‘The Road’ by Chris Abani | Refugee Week 2019

This week, 17-23rd June, is Refugee Week 2019, a UK-wide ‘programme of arts, cultural and educational events and activities that celebrates the contribution of refugees to the UK and promotes better understanding of why people seek sanctuary’ (see more here).  We wanted to mark the occasion this year, and the anniversary of our special billboard from last year, by sharing one of the two brand new essays from The Displaced paperback, ‘The Road’ by Chris Abani. By doing so we also want to honour Refugee Week’s first declared ‘Simple Act’: ‘Share A Story’ (find out more about the Simple Acts here), as stories are completely invaluable for breeding better understanding and empathising with others.

Our creative billboard with JackArts and Refugee Week 2018

Today the world faces an enormous refugee crisis—68.5 million people fleeing persecution and conflict from Myanmar to South Sudan and Syria. In 2018, Abrams Press and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen published an anthology featuring essays from seventeen prominent refugee writers from around the world who explored and illuminated their experiences for readers. The paperback edition of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives is out now with two new contributions from Chris Abani and Raja Shehadeh. These essays in The Displaced reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a reimagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge, during a time in history when the sheer scale of the crisis renders for many the experience of refugees hard to comprehend. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000, to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict. For more information on the IRC, visit www.rescue.org.

The following extract is from The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Abrams Press)

The Road

In the beginning there was a river.
The river became a road
and the road branched out to the
whole world. And
because the road was once a river
it was always hungry.
BEN OKRI, The Famished Road

My walk by the lake, this cold morning, is magical with wisps of mist curling away into nothing and the silent patrol of several sea birds in formation, like nature’s coastguard. Back home I make a pot of Earl Grey tea for the work ahead. The hot tea also mists and the bergamot oil smell warms me, creating an old sense of comfort and safety. At my desk, in the photograph I’m looking at, a young boy of maybe ten or twelve, is carrying another younger boy. They are walking down a rural dirt road, dense bush on either side. In the distance, ahead of them, four teenage girls walk abreast, straddling the road. One has her head turned back to check up on the boys.

It is a simple photograph, elegant in its framing, smart in its depth of field, but still a simple scene: six African children walking down a rural dirt road. There is no immediate danger visible, although there is an air of tension around the boys, but still nothing to throw up any red flags. And yet I am arrested immediately, a nervousness has entered my breathing, and I am at once focused and distracted. This is despite the fact that this photograph, by Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk, has just popped up in my Instagram feed.

Something about it is at once familiar and yet disturbing, a strange uncanny valley phenomenon. Again, this is despite the fact that I cannot know the scene, I cannot know anyone in this photograph, I cannot possibly know this place. Why? Because it was taken a few days ago, taken in fact in Surinam. And yet it has this disturbing effect, this displacement from time, from place, and even from memory. And then it dawns on me, my mind has connected this photograph to an image in my mind. And I say “image,” although in the strict sense of the visual it cannot be, and the reasons for this will become clear. The image is of my elder brother Mark, barely eight, carrying my six-month old self as we flee our home in rural Afikpo, just hours before the encroaching Nigerian Army enters our town from Ndibe Beach, where they have just landed, a mere three miles away. Not an image in the strictest sense because while I may actually remember the event deep down in a part of my consciousness, while it is possible for memory like this to be recorded indelibly even at such a young age, my ability to access it might be up for debate. I cannot have “seen” something that I was participating in. We cannot, we are told, be both in a “scene” and simultaneously “see” that scene from outside it. So, what I’m really recalling, while no less clear in every sense as the photograph I’m looking at, cannot be real. And yet it happened. This is fact.

