In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

In the Distance tells the story of Hakan, a young Swedish boy who is sent with his brother to travel to New York to make a new (and better) life. Before they even leave Sweden, Hakan and Linus are separated and since Hakan’s understanding of anything of the world outside his home village is limited to  the words“New York,” he determines that the best course of action is to continue on to New York on his own and meet Linus there. He ends up in Argentina and then California, and his quest truly begins.

Hakan had never before left his small village in Sweden, and knew no one and no language other than Swedish. He was young and impressionable and the cast of characters he met took on an almost Odyssian proportion. He meets a prospector, a female saloon proprieter and landowner (perhaps- her exact role beyond Hakan is unclear in the book, as it was unclear to Hakan), and a naturalist, among others, but mostly his journey is one of extreme solitude.

In this journey, Hakan, or ‘The Hawk,” to non-Swedish speakers, ponders questions about the nature of humanity, god, and nature. Upon hearing, and mostly accepting, a theory of evolution from his naturalist companion, Hakan thinks, “Even more outrageous and insulting was the notion of the primordial snot. Had he not been created in god’s image? What, then, was god?” (66). Statements like these gave me the unique experience of both snorting in laughter and yet contemplating the profound question at the same time.

The nature and land around Hakan become a character in the story. This makes the book about a single man who spends most of his time avoiding other people feel rich and descriptive rather than barren and navel-gazing. Hakan becomes enveloped in the different landscapes he encounters, and makes them each feel alive to the reader, while at the same time allowing the reader to feel not just the beauty, but also the starkness, fear, and danger which accompanies each new terrain.

The people in the story, although there aren’t many, give us windows into humanity and humanity’s many sides. Most of it isn’t pretty, as we’re exposed to greed, lust, possession, religion, and violence. But we get as well a small glimpse of knowledge, friendship, and love which sustain the book and save it from utter bleakness.

The language is truly one of the books strengths, and while it’s magnificent, it’s not pretentious. It had me returning to the book in my thoughts when I couldn’t return to it physically, but at the same time, my notes are surprisingly spare. I got caught up in reading experience and didn’t get feel blasted by forced platitudes.

This book is a great choice for someone who loves the American West (although not too much, for this isn’t your typical triumph of white man over nature story), adventure tales, and stories of introspection and a touch of magical realism.

Questions for Discussion:
How does Hakan’s growth and size both influence and represent the story as a whole?

What role did nature and landscape play in the story- could it have been told in any other place?

On page 105, there’s this sentence: “Sometimes it rained, and it was always a miracle.” What other miracles did Hakan witness, and did he always recognize them? Did he make you see ordinary events as miraculous?

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck

Go, Went, Gone tells the story of Richard, a retiring classics professor who becomes intrigued by the story of some African refugees after they stage a hunger strike to raise their visibility in Berlin. Richard has nearly no previous knowledge about he refugees, but is well equipped to do research and learn about things in general, so he sets out to do just this and goes to meet and learn about and from the refugees.

The early parts of this book have an almost surreal quality to them- as Richard has just retired and becomes intrigued by the situation of the refugees, but he is still ruled by the quotidian routines of his widower life- he has Earl Grey tea with milk and sugar for breakfast, along with one slice of bread with honey and one with cheese. Without his wife, lover, or work, these routines provide both structure and purpose for his day. As he takes on this new ‘project’ of learning what he can- the project itself takes on a “life of its own” and we get more and more glimpses into Richard himself.

Frustratingly, in order to set the stage for just how Richard (and the larger German population, which he is meant to represent), we have to wade through phrases like “For the first time in his life, the thought occurs to him that borders drawn by Europeans may have no relevance at all for Africans” (51), and “one person’s vantage point is just as valid as an others, and, in seeing, there is no right, no wrong” (55). These are revelatory for Richard, but it’s hard to believe that he could have made it through the academy without having some exposure to post-colonial thought.

