The 2021 COMPAS Migration Book (etc.) review

Published 13 December 2021 / By The COMPAS Team

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Our 2021 book review is a little different: this year we have a mixed-bag of migration-themed books (new, old and very old), a telenovela, a few audio treats – there's something for everyone in here. Read on to find out what the COMPAS team have been watching, listening to and of course, reading (or re-reading).

Rose Campion, DPhil in Migration Studies

While the COMPAS annual review usually focuses on reading material, I thought I would put my music degrees to good use and share two albums I particularly enjoyed this year. Both were created in the context of migration to the UK and draw on talent and traditions from around the world.

Ruba Shamshoum’s haunting voice is back on her new EP Risha – the Arabic word meaning eagle feather. This latest work features her signature fusion of echoing vocals over an understated rhythm section with just a touch of electronic filigree. Shamshoum, originally from Palestine and now based in London, layers a number of genres in each song. The dream pop harmonies, jazzy double bass lines, and Arabic vocal ornamentation defy categorisation. It’s just as well that she can’t be boxed in– with these expansive vocals, it sounds like her risha could take flight at any second. Listen if you wonder what Lorde would sound like if she grew up in the Levant. Perfect for a reflective, slow stroll in Port Meadow in the waning winter sun.

Nubiyan Twist may have originated in Leeds, but their musicians and influences stem from well beyond the British Isles. Their 2019 album Jungle Run shows off this collective’s technical prowess, yet Freedom Fables gives space for individuals to explore their musical selves. The album juxtaposes jazz and soul, afrobeats and dub, lofi and highlife – sometimes in the same song. However, this syncretic mix is united throughout the album by a serious commitment to their quintessential groove. Perfect for a mid-morning dance break, especially “If I Know”. Listen if you want Tom Misch to lead a UK-version of Snarky Puppy.

Madeline Reeves, Professor of the Anthropology of Migration (joining 2022)

My choice for migration-themed book is Sienna Craig’s The Ends of Kinship: Connecting Himalayan Lives Between Nepal and New York, which came out in 2020 with the University of Washington Press. It’s one of those books that is hard to define in terms of genre- part scholarly monograph, part ethnographic fiction, it draws you in and makes you care about its central characters in the way a good novel does. The book covers some familiar anthropological ground: how seasonal migrations to big cities have changed families, kinship obligations, intergenerational relations, religious convictions, identities, and expectations of time and change in remote and rural communities. But the story here is told with such insight and care that it feels utterly fresh and compelling—helped by some Craig’s luminescent prose and Tenzin Norbu’s evocative pencil drawings. Craig shows how migration, as she puts it, both ‘depends upon and works on kinship’: how people both honour and transform their sense of connection to particular people and places through the fact of migration. It is a text that I have found helpful for thinking about the very different contexts of Kyrgyzstan and Russia, and the way that concerns over obligation and care inflect migration decisions and in so doing, transform our very sense of what it means to be emplaced.

Carlos Vargas-Silva, Director, COMPAS

The Queen of Flow is an entertaining telenovela (Latin American soap opera) set in Medellín, Colombia. The story develops in the comunas of Medellin. These are informal settlements of individuals who moved from the Colombian countryside to the outskirts of the city. This internal migration was driven by high levels of violence in rural Colombia. In essence, this is a segregated internally displaced population.

The whole plot of the series is about the ambition of leaving the comuna and moving to better-off neighbourhoods in the city. This is a not an easy process. The protagonists are reggaeton singers (i.e. the genre of the Despacito song). They used their musical talents to get out of the comuna, but this is a complex context and they need the support of hard-core gangsters in the process. This support comes at a great cost!

In addition to a great story of informal settlements and urban social mobility, you get to hear very nice music. The series is available on Netflix (in Spanish and with English subtitles) and has two seasons (171 episodes in total!).

Rob McNeil, Deputy Director, The Migration Observatory

My book review deals with the first two instalments of an exciting and complex story set over multiple generations, dealing with successive waves of forced migration, murder and betrayal.

The story begins with a young couple forced from the only home they have ever known after one terrible mistake: The couple, who had lived a happy and comfortable life in their tiny community, receive poor legal advice from an apparent expert, which leads them to break a seemingly irrational and minor law. But the outcome of this transgression leads to deportation for both of them, and a life of struggle and brutality in their new home – culminating in a tragic fight between their children, which leaves one dead.

The repercussions of the deportation continue to haunt the family for generations: they flee environmental catastrophe, are left stateless, and - in book two - those who survive eventually find themselves forced into unpaid labour under a brutal North African dictator. A plan is formed to escape, but the authorities are tipped-off, and begin a pursuit that seems destined to result in the brutal murder of the escapees, but which, in fact, ends up with the deaths of a large number of the regime’s enforcement officers and a narrow escape for the fleeing refugees. But the escape provides only a short respite from the dangers and risks the family – which has now grown into a large community – face. They escape malnutrition and dehydration, religious schisms in the community and manage to forge a set of moral guidelines that keep them together, before finally finding a place they can call home.

The books – Genesis and Exodus – are available in all good synagogues, churches and mosques. They also offer multiple sequels.

Rosaleen Cunningham, Communications and Media Manager

Stateless is an Australian 6-part drama (on Netflix), set in an outback detention centre for “unlawful non-citizens” (UNCs) run by KORVO and DIMIA (the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs). The acronyms abound. The drama intertwines characters including detainees, guards and civil servants and how incarceration affects them all, while reflecting how political expediency and inaction contribute to our inhumanity.

The stories are sadly all too familiar, including the widowed father and his surviving daughter; victims of the Taliban; people smugglers; and the asylum system. Initially I felt the story of the white Australian character in detention was a little outlandish until I read in Lucy Mangan’s review of Stateless that she is in fact based on a true story. This is a must-watch for everyone interested in how the UK might re-design it’s “firm but fair” asylum system, building on Australian ‘best practice’.

Simon May’s How To Be A Refugee is not what the title implies, unless the long answer is “Hide Who You Are. Forever.” Philosophy professor and author May was raised in Britain as a Catholic, but was forbidden to identify as British. Neither was he allowed to identify as Jewish or German, despite his family’s origins. After one of his aunts reveals the truth about his father’s death, May uncovers his family’s true history: a story of decades of denial of their Jewish heritage through extraordinary means in order to escape the fate of Jewish people living in Hitler’s Germany. The book shines a light on an aspect of the Holocaust seldom discussed – and the lengths people went in order to escape the Nazi genocide.

Also it’s an important reminder of what Germany and the world lost – a cosmopolitan, sophisticated and highly educated German Jewish culture promoted by a class of people dedicated and loyal to the fatherland's cultural world. It reminds us too that refugees come from all walks of life, including the ‘elite’.

A new Guardian film just released last week, Unsafe Passage documents a journey of asylum from Libya bound for Europe – triggering a terrifying showdown between a Doctors Without Borders boat attempting to escort it to safety and the Libyan Coast Guard fighting to turn it back. A timely inside view of the desperate measures taken in “the deadly race for Europe”.

Matthew Porges, British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

Peter Korchnak's Remembering Yugoslavia is a podcast, but it is also a multimedia project that spans writing, photography, and even cooking. Through dozens of in-depth episodes, Korchnak travels around the former Yugoslavia, interviewing locals and visitors, journalists and academics, in order to find out what Yugoslavia meant and continues to mean. The project's tagline is "exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists", and it is particularly resonant for Korchnak, a Slovak now living in the United States. Although the project is about the legacy of Yugoslavia in the broadest possible sense, many of its episodes explore themes related to migration. In the Balkans, migration – past and present – is inescapable, and what Korchnak does perhaps best of all is convey the interlocking layers of exile and return that have come to define not only his own experience, but that of the region itself.

Jacqui Broadhead, Director, Global Exchange on Migration & Diversity

In the darkest days of January lockdown I wanted to read something familiar, which means Agatha Christie.

Her debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, turned 100 this year and introduced one of the most famous refugees in literature – Hercule Poirot. In spite of this popularity, when a 2014 poll asked people to select the single biggest inflow of refugees to Britain nobody chose the correct answer of the 250,000 Belgian refugees who found sanctuary in Britain in 1914, (for context, the upcoming Afghan resettlement programme will accept 20,000.)

All About Agatha*, a podcast devoted to reading and rating every Christie, challenges assumptions about the supposedly ‘cosy’ Christie. Whilst she often wrote ‘closed circle’ puzzle mysteries, the worlds that she created were far from sealed off. Researchers have noted that the opening of borders, ‘both literal and intellectual’ were key to her conception of a changing England, with Poirot’s use of psychology embracing wider European traditions as the country opened up post war. His role at the heart of, yet also on the outside of, English life reflects common migration and integration experiences, though by each famous denouement, it is always clear that Poirot should never be underestimated.

More troublingly, a ‘stuck in its time’ category to the rankings allows for frank discussion of the unacceptable aspects of Christie – and the need to acknowledge the difficult and flawed legacy apparent in many of the novels. Rereading Christie shines a dark mirror on questions of Englishness, identity and belonging across the twentieth century – and all through the eyes and, more importantly, ‘the little grey cells’ of her most famous creation.

*Catherine Brobeck, co-host of the superb All About Agatha podcast, recently passed away. This review is dedicated to her memory.


Find more migration review round-ups from previous years here: 2018 | 2019 | 2020 | 2021