“We are all from somewhere else. We come from primeval slime.” Ruth Padel finds patterns in the migration histories of people and animals, and connects these inherent biological behaviors to the current political climate of immigration reform. Through her poems and non-fiction, Padel—the great great-granddaughter of Charles Darwin—studies life in diverse forms, from the single cell organism to development of civilizations. She talks to Michelle Chen about her book, On Migrations, a mix of poems and prose, that tackles science, religion, nature, and history.
Michelle Chen: I’ll start with a quote from your interview with The National: “The theme of immigration is becoming more and more political, so everyone is thinking about it in new ways. And when they do, they realize that everyone’s identity is bound up with and founded on migration in some way.” In what ways has your own thinking about migration changed in recent years—has it become more political or less? Is the idea of your poetry to foreground some of the more cultural, less political aspects of the migration experience, or to center certain poetic themes about migration in a contemporary political context?
Ruth Padel: On Migration took seven years to research and write. I began in 2005, as a natural progression from a book about reading a poem as a journey—The Poem and the Journey—and another recording my physical journey trying to understand wild tiger conservation in my travel-memoir Tigers in Red Weather. I wanted to link animal and human migrations: I knew I didn’t know the half of it and then found the photos of migrations by Sebastiao Salgado. It’s an amazing book that came out in 2000 and took him seven years to document mass migrations in over 35 countries of people displaced by war, disaster, environmental degradation, and the widening gap between rich and poor.
The number of migrations—a hundred million then—had doubled from 1990 to 2000 and doubled again since then. His work is iconic, and as I worked, everywhere, in Europe and U.S., the phenomenon of migration became increasingly politicized (and heartrending).
I just kept thinking about the people. The “charge” for writing came out of that. But I put the animals first, especially the birds (I spent three years just researching birds). So the animals did the work of showing what a dangerous and desperate survival mechanism migration is. I didn’t have to labour that point with human beings. Because, as Keats says, no one likes a poem that “has designs on you,” that wants to make you see things its way.
The first journey I made was to the Masai Mara in Kenya to find out about the migration of the wildebeest. That became my controlling metaphor for the desperation behind mass human migration.
I wanted to invite people to sympathize—to understand the desperation, and intuit for themselves that mass migration, and the suffering it can cause, is common to all life forms. We are all from somewhere else. We all came from primeval slime, to begin with. No one knows how the first living cell got here, from outer space on a meteorite, or from under the sea. But the first thing it did when it got to Earth was to spread. And that’s the basic pattern of migration. Spreading. Living somewhere else than where you started. And we are all in it together.
Your work recognizes that migration can be full of wonder and fulfillment or it can be violent, rife with poverty and inequality. What do you see as common themes that link all these different emotions and experiences into this concept of human movement? Is it too facile to try to make people aestheticize migration through art and literature? How do you approach an imaginative, creative depiction of these issues, which are so intertwined with weighty social realities?
I’m not sure the poet’s job is to make people see things or get them to see beauty in things. Rather, first, [the job is to] to make a beautiful thing (i.e. a poem). That’s the primary task. And the second job is to suggest, invite, or disclose new ways of seeing.
The 90 poems in On Migration are first of all poems. But they also come out of a sense of wonder (at cell migration and bird migration), sympathy, and awe at the biological and physical effort and endurance—e.g. at the fact that bar-headed geese are adapted biologically to migrating over Everest because they were migrating on that route before the Himalayas rose—and then, in the human poems, transferring that sympathy and wonder to human migration. All through human history to today’s desperate mass migrations.
Poems can be made out of anything—anything, that is, that matters to the poet. And all the terrible violations of the environment, and the displacements of people by multinationals, governments, and wars, happening all over the globe, certainly matter to me, both as a conservationist and in terms of human rights. I once read a book of wine-making that said you can make wine out of anything, old shoe leather or used tea leaves.
And, as Yeats said, there’s the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
You write that throughout history, migration has been about individual growth and development, that “home and migration belong together”; both involve one’s self-realization over the course of a lifetime. At the same time, on a societal level, you describe “push and pull factors” of immigration, which are intertwined with current events, be it war, or economic disparities, or persecution. It’s an intriguing idea to link all those different windows on migration, from the intensely personal experiences, to the more systemic, historical movement and displacement of peoples. But this definition of migratory change seems so diffuse. Should we just think of any story as a migration story?
I try and define migration at the beginning of the book. There are lots of different kinds. For example, “Go and Stay” migrants, such as colonizers—19th-century immigrants to the U.S. who became Americans. Or “Go and Come Back” migrants, like American warblers, which migrate between Alaska and Mexico, or itinerant workers who go to a more developed country and make money for their family which they bring back every summer. In a sense, all commuters are “Go and Come Back” migrants: their migration is daily rather than seasonal.
A concept of “home” is intrinsic to any definition of migration. They are two sides of the same coin. I’m not sure I say that throughout history migration is about individual growth and development! Migration has happened throughout history: life on earth begins with migration, and human civilization begins with it, too. Once you start thinking in terms of migration you can see it everywhere, but it’s important to remember when it starts to be a metaphor. As in the journey of life, crossing the borderlands, transitioning to different stages; for example, a teenager migrating away from home. That’s very different from the risk and dangers of the real thing.
