breachOlumide Popoola and Annie Holmes
‘The Jungle is like a laboratory.’
In the refugee camp known as The Jungle, an illusion is being disrupted: that of a neatly ordered world, with those deserving safety and comfort separated from those who need to be kept out.
Calais is a border town. Between France and Britain. Between us and them. The eight short stories in this collection explore the refugee crisis through fiction. They give voice to the hopes and fears of both sides. Dlo and Jan break into refrigerated trucks bound for the UK. Marjorie, a volunteer, is happy to mingle in the camps until her niece goes a step too far. Mariam lies to her mother back home. With humour, insight and empathy, breach tackles an issue that we can no longer ignore.
In breach, the authors beautifully capture a multiplicity of voices – refugees, volunteers, angry citizens – whilst deftly charting a clear narrative path through it all. Each story is different in tone, and yet they complement one another perfectly. Taken as a whole, this stands as an empathetic and probing collage, where the words ‘home’, ‘displacement’ and ‘integration’ come to mean many things as the collection progresses to a moving finale.
Why Peirene chose to commission this book:
‘I have commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, this work will also take seriously the fears of people in this country who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can help to bridge the gap.’ Meike Ziervogel
Written by Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes.
160pp, paperback with flaps, £12
Published August 2016
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.
‘This is what fiction is for. These stories refresh difficult territory in ways that other writing cannot reach. Tender, tragic, funny (sometimes), persuasive.’ Sara Maitland
‘This is fine, suspenseful fiction springing from human lives in extremis…it possesses a timeless quality, despite its obvious timeliness.’ Kapka Kassabova, The Guardian
‘One might worry that in a work commissioned to address topical concerns, craft and artistry might suffer. Breach will put those fears to rest from page one. Line for line, paragraph for paragraph the writing is detailed yet spare, with arresting images.’ Margaret Luongo, Consequence Magazine
‘A compelling collection, whose power lies in the layering and intersecting of these stories, which capture frustration and determination, hopelessness and hope.’ Alison Moore
‘An illuminating collection. These stories challenge the reader to navigate the political and moral greyness of the new frontier that is the migrants’ camp, where there is much desperation but no shortage of life’s simple moments of wonder and surprise, humour and camaraderie.’ Brian Chikwava
GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.
The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.
‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’
I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. I normally wait for him to speak.
It’s getting darker, the trees are dipping themselves in silence. The others are looking at their phones. We need to agree on when to start the eleven minutes. We need to plan the forty-nine minutes after that, because if we have to walk all the way to the train station it will be that long.
I don’t want to sleep in this country. Not tonight.
I search the others’ faces. Why is everyone quiet now? I just want to think big; you have to set your bar high. It’s one of the things Calculate has taught me, an expression.
I say to them, ‘It’s just a little fun. Why not?’
I am disturbing their thoughts. They are busy with more important things. Already these thoughts are like swimming with wet clothes. It’s heavy, too much to hold on to. It pulls you back. You could drown.
I have made a habit with this thing, the names and the stories, always distracting them. I think they think that I cannot be quiet. Not when it is needed. Like now. When we are planning the next step, like Calculate says.
Suleyman is coughing. He leans forward; his small chest comes out and he does harh-harh-harh, his tongue tired in his mouth. Earlier today there was a bit of blood in his spit. I check that he is not spitting now. He is leaning back against the tree, pointing his thumb upwards, his eyes closed. He does it all the time, the thumbs up. Even though he himself isn’t thumbs up. Not at all. When I first met him his face was round and black. Now he is grey and thin and his eyes are hanging like a bag of shopping.
MG says, ‘Or Michelle.’
I throw him a look that tells him to shut his mouth. With my mouth I say, ‘You’re not funny.’
‘You don’t understand. You can use it as Michel. It’s French. Man’s name. I learned in school. Michelle better than Obama. Better brain, my brother says. Nicer to the people, she is really for the people.’
‘And beautiful,’ Calculate says. He laughs again. ‘It would suit you.’
