From There to Here

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From There to Here: The 2nd Decibel Penguin Prize Anthology: 16 True Tales of Immigration to Britain, book reviewDecibel was an initiative set up by the Arts Council of England to promote the work and raise the profile of artists of African, Asian, Chinese and Caribbean descent who live in England. In cooperation with the publishers Penguin, a writing prize was set up in 2005 called (not surprisingly) the Decibel Penguin Prize. As well as offering an annual prize for the best novel by a qualifying writer, they organised non-fiction writing competitions, requesting personal accounts of the immigrant experience and gathering the best of them into anthologies.

I’m sure some people will find it ironic (or perhaps amusing depending on their point of view) that the prize fell foul of the Commission for Racial Equality in 2007. The CRE ruled that by restricting the geographic origins of the writers, the prize was – for want of a better adjective – racist. The prize was widened to include ALL writers who are immigrants to Britain and this book – From There to Here – is the second anthology created by Decibel and Penguin and the first that post-dates the change in the rules. Sadly I can find no evidence that the prize still exists or that it continued beyond 2008 so it was really rather random that I found this book languishing in a box at a boot fair. I’m fascinated by the immigrant experience so this book was the perfect buy for me and if I came across Decibel Penguin anthologies, I would certainly buy them.

From There to Here is a collection of the sixteen tales which were chosen by a panel of judges in 2007. The panel included Libery’s Shami Chakrabarti (a campaigner I respect enormously) and Kate Mosse, stalwart of many a literary prize committee and writer of some incredibly tedious books (in my opinion!) I can conclude that they knew what they were doing because the sixteen stories are each beautiful, fascinating, well written and very personal accounts of what it’s like to leave your homeland – usually unwillingly, occasionally freely – and seek a new life a long way from home.

They sixteen authors recount tales of brutality in their homelands and prejudice in their adopted homes, the kindness and generosity of strangers, the loneliness of starting over, the challenge of adjusting to the cold, horrifying and unfamiliar food, getting used to entirely different ways of living, and the search for accommodation when leaving everything behind and starting over. One Indian writer tells of her mother sending her away with hideous warm clothes that made her look like an Indian lumberjack, another of the fight over the furs when a group of Bosnian women refugees are taken into a church hall full of donated clothes in the Lake District. One woman who was beaten and raped in her homeland tells of her total faith that anyone white must be a good person and couldn’t possibly hurt her. She was taken to an asylum detention centre and didn’t even realise that was what the place was supposed to be simply because everyone was so nice to her. Most are first hand accounts whilst a few are written by the children of immigrants who tell of their parents’ journeys and how their roles have developed in their new homes and how their lives have been changed by what their families have been through.

“…every immigrant has a story and many are more shocking and painful than we who’ve lived here all our lives…”

Since all the writers are living, From There to Here serves as a fascinating record of how Britain has changed as well as reminding us of many of the major conflicts and dictatorships and the waves of economic migration of the second half of the 20th century and the early years of the new Millennium. There are so many reasons and events behind the immigration stories and the book reminds us to take nothing for granted and to remember that every immigrant has a story and many are more shocking and painful than we who’ve lived here all our lives can possibly imagine. The book covers everything from immigration due to the Second World War, through the post-war recruitment of Caribbean workers to support the London Underground and hospitals, Idi Amin’s expulsion of the Ugandan Asian, the exodus from communism in Eastern Europe, the end of communism and the war in what used to be Yugoslavia. The chosen writers or their parents come from all round the world, including Uganda, the Czech Republic, Germany, Kenya, South Africa, Poland, Bosnia – Herzegovina, Cyprus, Croatia, India, Iran and Antigua. Some have been here a short time, others for most of their lives. Some have done everything they can to assimilate and are sick of the questions “But where are you REALLY from?” and “Is that a slight accent that I can hear?” whilst others cling to the remnants of their original culture.

Despite the highly personal and often painful stories in this book, I really enjoyed the opportunity to dip in and out of other people’s lives. I found it a valuable window onto the experience of others who’ve (mostly) come to love our country and the sanctuary that they find here. Not all wanted to be here – most would prefer for the events back home that drove them to Britain to never have happened. They have had to adjust to our land and we’ve had to adjust and come to value their place in it.

For those of us born, bred and brought up in the UK, it’s all too easy to be critical of our homeland and to fail to see what a great place we really do live in. I know that many are intolerant of asylum seekers and economic migrants (you only have to open the Daily Mail to see that every day) but From There to Here serves as a valuable reminder that every immigrant has a story, many of them shocking beyond our imagination, and that perhaps we as a society really out to take more pride in being part of the country that so many people would love to share with us and a bit more proud of the sanctuary and support we’ve given over many years to those who have no option to go ‘back where they came from’.

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From There to Here: The 2nd Decibel Penguin Prize Anthology: 16 True Tales of Immigration to Britain
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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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