LITERATURE AND CREATIVE WRITING
The Power of Caroline Brothers’s Novel Hinterland
Zoe Jane Patterson
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.
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.