Peirene Press is a mission-driven boutique press. According to its website, “Peirene specializes in contemporary European novellas and short novels in English translation. All our books are best-sellers and/or award-winners in their own countries. We only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD.” One of Peirene’s newest endeavors is a series they are calling “Peirene Now!”, which “will be made up of commissioned works of new fiction, which engage with the political issues of the day.” First on the docket – “breach”.
Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes, both Africa-born writers currently based in the UK, were commissioned to immerse themselves in the refugee camp in Calais, France and to create short stories which explore and illuminate this international crisis through fiction. “breach”, the resulting volume, is eye-opening and beautifully human. The refugee camp in Calais, much to my ashamed ignorance, is a microcosm of the global crises; this camp, abutting the English Channel on the northern coast of France, contains neighborhoods or sectors with refugees from various conflict zones, people who have journeyed for months or even years from places like the Sudan and Syria, all the way across Europe. Popoola and Holmes use the perfect medium – the short story – to capture this phenomenon and to expose, if only a fraction, the fears, trials, and oppressions of thousands of vulnerable people living in limbo.
“‘When you claim asylum you sum it all up.’ He laughs and his eyes become so small they fade into his unshaven face until you only see two lines with a little hair. I can make jokes at any time but even I don’t understand why he laughs. ‘How do you sum up genocide?'”
The characters in these stories are surviving extraordinary hardship, living in tenuous circumstances and forming a community that is constantly in flux and under threat. They must learn to navigate not just the dangers of camp life, but also the varied presence of European interlopers – people on the outskirts of camp, some there to exploit (such as the truckers who underwrite a prostitution ring) and others to help, though not without judgement and expectations.
“You are tired of the visitors who all need acknowledgement, who need you to engage so they can feel that they are doing the right thing. It is not that you don’t appreciate their help. What they do keeps you alive. But the rules of it are annoying. You have, in fact, more important things to do.”
“Your blood is starting to boil. Her five-minute concern is not going to help you keep warm at night, or leave this hellhole altogether. You will still be queuing in one line while she redoes her nappy curls in a salon at the end of next week.”
“Why people think they know what’s best for you when they are not you, you don’t understand. Why you wouldn’t know how you want to dress at your age is beyond you. …You had asked for leggings, tighter jeans, something that would make you feel like you were still twenty-four and not just a refugee squatting in a camp that the locals want gone.”
Popoola and Holmes do a wonderful job of making refugees and volunteers human, flawed, complicated. Volunteers, while well-intentioned, are often patronizing, condescending, and certainly not perfectly altruistic. Refugees, while grateful for the aid they receive, are also adults with agency, desires, and their own challenges.
“breach” is an important book, both for its timeliness and global commentary, but also for its utter beauty and deep humanity. Popoola and Holmes masterfully educate, engage, and entertain.