K Paoletter 6: Flee, Fled, Flown

Refugee_camp_in_Caucasus_LOC_27843846546A refugee must be fleeing. That is the distinction, as far as immigration law is considered, that separates them from your standard-issue immigrant. An immigrant goes to, a refugee flees from. That both often arrive in the same place through the same means is inconsequential: once the refugee has claimed their status under international law, a series of bureaucratic and administrative gears spring to life to determine under what conditions, if any, they can stay. In Go Went Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck masterfully captures how crushingly slow the grinding of those gears can be.

As guide to the plight of the asylum seeker, Erpenbeck casts a German: a classics professor recently retired. When he reads about a group of African refugees who have been living in tents in Berlin’s Oranienplatz for over a year, he becomes drawn into an investigation of “how one makes the transition from a full, readily comprehensible existence to the life of a refuge, which is open in all directions—drafty, as it were—he has to know what was at the beginning, what was in the middle, and what is now.”

Many of the male refugees are soon moved to a derelict nursing home in the suburbs of Berlin, near the professor’s home. He visits them regularly, and begins a series of informal interviews that become an opportunity to showcase the diverse horrors they have fled: Rashid was forced out of Nigeria after his father was abducted by militants; Awad, a Ghanaian who grew up in Tripoli, was held by the military after his home was ransacked; a Tuareg orphan was treated as a slave by his tribe in the Sahara; another man was cobbling together a living by selling shoes on the street of Accra when the practice was suddenly deemed illegal. All of the men, however, crossed the Mediterranean from Libya and landed in Italy. By European law, then, they can only claim asylum in Italy and now face deportation back there.

The system of adjudicating who will be deported and when works slowly, and by degrees. In the meantime, the refugees are given German lessons, shuffled off to different dormitories, and given an allowances to pay for their cell phone plans and transit passes. This interminable middle space is where Erpenbeck’s professor catches them, and its slow rhythms become the rhythms of her book. “The foreigner,” Erpenbeck writes, “is trapped between these now-invisible fronts in an intra-European discussion that has nothing at all to do with him or the actual war he’s trying to escape from.”

Erpenbeck gave a reading at Harvard University earlier this month. During the question and answer portion of the proceedings, she expanded the scope of the liminal space her refugees face from “all the waiting, all the empty time” to the very continuance of their lives. Describing conversations she herself had had with refugees in Berlin who had survived ships capsized in the Mediterranean, Erpenbeck explained, “When you see some people are drowning and some people are saved, you will always see the dead in the living and the living in the dead.”

From Erpenbeck’s perspective, the factors that contribute to surviving a capsized boat—Did you ever learn to swim? How heavy is your clothing? How near is the coastguard? Who did they get to first?— are as arbitrary as the factors European governments consider when ruling on asylum cases. At Harvard, she described how nearly all of the refugees she’d met who expressed a desire to work as nurse’s aides or dishwashers (jobs that, as here in the States, are not exactly appealing to native-born Germans) had eventually been sent back to Italy, while one man who had developed into an alcoholic while in Europe was barred from deportation because he had a diagnosable health condition. Grimly, Erpenbeck joked that this man had little incentive to respond to the treatment the German government was now mandated to provide for him.

The refugees of Go, Went, Gone, progress, slowly, through hearings on similar matters. Some are allowed to remain; most are not. What is most illuminating about the book, though, is not its illustration of German bureaucracy but the window it provides into how its functioning affects human beings. Each refugee waiting for a decision on his status stands “at the border between a person’s life and the other life lived by that same person” Erpenbeck writes, but the transition between them “if you look closely enough, is nothing at all.” During their first conversation, Awad tells the professor, “If you want to arrive somewhere, you can’t hide anything.” The phrase becomes a refrain throughout the book, as the weeks of waiting slowly slide into months, then seasons. If you want to arrive somewhere, you can’t hide anything. But once you’ve told them everything, and they’ve done nothing, what else is left for you to do?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there’s an ugly condo building in my neighborhood. I wrote about the scourge of suburban-scaled development for the Baffler, but tried to also make the case for why focusing solely on the unpleasant aesthetics of the condos and apartment towers cropping up all over urban America risks the sort of Jane Jacobs flavored NIMBYism that turned Greenwich Village into a neighborhood of the wealthy.

Between contemplating these year’s midterm elections (wherein Democrats will likely need to win the national vote by over seven points to take over the House of Representatives) and the current administration’s devious plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census (which would, of course, likely result in a grave under counting of undocumented immigrants of color), I’ve had congressional districts on the mind a lot this month. FiveThirtyEight’s Gerrymandering Project, a series of podcasts, infographics, and articles has been a really wonderful resource for thinking about the fundamental questions about our politics the decennial segmenting of the nation into 435 districts begs. Should districts be drawn to group together racial groups, parties, or municipalities? Are any of those considerations more important than promoting competitive races? Who gets to decide which issues will be emphasized, and which ones ignored? This is an admittedly nerdy recommendation, but if you like playing around with maps and data as much as I do, I can’t recommend FiveThirtyEight’s work on the subject enough.

Thanks for reading and subscribing. You can find me on Twitter @KPaoletta, or on a languorous lunchtime walk, being careful to always cross to the sunny side of the street.

Your pal,