Originally published by The NY Times
Even when the world seems to be at a halt, with many of us confined to our homes and essential workplaces, there are still people on the move. Global migration has slowed considerably owing to the coronavirus pandemic, but not completely. The lure of a better life is too seductive. The conditions left behind are too desperate. I have spent time with refugees in northern Uganda who were running for their lives but had gotten only as far as another part of the country; with refugees in Botswana who had fled the police state of Eritrea, propelled more by the prospect of liberty than out of fear of their safety; with Liberian refugees on Staten Island who had long since escaped a civil war and made New York their home. Their reasons for leaving were different in detail but all shared a relatable resolve: They were determined to survive at all costs.
In “Between Everything and Nothing,” the first work of nonfiction by the novelist Joe Meno, we follow the journeys of two Ghanaian men, Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, who flee their home country for the United States. Both the journey and the destination were nothing like the men imagined: dangerous, unwelcoming. The book begins with the last leg of their odyssey as the men trudge for several hours through a snowstorm in North Dakota, at a windchill of minus 27 degrees Fahrenheit, to seek asylum in Canada. Their asylum requests in the United States, where they had each spent months in purgatory-like detention, had been rejected. The border crossing is so torturous that both men wind up in a hospital, eventually losing most of their fingers to frostbite. But they had finally made it to a country that would be friendlier to their plights; unlike the United States, which often criminalizes the refugees and undocumented immigrants who make it across its borders, Canada provides social assistance to many asylum seekers.
Seidu and Razak grew up in the same neighborhood in Accra, without ever meeting, and then both ended up in South America, where they separately began their monthslong treks to the United States. Meno vividly shows how migrants seeking refuge are inhumanely treated in many countries — disappeared into jails and detention centers, forced to pay bribes to law enforcement, left without recourse if they are robbed, and threatened with death. But, disappointingly for a novelist, his writing is often clunky or jarring. In one passage, he writes: “The United States is a poem, a song, an apparition. Its power resides in the fact that it’s largely imaginary. On paper it extends in a swath across the plains and mountains of North America, with its irregularly shaped states, its circles denoting major cities, its primary colors bisecting political districts by population, age, ethnicity, class. But its hills, its rivers, its valleys, all of them are essentially nameless, have gone for millennia without markers, without distinction.”
Of the offerings at an American detention center, Meno writes, “The food at Adelanto was caustic.” And of Seidu’s time there, “It was as if you had been pulled violently out of life and set down in the middle of some kind of nonexistent place, built by rule after rule.” The imprecise descriptions often dilute the men’s otherwise absorbing recollections of their journeys while black and undocumented.
Meno strives to make convincing cases for why Seidu and Razak had no choice but to leave Ghana — his account of Razak’s dissatisfaction with his country’s politics from an early age can seem especially strained — yet their reasons for leaving are not the only point. Seidu’s identity as a queer man and Razak’s dispute with his half siblings over inherited land could well have made their situations intolerable. But what matters just as much is that the men were willing to abandon everything that was familiar to risk the unknown, that the promise of greater opportunity became just as urgent as what was pushing them to go.
It’s distracting, then, that Meno’s depictions of Ghana are marred by stereotypes and confusion: “The nation seemed to be a collision of postcolonial failed state and 20th-century democracy, an explosive clash of modern politics and age-old traditions, of Western ideals and enduring tribalism, a country of dangerous, oftentimes irreconcilable paradoxes.” Of Accra, he writes: “The city, the country itself, resists resolution. You will not find its center anywhere on a map, because it exists in past, present and future tense, always changing, always going backward and forward at the same time.”
Huh? By painting Ghana with clichés — “rife with irreconcilable tensions” — Meno ends up reducing the country to a stock villain. Its inequities and injustices, like its comforts and pleasures, are common through the world, including the United States and Canada; places are complex, inspiring some to leave and others to stay.
The two men tend to blur together as Meno toggles back and forth between their back stories and their experiences on the migrant trail; we don’t get a clear picture of their distinctive personalities, tics and desires. Their similar reactions of fear, anger and disbelief along the way feel repetitive.
Seidu’s and Razak’s paths intersect in Minneapolis, and they cross together into Canada, where they lie in hospital beds traumatized and ill, waiting to see if doctors will have to amputate their frostbitten fingers. Here, their ordeal is movingly and grippingly told. Both men must not only console the relatives they left behind, but also reckon with the sacrifices they have made to get to North America. Was it worth it? The answer depends on what happens next: the fate of their asylum requests, the results of their attempts to settle in a foreign land. Over the past several years, they had survived at all costs; now they would have to figure out how to live again.