Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincushion

The premise of this profound book is a clever one and I am not sure how often the formula of The Canterbury Tales has been applied to other pieces of writing. As in the original book, The Prologue is written in verse form and sets the context preparing the reader for some extraordinary stories. The Afterword explains that the idea for the book came from ‘ A Walk in Solidarity with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Detainees ( from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury). This walk took place in 2015 and lasted nine days. Along the way, many tales were told, each a collaboration between a person with direct experience and a writer in order to raise awareness and to call for an end to indefinite immigration detention in the UK.

This is one of those books that needs to be read extremely slowly, partly because each chapter is written by a different author with a distinctive writing style, but also because of the depth and tragedy of much of the content. I am sure that I’m not alone in finding some books very difficult to read unless I am in the right frame of mind and in the right circumstances, and this was also a big factor when reading this one. I tried reading it in bed before going to sleep – hopeless; on a train journey – somehow inappropriate; staying in a hotel whilst eating breakfast – impossible. I had to find really quiet places where I would not be distracted and where I could give it my full attention. And every time I did this , I was blown away by the intensity of each tale told by individual eloquent voices. I intended to read the book and then write about it in time for Refugee Week for obvious reasons but every time I read a tale, I had to stop to digest it and then decide when and where I would be ready for the next one. Perhaps I am over sensitive, but I needed to pace myself in this way.

Although all deserve a review, I am only going to mention a few of the fourteen tales here in order to demonstrate the wide variety.

The  Chaplains Tale as told to Michael Zand is written as a stream of conscientiousness expressing the outpouring of confusion and despair that has been told to and interpreted by a minister at some point. I had to read this one a couple of times and then again out loud in order to appreciate the rising panic and the power of many repeated phrases and words.

A lighter note was struck in the tone of The Lorry Drivers Tale by Chris Cleave. I approached this one rather cautiously, prepared to be critical of drivers who are sometimes reported in the media as being very dismissive of people trying to hide in their vehicles. On the other hand there are those who clearly exploit the situation and take large sums of money to smuggle people illegally across borders. But this story by an experienced writer of thrillers has some unexpected twists which I will of course not reveal.

One that had particular impact for me was The Detainees Tale by Ali Smith is written in quite a matter of fact, understated style reporting a meeting with an individual who tells of the layers of loneliness and betrayal that he has experienced before and since becoming a person stripped of identity and worth:

‘You speak as if picking your way over broken glass. You are graceful in the speaking. You are a small man, dainty even, and gentle. You’re so small that the two quite small rucksacks you’ve got with you seem large beside you.’

Although this meeting happens in the safe space of a nondescript university room, there is a tangible oppressive and claustrophobic atmosphere. It is one of the longer pieces in the collection, perhaps because it first takes us through the different stages of his life from when as a six year old he was used as slave labour in his own country for 15 years, through continued exploitation for 5 years as an illegal immigrant, imprisonment and then detention. And the horror of this particular story is that detention seems to be the worst of these episodes, which the writer then goes on to see for herself by visiting a detention centre. This is clearly a traumatic experience for the author who is appalled by the place with its locks and airlessness and chilling authority. She is particularly struck by the cheerful ‘inspirational messages on the walls about how good the teamwork and the care are here’. Here she meets another poor traumatised soul, this time from Vietnam who is delighted to have a visitor but struggles to communicate with her. This tale is an excellent piece of journalism that exposes the injustice of locking people away for months and years in a hopeless limbo land.

The terrible circular rhythmic song of The Appelants Tale by David Herd is about where 62 year old Nigerian man who has worked in this country legitimately and paid taxes for 28 years. However, all this stability is fragile and he wakes early one morning to a loud knock at his front door and is arrested by the UK Border Agency. So the long nightmare of detention without papers, lies, inefficiency and confusion begins, aptly described by the writer as ‘Kafka not Chaucer’.

An adult student, now successfully settled in the UK remembers her severely disrupted childhood  in The Dependents Tale by Marina Lewycka. This was dominated by repeated removals from the age of eight from temporary accommodation, several periods in Yarls Wood Detention Centre, threats of and one frightening actual experience of deportation, her mother’s deteriorating physical and mental health, and a long separation from her father who eventually gained Refugee Status in France.

There is no doubt that this is a campaigning book and the Afterword describes what it aimed to achieve as ‘a culturally charged sense of space, the visible fact of human movement and an exchange of information through the act of telling stories’, but apart from this important function, it is also a very well written book that has integrity as a whole collection because of its common theme that explores the story of the refugee from so many very different angles. I urge you to read it for all these reasons. However, I felt thoroughly emotionally battered by the end of the book and need to hold on to some hopeful messages, of which there are many, amidst the relentless misery, grief, despair and violence. So, in order to end on a positive note, I will conclude this review with the final paragraph of The Deportee’s Tale by Avaes Mohammad which is all about a fourteen year old unaccompanied Asylum Seeker from Afghanistan:

This is a tale of where humanity hides.

In prisoners wails, in a lawyers tear, in a pilots view of the world

In a woman’s view of God in a child

Who took him in, embraced and gave him new life

Someone to take care of him and fight for his rights

Someone to show that while we’re content to send them to death

There are some amongst us who harbour life.

Karen Argent – July 2016

(This review was first published on in July 2016)

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