This week, we’re sharing stories from Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor, Susan Dominus, Jim Rutenberg, and Steve Eder; Eliana Dockterman, Stephanie Zarachek, and Haley Sweetland Edwards; John Woodrow Cox; Nadim Roberts; and Phil Klay.
In time for National Adoption Awareness Month, Granta has a personal essay by novelist A.M. Homes, who ten years ago published The Mistress’s Daughter, a memoir about meeting her birth parents at 31, in 1992.
Now 55, Homes reports on the experience of recently being given her long-lost adoption file from 1961, and the effects of the information within it — plus what she can now find on the internet using clues from the file — on her understanding of herself and her origins.
She has mixed feelings about opening the file once she has it.
The envelope takes several days to arrive and when it does I put it in my office and let it rest. I leave the envelope for weeks, having already once had the terra firma of identity slip out from under me like sand followed by a long, slow climb back to safety – I am aware that once I expose whatever is inside I will have to deal with it. I am not in a hurry.
There is the fear that there might be something in the file, a surprise that changes the narrative as I know it.
She acknowledges, though, that many other adoptees don’t have that luxury.
Even now, in most states and countries, an adoptee doesn’t have the right to know who they are and how they came into the world. The laws vary from place to place, and were mostly designed to protect the privacy of the often-unwed mother, and the often-infertile adopting couple, rather than the needs of the child.
Denied citizenship in their home country of Myanmar, denied land, medical care, education and jobs, even denied the ability to walk town to town, the one million Rohingya people who live in this largely Buddhist nation have taken flight to find new homes all over the world. Thousands pay smugglers to take them to Malaysia by boat to find a new home, and the journey is dangerous.
At Granta, United Nations employee Keane Shum shares the Rohingya’s tragic story. Shum is charged with monitoring refugees in Southeast Asia, and she has worked with the Rohingya for three years. As if their suffering back home weren’t horrific enough, the smugglers abuse the Rohingya, underfeeding them, beating, and raping them, then keeping them at sea while they extract more money through ransoms. And when refugees are intercepted, they’re often sent back to a home where they aren’t considered citizens.
Around the same time, the captain of a larger smuggling vessel nearby, carrying as many as 1,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshis, also abandoned ship. He also fled on a trailing speedboat, after telling his passengers to sail at 220 degrees in order to reach Malaysia the next morning. But there is nowhere in the Andaman Sea where a heading of 220 degrees will point a ship to Malaysia. The captain was almost certainly directing them towards Indonesia.
Wherever this ship was headed, it ran out of fuel the next day. Passing fishing boats gave some fuel and directed the Rohingya and Bangladeshis to Indonesia. The following morning, 11 May 2015, two Indonesian navy vessels arrived with water, dry instant noodles and biscuits, and returned later in the day to tow the ship towards Malaysia. “We gave them fuel and asked them to proceed,” an Indonesian navy spokesperson told Agence France-Presse. “We are not forcing them to go to Malaysia nor Australia. That is not our business. Our business is they don’t enter Indonesia because Indonesia is not the destination.”
The ship drifted for nearly two days until being approached near Penang on the afternoon of 13 May by two Malaysian navy vessels, which also provided food and water. Overnight, the Malaysians towed the ship back into Indonesian territory. When the Malaysians untied from the ship, multiple passengers remember the Malaysians giving instructions to stay put while they went to retrieve other boats in the area. Then we’ll bring you all to Malaysia, the passengers said they were told.
The next day, Malaysia’s Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi, acknowledged to the Associated Press that Malaysia had turned back both this ship and Hasina’s. “We have to send the right message,” he said. “They are not welcome here.”
At Granta, Barbara Zitwer, Colm Tóibín, Elham Manea, Linda Coverdale, Kyung-sook Shin, and Anne Landsman share their stories of immigration to protest Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban as an abomination in a country built and fueled by people from away.
Barbara Zitwer: I was very moved at an i am muslim too rally in NYC a few weeks ago. There were people of every color, every age and every religion. I overheard a conversation – an elderly woman was speaking so animatedly in a low, raspy voice, and although she had a thick accent her words lodged in my mind: ‘My family died in a camp in Germany. No one stopped them. We can never let that happen again. We can never watch. We must act. I lived for a reason. I am a Jew and today I am a Muslim, too.’ And then she rolled up her sleeve and revealed a tattoo on her arm as if it was a badge of courage.
Colm Tóibín: It is always easy to invent enemies; it merely takes a failure of imagination, a determination to look inwards, a lack of confidence in our own ability to see clearly, to understand, to love.