Once we wade through these preliminaries, however, Richard gets to know the refugee men. This part of the story is well done- while Richard is learning about the Africans, he does so without passing judgements on them or attempting to impose on them an inappropriate value system. He contrasts what he’s learning about them in discussions with them with the vitriol he reads about them on the internet as he does more and more research to learn about their legal conundrum.

I appreciated this book because, while I knew in a vague sense that there was a significant difference in the refugee situation in continental Europe than here in the U.S., I actually had no idea what that meant legally. It explains the conundrum of only being legally able to work in Italy, where there are no jobs, and then traveling to Germany where there’s a labor shortage only to be denied the legal ability to work. As each man tells his story, we get a small taste of the politics that drove him out of his native country and continent, and what that journey and transition was like.

The lives of the refugees are often juxtaposed with the mundanity of Richard’s life. Even the greatest upheaval in his life- the fall of the Berlin Wall and the GDR- pales in comparison with the lives of these men, who have no idea that there was once an East and West Germany. Yet at the same time, the loss of one’s wife and partner is a universal theme that they all can bond over.

Richard helps the men in the small (and larger) ways that he can- but I appreciated that this book didn’t present these small assists as any sort of savior actions. Even when Richard is able to help one of the refugees buy land in his native country- it’s clear that the family back home will have to wait a year for the crops to grow and the refugee in Germany would still be unable to go home.

I can see why this book was long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize. It illuminates an important issue and does so for a broader audience than merely that of its original language. It explores themes of transitions, memory, and power (both personal and political), applied in an all-too real setting.

 

Questions for Discussion:

What was the significance of the man drowned in the lake?

Richard returns time and again, in his thoughts, to the transition when the Berlin Wall fell and the GDR was dissolved. Why does he do this? Is it an appropriate juxtaposition with the refugees’ experiences?

Ultimately, is it appropriate for this story to be told through Richard’s eyes? Or is this yet another example of a white man trying to understand refugees? Would it have been more or less powerful or educational through another viewpoint?

The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

The Girl Who Smiled Beads is a memoir from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Clemantine was 6 years old during the genocide’s 100 days, but she escaped with her older sister Claire- leaving their mother, father, and older brother behind. Clemantine and Claire spent 6 years moving from one country to another in Africa before they were granted asylum in the United States. During this time they didn’t know the fate of their family left in Rwanda.

The story is told in dual timelines- one recounts Clemantine’s journey after entering the United States, living during the week with an affluent white family who takes her in and fights for her education and well being and during the weekends with Claire’s family. The second timeline begins with Clemantine’s childhood and takes her through the journey as she and Claire travel through Africa and away from the killing in Rwanda.

This memoir tells not just the story of a genocide, but also of war and refugees. Clemantine was a child during the conflict, and then came of age- and to grips with what she’d seen and experienced- in the safe and alien environment that she experienced in the United States. She relates her experience of learning about the genocide through a book (!) and trying to reconcile the words on the page with her lived experiences. She didn’t only experience the Rwandan genocide, but in her flight across Africa, she become part of the story of other violent conflicts and many different refugee camps.

The book doesn’t focus on the details of the genocide in Rwanda. If you want the specifics of the conflict, pick a different book and then read this for a survivor’s story. Instead, the book focuses on how Clemantine felt throughout the ordeal and then as she tried to piece a life together afterward. It focuses on her displacement, her desperation, her rage, and her discontent. It also relates the lessons she learned, both while on the run and the lessons she learned from her mother before leaving Rwanda and how well they held up as Clemantine’s worldview and experience evolved. The book concludes with the statement:

That’s all a person can do, really: Let others live their lives on their terms, and
interrogate how you live your own. Insist on knowing the backstory to your gifts and your
pain. Ask yourself how you came to have all the things you carry: your privilege, your philosophy, your nightmares, your faith, your sense of order and peace in the world (261).

In this way, the book is more about how to deal with feelings and unfairness in general, as Clemantine tries to apply her lessons learned more broadly.

One of the book’s strengths is Clemantine’s recognition of her own privilege. Upon arriving in the U.S., she is taken in by a wealthy white family who are able to get her into a good school district, feed and clothe her well, and generally give her a life not generally accorded to refugees upon arrival. While recognizing that this fortune helped make it possible for her to succeed, it also complicates her story even further. She may be black in America, but her experiences with traditional American racism are limited. She has no grudge against the white America that so many of her black peers have been so exploited by for generations. It wasn’t white America who hurt her- it was black Africa. But to acknowledge this to her black classmates at Yale is something tantamount to betrayal to them- once again, Clemantine doesn’t fit in. However, throughout the book Clemantine realizes that her isn’t typical. Her sister Claire arrived in the United States as an adult with children of her own and therefore had a very different experience upon arrival.

Throughout the book, Clemantine is reluctant to play the blame game. This is possibly most notably absent when she’s talking about the genocide itself- there’s no mention or her ethnicity or that of anyone else. She makes it clear that young Clemantine was unhappy with her role in the life that she and Claire cobbled together as they sought refuge across Africa, but that’s simply acknowledging feelings she had at the time. When she returns to Africa in college and is horrified by what she sees, she doesn’t blame either the white tourists or the Africans who pander to them.

Overall, this book is a powerful story about what it’s like to live through and beyond unspeakable horrors.

Questions for discussion:

How much of Clemantine’s experiences are shaped by her youth during the actual genocide? During their days in refugee camps? How could things have been different had she been more aware of what was happening during the genocide itself?

In what ways does the privilege Clemantine experience after arriving in the U.S. affect her adult life? What about her experience with Oprah and/or Eli Wiesel in particular?

 

Free Food For Millionaires by Min Jin Lee

FFFM tells the story of Casey Han, a recent Princeton graduate who immigrated to the United States with her family as a young child. As the story opens, she’s at a family dinner with her parents at the beginning of her first summer as a college graduate. She’s moved in with them, but hasn’t told them that she’s deferred admission to Columbia Law School and has no plans for her post-college life. She also hasn’t told them that she’s been dating a white American, which would be an even more egregious offense to her traditional Korean parents. Casey is clearly of a different generation and a different world than her parents. As a result she felt

If her rotten choices hurt her, well then, she’d be willing to take that wager, but it was hard to think of letting her parents down again and again. But her choices were always hurting her parents, or so they said. Yet Casey was an American, too — she had a strong desire to be happy and to have love, and she’d never considered such wishes to be Korean ones (123).

This tension between the Korean values and wishes of her family and her American values and wishes runs through the book. We also see themes of religion, class, and race.

As this first night (predictably) ends explosively, Casey’s life is irrevocably changed and the rest of the book tells the story of her attempting to (re)gain a sense of self and purpose in a world that isn’t governed wholly by her parents’ traditions or her white American peers’ privilege. The things Casey knows best are shopping and hats, although she has an ivy-league education, and she has to reinvent her life a lot more quickly and urgently than she had planned.

This book was immersive in a way that, even though I really feel that I didn’t relate to Casey, I felt so invested in the characters that I couldn’t wait to keep reading. The characters were so real that at times they felt predictable, simply because they seemed like real people and they acted like real people would. Their flaws were real flaws, and their successes, therefore, were real successes.

I felt that there were some loose ends that could have been tied up more cleanly, or alternatively omitted altogether, but the book was panoramic in scope even despite these loose ends and gave us a comprehensive look at the immigrant experience for this family and their new community in New York.

Questions for Discussion:

Is Casey’s spending (and possibly Unu’s gambling?) a unique result of the immigrant experience?

What can we learn about the experiences of this family by comparing and contrasting Casey to Tina, and is this actually a valuable exercise? Or is Tina’s story so different that comparing to Casey cheapens them both? I felt as though Tina was almost entirely in the story as a foil to Casey and really wanted to know more of her story.

What role did hats and millinery play in the story?