The COMPAS 2020 Migration Book Review: what we read when we stayed at home

Published 17 December 2020 / By The COMPAS Team

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In what's become an annual tradition, the COMPAS team reveal their favourite migration-related reads of the year. Not all of the books mentioned were published in 2020, but we're not going to quibble about that.

Jacqueline Broadhead, Director of the Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity

In a recent COMPAS seminar, Professor Claire Alexander noted a potential blind spot in race studies in relation to newcomer communities, especially new African communities and posited this as one way in which migration studies and race studies can speak to each other and each enrich the other.

In Afropean - Notes from Black Europe, Johny Pitts illuminates this question - providing a deeply felt examination of black European identity through the prism of both newcomers and black communities throughout the continent. Pitts starts with a tour of ‘Black Paris’, but bridles at its Americanisation - noting that whilst Paris is seen as a place of freedom for African Americans, this risks side lining the experience of the Black, and in particular, African, communities of Paris.

Throughout his journey, Pitts never evades questions of outright discrimination and inequality, and with a light touch gives the lie to any false opposition between discussions of race and class, but his book is distinctive in its boldness. The communities that he visits have both their own clear identities, but, crucially, they are engaged in shaping European and national identities themselves – they are fundamentally both ‘in and of Europe’ - a core part of the shared story, history and geography of this tumultuous continent.


Michael Keith, Director of PEAK Urban

Two choices for the year. One is the beautifully crafted novel by Bernardine Evaristo Girl, Woman, Other. It captures the notions of intersectionality and the interfaces of international mobilities, historical legacies of intolerance, multiple solidarities and identities, disfiguring racisms and contemporary London far better than many a dozen monographs or journal articles in urban studies or migration studies. It is also written with a smart narrator’s sleight of hand but also veined with a sense of hope in the face of sometimes grim realities. The book shouts to our less than optimistic times. Her characters are real, brave, complex and contradictory but always have their powerful insights into the paradoxes of postcolonial Britain and an interconnected world. They also read! As when

“Courtney replied that Roxane Gay warned against the idea of playing ‘privilege Olympics’ and wrote in Bad Feminist that privilege is relative and contextual, and I agree, Yazz, I mean, where does it all end? Is Obama less privileged than a white hillbilly growing up in a trailer park with a junkie single mother and a jailbird father? Is a severely disabled person more privileged than a Syrian asylum-seeker who’s been tortured? Roxane argues that we have to find a new discourse for discussing inequality. Yazz doesn’t know what to say, when did Court read Roxane Gay - who’s amaaaazing? Was this a student outwitting the master moment?”

In the early hours in pandemic’s shadow, I just about managed the exceptional Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel. These have nothing at all to do with migration studies or urban studies but speak to the disposition of our scholarship again and again, particularly in moments of cultural pessimism. There are too many such passages when reading about Cromwell refigured while the reader imagines a future (dis)United Kingdom. But just to give a few examples, the suggestion that “It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” (from Wolf Hall) Or. “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.” (also from Wolf Hall). And finally, from Bring up the Bodies “truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the street; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.”

Mantel’s Tudor past speaks to the contemporary moment. In both public worlds and the academy alike, more of us should consider Mantel’s sympathetic portrayal of a man less populist and more thoughtful than many on the public stage today.


Nicholas Van Hear, COMPAS Senior Researcher

During the first lockdown, I re-read Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. Like another of Mohsin’s books that I re-read during the same period, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, it is simply and engagingly written, and packed with thought-provoking and profound ideas.

Basically Exit West tells the story of a refugee couple (well, sort of) who manage to flee from their turbulent homeland by means of portals which appear from time to time, and through which people on the move can access safer locations in other parts of the world. Though I read it after Robin Cohen and I came up with the idea of Refugia – a kind of networked, transnational archipelago run by and for refugees – Exit West chimed with what we were trying to imagine, and encouraged us to present the Refugia idea in our book in the form of what has become known as ‘social science fiction’. We are certainly not as accomplished as Mohsin in this respect, but it has proved a novel way of trying to get an idea across.



Dominic Martin, researcher on Emptiness project

I loved Sex, Love and Migration: Postsocialism, Modernity, and Intimacy from Istanbul to the Arctic, Alexia Bloch’s recent (2017) account of migrant women from the former Soviet borderlands who live and trade in Turkey. These women, often the primary breadwinners of their extended families through remittance, frequently leave children to be cared for by older family members in ‘other mother’ arrangements. Their relations with husbands at home are characterized by role-reversal, with women in the active, dominant role, with dependent stay-at-home husbands. Bloch highlights practices and postures that complicate liberal narratives that assume a trajectory from “oppressive” state socialism to the “opportunities” offered by global capitalism. Some of Bloch’s older interlocutors, lament being in a global service economy where ideals of socialist labour have no meaning. Some younger women, however, consider their work and life in Turkey as exciting, urbane, and an escape from the confining economic structures and gender ideals of the past. This latter group exemplify ideals of glamour, romance, and sexuality made available through the freedom offered by mobility. The practices and new structures of feeling observed by Bloch run counter to the commonly held view of the traffic of women as victims across borders. This is a wonderful ethnography that affords more nuanced understandings of the links between global capitalism and women's (and men's) migration.


Kristen McCollum, Doctoral Student in Migration Studies

When discussions around migration policy start to feel void of the perspective of migrants themselves, reading fiction is a great tool for developing a sense of empathy. Two fiction books made it on my reading list this year which deeply impacted my perspective on forced migration.

As mentioned by Nick, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, gives an account about a burgeoning civil war in an unnamed country, and the decision of two young people on whether to stay or flee. Rumours develop of magical doors in the city that can immediately transport you to another country – for a price. This book will make you feel the anxiety of uncertainty and risk, and a sense of injustice at the discrimination experienced in each of the Western host cities at the other side of the doors.

If you only have a few spare minutes to read, Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini is a brief, beautifully illustrated book inspired by true events. Written as a letter from a father to son, it is a lyrical telling of the moments right before a tragic Mediterranean crossing. Proceeds of the book go to the Khaled Hosseini foundation and UNHCR.


Carlos Vargas-Silva, COMPAS Director

The book that most caught my attention in 2020 was Refugees in New Destinations and Small Cities: Resettlement in Vermont by Pablo Bose. Refugee resettlement has been at the centre of the political debate in in the United States over the last four years. Much of the discussion regarding refugees in the USA relates to big cities and urban areas. Vermont is different. It is cold, rural, and mountainous. The main city of the state, Burlington, is famous for being a place for progressive politics, including having for many years a famous socialist mayor, Bernie Sanders. I arrived at the university in Burlington in 2006, at the same time as Pablo. He made a life there, while I left as quickly as possible. Don’t get me wrong. I understand the charm of farms, snow-covered mountains, skiing, maple syrup, hippies, driving a Subaru and Ben and Jerry’s, but it is not really my ideal place. It is in this unique context that Pablo explores refugee resettlement and documents the experiences of the newcomers along with their encounters with the local population. While Vermont provides a unique context, the stories should be familiar to those in other small towns in the USA, and indeed, other countries.

There are two other books from 2020 that I have in my reading list and that I will be reading during the end of the year break. These are Them and Us: How Immigrants and Locals Can Thrive Together by Philippe Legrain and Welcome to Britain: Fixing Our Broken Immigration System by Colin Yeo. While I have not been able to read these two books yet, both look great!


Rob McNeil, Deputy Director of Migration Observatory

I’ve reviewed American Dirt in this separate COMPAS blog here; it’s a thrilling page turner about the desperate flight of a mother and her young son from the violence of drug cartels in Acapulco to the relative safely of Trump-era America. A book that is as un-put-downable as it is superficial in its treatment of migrants and migration.


Mikal Mast, PEAK Urban Project Manager

James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time is a novel about a motley band travelling across plague-ridden 14th-century southern England on their way to join military campaigns in France. It’s a strong reminder of the strangeness of the past, while also highlighting similarities with contemporary issues of pandemic and Brexit.

The motives and travails of the travellers in the band are examples of the same drivers that compel people to migrate- and the same hardships they face - today. One of the party is a young aristocratic woman fleeing an arranged marriage to join her love. Another is a young bowman who has exchanged his services for a chance at freedom, while his travelling companion is trying to escape a gendered prison. Last is a Frenchwoman, captured by a member of the party during a military campaign and trafficked back to England. Along the road they encounter plague-stricken towns – at some they are welcomed and offered hospitality, while on other occasions they are chased off as if they were the ones brining the pestilence, much like migrants and travellers are accused of being vectors of plagues today.

While the story and characters feel contemporary and relevant, the author also manages to express the absolute foreignness of 14th-century England. It can be tough book initially as the vocabulary and sentence structure is unfamiliar. The characters speak a different dialect depending on their social class – the aristocratic woman and her proctor chaperone are the most intelligible, the peasants and the rouges almost impossible to understand. Along their route, the party participates in a magical allegorical stage play, which would be nigh upon incomprehensible to a modern British audience. In a real sense, both native- born and migrants are equally distant from their nation’s past, which helps remind us that no one is more British, we are all equal citizens in the broad sweep of history.


Rosaleen Cunningham, COMPAS Communications and Media Manager

Historian Peter Gaskell in The Unsettling of Europe reminds us that the history of the continent has always been about people on the move, and how the last century became the most mobile of them all. Its breadth is astounding, particularly to a reader whose knowledge of post-war European history was formed from schoolbooks in the 1980s. Forgotten migrations are revealed – the ethnic Germans expelled from eastern Europe or the 40,000 Latvian women recruited to work in Britain between 1945 and 1950, two years before the Windrush arrivals, are just two examples.

There are so many public concepts of displacement that have not changed; refugees are seen as leftover people, or as threats to national security, and then confuse us when they don’t remain static in our definition of them. Hungarian refugees in Austria came to be seen as a strain on the public purse, but when they began to set up small businesses and no longer played the role of helpless refugee, public opinion turned against them.

As someone who is interested in NGO narratives in humanitarian crises and in public opinion towards migration, I was bemused by Gatrell’s accounts of NGOs in the early 1950s actively searching for human interest stories, particularly those that reflected the brutalities of communism. Space is too short here to do a proper review – for that, please do read Daniel Trilling’s review from late 2019.



Domiziana Turcatti , DPhil in Migration Studies & Convenor of the Oxford Migration and Mobility Network

In L’amica geniale (in English: My brilliant friend), Elena Ferrante recounts how the friendship between Elena Greco and Raffaella Cerullo develops from childhood to adulthood in post-WWII Italy. Born in the context of ‘il rione’, a poor neighbourhood in Naples, Elena and Lina’s friendship will face many challenges, with Elena’s migration to the North of Italybeing one of these.

Though this book was not published in 2020, it is certainly one of the best I read this year. L’amica geniale vividly describes the many meanings migration can take for those who leave and those who remain behind over the life course, the challenges migrant women face in bridging the world they left with the world they meet and in reconciling the loss of belonging with the gaining of socio-economic status that mobility can bring.

I enjoyed reading this novel not only because it made me re-discover the pleasure of reading in my mother tongue, but also because it reminds us to not treat gender and life course as mere ‘variables’ shaping migration experiences, while showing that, to engage the public, touching their hearts through storytelling may be as important as hard facts when conveying the ordinariness and complexities of migration.

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