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. Here, in this piece, through interviews with three emerging authors whose novels or memoirs grapple with travel or migration, we explore what those who write about soul searching journeys, adventures, or trips where they found love and changed their lives can learn from those who have written from experience about having to flee their homes to escape war or natural or ecological disasters, and possibly vice versa.
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? Has how we write about migration and travel changed as our international readership now includes a number of displaced people? Are the structures of stories different depending on whether the protagonists traveled by choice or were forced to flee war or other disasters? We’ll look into how Nhi Chung, Robert Cohen, and Urmila Patel have answered these questions for themselves through their writing.
Nhi Chung’s memoir Among the Boat People could be adapted into a cinematic drama. Chung fled Vietnam in the late 1970s as part of the post-war refugee exodus and the book shares the story of the sea voyage that took the lives of several of her family members before bringing her to NYC.
Chung worked for decades as a bilingual educator, and many of her students were also immigrants and refugees who wanted to hear her tell her story.
Her story became a source of hope for others, but in an unexpected way.
“Refugees particularly want to hear my story. They say I have a similar story to theirs but they wonder if my story is better or worse since they experienced such things themselves. This way if you see somebody [who was] worse off than you, you feel, ‘At least I’m not the worst off!’”
Chung’s memoir, while not fictionalized, involves non-linear storytelling to convey how the author remembers her immigrant experience. She finds her own highly unique memoir structure even more freeing than crafting a novel—which was helped by the fact that she did not write the book with the commercial market in mind.
“I wanted to write a memoir that came from my memories, not books. But memory is not linear. I think fictional books have to follow a lot of rules and conventions; but each person’s memory is different, which means it follows different roads.”
She designed a personal writing process that accommodated how she recollected her experiences.
“In my case, I first tape recorded my thoughts, then transcribed them and then wrote using that as base. In the first chapter, my memories as I recorded them started with me thinking of the refugee boat, then went back to my disaster, then back to the ship, then back to planning for getting on the ship. This is the structure I followed, the way my memory proceeded.”
Reviewers, such as Martha King in her essay in Sensitive Skin, describe how Chung’s memoir structure facilitates her writing process as well as her communication with her readers. Quite a humble person, Chung thanks and praises her reviewer:
“Martha King in her piece in Sensitive Skin explains this in a more brilliant and thoughtful manner than I could. She writes, ‘Chung … will interrupt her own narrative to quote from other sources in her struggle to convey things profoundly difficult for her to explain. The disruptions and discontinuities in her narrative leave a reader dizzy and disoriented. Having experiences like hers in one’s own memory would easily do that. Displacing it, removing it. Yet her decades-long devotion to continue trying to write this account is everywhere evident. She must. She tries again and again.’”
One confusing experience for Nhi in the United States was watching Miss Saigon with a group of mixed-race students. She felt the show suggested that refugees and immigrants must leave their families and culture behind to be able to come to the US, while in reality, she and other Vietnamese immigrants were still ‘highly tied to their families and to the broader Vietnamese immigrant community.’ Also, the iconic images of Americans and some Vietnamese escaping the country after the war by helicopter loom much larger in American than Vietnamese imaginations.
I asked Nhi Chung if her book would have been different if she’d been traveling by choice for pleasure rather than fleeing the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
“In a way, this question brings out most clearly the stark difference between American and traditional Chinese ways of looking at the world. The question doesn’t directly say this, of course, but to me it does signal the American idea that one can make choices to determine the course of one’s life. Traditionally, the Chinese believe in fate, ming won, 命運.
As I say in my book, if things had gone a different way, I would have [maybe done something different] …. But they went this way and this is the only way they could have gone.”
Chung does believe that she could learn from stories about people who travel by choice, who go on adventures. She mentions a Chinese folktale which makes a point that inspires her, and relates to her attitude towards memory and storytelling.
“As to what I can learn from a fictional story of self-discovery, I would refer again to Lu Hsun, this time his story about a trip of discovery, ‘The Village Opera.’ The story begins with a long buildup about how he, the narrator, so much enjoyed the village opera he saw as a boy. Then in the story he remembers his trip by boat down river to see the show. He makes clear the opera, which they arrived at late, only had the worst singers and least capable people performing. But then, when the reader may be a bit surprised, as the story goes on describing the voyage back, cooking a meal on the boat and so on, we realize what he enjoyed was the overall experience. Such fictions teach you about how memory works.”
