‘Suitcases. Secrets. Invisible cities.’ For novelist Elise Valmorbida, migration is at the heart of all storytelling. From George Orwell to Jean Rhys, here she picks out her favourites
Immigrants queuing at Ellis Island, circa 1900.
Italian-Australian Elise Valmorbida’s books include Matilde Waltzing, The Book of Happy Endings and The TV President. Her latest novel The Winding Stick (Two Ravens Press) features Terry who works in an all-night London garage where all the other workers are all Tamil. Haunted by news stories, and obsessed by his mysterious manager Siv, Terry stumbles into love, hope and Tamil London.
“If there’s one common element in all my writing, it’s an interest in migrants and migration. I guess it’s natural given my own multicultural origins, but it’s also at the heart of storytelling: the migrant brain is prone to metaphor – the perpetual balancing of here and there, different worlds in simultaneous play. And being translated. Being found in translation. Suitcases. Secrets. Invisible cities.”
1. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
This slim book took many years to make. It’s compelling, painful and exquisite. Here’s the story of the Creole heiress who leaves the Caribbean for a life in England as the first wife of Mr Rochester. (Jane Eyre is the second.) Unpicking her like a hidden jewel from the weave, the author releases a minor character from a major text. She is a migrant bride, a misrepresented outsider, “the other woman”, a mad thing in the attic …
2. When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
“We looked at ourselves in the mirror and did not like what we saw: black hair, yellow skin, slanted eyes. The cruel face of the enemy.” This haunting story is about people who are caught forever as outsiders: Japanese Americans interned during the second world war as enemy aliens. From the mother’s ritual burning of treasures (letters, photographs, kimonos) to the children’s self-protective mask of equanimity, I love the quiet way this book captures the crisis of lost identity. Nowhere is home.
3. Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
What is it about George Orwell? I think he could write a shopping list and I’d love reading it. Here, he migrates to the slums and lives with “a floating population, largely foreigners, who used to turn up without luggage, stay a week and then disappear again.” Orwell takes us deep into the dirt and poverty beneath the dazzling surface of our luxuries. As relevant as ever.
4. The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag
In a story that positively heaves with collections of Things, Sontag relishes describing the diplomat’s entourage. Sir William Hamilton is not the solitary émigré clutching a shabby suitcase, but a different kind of migrant altogether. He’s as possession-prone as a Jules Verne hero – and Naples might as well be the Centre of the Earth. It’s a place of volcanic eruption, ritual slaughter and wild seductions. Hamilton writes like so many other migrants: “Letters to encourage letters … Letters that say: I am the same … This place has not changed me, I have the same home-bred superiorities, I have not gone native.” And he lives the eternal equivocation: “Sometimes it felt like exile, sometimes it felt like home.” It’s no accident that this novel is written in tenses that constantly mangle the present and past.
5. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich
The heroine lives as a man, and pretends to be a priest. If that isn’t migration enough, Father Damien Modeste travels to the remote reservation of Little No Horse, where s/he settles with the Ojibwe people for more than half a century. There is mischievous joy here in foreignness, as different cultures rub together to create miraculous sparks. I love the convent built of bricks, each one etched with the maker’s name: Fleisch. And who can resist The Deadly Conversions?
6. Voss by Patrick White
Like so many other white men who have tried to conquer Australia, the explorer Voss is doomed. “We rot by living,” he says as he faces extinction in a devilish wilderness of corpses and dreams. This is migrant as failed hero, “safe” only when he is in solid bronze trousers and “hung with garlands of rarest newspaper prose”. A monumental story of hubris and alienation.
7. Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
More doom in The Lucky Country! Here is Oscar, a sunburnt Englishman, a quivering man of God driven to desperation and crime, terrified of water and addicted to laudanum, attempting to sail his glass church up a river in remotest Australia. What starker image can there be of the misplaced migrant? The church becomes a fractured furnace where large and frightening insects are imprisoned. Its precious panes craze and crack. You know what must happen next.
8. Postcards by Annie Proulx
More doom, this time in America. Loyal Blood spends the whole book running from a crime he committed, far from the place where he belonged, living countless lives. And so he becomes a perpetual migrant in the foreign parts of his own land. Hence the book’s title. “We don’t like it here so we’re moving along.” Postcards home. “What we planned was never meant to be. Plan to strike out west this spring.” Doom, doom, doom.
9. The Credit Draper by J David Simons
How many books have you read about Glaswegian Jews? The solitary Russian boy who steps off a boat becomes the credit draper who peddles goods to crofters and villagers in the Western Highlands. There is so much hatred between Protestants and Catholics, no one has any left over for Jews. It’s another time (1920s) and another world.
10. From There to Here – Sixteen True Tales of Immigration to Britain
This down-to-earth anthology is full of idiosyncrasy and insight. The first story is peppered with the refrain: “Let it be. You never know when we will need it.” How many migrants have said the same thing about their beloved belongings? How many live with the symbol of their suitcases above their heads? And yet other migrants say: “Why would we want to go back when we have everything here? We are in Heaven.” I feel that way about London. Apart from a few dear souls, everything is here. Heaven.