Migrants, Exiles, and Refugees: Reading Literature in times of Racism

Migrants, Exiles, and Refugees: Reading Literature in times of Racism

Gayatri Devi


When news reports started coming out last week of the sitting president of the United States referring to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador as “shithole countries” in the presence of other elected politicians, my mind recalled the dismay I felt in 2002 when President George W. Bush referred to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “the axis of evil.” Bush’s undersecretary of state John Bolton, a few months later, expanded the membership of the “axis of evil” to include Cuba, Syria and Libya.

The Bush administration used the “evil” trope to drum up support for the bottomless quagmire known as “the war on terror,” from which the country still has not surfaced with a clean breath.

The current president’s “shithole countries” putdown is to drum up support to limit immigration to certain races and ethnicities. Both men are speaking to their base, manufacturing paranoia about national security, and race. Or paranoia about the security of the white race.

During the Second World War, the human world was broadly divided into the “allied powers,” and the “axis powers.” Of course, the original axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy, are no longer enemies of the allied powers. Germany and Italy are part of the European Union along with their former enemies. Japan is a trade partner, a member of the United Nations, the G7, the G8, and the G20. All is now well.

Alliances are formed. Alliances are broken. If nationalism was the achievement of the twentieth century, the dissolution of nations and nation states marks the twenty-first. The twenty first century is the century of the displaced, the exiled, the migrant, the immigrant, and the refugee.

The Haitian immigrants or refugees like most threatened immigrants and refugees elsewhere in the world are not criminals. Trump had wistfully recommended more Norwegians to immigrate to the US.  The US Attorney General Jeff Sessions also endorsed the president’s comments by noting that “What good does it do to bring in somebody who’s illiterate in their own country, has no skills and is going to struggle in our country and not be successful? That is not what a good nation should do, and we need to get away from it.”

US Census Bureau reports that in 2015, 78 percent of Haitians ages 25 and over in the United States had a high school degree or higher, with 19 percent having a bachelor’s degree or higher. Among Haitian immigrants ages 16 and older, 71 percent participated in the civilian labor force, compared to 66 percent of the overall foreign-born population and 62 percent of the U.S.-born population. Haitian immigrant women were also more likely to be in the labor force than the overall female immigrant population (66 percent compared to 55 percent).

What is the difference between a “shithole” and a “country”? Only shit comes out of shitholes. But human beings come from countries. Teachers, secretaries, clerks, typists, grocers, chefs, gardeners, artists, writers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, musicians, dancers, athletes, painters, sculptors, actors, activists, historians, scholars, philosophers and others. It is one thing for the president of the United States to disagree politically with a foreign government. But it is an entirely different thing to transfer the political hatred to that country’s inhabitants. The shithole metaphor to malign countries the president does not like just does not work.

Furthermore, I don’t see many Norwegians immigrating to the US at this point in time. Take the matter of parental leave, for example. In Norway, parents are entitled to 46 weeks at full salary, or 56 weeks at 80 percent pay. Norwegians have very little to gain from immigrating to the US.

The media maelstrom about the president’s remarks makes me ask myself: Ultimately, why exactly should we care about the suffering of others?


I teach world literatures at an American university, and for the past twenty some years I have taught literatures from the so-called “axis powers,” “the axis of evil,” and the “shithole countries,” along with literatures from the nonwestern world. We read poems, novels, short stories, essays, dramas, travel narratives, memoirs et al in translation from around the world. Many of our texts speak of experiences familiar to our students in North America—growing up, relationships and families, women and men, love, work, death, losses.

But many texts also speak of sufferings not identified as particularly American at first glance: holocaust, genocide, bombings, child soldiers, and refugees. While we have homegrown examples of each of the above, we don’t tend to speak of the genocide of Native Americans in quite the same way that we speak of genocide in Rwanda or Bosnia. When we speak about bombings we talk about nations waiting to bomb us, so we propose bombing them as a deterrent. We don’t count the young people dying in our impoverished urban neighborhoods overrun by crime and easy availability of guns, or killed by our law enforcement, as child soldiers dying in a war that is not commemorated anywhere, except in the agony of racism’s victims and witnesses. We don’t have refugees; we don’t speak about Hurricane Katrina anymore.

But when we work with literature, sometimes, even if we shut all the doors against the light, even if the whole country yells at us to look away from the refugee at our door while giving us a free ticket to the football game, a few sharp rays, some heat and light, will get in through the cracks and the pinholes of our apathy and complacency. It is in the nature of the sun to shine. Sometimes a poem will drag us kicking and screaming to confront the truth of another human being’s suffering through the steely armor of our prejudice, our ignorance, our defense. Ruben Dario, Leopold Senghor, Doris Lessing, Anna Akhmatova, Mahmoud Darwish. . .  the list is endless: good literature makes us examine ourselves like no other interlocutor.

That is usually the case when I teach Bessie Head, Roque Dalton and Edwidge Danticat in my classes. When I heard the president of the United States speak about “shithole countries” I thought about all three writers immediately: Bessie Head, born in South Africa and exiled to Botswana; Roque Dalton, born in El Salvador and assassinated there; and Edwidge Danticat, born in Haiti and residing in the United States.