As for what others could learn from reading Among the Boat People, Chung is down-to-earth about how she addresses refugees’ struggles.
“I think people can learn from my book how to survive with courage and endurance. You can see how refugees are forced to leave. After all, you don’t want to stay in a hole the rest of your life. You want a better life. But when you leave, you find the outside is like a jungle. You are like an animal in the jungle, facing different types of dangerous situations you never imagined.”
Unfortunately, as Chung illustrates, fear can cause people who hear about others’ struggles to engage in victim-blaming or shy away from those who experience tragedy.
“Sadly, a bad fate makes people look down on you as if you were responsible for it. Every Chinese knows the famous short story by Lu Hsun called ‘The New Year’s Sacrifice.’ A woman, called only Hsiang Lin’s wife, has her husband die of typhoid. Then her son is carried off by a wolf. She comes to work as a cook but the family will not let her prepare the New Year’s dinner as she has a bad fate. She is polluted, and [some people still think this way].”
Chung believes her story can help other refugees and immigrants, and anyone who has been uprooted, cope with the fears that come with that kind of experience.
So extremely shy as a child back in Vietnam that she hid in a closet when an aunt came to visit, she learned to reach beyond her comfort zone when she had to in order to function in her new home.
“Now people say to me, ‘Nhi, you are funny. You are never shy.’ I lost my shyness in America because, as Westerners say, you do what you gotta do.”
Robert Cohen’s humorous novel If God Allows’ protagonist Paul is definitely not shy. He, like the author, is a young American male urban advertising executive who travels to Vietnam and Indonesia for work and personal adventure.
The similarities in the author’s and character’s lives have caused some readers to inquire whether If God Allows is a memoir.
“The truth is, I left out a lot of my actual story for several reasons. I thought my own life might be too boring for the kind of book I wanted to write and it was more fun to get my character into some made up trouble.”
Cohen says that he nearly added one or two other stories he’d heard from other expatriates and travelers but they were so “outlandish he didn’t think they would be believable.”
“I’ve actually experienced this in short story workshops before, when the group singled out the one thing in my story that was actually true and called it out as being distracting and hard to believe). So in some cases I brought the fiction closer to Earth and in others I went so far overboard that though a thing might not be believable, it’d be entertaining enough to forgive. But even the parts [of this book] that aren’t true definitely convey true emotions/psychological truths around the topic I’m discussing.”
When asked whether readers who were Vietnamese and Indonesian nationals thought If God Allows sounded plausible, Cohen had a positive but inconclusive response.
“I did hear from a friend in Vietnam who read it, and while Vietnam and Indonesia are entirely different places with their own cultures, there is a definite overlap in the moral elasticity of the expat scene and how locals in each country cater (or not) to that. Anyway… that friend told me she loved it. In fact, she told me she wished she could find love like the characters Paul and Lusi had. And she felt that the story felt like something someone visiting the region definitely could have experienced in one way or other. But if I hear from any Indonesians I’ll be sure to get back to you.”
In If God Allows he employs fiction to convey truth at a level that he feels will more deeply resonate with readers than straight-up memoir.
Paul dreams of writing the next great American novel, and readers get the chance to read the book he writes as he writes it, a dynamic Cohen describes as “a hall of mirrors within a hall of mirrors.”
“[The concept] came about fairly organically…He needed a dream, and then something about him thinking through the novel as it went along made for a really fun writing exercise. It made sense for the character too though. He was a day dreamer. He was interested in film making and saw the world as a film, in ways. So, I felt it made sense that if he wanted to write a novel he’d see the world through a literary lens. Also, ad-people are always trying to be clever and ‘meta,’ so there’s that.”
The construct of the story-within-the-story structurally reflects the voluntary nature of Paul’s journey and his relative social privilege. He’s consciously telling a story while on his journey, setting out to find material for his novel.
