Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Salon: Reading the immigrant experience.

The phrase 'must see TV' is one that is bandied around quite regularly - often for TV shows that are pure entertainment but are must see because so many people are watching and it therefore becomes the water cooler topic.

This week on TV here in Australia, we got to see what truly was must see TV. The show was called Go Back to Where You Came From and it was raw, confronting, emotional, challenging television and the TV channel that showed it deserves many, many kudos for showing it! I cried so many times whilst watching this shows but more than just being emotionally affected to the point of tears, I was also shocked, outraged and humbled by the show. The station that showed it is SBS which is the multi cultural mainstream broadcaster here in Australia showing TV shows, news, movies, sports events etc from around the globe that the other more commercial channels would not normally be interested in showing.

Before you wonder why on earth I am talking about TV in a Sunday Salon post that is meant to be about books, I will get to books I promise.

Go Back to Where You Came From was amazing TV - reality TV at its best. It took six ordinary Australians with quite strong opinions on the question of immigration, and in particular about the boat people who arrive illegally in Australia and sent those six people back through the journey undertaken by refugees. They started by spending time with people who have been settled here in Australia and learnt a bit about their stories, then doing the boat trip that causes so much emotional reaction in the Australian media, back to places like Malaysia, and then further back to camps in Africa, and then further again to the very source countries for many refugees - countries like Iraq and the Congo. There were varying reactions amongst the six to what they experiences, and quite strong reactions to the participants on the social media sites as the show was airing to some of them.

Here is a link to the first episodes (sorry, I have no idea if it is geo blocked or not). Here's the trailer, which I don't think is blocked.

I have moved countries twice in my life. Both times it was willingly - because I could, not because I didn't feel as though I had any other choice - and it was to a country where I knew the language. Despite that it was difficult to leave behind family, friends and possessions.

Now, I will confess that I don't have strong objections to the idea of Australia increasing it's refugee intake, mainly because I have always been compelled to think about how difficult life must be for someone to leave behind everything they own, friends and family, to spend years in refugee camps, to risk your life in a boat that is unseaworthy, and then further years in a detention centre and that is a better option than staying where you were. I am reminded of a series of photos that I saw over at The Big Picture a few weeks ago on immigration, which illustrates just how desperate people are to escape from their current situations.

I agree that there needs to be a process that determines who are legitimate refugees, but that the current process which can take years whilst leaving people languishing in detention centres is wrong. I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that this isn't it!

For me, this show wasn't one that changed my opinion, but it was one that made me want to do something. I am not sure what, but I want to find something.

Maybe I am a bit of a bleeding heart when it comes to this issue, but I have always found the immigrant story to be a compelling one. It may not necessarily be appropriate to ask the question to my neighbours or casual acquaintances of how they came to be here, or what they escaped from. When authors are brave enough to put those experiences into books enables someone who is lucky to have been born where I was, at the time I was, someone like me the chance to understand, to empathise, which was pretty much the point of making a show like Go Back To Where You Came From. Even after getting to the new country there will be many struggles - starting again often in low paying jobs, dealing with different cultures, particularly after the children get older and are caught between two cultures.

I have enjoyed reading these kinds of immigrant experience books for many, many years. Among the earliest I can recall are novels like Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, and the more recent Shanghai Girls by Lisa See dealing with Chinese families immigrating to America, to non fiction/memoirs like Ishmael Beah's Long Way Gone about boy soldiers from African wars and Alice Pung's Unpolished Gem about a Vietnamese family's new life in Melbourne, Australia.

There are so many other books I could mention here, but I wanted to ask you what are the best immigrant experience novels you have read? Do you have a must read novel recommendation? Do you like reading these kinds of books and why or why not?


  1. great post Marg and I share your sentiments about the show. I haven't moved country long term but have lived overseas for periods of 12 months and have travelled pretty extensively and one of the great lessons this has taught me is gratitude for the luck of my birth country.

    I haven't read a lot of books on this theme but a couple of good ones I can recall are Serge Liberman's books about the Jewish migrant experience in Australia, the first is ON FIRMER SHORES - talking about the waves of escapes from Europe in the late 30's and following the war. Eye opening.

    And a few years ago I read a book by a Sri Lanken woman called Yasmine Gooneratne about her immigrant experience in Australia, called A CHANGE OF SKIES - also very thoughtful and interesting

    Looking forward to seeing what others suggest.

  2. I have to admit that I didn't watch the show. My grandparents were refugees and their story is very sad, yet interesting (their child became sick en route to Australia and they were forced to leave the ship early). I can't say I recall many books about immigrants - Ellis Island by Kate Kerrigan sort of fits in, but that's moving to America from Ireland by choice. They're A Weird Mob (can't remember author) is an Italian immigrant's view of life in Australia. The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do is also a memoir of how he came to Australia.
    I don't mind reading these books, but I like Grandma's stories better :)

  3. Excellent post! Go Back To Where You Came From is still playing on my mind. It was brilliant TV. Like you, I really want to do something!
    As for books, this is kind of different, but one of the reasons I always loved Looking For Alibrandi was the way it explores identity as a second-generation Australian, as well as the migrant experience through the story of Josie's grandmother.
    I also read a book in high school, and it's terrible that I can't remember the name, but the story stuck with me - it was about a young girl whose family immigrated to Australia in the 60s. They actually lived in the area that I grew up in, so that aspect fascinated me - especially as it gave insight into the experience of my own family (both sets of grandparents moved here after WWII - one from Malta, one from England).

  4. I wish we had some decent political leadership in this country. The government fiddles around the edges and the coalition stirs the racism pot that was so successful after Tampa.

    It strikes me as both ludicrous and fundamentally evil to imprison valid refugees. I wonder what effect on our health system, further victimising these people will have in the future, what eager participants in our democracy we will have crippled.

    Marg, you not a bleeding heart. Your a thinking human being, with compassion.

  5. Excellent post. Thanks for the various links. I could access the trailer from the UK, but not the programme, which is a shame.

    This is an incredible undertaking and does lend to a interesting discussion point.

    I lived in Australia for a year in the early 1990s. During that time I met a Polish couple who had survived the camps of the Second World War and he sat,complete with number tattoo and shared his story with me, and that of his family, who sadly were not as lucky as him. It was a very moving afternoon and I kept in touch with him and his wife after I returned up right up until they passed away. What he shared with me that day, simply because I was interested was beyond money and that in some way provided a bond between myself (and later my husband) with him and his wife.

    I guess migration for those who feel that they have no choice - it is survival is driven by two things. Geography and chance/opportunity/Success.

    I recall images of back in the 1970s of those fleeing Vietnam and Korea who aimed straight for Australia probably based upon geography and the ease of entry at the time. That said, I worked with someone who was from Cambodia and who said he could still feel the fear of the day that his family left Cambodia for England.

    Over time, there have always been groups who have fled their homeland, perhaps to avoid a regime that was not welcome and dangerously robust, or perhaps because the economics in another was more appealing and would be productive to those in their native homeland.

    During the 19th Century Italians walked through France to England (obviously they needed a boat to cross the channel) in order to obtain a better life in England or perhaps onward travel to the US. That journey would have been dreadful, and exhausting and possibly dangerous, perhaps though, safer than staying behind.

    For me, the sad part is of course the situation that those who are fleeing a country find themselves in, but also, that despite having generations of others who have done exactly the same that we still live in a world where others have no experience of democracy and are subjected to such fear. Have we learnt nothing?

  6. I remember reading Any Small Goodness by Tony Johnston several years ago. It's a children's book about the immigrant experience for a Hispanic family in America.

    Thank you for reminding me of this book. I need to get a copy for my school library.

    Here's my Sunday Salon: Une Petite Visite à Paris
    . (And don't's in English. I just like to pretend to speak French.)

  7. I haven't read anything about this issue recently, nor can I recall anything. Of course, I do plan to read Ellis Island (which is not the same kind of experience); thanks for sharing.


  8. Oh, how I miss SBS, the only TV channel that has ever kept me regularly scanning its programming.

    Books that spring to mind include Natasha Solomons's recent Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English/Mr Rosenblum's List and Wilhelm Moberg's classic "Emigrants" series about Swedish settlers in Minnesota, USA, during the 19th century. The latter have been made into films - and, would you belive it, an ABBA musical! (Kristina från Duvemåla.)

  9. This does sound like a really interesting and highly-charged television show, and I wish we had something like it here. A few book that I have read recently that deal with the immigrant experience would have to be Girl in Translation, Brooklyn, and Bitter Melon. All great books for one reason or another.

  10. Zibilee, Girl in Translation is one that I have been meaning to read for a while.

    Danielle, I loved Mr Rosenblum's List - such a fun read. SBS does have a lot of very interesting shows on it!

    Thanks for stopping by Laurel Rain-Snow.

    Deb, I would think there would be quite a few kids books on the topic.

    Angler's Rest, thank you so much for a such a comprehensive comment. I think part of the irony of the hostile opinions that are somewhat prevalent is that many of us are only two or three generations away from immigrants!

    Sean, the whole Tampa thing was a big turning point for me. The event itself and the political deception. And thanks!

    Thanks Belle. I will definitely be watching the follow up post on Tuesday night.

    Sam, if you get a chance to watch, it is extremely compelling viewing. I remember reading They're a Weird Mob years ago.

    Bernadette, thanks for the suggestions!

  11. I can not offer any books on this issue, but in the U.S. we have many issues with immigration as well. I think many people tend to forget where they came from. Circumstances could always change too. Excellent and thought provoking post.

  12. I am very fascinated with the immigration question too, for the same reason as you. I've changed countries twice as well, and it's painful leaving people you know behind and starting all over. It's not an easy decision or a tempting one either. It's hard and nobody wants to languish in some place for no reason. I think countries need to tackle this question. The objections against immigration are pretty valid except they are usually one-sided. It's like saying you don't want to share your cozy home with outsiders. But when there's a war outside and your home's safe, you will open the doors to people who need subsistence. The most recent book I read on immigration is A Thread of Sky by Deanna Fei, which I loved. It was more about an immigrant's identity - how they are always considered to be from another country.