NOTES ON AN EXODUS
by Richard Flanagan, illustrated by Ben Quilty – Penguin Random House Australia, Vintage Books, 2016
in/ adult nonfiction, one book each
Here’s what I recommend – set aside (barely) an hour, settle somewhere quiet, and read Notes On An Exodus.
It is (as per the subtitle) an essay more than a book, so it won’t take long to get through. But what you read will stay with you for hours, days, probably years.
Notes On An Exodus is a collection of stories – there are no big number facts or political rants. They're simply the stories of refugees. Snapshots really.
We know so little about their lives and who they are. But the brief glimpses that we get as we read are enough for us to recognise ourselves – our hopes and imaginings, our families, our work – and we are immediately and intricately connected to people we will never meet, in circumstances we will likely never know.
Flanagan calls the movement from Syria “the great exodus of our age” and quickly moves from the broad scale and scope of that movement to the minutia of human lives.
"Forced to choose between life and death, they choose life, even when it means living for years in shelters that are half-hovel, half-tent, framed of scrounged timbers and clad in a motley of plastics. In these shanties pride does daily battle with poverty and elements."
Each person in the essay tells of their love for Syria and their desire to return. They also tell of the awfulness that attended their decision to leave and the almost unthinkable circumstances they now endure. And still they know they did what was best for their families.
Reading the intimacies of the lives of just a few refugees is profoundly impacting – far more so than watching screens showing mass movements across vast lands. Flanagan ends with a brief couple of sentences that are a call-to-arms. He writes:
"Refugees are not like you and me. They are you and me. That terrible river of the wretched and the damned flowing through Europe is my family.
And there is no time in the future in which they might be helped. The only time we have is now."
All author and illustrator royalties from this book have been donated to World Vision. If you’d prefer to make a direct donation you can do that here. If you'd like, here's the link to the entire essay. And Ben Quilty, whose beautiful illustrations are in the centre of the book, has also produced some amazing paintings inspired by the stories he heard and saw; you can see a couple of them here.
We have a house full of adults (or almost adults) and so I read the entire Notes On An Exodus essay aloud one Monday night. It was a sobering experience.
by Francesca Sanna – Flying Eye Books, 2016
ages 6 years to adult/ emotional resilience, powerful lives, s.o.s.e.
For younger children (though perhaps not too young) The Journey by Francesca Sanna has the same sobering and connecting effect, without the harrowing details. It’s beautiful to look at, with details of a life in upheaval on display so that the words themselves don’t have to overpower young minds.
Certainly, this is a book to promote empathy and give pause in the midst of a busy privileged life. But because the story is told with love and courage it carries an air of resilience.
Part of the story is about crossing borders. After being turned away at a border wall and crossing the sea in an overcrowded ferry, the family board a train:
"We travel for more days and more nights, crossing many borders. From the train I look up to the birds that seem to be following us …They are migrating just like us. And their journey is very long too, but they don’t have to cross any borders."
The concept of borders is fascinating to young children – especially Australian children who have no such personal experience. It would be worth having some maps or a globe available to talk about political borders after you’ve read this book.
The Journey is a read-it-before-you-need-it book. It’s a book that will help to develop empathy, increase understanding of the world, position young readers to feel that they have some base knowledge about refugees when they see or hear media reports, and help to increase gratitude.
Also … our refugee theme has more books that tell the stories of refugees uncompromisingly and beautifully.