“Calculate is angry because all of his things were stolen in Puglia. He has nothing but his good English. He went to the police…He didn’t think. Next thing he was standing in a police station and someone wanted to fingerprint him. But you can’t get fingerprinted there. Unless you want to stay. Italy is like Greece. Collapsed. There is no future there. It won’t come if you stay. Your future will disappear. And I have already seen that. In my own village.”
This is Europe, circa 2015. Europe through the eyes of ‘Calculate’, a resident of the Jungle camp in Calais, where reckonings of time —is a future possible here?— are spliced onto place. Calculate is a protagonist in ‘Breach’, a collection of short stories about the Calais camp, written in extraordinary emotional sync by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes (Peirene, 2016). The precarious, thrown-together community of the French camp, bulldozed in November 2016, is the mortar of the book, standing as it does for the human detritus of an immigration regime that is fixated on the impossible fantasy of stopping human mobility. At the time of writing, many of the refugees are in hiding in fields and abandoned buildings, mostly in Northern France, near the ports. Minors are especially vulnerable. A recent dispatch from the academic Sue Clayton, who heads the project “Calais Children – A Case to Answer“, is grim reading. “Two weeks ago the Home Office declared the ‘Calais Children’ operation to be over and the French centres temporarily housing the minors all over France, are being closed between now and end Feb.”, she writes. “Many of the minors have already run away: This is mainly because either (as prior reports) they were being underfed, subject to racism and in some documented cases even bullied and attacked by (untrained) staff; or because since they’ve told they’re not going to UK, they have made their way back to the north, where they still against all odds seem to think the Jungle would be there, or a jungle would be there…”
With no hard evidence of what camps, razor-wire fences and walls achieve in the long term, the collection is a sort of rogue experiment against forces of dehumanisation within the eerie “laboratory” (as one Breach character calls it) that was the Calais camp. Refugee stories brush up against those from reluctant hosts, xenophobes, smugglers and naïve, heart-in-the-right-place volunteers. “It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life”, Meike Ziervogel, who commissioned the work, says in the Preface to the collection.
Here I talk to Olu Popoola about the book and how she sees the politics of displacement and exile at this time of heightened suspicion and rage against strangers.
Yasmin: The stories in Breach fictionalise the lives of those who passed through the Jungle, mostly young men. You and Annie visited the camp in 2015, what was it like?
Olu: It was a complex experience. My first visit was in October 2015. When I entered the camp for the very first time I noticed a sort of change. Everything slowed down, although it was actually super busy — lots of people walking back and forth, organising their sleeping, eating and similar. Maybe it was the collective limbo that was tangible, the ‘waiting in the daytime’ because you could only approach trains and lorries to make it across the channel at night.
The second thing I noticed, almost simultaneously, was that I had entered an area that was populated by men. It was like a weird men’s club, which was obviously not a club at all. Lots and lots of men, mostly youngish. It felt like a bustling village, on first sight. A poor one, but organised, with shops and a sort of “high street” that run through a part of the camp. There were cafes and eateries, places to go out to at night, mosques, a church. On my first day, a Saturday or Sunday, there were loads of volunteers who had driven from the UK to deliver aid. There were constant distributions where volunteers handed out items like tents and clothes, and food. These were organised in a particular way so that queues would be forming on certain corners.
Six weeks later, on my second visit, women and families were much more visible. I know the numbers increased significantly between October and November 2015.
Generally, men were open to chatting and approached us/me a lot, asking where we were from or just wanting a bit of conversation. The single women (those without families) were very guarded. It was difficult to engage them in conversation. It felt like there was no incentive for them to talk to us, so why bother?
What struck me were the areas divided by ethnicity. There were clear sections, Kurdish, Sudanese, Afghan, Iranian and so on. As you got further into the sleeping areas there were also little congregations of tents, sometimes with a seating area in the middle, perhaps a fireplace or kitchen area. People made little compounds, helping each other survive.
Yasmin: Today, refugee and migrant stories are a form of currency, sometimes even a sort of passport. Exiles are compelled to shape and tell their stories in certain ways for state agencies, NGOs, for the media, for us. How did you as storytellers fit into this marketplace of stories?
Olu: We were never going to write up the interviews as such. We were looking to find stories but not necessarily the ones people told us. The imperative was to look for unusual angles, to not repeat the narratives that appeared in mainstream media too much. It was more a case of being inspired by all of it: the interviews itself, the research we had done, what we saw in Calais, what we thought about it all, our role in it all.
In fiction, you just need one thing that sparks off the whole narrative. For instance, the story you quoted above started with names, GPS and Obama (there really was an Obama in Calais!). It developed from there. I am still in contact with the person who inspired it (not Obama by the way) but there isn’t anything about his story in it, not as such, although on a more subtle and deeper level there is.
