Narrativizing the Refugee

Narrativizing the Refugee

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Narrativizing the Refugee

Chiran Raj Pandey

September 2019

Caroline Brothers’ s Hinterland, which follows the lives of two young Afghan boys who are refugees from their country, is an uncomfortable novel. There is something disturbing about the way it has made me suddenly conscious of my own body. Two brothers, Aryan and Kabir, are forced to work in a farm in Greece, or swindled again and again by those who promise them safety, abused, lost, or shivering. Both are young, too young to have to be so old and daring, too innocent to be victim to an ugly and tyrannical history. 

Brothers has taken on a difficult task. Refugees define the crisis of our times, and as civil war, famine, invasion, disease, and climate change continue to escalate, so will the refugee crisis worsen. Brothers, who is also a journalist, is much too familiar with the terrible conditions in which these people struggle to live, sometimes just to survive. Her task, from her many years of experience reporting about refugee children in Paris, Greece, and other capitals of the world, is, in her own words, to break “news of Europe’s invisible child refugees on the front page.” Her novel breaks that news on every page; every moment in this novel is striking; every part of Aryan and Kabir’s journey is important; and when we leave Kabir in England at the end of the novel, we know that so much has to be written, still: life could hardly end here. 

Author Caroline Brothers will speak
at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on
September 10 at 6:30 p.m.

Photo credit: Rannjan Joawn

Source: carolinebrothers.com

To write about people who are so far removed from our own lives is always difficult. Immense research must go into it. The love and empathy that one must build, slowly and over a lifetime, for people who one has encountered always from a safe and innocent distance — the work is daunting. History, too, must be dealt with: one need only turn their eyes to Afghanistan for a moment to be blinded by the intensity of its past. Violence has accrued over generations, and it carries the various brands of the white world: America, England, Russia. Local brands are available, too: the Taliban, often a distant but formidable presence in this novel, are responsible for the deaths of Aryan and Kabir’s entire family. I wonder if there were such times, when Brothers was writing Hinterland, that this history proved to be too much for one individual to write about. But I am quickly reminded of the courage and trust in life that the two brothers must have had, to shoulder such a history and then dare to leave it behind.

To write about people who are so far removed from our own lives is always difficult.

There are moments in this novel that find me wishing for more: more courage, perhaps, on the author’s part, to confront history, or to find ways of narrativizing the refugee’s struggle for survival that are less interested in being coherent, or even readable, to attempt to reimagine the entire landscape of a form such as the novel, which seems ill-suited to address life when it is spinning at full-speed inside a destructive washing machine. Consider the English of the book. How are two brothers and their acquaintances, who likely barely speak the language, employing idioms that would have been foreign to their tongue? Phrases such as “Don’t worry, it’s not like we don’t have time,” or “You lost people in your family too, didn’t you,” or “You’re the only real family I have left” seem like awkward simulacra of Hollywood films. They appear out of place in this refugee novel, like old Hong Kong movies dubbed in English. I regret that the author refuses to be attentive to silences in such moments. Things said in the privacy of the camps, things that this author must have misunderstood, those things lost in the vast horizon of translatability — all seem somehow narrativized, sanitized even, for the sake of the novel.

I sit upright. My back hurts; I have been here for almost two hours now. How easy it is to be comfortable, I think, how easy it is to forget now that the novel is ended. Is literature as powerful as one would want it to be? Perhaps in the refugee’s ongoing conditions of captivity and fugitivity, speculation and narrativization are terrifying forms of violence. We abstract, when we read about Aryan and Kabir, from the specific experiences of particular people. Speculation requires us to profess control. In narrating, we draw the paths their lives will take. I can only wonder if there will ever be a different way to write this story. There is much work to be done. 

Chiran Raj Pandey is the managing editor of Electra Street and a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.

Author Caroline Brothers will speak at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute on September 10 at 6:30 p.m.

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Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

Trust, Society, and Manipulated Video

Karno Dasgupta

September 2019

“A total and complete dipshit.” That’s what Barack Obama seemingly called President Trump when he appeared in a short clip for BuzzFeed Video’s YouTube channel in April 2018. Here was a sharp gibe, uncharacteristic of the ex-President. Except, as Jordan Peele’s appearance soon revealed, it wasn’t Obama who was speaking. Instead, a vocal impersonation had been layered over a computer-generated image of his face – one which moved to eerily mimic the words being said. Here was a new genre of fabricated video, where pre-existing visuals of a targeted face are inputted into a create a realistic reproduction that can be manipulated for the creator’s ends. A deepfake.

While some people noticed that something was off about the way Obama looked and sounded, many others were initially fooled or at least confused by the clip. The incident demonstrates how good the generative algorithmic subset of the artificial intelligence used to create a deepfake is. And, scarily, the machine learning processes that help synthesize them are just getting better and more accessible, progressively requiring fewer source materials and extending to manufactured voices too. Every day, it becomes easier to forge people. And these forgeries can damage individual lives (as in cases of targeted pornography), but can also pose risks on the global-scale by undermining public trust in information sources generally considered to be reliable. 

Jordan Peele’s Obama deepfake on BuzzFeed Video.

Today, we’re at a point where experts are playing catch-up to identify what’s real and what’s not. When the Gabonese President appeared to the public in a video-address to quell reports about his ill-health on New Year’s Day 2019, for example, many citizens and critics questioned its authenticity. A definitive answer on whether or not it is a deepfake remains elusive. And yet, its uncertain origins spurred a failed coup a week later. In any other time in history, a recording would be undeniable proof of something, just as the photograph had promised at its inception. But human innovation has transformed yet another medium of communication for the worse. What Photoshop did to photography, deepfakes do to film. And suddenly, a source and sphere of information is heavily compromised.

No doubt, deepfakes are a tremendous feat of human intelligence, showing how much of what we perceive can be influenced by others. Their rapid proliferation also represents the wonders of a democratized digital world. However, in developers’ quest to enhance our ability to control older audio-visual technologies with more sophisticated tools, they create dangerous, false information that threatens society. This is because people either believe a fabricated product and are influenced negatively by it, or they don’t and turn skeptical towards all products, losing their trust in the institution of production itself. Essentially, this maps onto the idea that people make decisions based on some collection of information, but deepfakes delegitimize a fundamental mode of information-collection.

 There is a strong connection between this and the value of trust in our lives. In Trust in Society, Karen S. Cook notes that “trust plays a significant role in the functioning of social groups and societies,” and also links trust to order and stability. Trust is foundational to relationships within and with an organized collective. In a sense, we need to trust people and institutions to both preserve ourselves, and the democratic society we inhabit. If lost, instability and a loss of connections ensue. For example, in a simplified hypothetical, if you called the police while your house was getting burgled and they did not show up you would suddenly doubt the institution that promises you safety in a city. Repeated failures would make you lose faith in the promise of security implicit in many societies today. You might move to a different location, and definitely buy yourself a weapon for protection. In short, you would try disentangling from one area of your interaction with society.

Now, as people who turn to the media to locate ourselves in a social space, we are strongly influenced by the books we read, the songs we hear, and the news we view. A newspaper is a good source of information about a politician’s opinions, a voice recording of her is better, but a live feed of her saying something is closest to the best basis for trusting that she actually said it. Why? Because our eyes and ears combine to form the primary points of input for our experiences, and short of actually interacting with people face-to-face, videos are the best simulations of “being there.” That is not to say that skepticism and critical thinking are not important to being educated consumers – we should question the truth and implications of a politician’s position. But, historically, we could distrust an equivocator without qualms about the way we heard her hedging. Our faith in the medium remained.

The moment we reach manipulation technologies like deepfakes, however, a gateway into a world where no one can ever know if someone said something or not opens up. Suddenly, our trust in social institutions of communication begins to evaporate.

Hence, lawmakers in America are scrambling to regulate deepfake technologies. Why, inductively, notable figures across science and programming are worrying about the numerous ways artificial intelligence could harm society. Because they have the potential to fundamentally alter our experience of reality on an unprecedented scale, with unbelievable speed – in fact, the term “deepfake” is only a few years old and the technology has only existed for five years. And the fear everyone has of progress pursued without conscience or broader consideration is amplified in the interconnected present, where rapid, mass consequences arise from limited, specialist development. It is the same fear that made Plato distrust the memory-weakening potential for writing in Phaedrus or the Luddites destroy the job-stealing industrial machines – that of the price of progress. For technology to change lives, it must bury the way life was once lived.

 Deepfakes, on a philosophical level, destabilize the trust in truth essential for us to know things or even believe in our ability to know things. They give people the power to make anyone say anything. And if anyone can say anything, then we might as well say nothing at all – or stop listening, at the least. Because a functioning society needs people to trust people. It needs some truth. And that is getting harder to find with each passing day. In this sadder sense, deepfakes are a natural extension of the post-truth world of alternative facts, a rabbit-hole that goes all the way down to artificially intelligent robots that can look like your favorite pop star or a notorious demagogue, spewing hate or inciting violence in-person. A sorry sight indeed. Regardless, it is unlikely technology will slow down. Between progress and the past, we only look back, never turn.

In such tumultuous times, the only way to resist a breakdown of social order is to build defenses. Governments should incentivize the development of programs that identify deepfakes, the masses must be educated about the existing misinformation threat, and corporations must invest in checks that filter potential fake content before it goes live. The end goal is a practicable ethical framework that preserves people’s faith in the institutions of communication. We must fight the good fight, or risk losing it all.

 

Karno Dasgupta is a student at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.

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What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

FILM AND NEW MEDIA

What Kind of Work Is Live Streaming?

Ria Golovakova

September 2019

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes between the categories of “work” and “labor.” She differentiates between two types of human worker: the “homo faber who makes and literally ‘works upon’” and the “animal laborans which labors and ‘mixes with.’” In this conception, work is the creation of some product “which outlasts its own activity and forms a durable addition to the human artifice,” while labor “needs to be reproduced again and again in order to remain within the human world at all.” Arendt concludes this meditation on the nature of work by arguing that art, in her opinion, is the most durable creation that humans can make, and thus the best form of work

How then, might Arendt classify work done by someone like Jing Zi, a young Chinese woman whose job is to live stream herself for 7 hours a day? In a 5-minute documentary video about her done by Noah Sheldon, Jing Zi goes through the motions of her typical content. She puts on makeup, plays with cute video filters, sings karaoke, and eats lunch that one of her fans ordered in for her. The woman is an employee of a media company in Beijing, that hosts other live streamers like her, and provides them with individualized filming sets and promotions in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Jing Zi regularly makes more than 10,000RMB ($1454) a day.

In fact, Chinese live streaming is one of the world’s fastest growing industries: in 2018 the number of users reached 456 million people and Deloitte valued market at $4.4 billion. The Chinese are dedicating their time, love, and money to their favorite streamers in extents that are unfathomable within the Western framework of internet celebrity.

Hannah Arendt in the classroom

Photo courtesy of Wesleyan University

In the West, internet concept creators often follow the “influencer” model of internet celebrity. They post some content on a variety of internet platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, and attract a large following of people who engage with their content through comments, likes, and shares. None of these interactions, however, directly earn money for the content creator. Instead, their stream of income is usually a combination of merchandise sales, paid subscriptions on platforms like Patreon, and sponsored advertisements, in which companies reach out to them and provide a flat rate per post based on the number of followers.

Chinese live-streamers, while also trying to amass a large following and often working with advertisers, are in a very different position. Their main source of income is directly built into the platform: viewers during a live stream can buy “gifts” for the streamer, which appear as little animations on the screen in real time, and are purchased with actual currency deposited onto the app account. The streamers tend to respond to the gifts in real time, engaging with the users who pay larger sums and thanking them directly. In some platforms, there are added benefits, such as gaining the host’s contact information after reaching a certain monetary threshold in gifts.

“Live Streamer” is a short documentary by Noah Sheldon, exploring the industry through the example of live streamer Jing Zi.

Incomes of the most popular streamers can reach over $100,000 dollars a month, and even the less successful hosts earn many times the average salaries of college graduates in China. Many of these internet celebrities originally come from the working class, but through their popularity are able to obtain rich and lavish lifestyles. Their situation is in stark contrast to the rest of China’s population, as there is very little social mobility in terms of wealth, as the working class do not have the same educational and professional opportunities as the wealthy, who have stayed rich for generations. In fact, many of these working class viewers even impede their financial prospects, as they donate significant portions or even the entirety of their salaries to their favorite live streamers.

This seemingly irrational behavior is caused by the desire to keep one of their own rich, since the working class audiences are well aware that they could never reach those levels of financial success themselves. Furthermore, they are drawn to the live streams to feel less lonely: the changing economic and geo-social makeup of China, especially through increasing urbanization, has left many young people disconnected from their families and communities, and isolated in large but lonesome cities.

The live streams are an attractive form of escapism: hosts mostly stream boring content, like eating on camera, chatting, or simply going about their daily commute. Nonetheless, in some cases viewers tune in for up to 8 hours at a time, spending their entire day in virtual company with likeable hosts.

This particular medium, however, is very unique compared to other popular forms of internet content. Live streams are transient: the video is not recorded or uploaded for potential later viewing, all that exists is the here and now. In Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online, Crystal Abidin writes that such “always-transient content” is “largely motivated by the followers’ cultivations of perpetual ‘FOMO,’ or the ‘fear of missing out.’” The immediacy creates a sense of exclusivity, and heightens the effect of virtual connection between the audience and the hosts.

Can Arendt’s conception of work and labor be applied to this occupation? Live streams do not have inherent market value or practical use. Instead, they are an evolution of other kinds of internet visual content (pictures and videos), which can be viewed as art and are often judged to aesthetic standards that resemble the approach to artistic products. In this case, lack of usability can also be viewed as proof of artistic status. However, the transience of live streams complicates this category. While the hosts technically create something new, the durability lies not in the content itself but in the audience that the content generates. The direct product, the stream, gets consumed in its very process of creation. There is no “true reification,” so this supposedly artistic project becomes a labor process of toiling every day on the clock, the live stream both becoming the means to an end and an end itself that must be repeated ad infinitum.

In this vein, the categories of “labor” and “work” appear insufficient. Perhaps, we should take the new types of vocations that the internet has brought about, such as live streamers, seriously. A different conception of work may be in order.

Ria Golovakova is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. She is interested in exploring and writing about the many manifestations of modern culture and how the forces that shape society today may differ from those of the past.

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Beyond Journalism

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Beyond Journalism

The Power of Caroline Brothers’s Novel Hinterland 

Zoe Jane Patterson

August 2019

The street is dark. You pull your scarf a little more tightly around your neck, and glance around, hoping your destination—a popular bar—is close by. This is Paris: there’s a train rattling on the bridge overhead, a man stumbling across the street, and a café where people smoke and talk around outdoor tables despite the cold. Maybe you’ve bumped shoulders with him outside the metro, or maybe you crossed a silent street to avoid his faceless figure, but if you stay in Paris for long enough you will encounter him: the refugee.

The short and singular story of refugees fleeing across Europe has been widely distributed by journalists and activists to spread awareness about their situation. There are countless refugee statements and photographs of derelict shelters peppering newspapers and social media feeds. Most articles take five to ten minutes to read. In them we encounter a nameless other, whose situation is sad and far away. Then we sigh and continue scrolling. This story is so prevalent that we have been made numb to it, and the people who live through it have been stripped of their individuality. The overwhelming number of facts have made them into nothing more than their terrible circumstances, but nobody can empathize with a statistic.

Hinterland by Caroline Brothers tells a story that a newspaper article simply cannot. It is a known fact that there are unaccompanied refugee children travelling through Europe, traumatized and vulnerable. They are only known to most people as numbers, that is until we travel with them — a feat that is only possible through fiction. The novel form allows Brothers to introduce complexity and individuality to the refugee story: the boys feel joy, have dynamic relationships, and harbor aspirations for the future, which is true for everyone, but is left out of journalism for the sake of brevity. By returning these untold truths to the well-known refugee story, the novel helps the reader to regain the empathy that has been lost in a sea of facts.

The novel takes the reader across Europe with two brothers from Afghanistan. Fourteen-year-old Aryan and his little brother Kabir travel from the border between Turkey and Greece all the way to Calais. The boys are robbed and cheated, Kabir is sexually assaulted, and they are haunted by the deaths of their family members and the fear of deportation. When they are in Paris, Aryan asks Kabir what he would tell their family in Iran about the journey so far, if he could send a message to them. “I’d tell them about the puppies and that we got new clothes and that soon we’ll be going to school in England.” Kabir chooses to remember and relay joy. He plays with stray puppies while he and his brother are doing forced labor in Greece. While he is homeless in Italy, he meets an Iranian-American couple and they buy both brothers new clothes and train tickets to Paris. When Kabir looks at the sky in the city of lights, he feels hope for a future where he can go to school. There is no room for glimmers of joy in an article that takes five minutes to read, but these moments humanize Kabir and Aryan. Their happiness is punctured by abuse and trauma, rather than their identity being reduced to the abused and traumatized.

A refugee encampment on the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Photo: Zoe Jane Patterson

Kabir and Aryan’s identities are defined and made more complex by their relationships with Afghanistan, a topic that only a novel has the breadth to tackle. Kabir asks Aryan if he is still an Afghan even though he left the country when he was four.

“Of course you’re an Afghan. I’m an Afghan, you’re an Afghan, our family is from Afghanistan.

But if someone asks, I can’t tell them what it’s like. I can remember more about Iran and Istanbul and this farm than Afghanistan.”

Despite the violence and loss that they’ve experienced in Afghanistan, the boys still feel connected to it, and defined by it. Aryan tells Kabir about home and their parents as a way of defining himself. “In that way, each becomes the keeper of the other’s identity … Sometimes he feels he could float off into space like an astronaut tethered neither by orbit nor gravity.” Without a nation or a family, Aryan would lose his entire sense of self. He has lost community and security, and feels that if he cried out, his voice would be met by the empty vacuum of space. The boys’ history and their country are part of their identity. Hinterland reminds the reader of the importance of home, and the trauma of losing it. 

Hinterland reveals Aryan’s deepest thoughts and feelings about himself and his home, and we are reminded of the specificity of each individual’s story by knowing him intimately. Aryan is treated as an individual in Hinterland, but he is still part of a much larger issue, which is made most clear when he and Kabir make it to Calais. Countless refugees arrive there, having crossed Europe only to encounter a kind of outdoor prison. The refugees in Calais cannot make it to a safe haven in England, but are pressed up against its border because of a hostile Europe behind them, and nothing to return to at home. The further Aryan and Kabir make it into Europe, the more hope they have that they will eventually reach safety. “Where on their journey was it that they had stopped fleeing and started running towards a future, no matter how indistinct? Yet all that time, they were only getting closer to a wall. The harder he runs up against it, the more he feels his courage fray.” Aryan and Kabir’s journey towards freedom and safety has been fraught with violence and fear, but now, on the last leg of their journey, they can’t go any further and are powerless.

Having travelled with them, the reader understands how impossible it would be for them to return home, when there is no home left, and the hostility that surrounds and corners them. Whether you read about this situation in fiction or in a piece of journalism, eventually the question becomes—what can I do? And what can policy-makers do? The failure in quick pieces of journalism to answer these questions kills empathy because readers can simply say, well it’s not my problem. Hinterland not only fosters empathy by taking us on the brothers’ journey, but also attempts to answer these questions.

The novel most deeply criticizes the treatment of refugees in France. Through the simple questions that the children ask about their treatment, it unravels these policies and points out their absurdity. At a makeshift camp in Calais, Aryan is teargassed while he’s asleep. He asks another refugee boy what is going on, and he’s told that the police teargas the camp every night. “He doesn’t understand how they could have become a target. They are not warriors and they don’t have weapons—they are on the run from those very things.” Aryan’s disbelief becomes the reader’s. This act of cruelty is pointless, as are many of the actions that take place in Calais. The police also take refugees’ firewood and shoes, and through Kabir’s conversation with his friend Hamid, the novel concisely portrays the flawed logic behind these actions.

“Why did the police keep those guys’ shoes?

To make it hard for them to walk back, Hamid says.

But why would they make it hard for them to walk back?

So they will go away. Kabir ponders Hamid’s answer for a moment.

How can they go away if they don’t have shoes? Hamid’s laugh has a hardness to it that Aryan doesn’t recognize from before.”

One clear answer to the question of what policy makers should do about refugees is to stop torturing them, to ask why they would want to live in these conditions if they had any alternative, and to react to their situation with empathy rather than cruelty and violence.

The novel also answers the question of what the individual can do for refugees. While the average person may not have the power to write new policies, or change immigration laws, Hinterland does reveal how ordinary people affect the brothers on their journey. Aryan and Kabir encounter an Iranian-American couple in Italy, who feed the boys, and buy them new clothes as well as train tickets to Paris. The novel demonstrates how ordinary people can use their privilege to make things slightly better for the people who are suffering. At the end of the novel, Brothers writes about the origins of Hinterland. She states that she wanted to “somehow give these kids a voice, so that people, if they came across them in one of our great world capitals, would at least have some understanding of who they were.” If we do nothing else, the novel asks us to really see refugees when we encounter them, not as symptoms of a problem or emblems of a statistic, but as individuals.

Zoe Jane Patterson is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing. Her piece about encountering refugees in Paris appeared last spring in Electra Street 03.
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An Upturned Bucket List

An Upturned Bucket List

LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

An Upturned Bucket List

Reading Caroline Brothers’s Hinterland

Vamika Sinha

August 2019

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon.”

For some, this string of glamorous capitals might be a bucket list of places to visit, but for others it can trace a much uglier reality. Kabir and Aryan, two young, recently orphaned brothers from Afghanistan, recite these names to each other while on the run. It is a mantra, in that it is made up of equal parts desperation and hope.

The route materializes itself in the world of Australian journalist Caroline Brothers’s debut novel Hinterland. The brothers are only fourteen- and eight-years-old – just children. Fleeing the Taliban in Kabul, and the consequent shattering of their family, they are political refugees in search of an English education. They carry two sets of clothes on their backs at all times, scraps of food, little money, and no papers. The novel opens with them enclosed within the jaws of a truck, carrying them to the fantasy of Europe. I am reminded, eerily, of the novella by Ghassan Kanafani, titled Men in the Sun. Three Palestinian refugees arrange, with intense difficulty, to get themselves smuggled from Iraq to Kuwait in order to escape their camps and find employment. They hide in a water tank in a truck travelling across the desert. Upon crossing the last checkpoint, the story ends, only to find their dead bodies spilling out of the overheated tank. The men had died at the final moment. It was a grim reminder of the difference between life and narrative; one could be controlled, while the other had no obligation to ever reach catharsis, but simply falter, like breath, in the middle of a sentence.

With this foreboding thought, I continue to read about Kabir and Aryan, continue tracing an invisible finger across the map  – KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. Over an arduous winter, the brothers work as laborers on an anonymous farm in Greece. They are not paid, barely eat, and suffer violences to their bodies and minds in ways that children should not have the faintest conception of. They carry on. In Italy, they retch on their own fear while confronted by the police, paperless and ill-equipped in every possible way for a reality so mammoth, it dwarfs their small existences. They carry on. In Calais, they endure the even more powerful, lingering pain of waiting. Waiting for some kind of resolution. In a sense, they too are in the heated tank, travelling across Europe towards some salvation.

Brothers’s novel was adapted for the stage as Flight by the Glasgow-based theatre company Vox Motus and premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival. It will have its UAE premiere at the NYUAD Arts Center next month.

The journey is speckled with small moments of tenderness – a haircut from an Afghan wife in a corner of Rome. Fresh clothes, hot pasta, and a train ride to Paris from an Iranian-American couple, found, by some magical luck, speaking Farsi on their trip abroad. The innocent stirrings of desire on an overnight train, while catching the soft, occasional gaze of a girl sleeping across from Aryan. These are moments of ordinariness, illuminated not by their normalcy, but by their scarcity; the whole novel unfurls in the same calm, slightly detached, plain prose. 

It makes sense then that Caroline Brothers is primarily a reporter. Hinterland is her attempt at casting a more empathetic, “human” light on her lifelong journalism on migrants. Based in France, she has conducted hundreds of interviews with child refugees, trapped in their own versions of Kabir and Aryan’s journey. It becomes, quietly, more horrifying to realize that Hinterland is only fiction to the extent that it embellishes upon what is, for thousands, everyday and real.

While studying in Paris for a semester, I once found myself, along with two friends, lost on the way to a bar. Google Maps directed us to a large, pulsating establishment by the waterfront of Bassin Louis Blanc, deemed one of the ‘hottest nightlife spots in the city.’ But we were confused, stopped in our tracks by a … smell. Two rats scurried by. We fought the urge to flee. It stank of stale bodies, disuse and urine. Right next to the bar, thronged with the ‘bobos’ of Paris, the hipsters and underage, overdressed teenagers with beers in hand, was a large muddle of tents. Bodies moved within them, shifting imperceptibly, carrying on as usual, unnoticed if you didn’t stop and really take a closer look. 

“Is it a slum?

“They’re all brown…they must be immigrants.”

“Why are they partying next to a slum?”

“Do you think they could be gypsies?”  

“Does nobody care?”

Over the next few weeks, under eventual daylight, the sun fell on the truth: we had stumbled upon a refugee slum. In the middle of Paris, next to one of its most popular clubs. A few return trips yielded conversations with the slum’s inhabitants (mostly Afghan), a million questions, immigration papers waved in our faces, pleas for help in French, English, Urdu, and ultimately, fruitlessness. One of my friends left Paris to end up writing a lengthy, sensitive article about how she had tried to capture, in words, what she had experienced upon finding such a place, about her desperate attempt to twist a story out of the conversations and shine some kind of light on the refugees’ plight in Paris, and, more widely, on the larger crisis of migrants coming into Europe. 

Beneath Hinterland is buried the body of a huge political argument. One that asks us to take a closer look at the tents. What are the nuances of our border policies, our hot debates on migrants, our thousand little stumbling blocks of bureaucracy, xenophobia, fear, corruption, that place children like Kabir and Aryan in a refrigerated tank bound for England?

“KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon,” Aryan asks Kabir to repeat, in the novel’s final scene, again in the mouth of a truck. I am taken back to one of the Afghan refugees in Paris appealing to me in Urdu: “Please, you’re from India. Our countries are brothers. You have to help me.” In that moment, I too became infected by helplessness. “SloveniaCroatiaGreeceItaly …” he rattled the mantra off with practice. “I’ve gone everywhere to be here.”

Vamika Sinha is a senior at NYUAD, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing with a minor in Music. She is a co-editor of Airport Road, food columnist for The Gazelle, runs an independent magazine called Postscript, and enjoys ramen and jazz.
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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

Migration in Bury Me, My Love

Julián Carrera 

August 2019

Your phone rings. It’s a text message. “Majd …” it says. It is from your wife, Nour. “Do you remember the time we visited Harasta with Adnan and Qamar?” A few seconds later, an image appears on your phone: the ruins of a city, half-standing, through the window of a car. After Nour sends the image of the ruins of Harasta, the messenger layout rises, revealing three options of emojis: a disappointed one, a surprised one, and one with X eyes.

Bury Me, My Love, a video game by The Pixel Hunt, Figs, and ARTE France, follows Nour as she leaves Syria to find a better life in Europe. The player is cast as Majd, Nour’s husband who stays in Homs, and must communicate with Nour through the game’s WhatsApp-like interface. As Nour moves on her way to Europe, she must make decisions, often turning to Majd for reassurance or opinion. The play aspect of Bury Me, My Love thus relies on making choices. Alhough the action of choosing which emoji to send seems at first to be inconsequential, the choice may end up profoundly affecting Nour’s journey.

