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


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.