He made it across the channel soon after I interviewed him in Calais and we have remained in contact. I visited him straight after his arrived in the UK and a bit later when he was moved on to another city. We spoke a lot on those visits but it was more personal then. I wanted to understand what this ‘making it across’ is like. What does it mean, physically, emotionally? What are the details of it? I learned more about his culture and life but also I learned a lot about humanity and remaining oneself under immense stress and in deep limbo (for a lack of better words). His focus and clarity were unshakeable. It humbled and still humbles me. The most important thing was this awareness and exchange, the checking in with each other. It is something that is of friendship, not of collecting stories. There is something immense and tender in being each other’s witness and this witnessing goes both ways, if you are open to it and present.
Yasmin: Some philosophers tell us that for unconditional hospitality to become a reality, we must be able to address our guests as unique human beings, as individual and irreplaceable. We must know their names. What struck me in Breach was your use of names – we are never really certain of names. There’s that very funny exchange in the book that you’ve just mentioned, when one of the boys chooses to be known as Obama (Barack and definitely not the French ‘Michel’ suggested by one of his companions). In another story about a Syrian brother and sister, their French host is very aware that she might not really know the identities of the people living in her home. She says, “I call him Omid, the young man. It’s the name he asked me to use when they arrived, he and his sister, and he said I was to call the girl Nalin”. The Jungle residents’ play with names and many are reluctant to give their real names so that there is something a bit ghostly about the relationships throughout the book. Was this ghostliness deliberate?
Olu: Some of the names are not as ghostly as it might seem. The real person behind Obama is a buoyant young man we met in Calais. His friends all had interesting nicknames (Whatsapp…).
I think more than the names one exists because one is seen. It is important to know names, to be named, to have that name acknowledged — very. But it is more important to be recognised (seen) and have one’s humanity respected. You can do that without knowing someone’s name. I think in the past few years we have failed quite terribly in this regard, in respect to the so-called refugee crisis in Europe.
But to answer your question, yes it was a deliberate choice to address all these different facets of namelessness, naming and misnaming.
Yasmin: Breach was written pre-Brexit, pre the rise of Theresa May and Donald Trump, before the bulldozing of the camp and the recent UK government decision to end the Dubs Amendment, which required the Home Secretary to resettle a certain number of unaccompanied refugee children. The political context in which you were writing both within and outside the camp was bleak. It’s something that hit me in “Expect me”, the last story in Breach which chronicles the life of a boy who finally makes it to England legally. For all the human misery of the camp, its violence and insecurity, it feels that the destruction of the camp and the dispersal of those living there is somehow, and perversely, worse?
Olu: I think it was a cruel thing. Anyone could predict that the issue would not go away, people would not simply stop coming or all disappear (although quite a few, especially minors, have actually disappeared). It was simply a destruction of infrastructures and resources, all the small things that had made life in the camp a little easier. There are lots of other camps, then and now. They will continue to grow. It was pointless in terms of addressing the problem of mass displacement but I think the reason was always to destroy those infrastructures and to disperse communities that had formed.
Yasmin: Breach is a compelling and constantly surprising read. Both you and Annie manage to get at such rich and complicated layers of life in a camp that is also very much a community. What role do you think fiction can play in these dark times?
Olu: We need our imagination! We need to dream up that which will conquer and subvert these times. We cannot be stuck here. We can’t remain in a state of shock, anger and somewhat confusion. Fiction allows not just for analysis but for that way out, both as an escape and vision.
Of course we must also resist in other ways but you asked about fiction.
Yasmin: And what’s next for you?
Olu: I have just finished editing my new novel When We Speak of Nothing. It is coming out later in summer with Cassava Republic Press. It follows the friendship of two young adults who live in King’s Cross. They are best mates but one of them goes to Port Harcourt (Nigeria) and becomes friends with a local activist there, while the other one gets tangled up in the 2011 riots. It’s about loyalty, alternative families, masculinity, gender and love of course. All against a backdrop of issues surrounding the Niger Delta and the London riots. I’m very excited!
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Olumide Popoola is a London-based Nigerian German writer and lecturer. Her novella this is not about sadness was published by Unrast Verlag in 2010. Her play Also by Mail was published in 2013 by Witnessed (edition assemblage). When we Speak of Nothing will be published by Cassava Republic Press in 2017. You can find her on Twitter @msolumide
Yasmin Gunaratnam is a writer and academic, interested in illness, death, migration, the body and feminism. She teaches in the Sociology Department at Goldsmiths College on research methods, culture, representation and difference and feminist theory. Yasmin is the curator of Media Diversified’s academic space. Her latest book Death & the Migrant (Bloomsbury Academic) is about transnational dying and care in British cities.