My 2016 by Theophilus Kwek

Reading the Refugee Crisis

From today through Saturday, select Asymptote staff will be continuing our annual tradition of looking back on the year—specifically through the lens of literary discovery. First to go is Chief Executive Assistant Theophilus Kwek, who recently placed Second in the 2016 Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. 

It’s hard to imagine where we were a year ago: on the brink of a nuclear deal in Iran, standing firmly in Europe, and with a cluster of literary titans—including Elie Wiesel, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Max Ritvo and Leonard Cohen—to light the road ahead. The intervening months have taken us around blind corners that will, undoubtedly, take many more months to comprehend.

For many, however, that tumultuous journey has been more than metaphorical. From stories of asylum-seekers defying death to reach the Arctic Circle town of Neiden, to weekly reports of dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean Sea or the Bay of Bengal, we’ve been confronted this year by the brutal realities faced en route by 65.3 million displaced people worldwide, including 21.3 million refugees. The figures are mind-boggling on their own, but it’s another thing to remember that each statistic represents a fellow human who has braved trials we could never begin to understand.

Or can we? My 2016 has brought—along with border-crossing award-winners like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith), Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade, and Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation—a selection of powerful work bearing witness to the refugee experience, both by refugees themselves, and those involved first-hand in the asylum process. More than before, I am convinced that there are ways that we, as readers and writers, can know and share in these journeys. And in a publishing climate that remains overwhelmingly first-world, settled, and white, the least we can do (with our wealth and our words) is choose to look outside those brackets.

Modern Poetry in Translation’s ground-breaking Spring issue, ‘The Great Flight’ (2016, No.1), was dedicated to refugee and migrant writers from Syria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Korea, and other home countries. Between the astonishing poems—including a moving sequence by Golan Haji (‘Did we go far or get close or will we melt soon? We heard the sea’s roar in the desert…’)—and essays by Don Mee Choi, Shash Trevett and others, the volume is a heart-breaking portal to these writers’ worlds. I carry it around for weeks, allowing myself into enter their lost and found places at quiet hours.

In the summer, I speak to poet and novelist Kate Clanchy and encounter her important work with The Very Quiet Foreign Girls group at the Oxford Spires Academy, I’m ashamed to say, for the first time. Over the past eight years, Clanchy has taught students from diverse national backgrounds and her young poets have since made waves across the country: Azfa Awad, a refugee from Somalia, became Oxford’s first Youth Ambassador for Poetry in 2013. Their poems, many of which can be found online (two were among the winners of this year’s Foyle Young Poets’ Awards), shine with a rare maturity and challenge our often too-narrow views of what makes for good ‘young writing’.

Two other discoveries follow soon afterwards. The first—initially published in 2009 but featured again at this year’s Woodstock Poetry Festival—is an anthology entitled See How I Land, which includes a series of thrilling collaborations by exiled writers and British poets, supported by the charities Asylum Welcome and Refugee Resource. The second, a dizzying find in the glass-and-steel heights of Singapore’s National Library, is a surviving copy of Nhan Chung, the first (and by all accounts, only) edition of a journal published by the residents of the Vietnamese Refugee Camp in Singapore in 1979. In these pages are testimonies, poems, and interviews carefully translated and preserved by camp volunteers—each is filled with pain, optimism, love, and gratitude, and is a stark reminder of the impasse that Rohingya refugees are facing in Southeast Asia today.

Finally, I end the year with David Herd’s fascinating book Through (Carcanet, 2016), a collection of five longer poems that set out to interrogate the words used in asylum tribunals, detention centres, and other spaces that make up the UK’s soft and hard borders. Herd, who teaches at the University of Kent and helps run the Refugee Tales project with the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, has previously spoken about the need to ‘confront the language that surrounds indefinite detention’, and uses this book to do just that. It’s a timely read, given 2016’s depressing meltdown in political language surrounding immigration and integration, and doubly so when paired with dispatches from other writers ‘in the field’, like A.E. Stallings in Greece. These are the writers who, day by day, are working to ‘interrupt’ the words and actions intent on closing our borders and our worlds.

Against crisis—against war, displacement, suffering, cruelty and cynicism—writing seems so little. Sasha Dugdale puts it well in her editorial to ‘The Great Flight’:

I was anxious that publishing poems seemed an empty gesture. After all, I reasoned, what current refugees need right now is not poems, but aid: warmth, food and medical help.

Indeed, compared with these pressing needs, words alone don’t amount to much. But the two are not mutually exclusive, and little is far from nothing. As the President of the Syriac Writers Union tells Dugdale afterwards, on behalf of several refugee writers, it ‘turned their sadness into happiness’ to see their hard-won poems in the hands of readers in the UK and elsewhere.

For those of us involved in building and believing in our ‘Republic of Letters’, what we do here has an irreplaceable value of its own. We also have a welcome to offer, and to borrow the words of Assyrian refugee Jan Dammu in the latest issue of Asymptote, ‘this is life / This is infinity’.

Read Theophilus Kwek’s translation of Wong Yoon Wah in this  Translation Tuesday showcase.

Theophilus Kwek is a poet and translator, currently pursuing a Masters in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at Oxford. He served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and is Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry and The Kindling. He was recently placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation 2016, and his pamphlet, The First Five Storms (January 2017), won the New Poets’ Prize.

  • sye

    If we remember the time of Moses. What would I think about the differences between people led by Moses and refugees today?