Angolan immigrant’s tragic fate inspires Chinese-British novel

Huma Qureshi, left, Xiaolu Guo, centre and Arifa Akbar, right, at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Writer Huma Qureshi, left, Chinese-British novelist Xiaolu Guo, centre and Arifa Akbar, literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers, right, at 'The Migrant Voice' event held during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Angolan immigrant’s tragic fate inspires Chinese-British novel

27 May 2015

By Naomi Canton

The life of an Angolan immigrant who died on an aeroplane while being deported from Heathrow has inspired a Chinese-British novel.

Chinese-British novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo used the story of Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan immigrant who died shortly after the flight he was being deported on from Heathrow to Luanda took off, as inspiration for her latest book I am China.

Stateless was the title I used for my book I am China for four years,” Chinese-British novelist and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo said at the event, ‘The Migrant Voice,’ held during during the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.“I was inspired by an illegal immigrant to the UK who was killed on the aeroplane when he was being deported from Heathrow to Luanda in Angola,” she said.

Forty-six-year-old married dad-of-five Mubenga had fled Angola in 1994 and he had lived in the UK 16 years before he was told he was being deported.

“He was an Angolan asylum-seeker. I was going to make a film about him called Stateless. He did not belong to any government and was sent back to Angola with two security guards. He then died on the plane in 2010 and it was a big scandal. I could not get funding for the film so I decided to write a novel,” she said.

Guo spent five years writing the novel, which is about a Scottish-born translator Iona Kirkpatrick, who lives in London and is translating love letters between a Chinese couple. The Chinese man is a rock musician who has been exiled from China to the UK and is caught up in Europe’s asylum system.

“My story is about a stateless person from China who could not return – and the story is inspired by that Angolan man. It became a painful book for me write. This character who was exiled from China even wrote to the Queen hoping she would save him but he ends up in a psychiatric hospital,” she added.

In 2013 Guo was named as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and her third novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction and has been translated into 26 languages. I am China (2014), which is her most recent novel, was longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

She was in conversation with Arifa Akbar, literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers.

Guo, who moved to the UK from China in 2002, said she saw herself as an artist and not as coming from any particular nationality. “As humans we are much more than our passports. The state never realises a citizen’s dreams as it has its own ambitions. I lived in China for 30 years but I write in English. Censorship is one reason as if I write in Chinese I won’t be published. Writing in English is liberating as there is no censorship,” she added.

When asked by Akbar whether she ever felt stateless, she said: “If I said I felt stateless or lonely, people would think I am mentally ill. ID cards are just artificial inventions by the state. We are all immigrants – we all walked everywhere in the first place anyway.”

But she said she was more worried about environmental destruction of the planet than the barriers set up by borders. “Aristotle said man is by nature a political animal and that is the craziness of being a human being,” she said.

She added reading books was one way people could understand Asian cultures better. “In China we learn Shakespeare at school but no one in England knows Chinese authors. You never see anything about Chinese literature or culture reported on – all you see in the UK media is about China’s economic growth. But I try to educate people through my books. It’s only through translation that people get to know about Asian culture. People who work at Asia House and people who work in translation should be paid more than bankers as it’s only because of Asia House and translators that we know as much as we do about Asia.”

“The migrant seems very much to be stalking the European consciousness nowadays,” Akbar said.

“The drama of migration is there all the time if we think about the former Sangatte refugee camp in France or the recent migrant boats we’ve seen in South East Asia and the Mediterranean,” she added.

At the same event freelance journalist Huma Qureshi spoke about how she interviewed 10 immigrants from South Asia for her first book, In Spite of Oceans: Migrant Voices (October 2014).

“Introspection is why I wrote it,” Qureshi said.  “As I grew older I had lost a lot of family members such as my father. I kept thinking I did not know about him and his life. When I was expecting my first child that was a deep moment when I had to think of my own back story for my child who is of mixed heritage,” she added.

“It was interesting to find out, for example, how the culture of your parents can still have a hold on you, even if you are a million miles away and something still pulls you back and you think twice about certain things perhaps because of where you come from,” Qureshi who was born and raised in the West Midlands by parents from Pakistan, said.

The collection of stories is based on real events and interviews. Each story is about a different immigrant and they talk about their emotional, spiritual and physical journeys to England and their lives.

“I chose the characters based on their stories not their heritage. I was simply looking for moving stories. People love talking about their lives once you build that trust with them. Some of them opened up about very difficult moments of their lives to me,” she added.

She said in order to mask the identities of her interviewees she dramatised the stories.

“I would describe it as creative non-fiction,” she said. “They are not biographies. I was crafting stories that grabbed the readers’ attention so I had to speed things up and add things; I thought that was more interesting than writing journalistic profiles of people.

“I had more stories but I had to be selective so I focused more on women as they tend to be more marginalised,” she said.

The book won the John C Laurence Award from The Authors’ Foundation for helping to improve understanding between cultures.

Qureshi said she was now ready to write about something else, apart from immigration. “I am not coming to this from a political standpoint,” she explained, adding she never suffered racism in the UK. “I had a very middle-class upbringing and went to an all-girls school so I never felt like an outsider. I have never felt that way as I have never thought of anywhere else as my home. But my mother wears a headscarf and she often gets spoken to differently to me, which makes me wonder. I guess I see it more about religion than race.”

Photographer and cultural anthropologist Jo Farrel will talk about the practice of bound feet in China at Asia House on 15 June. Her work documents and celebrates the lives of the last remaining women in China with bound feet. A tradition that started in the Song Dynasty to help women find suitable partners, it was originally banned in 1911. It continued in rural areas until around 1949, with the start of the Cultural Revolution, whereupon women with bound feet had the bindings forcibly removed by government decree. For more information click here. 

To read our exclusive stories on the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2015 click here.