Summer Reading



An ex-colleague once admitted to me that he sometimes thought his job as a lecturer was to recommend books he hadn’t yet managed to read to students who were never going to read them either. And so the wheels of post-graduate education kept turning.

I see where he’s coming from. An ever-multiplying number of scholars and authors are writing about migration – not to mention politicians and journalists. I’m not sure that has necessarily led to there being more worth reading, but there is certainly more to read. And it can feel impossible to carve out the time to do so.

That was why I had grand plans for maternity leave: visions of myself catching up on papers I’d skimmed, deep in the middle of books rather than speed-reading introductions and conclusions.

Ha. Hormones and sleep-deprivation make you cry when you read investigative journalism about dead children and heartless politicians. Meanwhile, any paper containing the word ‘nexus’ is still a powerful cure for insomnia. And now any book I open is as likely to be chewed and spat upon as read.

Recently, I’ve also been asked by a few different friends for some recommendations about where to begin reading about migration. Immigration and asylum are clearly too important as topics to restrict readings to the classroom. So my own wonderful writing aside, where is the (next) best place to start cutting through the political spin?

The temptation – short on time – is to digest migration in soundbites, blogposts and policy reports. And there is certainly something to be said for staring asylum numbers in the face. If what you want are facts and figures, read UNHCR’s Global Trends; read the UK Parliament’s Asylum Inquiry Report. Here are enough hard facts and numbers to make you weep. But what about when weeping is not enough? Where do you find inspiration? In the past few months, I’ve found myself returning to the first books I read about refugees and migrants, the writings that first compelled me to work on refugee issues.

So what follows is a refugee Summer reading list. This is not my “Introduction to Refugee Studies” reading list: it’s not a comprehensive overview of policy or academic research. But it’s a list of five books I would happily read on the beach: five books that make you think. They’re not new: in fact, two could definitely be described as “vintage” classics. Others on the list are memoir and fiction. It’s a subjective and brief collection. But I think that in a world where politicians can still claim that ‘the lifeboat is full’ in the face of terrible human suffering, these books are all more relevant than ever.

And I promise you, I’ve read them all.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

This was the book that captured my imagination and made me decide to start writing about refugees. Yes, as a history book it’s far from perfect – Arendt’s account of Europe’s turbulent twentieth-century history glosses over details and occasionally sacrifices accuracy in pursuit of big ideas – but the central truth at the heart of the book, the extent to which refugees are inevitable “collateral damage” in a world ruled by nationalisms – is a revelation.

On Jewish refugees in 1938: ‘the incredible plight of an ever-growing group of innocent people was like a practical demonstration of the totalitarian movements’ cynical claims that no such thing as inalienable human rights existed and the affirmations of the democracies to the contrary were mere prejudice, hypocrisy and cowardice’

Dave Eggers, What is the What

One of the things that always strikes me when I talk to refugees is how their life stories blend the extraordinary with the mundane. Years waiting in camps, then – if they are lucky – new lives on the margins of the West’s working class. And yet before all that, incredible, terrible, epic histories of flight and survival. This is the story of one Sudanese refugee. Read it. Cry. And try to decide whether it’s a story about the worst excesses of human cruelty, or the resilience of the human spirit.

A refugees’ voice: “I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.” 

John Hope-Simpson, The Refugee Problem

Yes, it’s an obscure choice. But this little pamphlet – outlining Europe’s twenty-year protracted refugee crisis in 1938 — speaks to politicians’ folly in believing they can “solve” refugee “problems” as readily now as it did then. Reading knowing that worse refugee crises were just around the corner, is immeasurably poignant.

On the dead-end politics of hoping they’ll all just “go home”: ‘repatriation belongs to the realm of political prophecy and aspiration and a programme of action cannot be based on uncontrollable speculation

John Lanchester, Capital

This is not a book about migration. It’s a novel about London (and capitalism). Except, of course, that means it is all about migration: because how can you write about London (or capitalism) without writing about immigrants? It does weight in at nearly 600 pages, but the story of the Zimbabwean traffic warden – enforcing no-parking zones while battling for the right to stay – is one of the most vivid accounts I’ve read of the Kafkaesque regulations that govern asylum, and the lives that slip slowly out of sight between bureaucratic cracks.

In a detention centre for failed asylum seekers: ‘The immigration centre was a prison, with the twist that when people were discharged from prison they went somewhere better, but when they were discharged from here they were sent back to the place they had risked everything to escape… everybody was obsessed with the food. One of the fifteen demands of the inmates on hunger strike was ‘for edible food we can eat’. This was no joke.

Caroline Moorehead, Human Cargo

The voices of refugees are rarely heard. Usually, we talk about refugees: we do not listen to them. This book – an account of two years across many countries spent listening to refugees’ stories as they search for a place to call home – is a story of exile understood from the inside-out. In many places it is bleak: but it is also – implicitly – a call to action, a reminder that individuals can make a difference. I read it over a single weekend several years ago: the stories it tells have stayed with me since. 

On the failure of the humanitarian system: ‘despairing, beyond endurance, he pulled from his pocket the blue refugee card he had fought so long and so hard to obtain, and tore it in shreds. ‘Now I am…’ he cried out, trying to explain an act so symbolic and so momentous in words that could never be strong enough ‘… I am ashamed to be a refugee’.


Next up for me: The Warmth of Other Sunsgiven to me by a friend and half-read before certain life events interrupted me… What would you add to my must-read list?