COMPAS recommendations - The best books on migration we read this year

Published 21 December 2022 / By COMPAS Communications, Delphine Boagey

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Following International Migrants Day and in the festive spirit, we asked COMPAS staff and students to share their favourite festive reads they picked up this year. Books vary in genre, subject and publication date but they all have one thing in common - migration! And it's not too late to add them to your wish list...


The Journey of Humanity: The Origins of Wealth and Inequality by David Galor (2022)
Recommended by Carlos Vargas-Silva, Director of COMPAS

This is an ambitious book. Galor provides explanations for differences in economic development across countries and periods from the emergence of Homo Sapiens in Africa, 300,000 years ago to the present. An important component of The Journey of Humanity relates to migration. Thousands of years ago humans migrated out of Africa. The book focuses on the evidence that this migratory process led to a reduction in the diversity of populations. As humans moved, there was a reduction in the degree of cultural, linguistic, behavioural and physical diversity in their societies. The end result was a high level of worldwide variation in the degree of diversity. The book then connects this variation in diversity with variations in economic conditions. Galor hypothesizes that there is a ‘hump-shaped’ effect of diversity on economic productivity. Too much diversity leads to low levels of trust and conflict. Too little diversity decreases the possibility of specialisation and stimulating the cross-fertilisation of ideas in innovative activities. Personally, it is hard for me to accept that current differences in the wealth of nations are based on factors originating in the ancient past. However, Galor does make a strong case for this argument.


The Soviet Passport by Albert Baiburin trans. Dalziel, S. (2021)
Recommended by Dominic Martin, COMPAS Postdoctoral Researcher

Baiburin’s magisterial microhistory of the Soviet Union’s passport illuminates the key role it played in defining and actively constructing Soviet identity and the Soviet state itself. As well as a powerful force of social and cultural unification, a token of citizenship in a positive sense, the passport became the main method for the state to exercise control over the population.

The passport system was designed not so much for those who were given a passport, but rather for those who, for one reason or another, were not given one. A person who did not have a passport was automatically denied a range of rights, chief among which was the right to travel freely. Large categories of the population, particularly in the Soviet countryside, were migrationally disenfranchised, to all intents and purposes tied to their place of residence.

In the high summer of the Soviet Union, the granting of a passport came to be seen as a defining rite of passage between adolescence and adulthood. Ceremonies of presentation were held, drawing together the membership of the Soviet family: workers, students, the span of generations; marking entry into adulthood, work, and the rights and duties of Soviet citizenhood. The Soviet Passport is a work of consummate scholarship, dizzying in the detail of its references. The labyrinthine workings of the Stalinist state are excavated and illuminated. The emergence of the uniquely Soviet hybrid of revolutionary pride, obsessive suspicion and secrecy, and terror is laid bare.


The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins (2022)
Recommended by Matthew Porges, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

The Naked Don't Fear the Water by Matthieu Aikins follows an Afghan migrant from Kabul to Athens, exploring the dangers and frustrations of the journey. Aikins, a Canadian journalist, embeds alongside "Omar," going undercover as an Afghan, (Aikins is fluent in Dari) crossing by boat from Turkey to Greece, spending months in a refugee camp on Lesbos, and ending up in Exarcheia. The book is at its best when casting light on the more boring aspects of the migrant experience: long bus rides, lazy swimming afternoons on Lesbos, and interminable confinement in waiting rooms are all far more generative than the more well-documented action-oriented sequences. The multiple conflicting temporalities of the journey are on display throughout, as the migrants' hopes and fears play out against the backdrop of a transformative period of geopolitical upheaval.


The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (1898)
Recommended by Nathan Grassi, COMPAS Administrator

An unnamed narrator gives a factual account of the invasion and colonisation of Earth by an extra-terrestrial race. The Exodus of London is a particularly detailed chapter, in which the narrator recounts his brother’s harrowing three-day journey along with thousands of other refugees escaping London, fleeing to the coast hoping to cross the Channel to France (which, unbeknownst to them, is suffering the same fate like the rest of Europe). Initially written during a contemporary vogue for ‘invasion fiction’, Wells (commonly known as the father of Science Fiction) sets the action in various locations in the south of England, emphasising the very real “it could happen here” tone of the book. For interest, this map plots all the locations and journeys in the book.  

The unsuspecting Victorian society, which comes under attack and is all but destroyed, mirrors what many saw at the time as the disastrous effect of British Imperialism on indigenous cultures around the world. Wells has noted that inspiration for the book was in part the violent conflicts between the British colonists and the Aboriginal Tasmanians (The Black War). This genocide has been cited as one of the factors for the near extermination of this ethnic and cultural group. The book has inspired a number films, TV shows, an immersive experience, a much mythologised radio play and a curious spoken-word disco album.


The Return by Hisham Matar (2016)
Recommended by Elisa Mosler Vidal, DPhil student in Migration Studies

The Return by Hisham Matar is a memoir published in 2016, about the author’s quest to understand his father’s disappearance under the Gaddafi regime and ultimately his own identity as a Libyan writer exiled in London. Matar weaves together descriptions of his childhood in Libya, a return visit years later with his wife and mother, and his search for answers under the Blair government, to tell an unforgettable story about many migrant themes – belonging, loss, diaspora, and return. Two vignettes stand out, both about Matar meeting a compatriot abroad in painful and absurd circumstances. Attending an English boarding school under a cover identity and having befriended a boy from Libya, he shares with him only on his last day the secret that he too, is Libyan. Suspecting that his father was killed in the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, as an adult in London he meets and exchanges perverse text messages with the dictator’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, for whom life seems to be a game. This is a story about a migrant trapped both between countries, and past and present, exploring the complexity of all that one leaves behind and takes forward.


Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby
Recommended by Delphine Boagey, COMPAS Communications

There’s nothing quite like when a second-hand book on a dust-covered charity shop shelf catches your eye. Even better when you discover an over-folded, dulled-by-the-sun copy (unlike this colourful edition) in a local Oxfam that looks like it has seen many readers – serving as a recommendation in itself.

Travel writer Eric Newby recounts his epic 1200 mile journey through India starting on his forty-fourth birthday. Travelling down the Ganges River from Hardwar to the Bay of Bengal he journeys by boat - and occasionally rail, bus and bullock cart - accompanied by his wife and boatwoman Wanda and resting often at sandbanks and remote villages. From the outset, Newby makes clear that his writing is not concerned with Indian politics or economics of the time but rather with the life and activity in and around Ganga Ma as he found it in 1963-4. His detailed observations include lists of suggestive items needed on the journey, the 108 names of the Ganges, poetry extracts from various Indian writers, an Uttar Pradesh restaurant menu and maps of the route. Rich imagery and colourful characters place us alongside Newby as a witness to the harsh elements and turbulence of boat engineering.

The spiritual significance of the Siddha is not lost in Newby's account. As India's most venerated and sacred river for Hindus (with worship devoted to the goddess Ganga) the Ganges supports the daily lives of millions of people who live in its basin. We become intimately acquainted with the river’s history and shifting moods as festivals and community events punctuate Newby’s journey. Genuine interactions with river life refreshingly combats Western orientalist narratives of Indian mysticism. Yet it is important to acknowledge this journey as one seen and shared through white Western eyes. With Newby’s shipyard upbringing and military background, this journey is something of a rarity for a Londoner born at the end of the First World War. We encounter people - Brahmans, engineers, boatmen, market sellers, riverbank locals - through Newby who must navigate a mighty cultural exchange alongside the geographical journey. The recalling of new smells, tastes and even wake-up routines highlight migration's marriage to the senses in this physical and spiritual journey that celebrates India's holiest river and the lives of those that live closest to it.


The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Recommended by Rob McNeil, Deputy Director of the Migration Observatory

Science fiction provides space (if you’ll pardon the pun) to explore the social complexities of migration in ways that more conventional literary forms simply cannot. The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K Le Guin, is widely recognised as one of the great masterpieces of Sci-Fi.

It was published in 1969 and gives the reader the chance to explore concepts of identity, belonging and otherness that were utterly revolutionary at the time and are still extraordinarily powerful today. The book is, in essence, the story of a stranger in a strange land. The narrator is an emissary on an uncontacted frozen planet whose people – while descended from the same original interstellar migration that ‘seeded’ other planets aeons ago – have evolved significant physical and social differences.

Most notably they do not have a fixed physical sex, and shift from biologically ‘male’ to ‘female’ depending on their sexual cycles and their proximity to others who have taken on the opposite form: something that deeply shapes every facet of daily life. The emissary – regarded as a pervert by the people of the planet on the basis of his fixed sex – is attempting to encourage the leaders of the planet to join a federation of known interstellar civilisations, but is met with suspicion, and some disgust. After becoming embroiled in internal political struggles in the nation where he lands, putting his life at risk, the emissary is forced to flee with a disgraced politician who has been his key supporter. They make a perilous journey across a freezing wasteland to the relative safety of a neighbouring country. The journey brings the narrator a deeper and far more complex understanding of the people and the society he has entered.

Along with others of Le Guin’s “Hainish Cycle”, this book explore complex ideas of otherness, integration, colonialism and sanctuary in an alternate reality that often shines a revealing light on our own. A magnificent, slow moving and powerful feminist work of intrigue and exploration that was decades ahead of its time.


Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez (2022)
Recommended by Emily Cracknell, COMPAS Communications

From the set-up, you might expect Olga Dies Dreaming to follow the trajectory of a traditional rom-com. Olga is incredibly driven and successful, but single and a little bitter. We’re led to believe she’ll find love and let her guard down by the end of the novel, and she will, but it’s a lot more complex than that. Olga and Prierto have achieved the American Dream, and found it to be compromising; of their morals, their identities and their heritage. They’ve worked themselves up from their working-class Brooklyn, and second-generation Puerto Rican, immigrant roots to the upper echelons of society. She’s a high-powered wedding planner, serving the uber-wealthy, while her brother is a New York congressman, intent on representing his constituency. But to get there required moulding themselves to appear palatable to wealthy, white, New Yorkers. Their family and the friends they grew up with see them as successful, but sell-outs. While the ambitions and fates of their parents loom large. Their mother left them to lead the revolution for Puerto Rico, while their father died outcast from his family and society. They find themselves caught between multiple worlds and multiple identities. A devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico, reveals the cracks in their foundations, and forces some frank – and revolutionary – conversations, and actions. Olga Dies Dreaming, explores the impact of trying to assimilate into hierarchies of society where you’ll never truly be accepted, and how to be true to yourself – regardless of others’ expectations.


Dove mi trovo [English trans. Whereabouts] by Jhumpa Lahiri (2018)
Recommended by Jacqui Broadhead, COMPAS researcher and Director of Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts sets her narrator in a sea of everyday vignettes. She is in the street, at the office, in the restaurant, in the piazza, in the waiting room. However, proper nouns are notably absent and so we and her have none of the details that usually ground us into understanding our context.

This effect is compounded by the meta knowledge that Lahiri has taken a deliberate choice - to learn a new language, Italian, and to write exclusively in it - removing herself from her first language (Bengali) and her second (English,) except when translating her own work back into English. So much writing on the migrant experience (as Lahiri had previously written about) focuses on transition points - from one reality to another and the disconnects or moments of connection between these. So, it is startling to see a writer choose a different path.

Lahiri does not try to say that time and place are unimportant. We get to know every inch of her world, imbuing the everyday with notable intimacy - the restaurant where she has the same sandwich for lunch, the charming stationary shop replaced by an impersonal luggage store, the kindness of a cafe owner who lets her skip payment to catch her train, the feeling of a restaurant on the beach in bad weather.

It is sometimes said that the language in our mouth represents the limits of our experience, as much of a sense as taste. Learning a new language might offer a way out, if not for the constant difficulties and compromises involved in moving between the two. Migration literature often feels caught up in this transliteration - trying to smooth out incompatibilities between alphabets not made to interact. Whereabouts is most powerful as an act of trust in itself - on its own terms, without need for translation.

Convenience Store directed by Michael Borodin (2022)
Recommended by Madeleine Reeves, COMPAS researcher

My recommendation this year is for the brilliant, gut-wrenching film directed by Michael Borodin, Convenience Store (Продукты 24), which has been making the rounds of film festivals and which I hope will get picked up by distributors to reach a wider audience. Based on real events, the film explores the intricate emotional and economic dependencies that emerge in the context of debt-driven labour migration from Uzbekistan and Russia. In the film, as in the original case on which it is based, a group of Uzbek women are promised well-paid work in a convenience store; they are forced to hand over their passports (‘in order to get you registered’) and find themselves trapped in a violent, exploitative world in which the police are in cahoots with the store owner to return those who try to escape.  It is not an easy film to watch: the entire first half is set in the four walls of the convenience store, where the banal racism of Muscovites popping in to buying cognac and chocolate intercuts with the physical and sexual violence visited on the women in the store’s back room.  Carefully and subtly told, the story holds an important message about the banality of evil, exploring a variety of modern-day slavery that is all the more shocking for being hidden in plain sight. Watch this short excerpt from the film.


And with that, we wish you a very happy holiday from all of us here at COMPAS! Thank you to our recommenders, thank you to our readers and we'll see you again in the new year!