Linda Coverdale: Many of the more than eighty French books I have translated into English deal with war, oppression, misogyny, racism, the plight of refugees and the gruesome hells of genocide. The second book I ever took on told the story of Molyda, a child who watched without a tear – even a single one would have betrayed her ‘complicity’ – as those she loved died in the killing fields of Cambodia. Rescued from a Thai refugee camp by a couple in Paris, she could not speak for a year, but her new parents, psychiatrists in exile from Communist Czechoslovakia, helped her to dance and sing her memories, which slowly became her French voice.
To learn the craft, I’d just written random stories, whatever came into my head, attempting to storify any thought as practice for figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But just writing whatever wasn’t really being a writer. A writer, it seemed to me at the time, was someone with a creative or intellectual project that lasted not the length of a story but over years of writing many different things.
I asked myself what I was fascinated by, scared of, drawn to, repelled by, in love with. What did I like thinking about and what could I never find an end to musing over? For me, then, it was the natural world, any angle of it. I opened this umbrella and began to write stories that fit under it. And suddenly I knew why I was writing a story at any particular moment. Even if it was a mysterious or troublesome one, I knew I was pursuing something with it. The thing is, I’m not sure these pursuits are ever very obvious to anyone but me. They get obscured. Or maybe they are really just the jumping-off points that send me back to the big questions we all think about, the stuff too big to approach head on. Like, I tell myself I’m exploring the wilderness, but really I’m trying to figure out grief. But the concept of the ongoing ‘project’ forces me to remember that writing is active and not just a product.
— In Granta, Sam Lipsyte and Diane Cook correspond with one another about the craft of writing stories. The above is from Cook. Before working on her own stories, Cook was a producer for This American Life, which taught her how to put together stories in a very specific way.
Photo: Julie Jordan Scott
We are expats and nomads. We are products of multiple countries. We run away from places that don’t feel quite right, only to never find where we belong. These stories celebrate the journey of returning to (or discovering) our roots, and the elusive, ever-evolving concept of home. Read more…
[Fiction] An aunt recalls how she met her husband. (From Mo Yan, 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
‘If you want to know why I married Hao Dashou, I have to start with the frogs. Some old friends got together for dinner on the night I announced my retirement, and I wound up drunk – I hadn’t drunk much, less than a bowlful, but it was cheap liquor. Xie Xiaoque, the son of the restaurant owner, Xie Baizhua, one of those sweet-potato kids of the ‘63 famine, took out a bottle of ultra-strong Wuliangye – to honour me, he said – but it was counterfeit, and my head was reeling. Everyone at the table was wobbly, barely able to stand, and Xie Xiaoque himself foamed at the mouth till his eyes rolled up into his head.’
On the lives of Soviet cosmonauts—and circus performers:
During the first ninety-six-day Salyut mission in 1978, cosmonaut Yury Romanenko was apparently so mesmerized by the vastness of the cosmos that he stepped out to have a better look and forgot to attach himself with safety tethers to the space station. Fortunately his cohort noticed and quickly grabbed his foot as it floated out of the hatch. Even the most trained and disciplined individual could ignore all precautions and checklists and succumb to a greater urge.
And then there was the monotony of space, the long stretches of nothingness, whether experienced alone – certainly the deepest emptiness of all – or in a small group, when tensions nearly always arose. Despite the speed of the aircraft, inside there was often no sensation of movement and everything appeared fixed and motionless. Moments of sensory bombardment alternated with extended periods of sensory deprivation. The first few cosmonauts were given books; later ones, curiously, were instead handed knives, wood blocks, coloured pencils and paper with which to pass the time. Some individuals would apparently become so exasperated with the lack of stimuli that they’d wish for the equipment to break down simply to provide some variety.
[Fiction] [Not single-page] Mail-order brides on a journey across the ocean:
On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we’d been wearing for years – faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and re-dyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiancé, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on.
[Fiction, not single-page] A lawyer can’t stop walking:
He worked past ten most nights, and most nights found him sufficiently absorbed in something that required only the turn of a page or the click of a mouse — too little activity for the sensors to register. The lights frequently switched off on him. He’d look up, surprised again — not just by the darkened office. By his re-entry into the physical world. Self-awareness. Himself as something more than mind thinking. He’d have to stand, a little amused by the crude technology, and wave his arms around, jump up and down, walk over and fan the door, sometimes all three, before the lights would return.
That was happiness.