Kirkus describes If God Allows as a highly personality-driven novel, further expanding on that idea. Again, the focus on a singular protagonist differs from the other books, which focus on either groups of characters working together or on the circumstances which befall the narrators. Paul starts off happening to the world, rather than vice versa.
“I am painfully aware of the white privilege on display in my novel. It was a large motivation for adding the man in the village outside [Paul’s] window. For those who haven’t read the book, his office in Jakarta looks out across, what the protagonist describes as a moat, toward an impoverished village. I’m sure anyone who has been to the third world is familiar with something like this—a beautiful home surrounded by some of the poorest, signs of capitalism ensconced in the midst of poverty, etc. There is one man in particular who seems to be a bit of a loner within that village and our ‘hero/ often ponders the contrast between their respective existences.”
Cohen has worked as a copy writer and a creative director for advertising firms in NYC and a campaign he created for the Red Cross and American Association of Blood Banks is in the permanent collection at The Museum of Modern Art. He chose to write about his own industry in his novel for practical reasons.
“Having worked in the ad industry, I was confident I’d be able to write about it in a way that felt authentic. Also, it’s an industry that really does facilitate cross-country and overseas relocations more than I’ve heard about in most other professions. Throw in the mad-men reputation for workplace decadence and it just felt like the right way to go for Paul.”
As both a young man excited by the ‘workplace decadence’ that Cohen describes in the advertising industry and an atheist, the pervasive presence of Islam in Indonesia is a huge culture shift for Paul.
“As his world is flipped on its head during his time in Indonesia, the more stress he endures, the more he searches for what matters to him in life. Even his views on religion change. I wouldn’t say he’s on a path toward religion, but he certainly opens up to it and even finds comfort in the small symbols of it. When he first arrives in Jakarta he finds the multiple calls-to-prayer every day strange but it later becomes a more natural part of his life.”
Cohen outlines how Paul grows throughout the course of If God Allows, how he eventually allows travel to change him.
“I believe that Paul goes to Indonesia thinking he’s an open minded and adventurous person, only to realize how far he has to go. It isn’t until his will is crushed entirely that he truly opens himself up to the world and starts to consider what might truly make him happy. This is partly through his realizations of what makes others happy.”
Moving away from self-centeredness towards more of a balanced concern for others as well as self helps Paul find love at the end of the novel. Also, his travels give him a huge reality check.
“This may sound cliche but I think he learns about what should really matter in life. He’s forced to realize how lucky he is to be in the situation he’s in, especially as it becomes more and more contrasted with the lives of those around him. He begins to let go of his material desires and his preconceived notions of how the world should work.”
Yet, Paul is not the only character who learns and grows through the story. This is refreshing, that some of the foreign nationals Cohen’s Western protagonist encounters are people who think and consider new ideas, not merely static backdrops contrasting with the hero.
“And in turn, the character, Nisa [an Indonesian female colleague] who is something of a grounding character for Paul, takes on some of his qualities, while remaining true to who she is. She realizes it’s okay to have impractical dreams/passions and to chase them, something that may not have been obvious to her before Paul entered her life. And I do think this is as important as what he learns.”
To Cohen, Nisa’s psychological journey reflects the intergenerational effects of trauma and displacement and shows what it can look like when wounds begin to heal.
“There’s a poem by Wislawa Szymborska about the end of a war and all that it takes to move past the effects of it. There’s a lot to unpack in the poem but she ends it with someone lying in a patch of grass where generations ago people killed and died, and this person stretches out, staring at the sky, blade of grass in mouth, basically daydreaming. I think there’s a lot to that, to move past merely surviving your situation, on to being able to approach life [in a] more leisurely [way], with dreams to chase, passion to pursue, etc.”
Cohen considers that Nisa’s character arc is perhaps the most significant to the story.
“I wonder if Nisa is the one who actually changes the most. She may not change who she is, but the fact that she let’s go of some hesitations that might come with where she’s from, how she’s raised, customs, norms, etc., it may be one of the more interesting results of Paul’s introduction into the world she was living in.”
He wrote this novel in part to process his own feelings about adventuring through regions where many other people experience much less control over their lives.
