Archive Tour: Migration
18 SEPTEMBER 2017
There is a rich and moving trove of poems on the Poetry International Web about migration, forced and chosen, a human experience that is shared by many and has always been with us. Millions of Africans were ripped from their homes and enslaved in the New World. Middle Easterners and North Africans flee war now, walking toward Europe, crowded into rubber dinghies for the last perilous, sometimes fatal lap.
Five years ago, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, more than 72 million people had the status of “forced migrants, displaced by violence, conflict, disasters and development - more than one in every hundred of the world’s citizens”.
Some migrants become poets in their first or second or third languages, and poetry as often emerges from difficult situations as from the need to express love and passion. So it is not surprising that so much of the contemporary work in the PIW archive speaks directly about the conflicts migrant poets experience or witness, as Warsan Shire - a Somali born in Kenya and raised in London - in CONVERSATIONS ABOUT HOME AT THE DEPORTATION CENTER:
Popati Hiranandani was born in Hyderabad, in what is now Pakistan, in the Sindhi community composed of both Moslems and Hindus. She was uprooted to India during the 1947 Partition. "I have been buried alive [...] in history's graveyard" she writes in A HOMELESS SINDHI WOMAN. In an INTERVIEW published on PIW in 2010, the writer spoke of her peaceful, multilingual beginnings in a multiethnic region, her life as a displaced person in Mumbai and the loss of the Sindhi language.
White Europeans too migrate. According to historian Walter Nugent, 55 million people left their homes from 1846 to 1924, migrating within or out of Europe. From 1820 to 1924, America absorbed 33 million immigrants. All American poets, if they are not indigenous peoples, have a relationship to the immigrant experience. A less recent arrival may mistreat a potential one, as in Chinese poet Yi Sha's ironic REFUSED A VISA IN THE US EMBASSY:
This bearded official
Who looks more like a Muslim
More of a terrorist
Without a moment's hesitation
Resolutely rejects my application
Could this be one orangutan begrudging another
And yet. Ramsay Nasr, child of a Dutch mother and Palestinian father, in his (former) role as poet laureate of the Netherlands, wrote about Dutch New World explorers as "the true world champions of immigration". In THE HUDSON SONNETS it's sometimes hard to figure out who constitutes "us" and who is Other:
managed to win one god, one people for itself
which rose from drifting, loose minorities
could lay the seed for such a babelopolis
who taught you how to use the melting pot?
who said, be equal, be diverse and free
your trade, who told you, dreams can spread like shares?
For the individual, the situation is probably always bittersweet. "What you call immigration I call suicide", writes Ukrainian-born, Russian-American Ilya Kaminsky in his ELEGY TO JOSEPH BRODSKY that includes the enigmatic line: "We come back to where we have committed a crime,/ we don't come back to where we loved, you said".
There are also profound effects on on poets who freely choose to wander from place to place, like HIROMI ITO who left his native Tokyo for Poland and then for Kumamoto in Southern Japan, and now lives in California, writing in Japanese and visiting Kumamoto frequently. Choice notwithstanding, "Our passports are bad", Ito says bluntly:
And there is Sargon Boulos, born in the Assyrian enclave al-Habbaniyah in Iraq in 1943, who moved to Lebanon in 1966 and then to the US, his base until his death in 2007, and chose to imagine a Chinese exile, TU FU, for whom, like the poet in his early years,"Wherever he was, a burdensome war was on".
Current events sometimes force poets into identity politics as ALI ALIZADEH, an Iranian-Australian, told PI editor Michael Brennan in a 2011 interview:
But I'm not sure how I feel about all of that anymore. For one thing, I've come to see "identity politics" as a rather misleading and counterproductive concept. I guess, without wanting to be disputatious, I have developed misgivings about multiculturalism, and have come to see it as a capitalist ruse to distract the people from the real sources of injustice and inequality in the world. Cultural diversity is a very poor substitute for justice and political and economic equality. What's more, the supposedly positive fetishisation of the Other (e.g. me being encouraged to write poems about my "Persian heritage" for Australian readers, "celebrating minority ethnic identity" and all that) is really only marginally different from out-and-out racism.
In light of recent neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies in the USA, it is clear that the us-them dichotomy is alive and well, as in Alizadeh's YOUR TERRORIST
I call you master.
You don't speak my language.
noise in your ears; my poems
masterpieces of literature.
Migrant poets become formative influences on the body of literature that develops in the adopted country, sometimes even despite the fact that they had not been connected to the second language before. For example, the Israeli DAN PAGIS who was born into a German-speaking family in a part of Romania that is now the Ukraine, in what was once a multi-cultural part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. About him, critic Robert Alter has noted: Pagis "would probably have never known Hebrew, never have had any serious connections with Israel or the Jewish cultural heritage, had he not been expelled from Europe by [Nazism's] ghastly spasm of historical violence and cast, for lack of any other haven, into the Middle East."
Israeli poetry ignored its Mizrahi cultural heritages for a long while, and has only recently turned its ear to the subject, as Jewish poets consider the heritage of ancestors who migrated from Arab and/or Moslem countries. What they inherit includes the lack of a solution to the Israeli conflict with Palestinians, whose Arab culture Mizrahi Jews may share. Despite some private attempts at co-existence, there remains "the bitter word of the war that I didn't start and I can't end" as in Batseheva Dori-Carlier's NEVE SHALOM.
It is clear from this PIW archive tour that irony/self-irony is the key mode of the poetry of migration, as in Chris Magadza's ANATOMY OF AFRICAN PATHOS:
Because the African pain
Is painless pain.
Because it is African
The African female
The African child
Is a child soldier
A slave child
Or a mere street child.
The African migrant
Is an illegal migrant:
But a refugee
In his home.
The African dies
Is a black scar
That is why
A little more African
To the African
No one may claim to be unaffected by the phenomenon. Read on: