May 3rd, 2020
There’s an old Irish proverb that goes like this:
It is in the shelter of each other that people live.
It feels like it could have originated anywhere. It sounds like a lovely song lyric. And it certainly seems more relevant now than at almost any time in the past 75 years.
During this period of social distancing and lockdown that is the direct result of a single aggressive and agile virus, I’m not just concerned about our ability to find peace, comfort and a calming place to sustain us, either physical or mental—which has led to my recent series about inspiring, beautiful and therapeutic books—but I’ve also found myself thinking a lot about the connections between us that we depend on for our very lives.
Sometimes, it’s beautiful, spiritual works like Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse that we need to remind us that we are nothing until we love and trust and care for each other and ourselves. But sometimes, love and kindness mean opening our eyes to the pain and suffering of others and to acknowledging these so that we do not become and continue to be complicit in their persistence.
At least, this is how I’ve felt of late, hidden away from the dangers of the world in my nest, this lovely house I share, in a beautiful town; almost as safe as I could possibly be in the present circumstances. I know that it’s actually my civic duty to stay safe: that in remaining sequestered and uninfected, I am, in the most individually effective way, contributing to ending the spread of the virus that’s making so many of us, everywhere, sick. But as the days pass and people become at once more fearful of the virus, of each other, and more restless, my thoughts have turned to the hundreds, thousands and even millions among us—as we reach beyond Montreal and the borders of Quebec and Canada—who are unprotected.
Maybe that’s what drew me to several books that I’ve burned through recently. But not before I had first found KING, which seemed to anticipate what lay ahead. My life, for the past couple of years, has required me to go into downtown Montreal about four times a month, and sometimes more, and the simplest way has always been to hop on the Montreal-Vaudreuil train, and then the metro. In so doing, I’ve grown to know the area around Lucien-Lallier and Bonaventure stations well—despite all of the changes there since my student days—and also many of the metro stations on my way to Champ-de-Mars.
It’s hard to walk through Lucien-Lallier station without noticing how it has become a gathering place for many of the city’s itinerant citizens, specifically those who are homeless and live the greater part of their days on the city’s streets and in its sheltering areas. At Lucien-Lallier, commuters and the homeless share space every day. They sit side-by-side in the waiting area that looks onto the train tracks; they commingle in the table-filled spot behind the small café. Inside the tunnels and open areas of both L-L and Bonaventure metro stations, commuters cross paths daily with the men (very few homeless women frequent this area) who like to use the underground malls and especially the walkways of Lucien-Lallier to stay warm when temperatures drop, and the open zones at Bonaventure station to sleep on the hard stone or concrete benches that are everywhere.
I wrote all this in the present tense but really, I should be writing that “they shared space”, that they “sat side-by-side” and that “they commingled”, because these men are nowhere to be seen since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Two weeks ago, I was literally alone in L-L train station and forced to stand staring at emptiness ‘til the 12:30 train arrived. It was made clear from the beginning of the lockdown that the homeless were among the most at risk of becoming infected because of the conditions in which they live but…where are they now? With all of the sitting, snacking and resting areas closed off with plastic yellow tape, what has happened to them? Where are they finding shelter?
If these questions niggled me, then what must it be like for these men’s (and women’s) loved ones? I found my answer, in part, in Anna et l’enfant-vieillard, a haunting novel by Québécoise actress and author Francine Ruel. After a series of uplifting, playful novels, Anna et l’enfant-vieillard, published in 2019, is Ruel’s tragic and heartfelt story of the titular Anna—a divorced mother—and her son Arnaud’s slow at first, then precipitous fall (after a traumatic event) into the grips of drug addiction, self-destructiveness and eventually, homelessness. Moving back and forth between memories of her son Arnaud’s beautiful, carefree childhood and his life in the present, Anna lays bare what it is like to love a child who relentlessly sabotages all her efforts to keep him from harm’s way; who will make contact with her, come visit, and then without warning, disappear from her life for months on end. It is the story of Anna’s excruciating though resigned acceptance that she will forever be the mother of a child who is also an old man—his aging accelerated by drugs and the withering grimness of life on the streets.
When it was published, the public was shocked to learn that though it is written in the third person in novel form, it is also the story of Ruel and her son’s real lives, with just a few details changed. Francine Ruel had waited decades—her son is now in his mid-forties—before deciding to reveal her pain to the world. At the time it was launched, the author of course made the rounds “promoting” the book. Watching some of the videos of her appearances, it’s striking how serious she is. There is no joy in her as she responds to her interviewers. Her son eschews shelters in favour or life on the street and squatting. Her mother-heart knows no respite from worry. How anguished must she be right now.
The book hasn’t yet been translated into English, but if you dare test your French reading comprehension, Anna et l’enfant-vieillard is a poignant read with very short chapters, and well worth the effort.
