The hole in the fence. The gap in the conversation.
Publisher: Peirene Press
First Published: 1st August 2016
Date Reviewed: 18th July 2016
breach – lower-case first letter intentional – is a collection of short stories about the current refugee camp in Calais. It is a specially commissioned project – Meike Ziervogel, publisher, sent the two authors to Calais to interview refugees so that they could write a collection inspired directly by the situation. Set almost exclusively in the camp and featuring stories about both refugees and volunteers, the book is a timely creation amidst the current political climate.
The stories deal with a variety of nationalities. The writing has been divided, each author contributing four stories. The stories can be slightly vague: those from the point of view of the refugees don’t always show you exactly what’s happening; but because the stories from the point of view of volunteers are a lot easier to understand on a literal level, it could be said there’s an intentional use of language barriers – the authors showing how the refugees haven’t mastered English. There’s also the language/situation barrier wherein the refugees don’t know exactly what will happen. And you could point to the authors’ commission as to a reason for the vagueness, the difficulty of it.
The vagueness makes for something of an emphatic vein – it might be frustrating not to know exactly what’s going on in some of the stories but it enables you to learn more about the uncertain situation from the important point of view of the people actually living it. Because this book is providing the first person point of view and every so often reminds us of worried residents of the longed-for countries, without bias, this book is more of a report but not selective – Popoola and Holmes have made a book that revolves around the discussion we need to have but aren’t having, the questions and answers that get set aside when big politics is at hand. The title itself invokes the breach in the UK’s security, that allows illegal immigration – stories of smuggling and the deaths we know are associated with it, alongside the reasons people feel the need to try it nonetheless – as well as many other definitions: breach of empathy; crossing the breach; healing it.
Then there are the stories of the volunteers. These are quite meta because the authors are, in effect, commentating not only on the work of the relatively privileged but also on their own visit. They may not have written a story about writing a story, the ultimate meta situation – though some dialogue comes close – but they comment from the refugees’ points of view of the people who come to help them. In the questions posed by volunteers, Popoola and Holmes are talking about themselves – what use are some of these people, what use are we other than in writing this book which is for the benefit of people back home? And refugees are wondering ‘who are these volunteers?’ when interaction is all on the surface. In this way, the authors comment on a ‘problem’ posed – the way, for example, the volunteers put on a smile but it can seem patronising and at the end of the day they are free to go back home. They can leave whenever they want. There’s also some fictional appropriation going on.
Stand outs include Popoola’s Extending A Hand, in which two refugees grapple with the expectations of a volunteer, Holmes’ aforementioned Paradise wherein a refugee and young volunteer connect with each other on a romantic level whilst the volunteer’s aunt looks forward to finishing up her time at the camp and getting away from it – a story of attraction in an awkward situation – and Holmes’ Ghosts, which shows the other side of the smuggling story, where payment is a necessity for the danger the various third parties are put in, where refugees are repeatedly sent back to the camp when caught but keep trying, again and again, because they see no other hope, and Popoola’s Lineage, a story that features the appropriation I’ve alluded to above, a Frenchman choosing to live in the camp.
This book isn’t out to cause a sudden change of mind in those who are worried about immigration, indeed it’s unlikely to do so – the authors haven’t written heroes or particular sob stories, the refugees are just average people who’ve found trouble. The authors have included stories of illegal activity, as discussed above. But it will likely sow a seed and make you think about that third side of the equation and that is in its favour more than anything sudden could be. The success isn’t in what is actually said but in the subtext, in what you take away.
breach gives a voice to those we so rarely hear from. It may well start a more comprehensive discussion.
I received this book for review from the publisher.