Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes – “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

Cover of Breach, a collection of short stories about the refugees and volunteers at the Jungle camp in Calais.

Breach is a work of fiction but its origins lie in an all-too real scenario of human tragedy on a massive scale.

Pereine Press had commissioned two UK-based authors to capture stories from one of Europe’s biggest refugee camps, the Camp de la Lande near Calais (known unofficially as Calais Jungle). Founding publisher Meike Ziervogel said she wanted the authors to create “‘a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration.”

The book was published in 2016, the year when the refugee crisis reached a peak in Europe. That year saw record numbers of refugee deaths at sea and more than a million migrants and refugees crossing into Europe, sparking divisions among EU member countries on how to respond.

Breach captures this moment in history through a collection of eight stories that look at the refugee crisis from different angles: the refugees; the smugglers they pay to get them across borders and the volunteer workers who provide clothing and food.

Together they present a snapshot of life in the camp and how its thousands of dwellers try to make order out of a tangle of tents and shacks. Cafes spring up, tents become rudimentary barber’s shops and one migrant begins to build a hospital and classrooms out of wooden pallets. Ethiopians, Syrians, Afghans, Muslims, Sunnis, Shias live side by side because whatever their differing religious beliefs or cultural backgrounds, , one thing they have in common is the need to survive.

… some of them left their countries because it was dangerous for them there. They decided, I will not live like this; I will go and find a betetr place where I can survive, where I can build a life for me and my family. When they arrive here they are are even closer to each other than at home.

Woven seamlessly into the tales are the backstories of the characters; why they felt compelled to leave their homelands and their long, often dangerous, journeys across seas and land to reach Calais.

We also hear of the attitudes towards these refugees from people who live locally or volunteer their time at the camp.

In The Terrier, for example, Eloise, a French woman, has taken two Kurdish refugees into her home. Each day they leave the warmth and safety of her house to go to the Jungle, to help other refugees. Eloise initially keeps her distance from the the camp, a place of “filth and disease” in her eyes. But gradually, after she learns how Omid and his sister Nalin fled Syria and trekked through Europe to find freedom, her attitudes change.

Altered perspectives are also in evidence in Paradise, where volunteer worker Marjorie is keen to get her niece involved with the camp. Sorting out the piles of donated clothes and bedding is OK. Mixing with the refugees is approved of, even encouraged. But Marjorie’s alarm bells begin to ring when she sees the girl become attached to one young refugee. S

As so often the case with collections, some of the stories worked better than others.

One of the strongest was Oranges In The River in which two boys climb into a refrigerated truck in the hope it will get them across the border and into England. We get to learn something of their past It’s a tense tale with the anxiety of capture mounting at every stage . The noise made when the smuggler breaks open the truck could alert police. They could be found during a random search as the truck waits to board the ferry or when they reach the border control at Dover. They might never make it that far because they’ve run out of air or they die from hyperthermia because the truck refrigeration temperature is so low.

… banging on the side of the truck might not save them. He rubs his cold fist in circles on his chest. Beat, heart. If this isn’t worse than staying in Syria – and so far, heart still beating, it isn’t worse – it isn’t much better either. He has swapped one potential grave for another.

The final story in Breach, shows what happens to the few people who do make it. Expect Me homes in on Alghali, a Sudanese refugee who managed to get across the English Channel to settle in England, the only person out of a group who had travelled through Europe. Now he’s living in northern England, working as a financial manager and meeting twice a week for English conversation practice with an elderly man. But even in his new life, he cannot feel safe.

Breach brought home the realities of life in the no-man’s land of a refugee camp. The characters who feature in these stories cannot return home because life in a Taliban controlled state is too perilous but neither can they move on to a new life because no country wants them. It’s a highly topical and important work, and gave me a better appreciation of what lay behind those tv images of blue tents.

And yet I felt it wasn’t as strong a collection as it might have been. I know I shouldn’t expect short pieces of fiction to tackle the issue as deeply as a novel yet I still felt some of these tales overly skimpy. So while I appreciated the spirit in which the stories were researched, written and published, I don’t think they go deep enough to have a marked effect on people’s understanding of what it means to be a displaced person.

Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes: Footnotes

Olumide Popoola is a Nigerian German writer of long and short fiction, based in London. Her publications include essays, poetry, short stories, the novella this is not about sadness and the play text Also by Mail. She lecturers creative writing, currently as associate lecturer at Goldsmiths College.

Annie Holmes was born in Zambia and raised in Zimbabwe. Many years later, she left southern Africa and filmmaking to enrol in a writing programme in California. Her short fiction has been published in Zimbabwe, South Africa and the US, and a novella-length memoir – Good Red – in Canada. She co-edited two collections of oral narratives in McSweeney’s Voice of Witness series: Hope Deferred and Underground America. She now lives in the UK

The Calais Jungle (known officially as Camp de la Lande) was a refugee and migrant encampment in the vicinity of Calais, France that existed from January 2015 to October 2016. At its peak it housed some 10,000 people but was never officially designated as a refugee camp. In the absence of official humanitarian aid, volunteers stepped in, distributing clothing and food.

Initially The Jungle was tolerated by the authorities but as it expanded, tensions surfaced between the camp and the local community. Truck drivers and local farmers became more vocal, accusing the migrants of “wilful destruction” of property. The opposition culminated in police action in October 2016 to destroy the camp and disperse the migrants to other locations across France

Breach was book number 6 in my #20booksofsummer reading project. I’m also counting it towards my #21in21 project where I’m aiming to read 21 books from my “owned but unread” stacks.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

3 thoughts on “Breach by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes – “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

  • July 9, 2021 at 10:33 am
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    I had a different reaction to this one, possibly because I’m keener than you on short fiction. I liked the multifaceted approach and felt they offered vivid snapshots of the various experiences. I agree it’s an important work, though.

    Reply
    • July 9, 2021 at 6:51 pm
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      You could well be right Susan and my lack of enthusiasm for short stories got in the way of fully appreciating the book. I’m coming to the conclusion I should stay clear of short stories in future

      Reply

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