June 16, 2019

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Topical stories highlight plight of 20th-century refugees

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/9/2016 (1002 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are currently an estimated 60 million refugees in the world seeking a place to call home. But the refugee crisis, although larger than it has been in decades, is hardly a new phenomenon.

As Ottawa writer Lyse Champagne so eloquently reminds readers in her new book, The Light That Remains, as long as and wherever there has been war, civil unrest and totalitarianism, there have been innocent people who have been uprooted, displaced and forced to flee for their lives.

Champagne’s new book, written separately in English and in French, is a collection of six short stories about people who have already become or are about to become refugees. But though the stories and their characters are fictionalized, the events on which they are based are historically accurate. Spanning the 20th century, these events, horrifying and incomprehensible, inform and infiltrate every exchange of dialogue, every action and every memory.

In The Map of Europe, two sisters in Turkey, separated for the first time when one leaves town with her new husband, innocently exchange nostalgic letters on the eve of the Armenian genocide. In The View from the Bluff, a Ukrainian girl loses herself in intricate embroidery work as the Holodomor looms, and in Breathing, a Cambodian refugee, living safely in Canada for years, conjures up painful memories of his past during a theatrical performance.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/9/2016 (1002 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There are currently an estimated 60 million refugees in the world seeking a place to call home. But the refugee crisis, although larger than it has been in decades, is hardly a new phenomenon.

As Ottawa writer Lyse Champagne so eloquently reminds readers in her new book, The Light That Remains, as long as and wherever there has been war, civil unrest and totalitarianism, there have been innocent people who have been uprooted, displaced and forced to flee for their lives.

Champagne’s new book, written separately in English and in French, is a collection of six short stories about people who have already become or are about to become refugees. But though the stories and their characters are fictionalized, the events on which they are based are historically accurate. Spanning the 20th century, these events, horrifying and incomprehensible, inform and infiltrate every exchange of dialogue, every action and every memory.

In The Map of Europe, two sisters in Turkey, separated for the first time when one leaves town with her new husband, innocently exchange nostalgic letters on the eve of the Armenian genocide. In The View from the Bluff, a Ukrainian girl loses herself in intricate embroidery work as the Holodomor looms, and in Breathing, a Cambodian refugee, living safely in Canada for years, conjures up painful memories of his past during a theatrical performance.

Other stories, equally harrowing in detail, concern the Nanjing massacre, the Vichy government’s 1942 deportation of French Jews during the Holocaust, and the Rwandan genocide.

This last story, At the Bank of the Akanyaru River, is perhaps the most haunting tale in this collection, even as it speaks to the same themes as all the other stories.

Among these shared themes of loss and longing, bewilderment, grief and guilt, is the idea of otherness, or rather, the realization — brought on by a declaration of war, a perceived slight, or a dictatorial whim — that in spite of years of living side by side, certain people can suddenly be deemed to be different, diseased and undeserving, something to be chased out, something to be eliminated.

"At home we had been taught to identify ourselves as Rwandans. As Africans, not as Tutsi," says Domitille, the young narrator of At the Bank of the Akanyaru River. "Papa was adamant about it."

But by that story’s end, after Domitille has fled with her family in the middle of the night, "so quiet we were like an army of ghosts advancing," she understands her father’s adamancy has not served them well. As she awaits her turn to cross the churning river, she already knows, "I may be Rwandan. I may be African, but I will die a Tutsi."

This story, like all the others, ends with a glossary of terms that respectfully pays homage to the fictional narrator’s language and culture. But for Champagne’s readers, there is more learning to be done.

Aware of the power of her narratives and the questions that will arise from each one, the author has created a companion website to correspond with her book. This website, lysechampagne.ca, features maps, photographs, film clips and background materials that succinctly contextualize and enhance each one of her fictional stories.

Sharon Chisvin is a Winnipeg writer involved in refugee sponsorship and resettlement.

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