A still from Bury Me, My Love on the Nintendo Switch, taken during gameplay.

Some choices are more consequential than picking emojis: should Nour stay in Damascus and wait for a bus to Beirut, or go to Aleppo to try to cross the border to Turkey; join a refugee march that will walk from Serbia to Hungary, or spend what limited money she has to take a train instead. There are also some more light-hearted choices, like Majd telling Nour he remembers his mom’s way of fixing a zipper or he doesn’t. Sometimes, the player can choose between dialogues and emojis, showcasing the different approaches to one single situation that can alter how the story plays out. The last way that Majd can respond to Nour is by taking a picture and sending it to her, though the points where Majd sends a picture are limited, and there is no choice to be made: only the picture can be selected, but there is a small minigame where the picture must be focused. In instances where there is no choice to be made, Majd texts on his own. Since the player interacts when there is a choice to be made, it seems that taking pictures is more of a formality to give the player agency beyond words and emojis.

Bury Me, My Love’s interactive method of storytelling places it within the genre of the visual novel, a form characterized by the player’s control over the story through available choices. Thus, players read through the story and are then prompted to pick an option, making decision trees a defining feature of the genre. Bury Me, My Love, however, does not provide the sort of visuals one would expect from a “visual novel” (compare, for example, the still image of Bury Me, My Love with that of Ace Attorney shown below).

A still from Ace Attorney, Capcom’s popular Visual Novel

Courtesy: ace-attorney.com.

It would be more accurate to call it interactive fiction like one of its inspirations, the game Lifeline, in which the player receives a message out of the blue. It is from an astronaut, lost on a strange moon after their ship crash-lands. After a first introduction to what happened, the astronaut says their name is Taylor (it is never specified whether Taylor is a he or a she). From there on, it is the player’s role to help them survive and find out what happened. Given the decision tree, however, there are multiple endings to Taylor’s story. A handful of them result in death, a couple result in survival, and fewer yet result in answers to the questions Taylor has about what happened. Though both Bury Me, My Love and Lifeline feature an interface made to resemble texting and rely on an abundance of choices to move the game forward, the one aspect that Bury Me, My Love borrowed the most from Lifeline was its use of time. In Lifeline, the player gets messages from Taylor on a real-time (or pseudo real-time) basis: if Taylor is doing something, they won’t reply until they can get in contact again.

Bury Me, My Love uses this same concept of (pseudo) real-time to its advantage to add realism to Nour’s journey. Sometimes, the player must wait a couple minutes. Sometimes an hour. When she’s sleeping, eight to ten. There is a point in the game the player can reach where Nour goes silent for almost three whole days. By limiting Nour’s responses on a timed basis, the game shows the power that comes from being in contact and the anxiety that comes when a loved one goes silent.

A still from Lifeline, taken from the game’s listing on the Play Store.

Apart from Lifeline, another inspiration for Bury Me, My Love is the article “Le voyage d’une migrante syrienne à travers son fil WhatsApp,” published in Le Monde by Lucie Soullier and Madjid Zerrouky. The article tells the story of Dana, a Syrian refugee whose journey from Damascus to Germany is chronicled through Dana’s WhatsApp conversations with her family. “Bury me, my love” (from the Arabic phrase of affection and endearment تقبريني يا حبي) is what Dana’s mom tells her for good luck. Both Dana and Lucie Soullier are part of Bury Me, My Love’s editorial team, though the game aims to tell a variety of stories about Syrian refugees. The website for the game states:

“Our two main characters, Nour and Majd, are fictional. They do not exist, or rather, they exist collectively. They are a multitude of men, women, and children. Dana, her mother, her brother-in-law… as well as thousands of others who flee their country —or watch their relatives flee— all in hopes of finding a better life in Europe.”

The story that Bury Me, My Love tells, paired with the way it tells it, shines a light on how the movement of people works in the cases of forced migration by focusing not just on those who left, but also telling the story of those who stay behind. Bury Me, My Love challenges conceptions of what stories video games can tell while giving the player an experience to learn that is not often presented in the medium.

Julián Carrera is a Literature and Creative Writing student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
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LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING

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