"City of Refugees" by Susan Hartman; Beacon Press (241 pages, $27.95)
A number of writers have recently taken on a complex topic crucial to the current, sometimes violent national "conversation" about immigration: exploring communities of recent immigrants who are revitalizing the Rust Belt cities of the American heartland.
Cynthia Anderson's moving 2019 narrative, "Home Now: How 6,000 Refugees Transformed an American Town," took readers into the sweet heart of the industrious Somali community of Lewiston, Maine. A.K. Sandoval-Strausz's 2019 "Barrio America: How Latino Immigrants Saved the American City" adds academic perspective to understanding the immigrant-driven revival of Chicago's Little Village and Dallas' Oak Cliff.
And Jason deParle's masterful "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves" offers a global view of the homeward flow of refugees' earnings, sustaining the millions who stay behind. DeParle manages this by following an expanding Filipino family he first met while in the Peace Corps three decades ago.
In "City of Refugees: The Story of Three Newcomers Who Breathed Life Into a Dying American Town," Susan Hartman, who's taught writing at Columbia and Yale, takes on this tempting and relevant topic.
Hartman spent years reporting on the unfolding lives of three main characters who've settled in Utica, New York: Sadia, a rebellious and vivacious Somali Bantu teen, whose mother leans on her for Americanizing far too fast; Mersiha, a Bosnian who opens a tasty bakery and catering hall — and then runs into the COVID-19 lockdown; and Ali, an Iraqi with traumatic war experiences, who nevertheless returns as a translator for American troops so his salary can provide a nest egg for his family in Utica.
Hartman offers us 48 episodic chapters portraying incidents in their daily lives. This inventory of events documents, realistically, the many minuscule obstacles — mostly stemming from bigotry, poverty and cultural unfamiliarity — frustrating success, even as advancement does happen.
The chapters also include similar information about the characters' friends, relatives and neighbors. We tune in on a class on how to go to the doctor ("Turn your head! Cough! Cover your right eye.") And we see "The Sudanese mother picking out eye makeup with her daughter at the Rite-Aid on Genesee."
We're in on menus, addresses of apartments, which desserts (baklava, hurmasica, jabukovaca) are served at an Eid banquet. The vignette-filled short chapters may have seemed a solution to the narrative puzzle of humanizing a city of immigrants through their actions. But, though we soon affirm what we might assume all along — that they are regular people living their lives stalwartly, day by day — a reader may wish for more guidance than is on offer.
The book moves from small event to small event. At a supper, a character "helped himself to some salad and orzo with olives and almonds, and began eating." Makes readers hungry, but might leave some unsatisfied. There's an impressive vastness to the reporting, but it is not tamed in the service of systematic insight.
The daily facts flow past us like rubble from the flood of cultures. The net realization is that energetic young people from several religions and backgrounds devote themselves to a process that amounts to homogenization, as our commercial vigor and consumerism convert these diverse and admirable souls into more of us — in the same deep trouble.
"I feel like I'm brand new" says Sadia, late in the book, as she takes citizenship lessons.
"City of Refugees" takes an honorable place among the literature of urban revitalization, offering us few answers — perhaps there are few, in the current atmosphere of unresolvable peril — but much to consider.
Mark Kramer has been writer-in-residence at Smith College, Boston University and the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism at Harvard. He has helped found ongoing narrative journalism conferences in Boston, London, Amsterdam and Bergen, Norway.
This article was originally published by Star Tribune