Sunday, October 4, 2015

Migrations and children's literature: Do migrations matter to children? Should they be represented in children's literature?

As this is being written, Europe is facing an unprecedented upsurge in migration of refugees. It is a crisis, as we see from our news reports. Of course, migrations have always occurred, even if not as dramatic as that occurring in Europe now. In addition, most of us  in the so called new world are the descendants of migrants. The Caribbean is made up of the descendants originating from the movements of people, forced or  otherwise. In the Caribbean  we have created an entirely new people, even if consisting of different ethnicities. We are a new people because the various ethnicities are unlikely to return to the land of their forefathers; they are now Caribbean.   This applies to North America also. The United Kingdom and parts of Europe contributed to this migration into the Americas, and in turn, have received migrants from the Americas, migrants who would never have gone to Europe had the Europeans not come here first.   This sounds like an introduction to some political discussion. It's not. It's an introduction to the concept of the constancy of migrations, the circular aspect of migrations, even if there are specific periods  resulting from war, famine, the search for economic improvement. And indeed, we now have to add to that, climate change. There are already islands  where sea levels are rising and people are preparing to move to other counties.

To answer the question posed in the beginning. Yes, children do need to know about migrations. Anything that relates to the human condition can be the subject of material for fiction. Yes, fiction. This is not to minimise the importance of non-fiction; the importance of facts and figures. However, fiction is the vehicle which humanizes us all, and in this case, puts a face to the migrant, lets us  understand  how much  we have in common with the migrant, that he/she wants the same things that we do ( love, security for family, respect, and so on). In a world bombarded by catastrophes and the resultant movements of people, migrants can become statistics, as we sometimes try to protect ourselves from the enormity of the facts.   Yet if we hope to improve the world for future generations, at some point these facts have to be humanised.  Many of our children will come in contact with migrants, whether this be in large cosmopolitan countries or in small island territories. We constantly say children  are the future of the world, often in a very impassioned way, but too often this is not backed up by specific activities. Perhaps we need to clarify this statement. For me, it means that our children are the leaders of the world. Every one of them can lead in some way in a world which is undergoing unbelievable and speedy change, and in which many moral and ethical decisions will have to be made to safeguard the future of our  physical environment and mankind itself.

For the people in the Caribbean, migration is part of the fabric of our lives. These small islands/developing territories cannot provide the economic opportunities for all. They never have, and as much as we hope they will in the future, perhaps they never will. The countries of destination for our people have been mainly the USA, Canada and the UK.  Various emotions/perspectives tend to surround the concept of migrations: for example, skilled professionals (the brain drain)  sometimes perceived by the home country as abandoning ship; less qualified struggling economic migrants,  known for the fact  that the money they send home as remittances is a very important part of support for those left behind. Among the latter are parents, often  single mothers, who leave their children to forge a better life, until they can send for these children to join them. These parents often send their children barrels of clothes, food, etc. hence the children are called barrel children, a pejorative term if there ever was one.

When children are caught up in these migrations, whether going with family to a new country or being left behind for a time, they must experience a variety of emotions. These various emotions can be better understood by children, when they are presented in a story. Story allows us to understand others, our feelings towards others, and when we are directly involved, the conflicting emotions associated with migration, excitement,  confusion,  sadness. Stories allow us  to establish that these various feelings are acceptable, and this allows us  to make sense of our reality and so perhaps move forward whole, rather than broken.

The first Caribbean children's book I read which included this concept of migration from a child's/young person's point of view, was Harriet's Daughter by Marlene Nourbese Philip. What a delightful discovery! What a delightful, spunky heroine! The heroine's family is already settled in Canada, but I could still relate to the story as that of one of migrants. Most of my father's family had migrated to New York in the USA before I was born. I had visited them a number of times.  I knew about the concerns of the migrant. The longing for home, the visits home, but still for most, being destined to remain in the host nation, with most of the next generations feeling little or no affinity to the homeland of their parents. I did not know it then, but  most of my mother's family would also migrate, not  for economic reasons, but for safety and security, from a country, which at the time was flirting with an ideology which created great uneasiness in many. This would be an example of a migration which spawned very conflicting emotions, where families felt they had been torn apart, and judgement was brought to all by all. I confess that I cannot write the story of that time, although it should be my generation  which should write one of the many true accounts. It is still too close in its happening, and perhaps its hidden pain, for it to be examined.

 Instead I chose to write Island Princess in Brooklyn, the story of a so called barrel child.  My heroine, Princess, leaves her beloved granny who has raised her, to join a mother whom she barely knows. She does not want to be with her mother really. I did not know until I had written this book that  many barrel children, now grown to adulthood, had had a hard time adjusting in the country of destination. My story was inspired by the known and imagined lives of my father's family, and my experiences while visiting my older daughter and her family when her husband was doing a fellowship. They lived in a migrant area near to the hospital where he was studying. We were surrounded by migrants and I was fascinated by their lives that I could see played out before me, beside me, parts of which  we too  lived day in and day out. There was the potential clash  of cultures, not only between the different generations but between the  different cultural and ethnic groups. However,  I also saw  the cooperative aspect of the lives of the migrants united  in the pursuit of a better life. Perhaps this is one of the things that could be highlighted in a story about migrations.

Why should a book like Island Princess in Brooklyn be read by children?

1. It helps the reader to see both sides of the migrant equation, the stresses, the misunderstandings, the love. Adults from other cultures have told me that they could identify with the situations and recognised the relationships and bonds between the female characters  in this book.

2. It shows the conflicting emotions that a teenager feels when she finds herself in this position, knowing that she must join her mother and  not wanting to do so, how she handles these emotions. It must be noted, not always wisely, which makes her human.

3. It reveals the distress and anger Princess feels when she discovers the various things that she did not know about her mother; that her mother  had married and no one knew; that they did not know everything about her mother's employment, and in fact, there was much about  her father that she did not know. This  latter situation, is a very sensitive issue, but Princess gives the young person the right to think about it, even if not the ability to speak about it, given our cultural norms/beliefs, as Princess does.

4. Princess' inability to make friends because of the strangeness of her situation, how she overcomes this, will resonate with all students who find themselves in a new country, in a new school. And those who meet  a migrant student will better understand him/her. It is interesting to see how her very different friends can come together,  as Princess, through her stubbornness, faces the biggest challenge of her young life. As Princess tells us:

"Now I would be known as possibly the first migrant girl in America to be sent back home by her mother." 

Why all this talk about Island Princess in Brooklyn?  Well first of all, the migrant/refugee situation in the world struck a chord, even though it is of a far more critical nature. Then  Island Princess in Brooklyn was at the Read Jamaica booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival.   I'm pleased that the book could be seen and made available for sale in the place where the idea had its genesis.

 I would love to hear about other books in which children deal with migrating or interacting with migrant children. Should you  like to do a guest blog on this topic or about a book which focuses on this, please send in your blog post to me at:

photos taken at Brooklyn Book Festival: second photo shows, from left, Tanya Batson-Savage, publisher and writer, publisher of book that won the first Burt Caribbean Award for YA literature; and Kellie Magnus, writer and publisher

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