The Bookshelf from NHPR is New Hampshire Public Radio's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week on The Bookshelf from NHPR is Ewa Chrusciel. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East and Africa landed on European shores. Thousands have drowned in transit trying to find a better life in Europe. It's easy to get lost in these numbers and lose sight of the fact that these are people, not just numbers. Ewa Chrusciel aims to return humanity and empathy to the discussion of that migrant crisis in particular, and to migrants everywhere facing similar struggles. Her new book, published by Omnidawn, is called "Of Annunciations." NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Chrusciel in her office at Colby-Sawyer College in New London.
Find a list of Ewa Chrusciel's top five reading recommendations here.
Can you start us off by reading a poem inspired by the photograph of the Syrian boy who drowned on the way to Europe?
Five-year-old Syrian boy
in a red t-shirt
washed ashore at Turkish Bodrun,
his tiny white sneakers
The waves contract them in in
His entry shimmers,
his mouth full of grains,
nests stitched in sand,
light years from resurrection.
May his ash shed
What made you want to write a poem about that photo?
I was very moved. Because I’m a poet, I think of poetry also as something that stirs the imagination and seeks empathy with the family in crisis or with one another. It was, in a sense, a proper way to respond because I was moved and I wanted to exalt the human situation, the human story.
When we watch things on television or read about them, they flash in front of our eyes, but poetry makes you stop and take it inside, internalize it, and, in a sense, it becomes a prayer.
You interviewed some folks who had first hand experience helping refugees when they landed on European shores. Who did you interview and what were those interviews like?
I had several conversations and one of them was actually a friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn, Meghan Udell, who went to Lesbos in Greece and was assisting the migrants and the refugees who would come on those inflatable dinghies and the stories were so striking that I felt like I lived those stories with her.
Just to give you an example: she would be there flashing the lights in the night. And praying the dinghy doesn’t tip over because the migrants would get excited when they saw the shore and people waiting for them. Sometimes they were hilarious and scary situations, where some migrants were angry. There were no doctors and they were hungry. There was not enough help. But Meghan ended up being there.
One of your poems describes that scene. Can you read it for us?
The whole book is made of voices. There are volunteers, settlers, people who don’t understand migrants, migrants, so a lot of it is almost like a call and response and they tend to be emblematic voices that represent the migration crisis.
Volunteer – Rough Notes
I am on the beach with seventy
irate young men. I keep calling Doctors
Without Borders. The doctors warn me against scabies.
Men stand in a ring. They set their blankets on fire.
I walk around hugging them. Will you marry me –
one after another says. I implore them not to burn the beach.
A ten-year-old boy approaches me:
Smoke?! Smoke! He repeats.
The confusion is infinite.
Finally I get it and we share a cigarette.
One of the quotes you used to set the tone for the whole book is from Julia Kristeva’s Strangers to Ourselves. “You do not count for anyone, you should be grateful for being tolerated among us. Civilized people need not be gentle with foreigners. ‘That’s it, and if you don’t like it why don’t you go back where you came from!’ The humiliation that disparages the foreigner endows his master with who knows what petty grandeur.” That seems to set this up as a conversation about not just the migrant crisis but how people in America welcome people who come from the outside. Is that a conversation you were hoping to start with this book?
I wanted to burst out of my own bubble, because I live in a very beautiful, secluded place with lakes and mountains and that sometimes leads to complacency. So I watch hurricanes, various fires in California, and migration crises and I feel so protected and it actually leaves me dissatisfied, because I feel detached from the humanity at its core. So in the sense, that’s what I was hoping for myself and for the readers—to enter into the core humanity and we all can offer in a way we know how. My small daily struggle for the refugees was to write about them.