Just as I was finishing Ruel’s book, I began Chris Cleave’s second novel, Little Bee. It took me such a long time to get to it, in spite of all of the glowing recommendations I had come across, but this has only to do with the fact that I had loved Cleave’s first novel, Incendiary, so much, that for years, I wasn’t ready to add a new layer of the author’s writing over it in my mind. But then came this time of sequestration and fear, and suddenly, Little Bee (2009) took on a whole new aspect.
Little Bee is the story of a teenage Nigerian girl who flees the murderous thugs sent to her small and happy village to clear it of its inhabitants by killing them all in order to free the land under which oil reserves have been found. Though originally accompanied by her beautiful older sister, Nkiruka, Little Bee, through a series of harrowing events which play a crucial part in the novel, eventually escapes Nigeria alone, hidden away on a cargo ship which is sailing to England. Upon her arrival on British soil, she is immediately arrested and taken to the Black Hill Detention Centre for undocumented immigrants, on the outskirts of London. There, she is held for two years, completely at the mercy of the people, the institutions and a system that affords her no legal, human rights whatsoever. By a twist of ingenuity, some file-doctoring and fate, Little Bee is erroneously released on a sunny summer day, with three other young women.
The novel is about Little Bee’s struggle to make her way in a country in which she is all but invisible, having no passport, no identification of any kind, no money, no family or friends; only a decent command of “the Queen’s English”, which she has taught herself during her two years of incarceration, and the name and address of a man and his wife she has every hope will take her in and help her.
June 24th, 2020
Almost two months have passed since I first began writing this post. Response to the pandemic has shifted slowly, and there is talk of opening up our cities and neighbourhoods by relaxing the stringent confinement protocols that have smothered so much of daily human life.
We have witnessed the terrible news of all those who have fallen to the disease. In Montreal, it turns out that the vast majority of the sick and the deceased were found among the city’s unprotected populations which, in addition to the homeless, also include the elderly living in understaffed and mismanaged seniors residences and long term care facilities, and, heartbreakingly, the people attempting to care for them—caregivers who, in large proportion, can be counted twice among the unprotected, as they are not only placed in jeopardy in their place of work, but are also, in great numbers, living in the poorer areas of the city because they’re in large proportion immigrants to Quebec—many are refugees—underpaid and living in crowded conditions that put them at risk not only of becoming infected with Covid-19 but of passing the disease on to their kin and neighbours.
Since reading Little Bee and then witnessing the ravenous, swirling, confusing, galvanizing, unmasking, aggressive, frightening, humbling and also, thankfully, uniting pandemic follow its course, I’ve decided to read more about the nameless unprotected people with whom we share our cities. Little Bee led me to want to know more about immigrant/refugee detention centres in the Western world—a great, institutional hole into which undocumented immigrants disappear. And, likely because I was already in a questioning frame of mind, I noticed a review in the New York Times of a book by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, published this year, with the simple title: The Undocumented Americans. Cornejo Villavicencio is the impossible miracle: she is the undocumented child of undocumented Ecuadorian refugees who entered the United States three decades ago and have been working, raising a family, suffering and soldiering on without benefit of health care, prescription drugs, employment insurance, or drivers’ licenses; people for whom being pulled aside on the street by a police officer could lead to immediate deportation without even the chance to pack a bag, or prolonged incarceration in a detention center run by I.C.E. (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), which contracts the running and management of these holding centres to private paramilitary organisations.
Sigh. But what makes her a miracle is that she is a Harvard graduate presently finishing a PhD at Yale (thanks to her brilliant mind and guardian angel sponsors), who has dedicated her life to telling the stories of the people like her. The Undocumented Americans is a brilliant, profoundly disturbing, deeply compassionate yet scathing account of the harrowing and vulnerable existence of individual men, woman and children who are doomed to remain under the radar in order to survive. What has been their fate these past four months?
Covid-19 has made us all aware of our vulnerability as people and as citizens. Some of us have lost our jobs; some of us have developed health problems unrelated to Covid-19 for which treatment has been postponed; some of us have lost loved ones, many of whom we couldn’t even visit as their lives were ending. And as we disappeared into our homes, hidden away from the world and from daily human contact, we’ve had a lot of time for reflection, and hopefully, have come to understand that social distancing was intended as a physical measure, not an emotional, dehumanizing act of abandoning each other. It has undoubtedly caused stress and micro-tears within families and friendship networks but hopefully, nothing worse.
“It is not about our world collapsing. Rather, it’s about another human being holding our hand in the collapse. For then the carnage is no longer about the loss, but about what both these hands are going to build from it.”- Craig D. Lounsbrough
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”- Pericles
If you have questions about Canada’s treatment of immigrations detainees, you can find some answers here: