Fiction

The best books on Displacement

recommended by Michelle Jana Chan

Interview by Cal Flyn

A sense of displacement is at the heart of many of our greatest works of literature. Here Vanity Fair travel editor Michelle Jana Chan discusses five brilliant novels dealing with this theme that influenced her debut Song.

  • 1

    Running in the Family
    by Michael Ondaatje

  • 2

    The Poisonwood Bible
    by Barbara Kingsolver

  • 3

    Half of a Yellow Sun
    by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

  • 4

    The Moor's Last Sigh
    by Salman Rushdie

  • 5

    Heart of Darkness
    by Joseph Conrad

A sense of displacement is at the heart of many of our greatest works of literature. Here Vanity Fair travel editor Michelle Jana Chan discusses five brilliant novels dealing with this theme that influenced her debut Song.

Michelle Jana Chan

Michelle Jana Chan is an award-winning journalist who began her career with Newsweek magazine in New York, Beijing and London, before moving into radio and then television as a news producer for CNN. She is now travel editor of Vanity Fair, a contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveller and a presenter of the BBC's Global Guide. She writes regular columns for Conde Nast Traveller and for The Daily Telegraph. Michelle was named travel writer of the year at the 2016 Travel Media Awards.

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You’ve chosen five novels which deal with the theme of displacement. What does it mean to be displaced?

It’s a geographical dislocation, referring to someone being forced to flee, but also an emotional shift. It’s a theme that’s dominated not just what I choose to read and write about, but it’s been a dominant force in my personal life, too. One of my parents was a refugee and one was an economic migrant. I think their stories probably defined displacement for me from an early age, when I couldn’t even put a term to it.

There is negative terminology around being a refugee or an internally displaced person, which invokes pity and sadness. But displacement can also be a route to fresh new opportunities: some economic migrants voluntarily pack their bags to move to the other side of the world to take up a job opportunity. And they’re doing it happily, with ambition, with zest. I know. I myself have done that kind of displacement.

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Then there’s a displacement in between having to run away, to save yourself and something entirely positive and opportunistic, such as signing up for war: there might be terror but there might also be excitement, a proposition of an adventure, a way out. It’s much more nuanced and complex.

Tell me a little about your novel and how it deals with the idea of displacement.

The name of the book, Song, is also the name of the boy. Set in the late 1800s, Song sets off from southeast China—not forced out for political reasons but, as the eldest male member of his family, he feels a responsibility to look after his broken family. His father died in a flood, his mother and brothers and sisters are starving. So, his displacement is, in a way, voluntary. But if he had stayed, there would have been dire consequences and possibly death. Instead, Song hears about a better life somewhere else in the world, a place where you can get rich, return home and save your family.

“Song hears about a better life somewhere else: a place you can get rich and save your family”

There’s a sea voyage taking Song half-way across the world to the northeast shoulder of South America and the country then named British Guiana when it was still a colony of the British Empire. So Song is displaced from his homeland, yes, but in British Guiana he creates a new home. That is a very strong compulsion for displaced people: to build a new home. There’s this strange dreamlike quality for the displaced—the idealising of where they’re going, often founded on rumour and hope, and the nostalgic memories of where they’ve left, even if it was a dangerous or harrowing or painful place.

That question of ‘home,’ and what that means, and the distance between memory and reality is echoed in the novels that you’ve chosen. Your first book choice is Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which deals with returning to his native Sri Lanka. Why did you want to discuss this book?

Ondaatje grew up with a lot of Sri Lanka around him, as I grew up with a lot of Guyana around me. Even though I wasn’t there in situ, I was raised with all that diverse influence, from food to language to culture.

Like Ondaatje, I also pieced together fragments and snatches of stories that were told to me as a child by elderly members of my family. There are a lot of blurred memories; such a fragmented portrayal has lots of inaccuracies too. That’s why fiction seemed to me to be a good receptacle for these thoughts and ideas, the gossip and hearsay.

That said, I sometimes wonder if I should have done more with the style. Ondaatje mixed poetry and prose and reportage and memoir. Perhaps next time.

Running in the Family has been described as a ‘fictionalised memoir.’ Where does he draw the line between fact and fiction? Is it clear?

It would be impossible for me to draw the lines of where Ondaatje transitions from fact to fiction. Maybe even for him it would be impossible. He himself says: “Truth disappears with history and gossip tells us in the end nothing of personal relationships.” As a journalist I know this well. We’re constantly trying to stay as close to fact and neutrality as we can, but it’s undoubtedly tough. Fiction, non-fiction. It’s not that one’s harder or easier. For me it depends on the day. What’s changing is that we’re increasingly finding a blend, or perhaps it’s just that we’re more comfortable now to admit how hard it is and a mixing is inevitable. I think, more than most, Ondaatje is very comfortable saying that above all this is natural, honest, authentic writing. That it’s almost impossible to do anything else.

Book two is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, the story of a missionary family in the Congo. It’s a modern classic and international bestseller. Tell me about it.

It’s quite an old-fashioned story, in many ways, of sin and redemption, yet a hugely ambitious tale for Kingsolver to take on. It’s told by rotating narrators—the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist preacher from the United States, who transports all the women in his life to the Congo. This is the Belgian Congo of the 1950s; the book is set against the extraordinary historical and political backdrop of the time. Of course, it’s about evangelism and the Christian mission, but that’s also a metaphor for what’s going on too with the fight for independence and this harrowing mix of religion, politics, and race. On a more personal human level, it’s about moral risk and responsibility.

The displacement is the whole family’s, as they navigate life in an entirely different culture.

The four daughters at the beginning are very young and Kingsolver handles that telling so well, as they grow from children into four young women. They leave a very comfortable home in the United States to find themselves in a tougher, unfamiliar environment. It’s a strong feminist story, too, about how a woman and four girls handle that. The father figure Nathan Price is caught up in his mission and, in a way, his story—a classic tale of a fervent evangelist—is less interesting. He just doesn’t haggle with the complications that come with displacement. He has a mono-outlook. But for his wife and daughters, it is absolutely a story of displacement. The book is their story. It’s the memories of where they’ve come from; it’s filial responsibility as a wife and as daughters and sisters; it’s about guilt, bitterness and revenge.

The title stems from a linguistic error—a mispronunciation of the phrase ‘Jesus is precious’. Something has been lost in the translation, but something gained too. I feel like this question of language, of finding it hard to understand or make yourself understood must be one of the most pressing daily issues of a displaced person.

That’s a really interesting angle. In Song, I didn’t want language to be a barrier in communication and so, I had him learning English quite quickly on the sea voyage at the start of the book. By the time he arrives in Guyana, he has a fluid, fluent understanding of his surroundings. As a writer, it’s nice to get that out of the way and interesting to explore beyond that. As you learn the semantics and culture through someone else’s language, then you can connect much more deeply. Without that, it becomes a very skin-deep experience.

What about Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? What made you choose it?

Slightly out of envy! Chimamanda wrote a phenomenal novel at such a fresh age.

Her story is told by three powerful, self-aware and intellectually upright characters who are swept up in the struggle to establish an independent Nigeria. This would have been in the 1960s, close to when The Poisonwood Bible is set. It’s probably a hundred years after when Song is set, but then the struggles of colonialism almost became more acute as time rolled on. Colonialism became even more of an issue as survival became less of an issue. In the 1800s, there were other matters at play. They didn’t have the luxury of looking at colonialism so deeply perhaps, its cause and effect.

“It’s a call to arms. It’s a standing up and rising up”

Chimamanda head-on tackles colonialism and ethnicity. Class is also huge in her story. She talks about the white man carving up Nigeria into a map, how they were Igbo, not Nigerian, before the white man came. It’s a call to arms. There aren’t the layers and subtlety of Song’s era. It’s a standing up and rising up.

With the topic of the Biafran War, she was taking on a moment in history that has long deserved more attention. Certainly, there is a long legacy of great writing that comes before her, but she takes her place among that lineage and exposes the subject again.

I also love her Americanah, another book that deals with displacement as the protagonists emigrate to the US and the UK. She’s very good at giving a very minute dissections of day-to-day interactions.

Her novel could have almost no political backdrop and it would still be beautifully crafted. You can see the living room and you can taste the food bubbling on the stove. And she handles the love and the sex so delicately and romantically. All of her books are politicised but, if you take the politics out, they’re beautiful books.

Let’s talk about Salman Rushdie’s Booker-shortlisted The Moor’s Last Sigh.

This book is one of my favourites of his, a real family saga with strong connective tissue between generations, an ambitious and brave story; it’s exuberant with colour and passion, and at times laugh-out-loud funny. There are the all the inevitable themes that are paired displacement: ethnicity, religion and—harking back to Barbara Kingsolver’s book—fanaticism, which of course is so close to Rushdie’s own personal experience. Art is also big in this one—and love. The story is about an asthmatic boy called Moraes Zogoiby. He’s the moor of the title. Moraes is in exile, he travelled from India to Spain, and that is one displacement.

This type of exile is personal to me, too. My mother’s family escaped from what is now the Czech Republic, formerly Czechoslovakia. They had to escape in the 1940s from Communism, and left behind love and acrimony and the complications of family. So I really found resonance there on a personal level.

In leaving India, Moraes leaves behind love, of course, as well as all the family chaos, full of curses and prescribed destinies. Blood is absolutely thicker than water in this tome; the strength of family ties, how you can’t escape them; how you remember; how you long for what you no longer have. It’s fascinating: that tussle, that weighing up, that complicated overturning of your family history

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The ‘last sigh’ refers to Moraes’ own medical condition, his asthma, but also is a riff on where he is in Spain, name checking the last sigh of the defeated Moors as they left Alhambra, Granada. It includes concisely some incredible geographical shifts, changes in world order and spheres of influence.  I hope my book captures some of that too.

Rushdie’s book is part set in India, in Cochin—just across the country from Chennai, formerly Madras, where Song’s boat docks, by the way—and Rushdie parallels the declining Portuguese empire in southern India with the declining Moorish Islamic empire in Spain. This dismantling of structural hierarchies is so strong in this novel. That is what I’m aspiring to do in Song too. To explore these structures and hierarchies set up by British colonialists, the weighing up of assimilation versus subjugation versus a jockeying of power.

Let’s move on to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. This is his most famous and most controversial novel. Why did you select this in the context of displacement?

We’re back in the Congo and this is a layered story told by Charles Marlow, the narrator. Remember what Ondaatje was talking about in terms of truth, where truth begins and ends—how it disappears in history and gossip? I think that’s a really strong part of the layering that Conrad does here. Also, remember what we said about language; note that English was not Conrad’s first language, but he wrote better in English than almost any of us can.

Marlow is looking for Mr Kurtz, a fellow European and work colleague who has holed himself up in the interior. Marlow has been sent on a mission to find him and bring him back. As you said, this is incredibly controversial because some read it as the ‘native’ versus the ‘white man’. And what is “The horror! The horror!”—these critical words at the end of the book, when Marlow finds Kurtz on his deathbed? One interpretation is that this can be referring to the horror upriver in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Somewhere upriver, Kisangani maybe, somewhere up there, the way that people live and the way that people relate to each other is horrifying and uncivilised and of this native construct.

“English was not Conrad’s first language but he wrote better in English than almost any of us can”

That’s one interpretation. The other interpretation—the one that I ascribe to—is that he is referring to the atrocities that Conrad himself witnessed in the Congo, how much the people suffered there under the colonial administration of the Belgians. But it’s ambiguous. I’m not here to fight with people who think it’s racist. However, if you want to try and create a conversation in a book, then Conrad’s succeeded.

Take Conrad’s own history, his personal history living on the margins as a minority—he might not be black-skinned, but as a peripatetic East European he lived on the fringes of society. I sense that the way he’s written this is very much in sympathy of an artificial colonial administrative structure that is foisted on another culture and then what horrors unfold as a consequence.

What he does is create that vivid sense of the ‘Other,’ which—rightly or wrongly—many colonial-era figures feared. That sense of displacement, which we’ve been talking about, manifests here in a nightmarish situation.

Conrad is the ultimate figure of displacement given his life at sea. He understands the world of his books more than any other of the writers we’ve looked at, I think. Although Rushdie might disagree.

There was a different use of language in that era, too, language that is now abhorrent. I think we have to remember the context. There are definitely some remarks and lines in the book which make us wince in 2018. But we still read and adore Othello in spite of its faults.

It’s interesting that the books you’ve selected are all set in a historical era, before email and mobile phones. We continue to see large scale displacements today, although perhaps the nature of it has now changed in that those affected might stay more closely in touch with their family who remain in their home place.

I really like that observation. I remember doing a story in the United Arab Emirates, reporting on economic migrants. One of the women that I interviewed—anonymously in a nail bar—was Filipina. She told me about her children in Europe: she didn’t know exactly where they were, hadn’t seen them in years, but they were still WhatsApping every day. So, you’re right, in past times when it took a month to get a letter, and another month to send a reply, that’s a very different world with different kinds of intimacies.

But even though we might have this sense of being in touch—which is such a funny use of language, because there’s no touch at all—I think there’s still this make-believe attached to being on the other side of the world and remembering home. You still have this conjuring, this idealising, of where you’ve come from. Whereas, in fact, oftentimes you’ve left it for a reason. In the case that we’re talking about, you’re leaving it because you’re trying to get away, to find something better.

Some say you you might have felt more dislocated in the past because you couldn’t get a taste of home by looking at a phone, by looking at a picture, or a live video. But I’m not sure. Our memories are still curated even with the intervention of tech. My family does that about the Czech Republic; they look back to Communist times and remember only the good things. And we look back to the ‘old days’ when children could walk to school on their own. It’s completely beyond reason, but we do often cling to sentimentality, subscribe to a selective amnesia, curate our memories, and that’s what makes for all these contradictions, these mistruths and untruths, and how much more interesting life is because of all that.

Interview by Cal Flyn

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Michelle Jana Chan

Michelle Jana Chan is an award-winning journalist who began her career with Newsweek magazine in New York, Beijing and London, before moving into radio and then television as a news producer for CNN. She is now travel editor of Vanity Fair, a contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveller and a presenter of the BBC's Global Guide. She writes regular columns for Conde Nast Traveller and for The Daily Telegraph. Michelle was named travel writer of the year at the 2016 Travel Media Awards.