Refugees: an unsettling allegory

November 17, 2013

In the same boat
Channa Wickremesekera
Bay Owl Press, 2010

It almost seems superfluous to review this book. At a mere 62 pages, it is barely a novella — a short story, perhaps. Why not just read the book, and skip the review?

Once you start, if it's going to appeal to you at all, the first few pages will draw you in and you will finish it in the same sitting.

The story is of a refugee boat, taking its human cargo offshore to seek refuge. The exact nation they are fleeing is not specified, nor is the exact nature of the situation they are seeking refuge from.

Wickremesekera's characters are thin, only given enough depth to carry the events of the story forwards. Yet the events are compelling — and if you have a shred of humanity in you, empathy will keep you turning the pages as the agonising story unfolds.

The comments on the jacket describe the story as allegorical, which it surely is. The refugee group stand in for our own fears and prejudices.

As a progressive Australian, my first reaction to the conflicts that unfold on the boat was to think: this is telling us that refugees aren't saints. They can be petty and vindictive and vicious, even if also genuinely in need of refuge.

But there are other readings. As the boat captain has to bribe first the navy of the country he is fleeing, then the rebel army's patrol boat, and the passengers begin fighting amongst themselves, bringing their differences with them, the title points to the real lesson.

For those who seek refuge overseas, perhaps working together for the common good, in the face of new and serious dangers, is more important than keeping alive past prejudices and grudges. Perhaps holding onto humanity is better than becoming mean and vicious to survive.

These lessons could be further transferred to those who stay behind, who do not board leaky boats to find refuge overseas. One could look for all sorts of meaning in the story, and probably find many other messages with enough searching.

The storytelling style is plain and unadorned. The characters are given just enough details to elicit our basic sympathy — a young girl has smuggled her kitten on board, against orders. What will happen to her?

What will happen to the fat man who has smuggled himself aboard, one of “them” who are in conflict with the ethnic group that make up the rest of the refugees on the boat?

The story is unsettling and thought provoking, but worth the read.

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