Danticat’s 1988 novel The Farming of Bones tells the story of a young Haitian immigrant, Amabelle Desir working as a maid in a wealthy Dominican’s home during the turbulent times of the border war between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two neighboring countries of Hispaniola. We understand border talk in the United States. In the colonial past of Hispaniola, the French colonized Haiti, and Spain colonized the Dominican Republic.  Haitians who lived in the arid mountainous border regions would migrate “illegally” as it were, to the Dominican side to work in the sugar plantations. As one of the characters in Danticat’s novel says, “Perhaps there had been joy for them in finding that sugar could be made from blood.” Migrants, refugees and exiles always remember with joy the feeling of life in their new havens, however flawed these lives might have been.

How do we determine if another human being is not as important as ourselves? How do we decide if we can kill them? We look at the color of the skin, the color of the eyes, the color of the hair. We look at the shape of the nose and the strength of the teeth. We look at the size of the brain. We ask them to say “Shibboleth” as the Gileadites asked the Ephraimites to do by the banks of the river Jordan.

The “parsley massacre,” or the Dominican president Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo’s genocide of Haitians, started with the Dominican military holding up a sprig of parsley in one hand and asking the trembling foreigner to say what it is. The Spanish word for parsley is “perejil.” Dominicans speak Spanish. Haitians speak French.  If they pronounced the word with the /r/ sound as a voiced velar fricative (the French way) instead of the alveolar trill sound (the Spanish way), they would be identified as Haitian and immediately hacked to death.

Estimates of the Haitian dead run between 17,000-35,000 in the five days of the massacre. The bodies were thrown in the ominously named “Massacre River,” or the Dajabon River that marks the northernmost international boundary between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Dajabon River got the name Massacre River not from Trujillo’s massacre, but when Spanish settlers killed French pirates and threw their bodies in the river in 1782.

The 1937 massacre was one of the many political horrors that marred Haiti’s peace from both the inside and the outside. More Haitians died during the dictatorial regime of president Francois Duvalier between 1957-1971. In a 2013 interview, Danticat observed that  “Generally it’s not something that we talk a lot about on our side of the border . . . I think there are so many challenges in Haiti right now, as well as in the recent past, that sometimes it is difficult for people to look back and ponder long ago horrors when they are dealing with so many current horrors.”

Danticat’s awareness of the visible and invisible suffering of those who stay and those who leave speaks of the resilience of the human mind. People just like you and me live in the “shithole countries.”

In his poem OAS, the El Salvadorean poet Roque Dalton commemorates the ethos of dictatorships and military regimes in the region (often strong allies of the US such as El Salvador’s General Maximilio Hernandez, and General Somoza of Nicaragua). OAS, of course, refers to the Organization of American States, which is, according to the organization’s website, “the world’s oldest regional organization, dating back to the First International Conference of American States, held in Washington, D.C., from October 1889 to April 1890. That meeting approved the establishment of the International Union of American Republics, and the stage was set for the weaving of a web of provisions and institutions that came to be known as the inter-American system, the oldest international institutional system.”

Ironically, or maybe not, Haiti and El Salvador are both members of the OAS, as is the United States. Dalton’s poem satirizes the nearness and the distance between purported democracies and brutal dictatorships.


The president of my country
these days is called Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez
but General Somoza, the president of Nicaragua
is also president of my country.
And General Stroessner, the president of Paraguay,
is somewhat president of my country too, though not as
as the president of Honduras,
General Lopez Arellano,
but a bit more than the president of
Monsieur Duvalier.
And the president of the United States is more president of
my country
than the president of my country,
the one who, as I said, these days
is called Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez.

Immigrants and refugees are not born; they are made. This is as true of Norway in the mid-19th century as it is for El Salvador, Haiti and Africa. The nearly 800, 00 Norwegians who immigrated to the American Midwest in the turn of the last century had found life in Norway difficult. That is why they immigrated. Likewise, someday soon 2018 with its new population of immigrants will be the past.

Why exactly should we care about the suffering of others? A simple answer would be that, objectively speaking, none of us live only by ourselves; we depend infinitely on the kindness and generosity of others. The clothes that we wear, the car that we drive, the roads that we drive on, the house that we live in, our salaries, our groceries, the food that we eat, our education, our employment—these all come from the kindness, generosity, and labor of others. We should care when others are suffering because “others” clothed us, fed us, employed us, and made us who we are. The president and the attorney general did not stitch their own clothes. They don’t treat their own diseases. They did not make their cars. They did not make their phones. They did not make their computers. They did not build their towers.  Somebody took care of them when they were born. Somebody will take care of their bodies when they die.

It is the morality of all human beings to care when others suffer. Even animals care when their offspring suffer. But only human beings have the capacity and opportunity to care when someone else’s offspring suffers.

In A Woman Alone, the South African/Botswanian writer Bessie Head tells of a time when she sat down on a bench at Cape Town railway station where the “Whites Only” notice was hidden from view: “A few moments later a white man approached and shouted: ‘Get off!’ It never occurred to him that he was achieving the opposite of his dreams of superiority and had become a living object of contempt, that human beings, when they are human, dare not conduct themselves in such ways.”

The soon-to-be murderer Macbeth had said more or less the same thing:

“I dare do all that may become a man;
Who dares do more is none.”

Indeed the president’s “shithole countries” comment and the criminalization of black-skinned immigrants, Muslims and Hispanics loudly proclaim this mismeasure of what it means to be a human being. It reveals a profound poverty of the mind. If Norwegians visit the US now, it might just be as tourists to Mount Rushmore.


Gayatri Devi is Associate Professor of English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

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