And here we encounter in one moment some of the hardest things about the refugee experience—that being a refugee is neither a noun nor a verb, but a stutter in time-space, always repeating. You are simultaneously always a refugee even when you are no longer a refugee. Once marked you always carry this existential “smell” of displacement. You realise that although you have lived through and always carry it with you, the experience doesn’t always correlate with what feels real or what is even true to memory. So, you’re always left with the annoying aftertaste of this particular trauma and its repetitive wounding without the necessary words to convey the experience. As details shift in telling and retelling you doubt your own experience of it. What is yours, what belongs to your family’s recollection, what belongs to the media of the time, what belongs to what you have revisited, becomes unclear.

Have you noticed that the quintessential image for the refugee, the photographs we have come to identify with the condition always has the refugee in flight? The refugee is always on the road somewhere, on a boat somewhere, on a plane somewhere, on a train somewhere, never ever arriving. Some are carrying umbrellas, bags, children, some even have coffins strapped to the back of bicycles, sewing machines, things, on heads, in carts, on bicycles, a long thick stream of people, a human river of desperation.

There is the home that is lost and the home that can never be remade or reclaimed. You are always traveling, unable to return and unable to truly settle or belong anywhere else. Geography is not a real factor here, beyond the idea and fact of journey.

My refugee experience was as a result of the Nigerian-Biafran Civil War of 1967 to 1970. As an Igbo, the so-called rebel ethnicity, even after the war was over, even after the “No Victor, No Vanquished” speech of the then Nigerian Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, the Igbos till this day remain kind-of-refugees even in their ancestral lands. The war is always the spectre and will always be the spectre haunting them. There is something about the way that refugees, more than any other kind of displaced peoples, haunt the assurances of stability that modern statehood aspires to. Perhaps because this body is proof that we have advanced much less in our “humanness,” than we would like to believe.

Perhaps no other body causes as much unease as the body of the refugee. Refugees generate complex anxieties wherever in the world they go, wherever they try to resettle. I don’t think this is simply the result of native fears of being overrun by a horde of refugee barbarians. It may be partly a result of guilt—most nations who take in refugees are often morally obligated to do so, because they are wealthier and more stable economies are a result of a history of exploitation of others; or even, sometimes, they are directly responsible for creating the state of state collapse that created a particular group of refugees. This naturally creates feelings of resentment, and even compassion fatigue.

Perhaps the deeper fear is simply this: that in the body of the refugee we come to terms with the fragility of nationhood and stability. With the realisation that when we are looking into the face of refugees, we are looking directly into our own possibility. That there is nothing but a weird grace, a ruthless machinery of state, and our own collusion with it, keeping us from becoming refugees ourselves. This realisation, that identity is fluid and never actualised or ever stable, and our own denial of this, is at the heart of the human condition. We fear, and sometimes hate, refugees, because their existence is our deepest fear: that we don’t and never will belong anywhere.

Contrary to all protestations, America is not really a nation of immigrants but rather of refugees. Trauma, displacement, and a fanatical hope have marked all Americans from the occupants of the Mayflower through every subsequent group who arrived, or were forcibly brought here. This is the unspoken and sometimes unacknowledged fear and fact of being American. This means that these unkind ghosts of our pasts, these spectres of self and previous nations that will not be dismissed so easily always attend our daily negotiations around identity.

This is a complex negotiation because while we all feel the inexplicable tug of nostalgia to identify with all parts of our historical pasts, we are torn when we actually have to inhabit any of those pasts. The very word, nostalgia, in its original meaning refers to the pain from an old wound. The sentimentality that often accompanies nostalgia is just a way to bear the pain while we revisit the wound.

This is why the refugee is the most challenging and most romantic body to the modern sensibility because it carries all the marks of the shadow that we have buried or at least blunted, and simultaneously all the possibility of our current status. We realise when we confront the refugee that we are staring into the mirror of our own memories of displacement. We remember the pain of their loss, one that still resides deep within us, and it calls to our own suffering and then we are caught in a web of extreme difficulty: how to balance our compassion with the need to define the limits of hospitality—both of which are needed if we are to help our displaced friends find their dignity again.