“And sure, pointing back to the question about dealing with truths through fiction, this is definitely my way of dealing with real life guilt that I felt, being a well-off white man in a place with so much poverty. Considering the experience of those who are where they are because they had no choice, vs those who go to such places through opportunity, life/career choice, and even adventure, is definitely a theme in the novel and something I at least had my character become more attuned to as well as learn from as the novel played out. If nothing else, there was a shifting in the main character’s priorities over time because of it.”
Memoirist Urmila Patel’s Out of Uganda in 90 Days relates how as a child she fled Uganda with her parents when dictator Idi Amin ordered all Indians and other East Asians to leave the country or face death.
Before Uganda gained independence from Britain in 1962, her father moved there from India to work as a teacher, a field where jobs were plentiful.
Once Idi Amin gained power, he stoked fear and resentment of ethnic minority groups within the country, including East Asians. Claiming, incorrectly, that they were taking economic advantage of the majority population, he used the tension to maintain control of Uganda.
Patel was too young to understand the political situation when she left as a small child, and she credits some of her psychological survival to her youthful naivete.
“My ignorance [helped me survive]. Through support from family and friends, I think, my capability for strength was formed at a very young age. Besides, enduring tough times provided me with an opportunity to draw even more inner strength. The hardship I had to go through equipped me to cope with whatever life throws my way. This incident gave me strength and motivation to fight against any problems that come my way.”
I asked whether she would have structured her story differently if she were writing about a pleasure trip rather than a refugee journey. She responded that when they fled Uganda, she was so young that she didn’t realize what was happening and thought she was going on a fun adventure.
Yet, she still sensed subconsciously that they were in danger, that this was an extreme situation.
“Moving away from the fear, at first, we kids felt like it was an adventure traveling on the train and going to a totally different country we had never experienced before. In our mind, it was supposed to be a short vacation. But along the journey, I felt like I was uprooted and didn’t know where I belonged. Somewhere in my subconscious, I was programmed to fight. I couldn’t say where it came from but it was there.”
Through writing her memoir, she realized that she was still affected psychologically by her experience as an adult.
“A variety of experiences kept bringing back triggering memories of our escape. When we were on the train [out of Uganda] military men looted and killed many passengers, and one of them pulled me up out of my seat. For a very long time, I have lived with the fear that an outsider might come and take away my belongings so I kept close track of them. I was always fighting through new events that I came across in my life. I felt [endangered], that I must rescue myself. I felt low self-esteem for a very long period even though people didn’t see it on my face or through my actions. I have worked through a major part of those feelings, though.”
While Patel’s refugee journey occurred while she was a young child, her writing comes from a more mature adult’s vantage point. She did additional research in order to be able to fill in the gaps.
“I was more mature at the time I wrote my story, and so more practical information came into my mind that inspired me to write my story in a certain way.”
Patel’s memoir began as a fairly straightforward account of what happened—how her family got to Uganda and out of it, and how and where they went afterwards. Then, she added in more descriptive words and phrases to help readers visualize and understand the story. Also, significantly, she did historical research so that she could tell the story of East Asians in Uganda, rather than simply the story of her own family.
“I had no intention of writing my memoir as a novel. When I began to write, I felt as if I were living the events again, and the writing just came naturally. While editing, I realized my story wasn’t detailed enough. So I researched online and found different ways a memoir is written and learned words and phrases to reveal detail. This is now my ongoing method of learning.”
She reflects on the resilience of the Asian-Ugandan community, the strength of her parents, and the organizations who helped refugees at that time.
“Every Ugandan Asian, rich or poor, was in the same boat at that time. We helped and supported each other and prayed for everyone’s safety. Parents protect their kids in any circumstance. Mother made a painful commitment to take her children out of the country. My father was a brave man; he had this ability to mix well with the locals and knew he would somehow survive. When Idi Amin finally said that everybody must leave, my father was helped by the United Nations Refugee Council and the Red Cross.”
As with Nhi Chung’s Among the Boat People, she spends a good deal of time on her adult life in her new home. Refugee journeys don’t always end when the person reaches their new homeland, and both of these memoirs make that point.
In particular, Patel reflects on the psychological toll the journey and trauma took on her mother even after they were resettled.
