Alan Maley ponders the plight of people on the move.

In this article, I am reviewing four novels about the experience of being an immigrant. The past 20 years or so have seen an unprecedented movement of populations, displaced by war or political oppression, by economic deprivation or by the prospect of a better life elsewhere. Whatever the motivation of immigrant populations, and whatever the views of the communities into which they move, the facts are undeniable. Should we, as teachers, be concerned? I think so.

These four novels examine some facets of the immigrant experience. They span a period of about 60 years, from the first wave of post-war immigration into the UK from the Caribbean to the most recent influx of Central and East European migrants.

The Lonely Londoners

Sam Selvon’s novel The Lonely Londoners, first published in 1956, focuses on the experiences of Caribbean immigrants in London in the early 1950s. Many men from the Caribbean had fought in the British army during the war. Some stayed, others went back. Soon the word spread that a better life was to be had in London. Numbers swelled till by 1960 immigration was over 50,000 a year, which led to the government stepping in to restrict numbers. The novel itself does not have much of a plot: it is seen through the eyes of Moses, a man who has been in London for several years already, as he recounts the experiences of a number of newly-arrived immigrants. We find Cap, the Nigerian, always in debt and moving from one woman to another with lightning agility: towards the end he is so hungry he is reduced to catching and eating seagulls. Henry, alias Galahad, is wide-eyed at the novelty of London. Bart has so few clothes that he has to change in the laundrette itself, and so poor he lives off tea. Moses is the kind of archetypal spokesman for all these lost souls: ‘… ten years the old man in Britain and what to show for it? ... Sleep, eat, hustle pussy, work …’. And yet, despite their precarious existence, none of them will return to their homeland.

Sour Sweet

Immigration to the UK from Hong Kong, which was at its peak in the 1960s, was very different from that from the Caribbean. The immigrants were a more
closely-integrated group, both culturally and linguistically, through close family and clan networks. Whereas the Caribbeans had English as their first language, albeit in a dialectal form, those from Hong Kong were able to operate largely without reference to English. Newcomers were integrated into existing Chinese enterprises with no need to interact with the local culture. It is this context which forms the backdrop for Timothy Mo’s 1982 novel Sour Sweet. The centrepiece is the life of the Chen family: Chen, a Soho waiter, Lily his wife, Man Kee their infant son and Mui, Lily’s sister. They move to a suburb and set up their own Chinese takeaway with some success. But Chen has become involved with the criminal Triads who rule the Hong Kong Chinese community, and at the end he is ‘disappeared’ (or ‘washed’). The most remarkable thing about this group of immigrants is their almost total separation from their host community. Lily has no wish to become involved with British people. Her only concern is her family and, in particular, Man Kee. Everything else, including such things as income tax and driving licences, is unimportant. Yet, by the end, Man Kee is showing disturbing signs of integration, much to her alarm and disapproval. For their part, the Triads similarly operate independently of the police or the law in general.

Two Caravans

Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka focuses on Ukrainian migrants, as we follow the romantic ups and downs of Irina and Andriy, the two immigrants who form the basis of the novel, before they find their happy ending. But the cast also includes characters from Poland, China, Malawi and Zambia. The novel starts in the strawberry farms of Kent, takes us through work in a battery chicken farm and the adjacent meat-packing plant, to a restaurant in London, and to the ‘care home’ in East Anglia, as the lovers make their way north to Sheffield. The scenes from the poultry farm are enough to put anyone off eating chicken ever again. The book is simultaneously hilarious and deeply shocking as it explores the deprivation and exploitation of these largely vulnerable people – the invisible underbelly of UK society. Angela, the Zambian nurse, compares notes with Andriy: ‘... my adaptation job pays only the minimum wage … then they make deductions. Tax. Food. Accommodation. Uniform. Training fee. Agency fee. At the end of the week, I have nothing left.’ And the Ukrainians also have their own mafia to cope with. The extravagant humour only serves to highlight the deprivation and hopelessness of these workers’ lives.

The Road Home

The last novel I will review here is The Road Home by Rose Tremain. It, too, deals with recent East European migration to the UK. Lev, over 40 and desperate following the loss of his young wife and the closure of the saw-mill where he worked, decides to migrate to Britain to be able to send money back for his mother and young daughter. He gets off the long-distance bus at Victoria with nowhere to stay, no job and no idea how to proceed. After an unpleasant incident with a policeman, he spends the first night in the open, in front of a basement flat. He finds work distributing leaflets for a kebab shop but realises he cannot survive on this. He does, however, seem always to find help when he needs it. He turns to Lydia, his fellow passenger on the bus. She helps him find accommodation with Christy, an Irish plumber separated from his wife and daughter. And he finds work as a dishwasher in a fashionable restaurant. Life settles down somewhat. He is promoted from dishwashing and starts to learn something about cooking. He has a passionate affair with Sophie, his coworker. She introduces him to a care home for old people which she sometimes visits – they even go there to cook the Christmas dinner, a masterpiece of tragic-comic description. The affair goes wrong, he loses his job and, in the aftermath, he is arrested for drunken behaviour. He moves to work on a farm in Norfolk, harvesting asparagus, working alongside Chinese illegals. He learns of the plans to build a dam which will engulf his home village and desperately devises a plan to make enough money to open his own restaurant back home. He returns to London and finds a job as a waiter, then a cook, in a Greek restaurant, making good money. After being mugged and beaten by two 12 year olds near Highgate cemetery, he finds a daytime job  as chef at the care home. Eventually, he makes it back home, opens his restaurant and can look forward to better times. But the novel is a harrowing account of the sheer uncertainty of the migrant situation, of having no one to turn to, of having to face each day not knowing how it will end. And of the courage it takes to confront a life dictated by these terms.

The novel succeeds in presenting Lev as a more rounded, three-dimensional figure, with more density and credibility than the characters in some of the other books. The insights it gives into the dehumanising types of work available to migrants, their powerlessness in the face of authority, and the precarious nature of their daily existence are similar to those depicted in the other novels but somehow more credible because Lev himself is a more credible character.

The themes that emerge from all four novels are none the less poignant for being familiar. They all touch in greater or lesser detail on finding work and enough money to live on, somewhere to sleep, something to eat and someone to love. And, of course, on making sense of the indifference or hostility of the alien culture in which they live, including its infuriating language.

Why should we, as teachers of EFL or ESL, be concerned? Well, although, of course, we can’t really compare our situation with those of impoverished migrant workers, many of us have gone abroad to teach, and encountered some of the same issues faced by the migrants in mthese books. We, too, are migrants, albeit more privileged than most. We will also commonly find migrants in our classes, and it may be worth reflecting on the very real existential problems they face on a daily basis. When we migrate, we have to negotiate a whole new deal, not just with the language. However, the language is a major complication, and I shall turn to this next time, when I deal with books which focus on the language issue.

Further reading

Lewycka, M Two Caravans Penguin 2007
Mo, T Sour Sweet Vintage Books 1982
Selvon, S The Lonely Londoners Longman Caribbean Writers Series 1956
Tremain, R The Road Home Vintage Books 2008

Alan Maley has worked in the area of ELT for over 40 years in Yugoslavia, Ghana, Italy, France, China, India, the UK, Singapore and Thailand. Since 2003 he has been a freelance writer and consultant. He has published over 30 books and numerous articles, and was, until recently, Series Editor of the Oxford Resource Books for Teachers.

This article first appeared in issue 67 of English Teaching professional, March 2010.