The COMPAS 2018 list of best books on migration

Published 18 December 2018 / By The COMPAS Team

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What do migration researchers read in their spare time? It turns out that even when we are picking up a non-academic piece of ‘light’ reading, the topic makes its way into our preferences. Here is a selection of what the COMPAS team were reading this year. Not all of the titles came out in 2018, and several describe migration in a truly historical context, perhaps highlighting how much mobility and journey infiltrate literature of all genres.

Nathan Grassi – “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is a hefty history book throughout which, Beard discusses the concept of migration, through the eyes of the Ancient Romans. The Empire had its failings, of course (bloodshed, rape, war, eating roasted mice), but central to their beliefs was the foundation myth of the city by a war refugee/asylum seeker (Aeneas, who escaped Troy, carrying his elderly father on his back), and the opening of its gates to everyone and anyone by the fratricidal first king of Rome, Romulus. Most who lived within the bounds of the Empire (approx. 30 million people) could be granted citizenship and were then free to move from one end to the other. While clarifying that xenophobia was prevalent, she said in an interview, “[The Ancient Romans] would have been horrified that some of the worst bits of what’s going on in the crisis over migration is happening in what was the Roman Empire”.

Michael KeithRacial Cities by Giovanni Picker is a powerful account of how the mobilities of European Roma were shaped by the carceral urban logics of the city but were also changing the way in which we thought about the present and the future of Europe. The city not only mediates the relationship between the fuzzy concepts of ‘migrant’ and ‘race’ but also is the stage and the crucible of migration dramas. Which is one reason why I have also chosen a second book – a work about contemporary London by Rowan Moore, Slow Burn City, also published this year, which is ostensibly nothing to do with migration at all. Moore provides a lucid account of how the disconnect of globalizing worlds so distant are framed by a social and geographical contexts so proximate. There are many Londons simultaneously present, kaleidoscopically and chaotically superimposed one on another. Spatial distance does not map straightforwardly onto social distance as some of today’s commentariat (and even academics) of migrant life continue speciously to argue. If we want to understand the DNA of why migration both works and does not work in just one part of the United Kingdom as a driver of change it is important to understand the DNA of this and every other city”.

Zovanga Kone – “I’ve chosen Moving for Prosperity: Global Migration and Labor Markets by Çağlar Özden and Mathis Wagner. At a time when immigration-related issues are very emotive, we need evidence-based analysis for an informed debate. This book, written by prominent economists in the field of migration, provides an excellent overview of patterns in global migration, the determining factors of these patterns and their implications for all those affected. The book could not have been timelier. It is also available for free online!”

Mikal Mast – “Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a multigenerational story about a family of Korean migrants in Japan. It covers issues of unmarried pregnancy, Korean missionaries, organised crime, wartime deprivation, discrimination and working women over the span of the 20th century. I especially enjoyed it because, as well as introducing me to an unfamiliar area and time-period, it told a dramatic story using a simple but effective writing style. It is based on two decades of research, and it shows”.

Rob McNeil – “My migration book of the year is a novel dealing with the plight of a family of climate migrants who desperately flee their dying land and grinding poverty in search of an imagined fertile paradise where food and work will be abundant. Their epic, brutal and highly dangerous journey leaves some of the family dead, all of them dealing with prejudice and abuse but also highlights the fundamental strength found in love and bonds of family, and the power of pride, dignity and selflessness in situations where all else seems hopeless. In the end, the Promised Land turns out to be a world of cruelty, waste and exploitation where the family’s origins and poverty mark them out as sub-humans whose lives are disposable. This book, however, is not a contemporary tale of a family fleeing sub-Saharan Africa and crossing the Mediterranean for the dream of a life or abundance in Europe, but is, in fact, John Steinbeck’s 1939 masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath”.

Lena Rose – “My favourite fiction book on migration this year was Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire (published 2017 but read in 2018); a real page-turner that contrasts different ways of being Muslim in Britain (and America) including all the political ramifications, in a modern reimagining of Sophocles' Antigone. It depicts the journey of a character’s radicalisation in Syria and eventual death in Istanbul, and the effects this has on his family in the UK and a Muslim home secretary, from love to betrayal. In Shamsie's characteristically epic style, the book prises open unsettling questions of identity, political, cultural, and religious belonging and citizenship”.

Carlos Vargas-Silva – “Just out this week is Migrant Integration in a Changing Europe: Immigrants, European Citizens, and Co-ethnics in Italy and Spain by Roxana Barbulescu, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet! But I’m particularly looking forward to a number of books coming out in 2019, several whose authors have close ties with COMPAS, for example Human Geopolitics: States, Emigrants, and the Rise of Diaspora Institutions by Alan Gamlen and No Go World: How Fear Is Redrawing Our Maps and Infecting Our Politics, by Ruben Andersson of Oxford Department of International Development”.

And finally, my choice: journalist Daniel Trilling has done much in recent years to attempt to address the many myths surrounding migration and the refugee ‘crisis’. In Lights in the Distance he brings his expertise and weaves it with intimate interviews with people he has met and revisited over several years in places as diverse as Calais, Sicily, Athens and the far west of Ukraine. He follows them to camps, hostels, detention centres, and abandoned buildings, documenting their journey to find that elusive light. The strength of personal testimony is highlighted by Trilling in the conclusion:

Their experiences are often treated as secondary to the question of what to do with them. On the one hand, you have the weight of anti-immigration propaganda. On the other, you have the messages of the humanitarian organisations that want to stress people’s vulnerabilities […] Most though are neither innocents nor villains, but people trying to retain control over their lives and making complex decisions about what risks to take […] Like the rest of us, they are constantly making and remaking stories that explain their place in the world”.