World Refugee Day: 10 tales in literature

The plight of refugees is back at the top of news bulletins but it has been a constant theme in modern literature as these 10 seminal works published since 2000 testify

Life of Pi (2001), Yann Martel

When Pi Patel’s father decides to sell his beloved zoo in India and uproot the family to Canada, his actions set in motion a story that sees his teenage son stranded in a lifeboat hundreds of kilometres off Manila’s coast. Keeping him company are a spotted hyena, an injured zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, whose been hiding under the tarpaulin. This magical tale of survival and personal growth through adversity sees Pi adrift with his unlikely crew for 227 days. The novel was rejected by multiple publishers before being taken on by Knopf Canada and going on to win the Booker Prize for Martel in 2002.

The Pick-Up (2001), Nadine Gordimer

The South African Nobel Prize winner knew a thing or two about refugees, not only from her journalism in the land of apartheid but also through her marriage to a German man who had fled Nazi Germany. The Pick-Up tells the story of a mixed-race couple struggling to find a country to call their own. Julie Summers is a white woman from a financially secure South African family. Her partner Abdu is an illegal Arab immigrant. After Abdu’s visa is refused, the couple returns to his unnamed homeland, where the tables are turned and Julie must come to terms with her alien status in a foreign culture.


The Kite Runner (2003), Khaled Hosseini

The first novel by the Afghan-American writer Hosseini was an international bestseller. Centred on the friendship between Amir, the son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant, and Hassan, the son of a Hazara servant, the book follows the flight of Amir’s family from Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion and the persecution of Hazaras under the Taliban. The bonds of family is a major theme, with the author having spoken of the significance of the father-son relationships in the book in previous interviews. Hosseini’s 2007 novel A Thousand Splendid Sons looks at the lives of women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

The Asylum Seeker (2003), Arnon Grunberg

The award-winning novel by Dutch author Grunberg takes a pop at first-world, middle-class preconceptions on immigration and asylum seeking. Fed up with his shallow existence and his job as a translator of technical manuals, narrator Christian Beck sets out to unmask society’s illusions, ideals and pretensions. His complex home life sees him care for his former prostitute partner Bird as she succumbs to a fatal illness, while Bird in turn wants to marry an Algerian asylum seeker to help him gain residency in Germany. The bizarre triangular relationship that develops caused controversy on publication in the Netherlands and divided critics.

Under the Persimmon Tree (2005), Suzanne Fisher-Staples

Najmah, a young Afghan girl, finds herself alone when her mother is killed in an air raid during the 2001 Afghan War, while her father and older brother are conscripted by the Taliban. Waiting out the war in Peshawar, Pakistan is an American woman, Elaine, who doesn’t know what’s happened to her husband. The two women’s paths cross as Najmah begins a perilous journey through the mountains in search of refuge in Pakistan. The American author uses her knowledge as a former news reporter in Afghanistan to paint a realistic picture of the devastation of war in her award-winning novel.

What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng (2006), Dave Eggers

The American author’s novel is based on the real life story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee and member of the Lost Boys of Sudan programme. When the murahaleen, an Arab militia, wipes out Achak’s Dinka village during the second Sudanese civil war in the eighties, Achak flees with a group of young boys to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The trek for these Lost Boys brings dangers from multiple fronts – enemy soldiers, liberation rebels, wild animals, disease, starvation and the deadly murahaleen. When Achak is resettled in America with almost 4,000 other young Sudanese men, a new and different struggle ensues.

The Other Hand (2008), Chris Cleave

The English author’s second novel is a dual narrative centred on the lives and relationship between a Nigerian asylum-seeker, Little Bee, and a British magazine editor. First meeting during the oil conflict in the Niger delta some years earlier, where editor Sarah bravely sacrificed herself for Little Bee, the pair cross paths again in England as the teenage refugee shows up at Sarah’s house to seek asylum. Themes of colonialisation, globalisation, immigration, political violence and personal accountability are explored in a book that is part-thriller, part-saga and informed by the author’s childhood in west Africa and his work experience as a student at a detention centre for refugees.

The Happiest Refugee: A Memoir (2010), Anh Do

One of Australia’s best-loved comedians, Anh Do’s memoir tells of his family’s treacherous passage from war-torn Vietnam, where they survived starvation and pirates in an overcrowded boat to reach Australia. Do’s description of the ups and downs he and his family faced growing up in Australia as outsiders makes for an inspiring and entertaining read, with plenty of humour along the way.

Inside Out and Back Again (2011), Thanhaa Lai

The Vietnamese-American writer won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her verse novel about a young Vietnamese girl who is forced to flee her country with her family because of the Vietnam War. Boarding a navy ship to the US, the family ends up in Alabama after spending months in a refugee camp. Language difficulties and bullying make life in her new home difficult for Ha, who all the while wonders whether her father has survived the war back in Vietnam. The novel is based on the author’s experiences as a 10-year-old immigrant landing in America without English in 1975.

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe (2014), Romain Puértolas

A relatively recent addition to the pilgrimage canon (see The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson or Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) is French author Romain Puértolas’s debut novel. At the heart of these types of books are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The journey of Puértolas’s fakir from India across Europe is at once far-fetched and thought-provoking, a fast-paced comedy that mixes flat-packed furniture with serious themes such as the perils of illegal immigration. On his travels Aja the fakir encounters six Sudanese immigrants who are desperate to make a life in Europe. The story behind the book’s creation is itself extraordinary: Puértolas wrote it on his mobile phone while working as a French border guard.