The “Push” factor of migration throughout history (and in the natural world) is violent (my favorite (and terrifying) image of persecution that causes desperate flight is “The Colossus”, when a place becomes too uncomfortable or dangerous to hold you, either in winter because it ices over, or in a war (or economic degradation), or because it no longer supports your life.
The “Pull” factor throughout history is the “somewhere over the rainbow “dream of a better life: a place where you can make a better living for your and your family, make more money, get food. That’s what drew all those millions of immigrants through Ellis Island in the 19th century and early 20th century.
“Push and Pull” operate together all the time. But people already occupying the desired land often resent newcomers (birds in established feeding territories do this, too), and interpret the incomers as being “pulled” by the dream of a better life, when in fact they may be being “pushed” out by intolerable conditions, like famine or war.
Your own encounters with migration have been through your experience as a writer and scholar—you’ve traveled far and wide—as well as through your observations of economic migrants who are brought as guest workers from poor countries like India and Nepal to Britain, the Gulf States, or wealthy regions in Asia. Did seeing those two extremes of the migration experience make you think differently about the political or cultural dimensions of moving from one place to another?
They deepened them.
From this side of the Atlantic, it seems that British society is wrestling with many of the same tensions that we see in the U.S.; economic anxieties fueling anti-immigrant sentiment, tightening restrictions on immigration, deportation separating families, and asylum seekers living in limbo, etc. Do you see a solution coming out of this?
We are wrestling with that, yes. It has become a crucial element in British politics. Unlike the U.S., the U.K. is a very small island. I have a lot of environmental concerns about reckless entrepreneurial building of homes at the expense of the tiny amount of wild nature we have left. So reluctantly, I suppose, there has to be a policy of controlling immigration. But what I care about is the way it is implemented. The callousness, cruelty, and injustice around asylum-seekers, detention centers, etc. at present is quite appalling .The human rights violations are disgraceful.
Two other themes you’ve broached recently in your writing are spirituality and science; namely, these twin concepts of religion and Darwin. And your book actually deals a lot with themes of nature and the lives of migratory animals. I wonder where you see the human ecology of migration fitting into that? Is migration a spiritual journey, of sorts? Or part of a process of social evolution? Do you see this as a social crisis? Or just an extension perhaps of some of those very natural, evolutionary processes that you describe in On Migration?
Good science, considered religion, and good poems have a lot in common: they all work with reality, they don’t brush away unpleasant truths, they respect the rules of what is there. I see migration as part of the fabric of all life. Cells in our bodies like animals and birds, migrate. I wrote about this in The Scientist for three reasons, survival, protection and reproduction. So do people.
I’m not sure migration is a spiritual journey, rather the other way round perhaps: that a spiritual journey can be seen (metaphorically) as migration?
In the poem, “The Choice,” you talk about “The Choice to go, to stay. But how does a robin decide? How does anyone?” Yet elsewhere in the book, you say, “Migration is a lottery.” Can you describe what you mean by both those terms? They seem to reflect on migration as a struggle that is both inevitable and a reflection of personal will. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle. Does “choice” mean anything to a migrant?
A European robin is a “partial migrant.” Some birds go, and some stay. The risk in going is dying on the way. The risk in staying is freezing or starving to death in the winter. The ones who go are programmed by their DNA to take more risks. They are usually also younger, stronger, fitter. I saw a robin in my garden one day and drew the huge comparison to an elderly neighbor who had been a Jewish teenager in Vienna in 1938. She told her parents they ought to leave, to get out of Austria. They stayed, she went. She was the only one of her family to survive.
She took a risk and it paid off, they took a risk and it didn’t. It might have been the other way around: they might have survived in hiding, she might have foundered in leaving. At one level, personality, or being in the right state of body and mind to be able to choose to migrate at the right time, is a lottery. You make the choice and take the chance. Surviving migration is both a choice, and a lottery.
Your poetry is framed around this idea that we’re all from somewhere else. You also talk about the process of storytelling and how our stories of where we came from and where we’re going often involve imagination, even myth-making of sorts. People seem to be headed toward places that perhaps exist only in their minds, and others claim some idealized heritage that, well, never really was. How do our fantasies shape how we experience migration?
Fantasy shapes our experience. It is part of it, like the enharmonic notes that make up the apparently single note we hear on a violin. Two people will go for a walk and have what looks like the same experience but it will play completely differently in their psyches.
How do you hope to change how people think about migration and migrants, of all kinds?
In Robert Frost’s terms, I hope poems can be “a fresh look and a fresh listen.” But as I said, I think all a poem can do, or should hope to do, is invite a reader to see a bit of the world, or of their own lives, newly.
And on a literary level, you bring in this other contrast in your writing—the shift of the author’s voice between poetry and prose.
I went back to the mediaeval genre of the “prosimetrum,” alternating between poetry and prose, because there was so much information, and explicit connection-making, to do, and I didn’t feel it was poetry’s job to do that. I thought it would be fun to create a double skein, a dolphin-like progression up above the waves then below them, to explore this enormous subject which touches us all.