of the forsaken world, the characters are certainly not passive or without agency. And Bhat considers their individual struggles, hopes, dreams and domestic lives important enough material for a novel dealing with weighty world issues.
Yet broader global economic and ecological forces—poverty and inequality of opportunity, pollution and climate change—shape the characters’ lives.
Each vignette takes place in a country that is currently undergoing some sort of national transition into modernity. The “travels” of each character are more psychological than physical, and it is the narrators, and the readers, who move geographically from village to city to village in a mode that resembles the way we can peer into each other’s lives through social media.
Kiran suspects that the content of his stories would change if he were writing about people with more resources and privilege, but the overall structure would stay the same.
“I don’t know if the structure would have changed, but the story certainly would have. I structured my book as 16 vignettes with a national transition undergoing in their background, and then a blurring from that voice into another. So, I think that certain themes would have changed in the individual stories, and that would have caused me to write the poetic interludes which intersect them differently, but no, the structure would have remained the same, and inevitably, the stories of four very different worlds would have been told.”
When asked how we might go about increasing and defending the rights of indigenous people around the world, Bhat said that he wasn’t sure, but suggested that storytelling would be part of the solution.
Each of the three authors suggests that empathy and compassion can and should transcend geographical boundaries. Rajesh Naiksatam and Elika Ansari’s books promote working together across class, ethnic, or other barriers as a way of surviving forced displacement or other trauma. Kiran Bhat’s structure of very human narrators in a highly interconnected society points out what we share in common as humans and how we impact each other’s lives.
Cristina Deptula is the editor of Synchronized Chaos International Magazine (synchchaos.com) and a writer and journalist. She believes in the power of the written and spoken word to promote resilience and compassion.