“If I were an adult going through all this, then I think I might have seen some of the events differently. I saw my mother keep her pain suppressed deep inside. She had to protect her children and knew ahead of time that life was not going to be an easy one. Her silence at times might have been due to her experiencing triggering memories of our escape. She never talked to us about it and didn’t know how to take the painful memories away. I believe her suppression [of her memories] contributed to shortening her life. She had a stroke and died.”
Now living in Fremont, CA, Patel has connected with other Indian-Ugandans who also survived or fled Amin. She traces the timeline of Amin’s persecution of Indians in her memoir, a situation which parallels discrimination against ethnic minorities and immigrants in many countries.
“The British brought around 32,000 people of Guajarati origin to build the railway which started in Mombasa, Kenya. Once the railway was built, most of them left and fewer than 10,000 stayed. In those days, the whites, the Africans and the Indians lived and married within their own communities. The Indians brought their wives or husbands and families over from India and the Indian population grew. There was a large population of Indians in Uganda that included Hindus and Indian-Muslims. Uganda became their home and when Idi Amin expelled the Asians, he was kicking out families who had lived there for three or four generations.”
This kind of background information allows Western readers who may be even less familiar with the history of Uganda as we are with that of Vietnam to understand the enormity and dynamics of Idi Amin’s racist violence and persecution.
Patel speaks highly of the governmental and church organizations who helped her family while they stayed in Belgium before they eventually resettled in the United States. She highlights the positive contributions refugees and immigrants can make to their home countries.
“By giving refugees practical support, they will get established in their second homes, which will help them be more able to educate their children. They will become the entrepreneurs and the economic backbone of the country they are settled in.
There is a wonderful example of the Ugandan Indians who were resettled in England, the USA and many European countries. They have educated their children, given jobs to the locals, made the country they live in more prosperous and are giving back to their new countries. Not only that, they brought with them a non-violent mindset with wisdom and knowledge. That is my experience.”
Also, she describes a political pathway towards national and ethnic reconciliation that could help refugees eventually be able to return home. The plan that worked to repatriate and welcome many East and South Asians back to Uganda after Idi Amin’s removal from power and eventual death, after 20 years of exile.
The new government returned land to its original pre-Idi Amin owners and made other forms of reparations, as well as rooting out administrative and financial corruption.
According to Patel, the country is peaceful now and able to absorb and benefit from the contributions of new waves of immigrants, including South and East Asians.
“There is a new wave of immigrants arriving now in Uganda, from southern India and also refugees from the neighboring African countries.
A lot of Chinese started moving into Uganda, bringing new technology and building roads and highways, which the Israelis had initially started building and which are changing the infrastructure of the country. Chinese investments help with infrastructure construction, which is very important for Uganda.
Chinese businessmen can buy Chinese goods more cheaply than Ugandans and that creates unrest among the native Ugandans but overall the country is peaceful. The indigenous people have become smarter. Due to the influx of foreign investment the economy started moving forward.”
Each of these three authors point to empathy and storytelling as tools that help us move beyond societal and personal trauma. In Robert Cohen’s If God Allows, Nisa and Paul both learn from each other and develop an authentic relationship, suggesting that empathy and compassion can and should transcend geographical boundaries. Nhi Chung believes that Among the Boat People can give other refugees the strength to move forward with courage and dignity, and enjoys sharing her story with others for that reason.
Urmila Patel’s advocacy for mutual understanding and the acknowledgement of others’ experiences goes even further, as she has witnessed a model of compassion, accountability, and eventual reconciliation on a national scale in Uganda. She outlines that political process in her memoir, and shows how the country’s providing justice, safety and reparations has given her the option of revisiting her childhood home in Uganda, which she hopes to do someday.
“Of course I still carry a lot of good memories of the place I once called home. Since I wrote my account, I so much want to go inhale the deep breeze of the atmosphere, and to absorb the energy of the places where I once lived and played and the trees I climbed and the water of Lake Victoria where I swam. After the release of my book, I connected with members of the Ugandan Asian community on Facebook. When I saw the recent photos of a trip they’d taken to Uganda, my heart cried. There is still a bit of fear in me, but I am sure it will pass by, once I am in Uganda again.”
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.