I ignore him and turn my head to the side. He is still wearing the Leicester Hockey Club shirt someone gave him in Puglia. And the fake leather jacket. I told him it wasn’t real leather but he said he didn’t care. His hair and the jacket match. I think he feels older with it, grown up. MG doesn’t usually talk rubbish. His mouth is too quick but he is on his way to being smart. Calculate said it.
I call him MG because he doesn’t use Western Union. Only MoneyGram. He thinks it is better. The rates, the service, the staff.
I said to him, ‘Hey, little brother, it’s just ordinary people. Look at the shops, they are the same: news-agents, small grocers, phone repair shops. Nothing special, same kind, makes no difference if Western Union or MoneyGram.’
The others agreed, but he is not convinced. He taps on his forehead with one finger. It’s shiny. It was the same when I first met him. It was hot there, it is not hot now. Still, his face is sweaty. This boy has a tap inside his forehead. It’s broken. It drips slowly, always leaving something on his skin. He knocks on that forehead, looking at us, when he wants us to listen. His finger is faster than the dripping of his broken tap that makes all the sweat. He looks ridiculous with his one finger hammering at where his brain is supposed to be. He says he knows, his brother told him. The brother said that they are trying to catch people using Western Union, the smugglers. It is better to leave it alone.
MG put away whatever his brother sent him. Everyone did it that way. Someone sends it, you pick it up later, when you have arrived on safe ground. You couldn’t take money in the boat in case you lost it.
But that guy and his brother. I want to push MG sometimes. Push him into the road, just to wake him up. If your brother is so great, why does he not come for you? Why does he not tell you how to get to the UK? To London even. Why does he keep saying, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, all has changed,’ when you call?
‘Papers,’ MG says, ‘no papers.’
‘Can you be quiet now? I don’t want to get caught here.’
Calculate thinks he is our leader. Because he is older, because MG looks at him – his eyes asking, Is this right? – when we have to make a decision.
I answer that I don’t need to be quiet. There is no one here. No one can see us. But Calculate puts his finger on his thin lips and puts his backside on a bit of cardboard he keeps in his bag and leans against the tree that is near Suleyman. He tells me to be quiet again. MG is throwing his eyes at me, shy. I haven’t replied to his Michel idea. Why? It’s stupid.
GPS moves his shoulders up, then lets them fall. He wants to say sorry that way. Sorry, but Calculate knows what we need to do. I don’t understand GPS sometimes. Have we not made it most of the way without Calculate? But I just open my backpack as if I am looking for something, my lips holding each other tight.
For Reading Groups
This is our reading guide for breach, designed to get the conversation started.
1. The characters of breach are all based on real voices from the Calais Jungle. How does this impact the reading experience?
2. Counting Down features several characters who have been given new names. This seems to introduce the theme of identity and how it is constructed. Where else in the book is this discussed?
3. In The Terrier we see a shift in the narrator’s feelings towards the Jungle and those living there. How does breach portray the relationship between the people living in France and the newcomers?
4. In Extending a Hand, Habena comments that she is ‘tired of the visitors who all need acknowledgement’, whilst in Paradise Muhib expresses his pain when the volunteers he meets in the camp leave. What does this reveal about the way refugees view aid workers?
5. ‘You wonder what the pictures are now. Of people like you, here, in the camp. What will stick this time? The muddied clothes you try to keep clean but which hang drab and damp on your bodies? The queuing?’ How far do you think the current images in the media reflect the nature of the refugee experience?
6. During the fifth story in breach, we are introduced to Ghostboy, a smuggler. Why do you think the authors chose to include this character?
7. During the book we hear a character comment that ‘The Jungle is like a laboratory.’ Discuss.
8. In Oranges in the River, Jan dreams of having a modest flat in Birmingham where he can resume ‘his interrupted life’. How does breach explore the theme of hope and how far do you think Jan’s aspirations reflect the wider hopes of refugees?
9. The final story, Expect Me, is set in England, which for so much of the book has been the fantasy of the refugees. How does the writing engage with the new setting?
10. Sara Maitland has said that ‘This is what fiction is for.’ What do you think she means? Does fiction get closer to emotional truth than other writing?
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