All the anger, confusion, and irrational fear experienced by refugees or those working on behalf of these communities stems from these anxieties that the larger culture feels. It is not new, it is not uniquely American, but what is uniquely American is the shame and silence around these feelings. If we are to make any progress in this area, we must learn to talk, and to talk outside of the matrix of right and wrong, but rather learn to negotiate our fears and insecurities.
. . .

Eight-year-old Mark, walking in a long line of refugees and carrying me, is an image that stays with me. It haunts our relationship. The fact of my physical weight as an eight-month-old has merged with the weight of the trauma of the war that displaced us, becoming, for him, something he cannot put down for fear perhaps that it will die, and with it, something important about him. Because to be eight and have to carry a younger sibling for miles, on foot, afraid as you get tired that you might drop him, afraid of bullets, afraid of death, something that while real it still, undefinable in your eight-year-old mind, is unimaginable.

And war, regardless of what the distance of news or television might suggest, happens suddenly and even casually for most people it affects. It doesn’t matter how many states of emergency are declared, how many curfews are imposed, what the local news tells you. Humans have a near infinite capacity to normalise the world in order to survive and to thrive.

In the months leading up to the secession of Biafra, hundreds of thousands of Igbos living in northern Nigeria were slaughtered in ethnic cleansing, their bodies despoiled and sent back to the eastern homelands of the Ibo as mutilated corpses packed into train carriages. Still, Igbo leaders tried to broker peace, tried to hold onto the hope of this new country called Nigeria. And so, although my father moved our family from the Igbo city of Igboagu where we lived, where my father, a former member of Parliament, was now school principal, back to ancestral town of Afikpo, the idea was we would be safe and could wait out the “troubles” in relative safety. And then one afternoon, while your mother is making lunch, a relative arrives to tell you that you have half an hour to gather your life together and flee. It takes most of us longer to pack for a day at work.

I often think of how hard this was for my mother, a white woman in a Nigerian war. To take four children, while pregnant with another, and to flee in a long line of refugees on foot. To face the possibility of violent death every day in the midst of the reality of hunger and loss and fear. To try to flee one country to another. To cross several hundred miles, a distance that in peacetime would be a four-hour drive, but now in this reality of war and death, takes two years, because the road is never straight. To attempt this journey to the only operational airstrip, a former road. To give birth to your only daughter in a hospital being strafed by enemy bombs. To have left all but your youngest boy in the trust of other refugees to flee ahead of the bombs trusting you will find each other again. To keep the youngest boy, barely a year old with you, in that hospital with bombs coming down while you’re trying to give birth. To be attended only by a frightened nurse and a calm Irish nun-midwife who laid your son in the cot next to her cookies and Earl Grey tea. She would wheel both from ward to ward ahead of the bombs, the nurse doing the same to the mother. To bounce from country to country until your own home lets you in grudgingly. All of these experiences never leave you.

A friend of mine, also a former refugee, told me that the feeling is a bit like moving through the foster system, you always feel displaced, always feel like a burden, always feel outside of everything. I, like every refugee, have hundreds of stories of difficulty and danger and the potential loss of life and the perpetual journey to healing.

There are many things that trigger these bittersweet memories. For me the smell of Earl Grey tea is a strong one, comfort and struggle, the knowledge that I’m always travelling away from refugee. If the road is kind, one day I will arrive.

‘The Road’ © 2019 Chris Abani

Chris Abani is a novelist, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and playwright. Born in Nigeria to an Igbo father and English mother, he grew up in Afikpo, Nigeria, received a BA in English from Imo State University, Nigeria, an MA in English, Gender and Culture from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. He has resided in the United States since 2001. He is the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, a PEN Beyond the Margins Award, the PEN Hemingway Book Prize, and a Guggenheim Award. His fiction includes The Secret History of Las Vegas and Song for Night. His poetry collections include Sanctificum and There Are No Names for Red. Abani is known as an international voice on humanitarianism, art, ethics, and our shared political responsibility. He is Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.