The Syrian refugee crisis has captured the minds and consciences of people all around the world since the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, dead and lying face down on a Turkish beach, spread around the globe in 2015. Seeing this specific, lifeless boy made the reality of the millions of displaced and deceased Syrians immediate and inescapable for those of us living a safe distance away.
The fact is that the sheer enormity of wars can make them feel remote or unrelated to the lives of those at a distance. This is a great concern for Lyse Champagne, whose new story collection brings together a series of individual perspectives on geopolitical and civil conflicts that have wracked the 20th century, even while their largely anonymous victims have been forgotten. Champagne dedicates her book to “all those whose stories have never been told.”
Each piece is well researched and culturally detailed, making the book feel more like an artifact than a work of fiction – a record of lives lost to war, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. Champagne puts faces to the Armenian genocide, the state-imposed artificial famine in Ukraine, the Nanjing Massacre in China, the Holocaust, the evacuation of Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and the Rwandan genocide. Reading the collection is a visceral experience that provokes many tears.
In “Maps of Europe,” two sisters write to each other in the year leading up to the deportation of Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. The letters reveal their precariousness in the face of dire uncertainty and their deep longing for a home that no longer exists. The communication ends abruptly, an effect that renders the reader shaken and reluctant to pick up the book again for several days. But even though the stories in Champagne’s collection are heartbreaking, their resolute focus on humanity in thrall to the tides of history keeps a reader returning, however tenderly.
“On the Bank of the Akanyaru River” features a Tutsi family preparing to emigrate to Canada as Rwanda teeters on the brink of civil war. When Domitille’s father asks her what she will miss most about their country, she responds that a “country is just an idea. …The sky, the sun, the trees, the rivers, the animals are blind to the borders that separate us from other countries like Burundi, the Congo, Uganda.” This and other stories in the collection argue that countries, nationalities, ethnicities, and borders are human creations that continue to cause turmoil and promote discrimination. It doesn’t matter if Domitille’s family consider themselves proud Rwandans and Africans, in death they are reduced solely to their identities as Tutsis.
Looking such material in the face isn’t easy, even for Champagne, who doesn’t seem to have a personal connection to her border-crossing stories. In “One Step at a Time is Good Walking,” a character who has been carving out a life based on falsehoods in Canada tries to go back to Nanjing, the city of his birth, to write his story for his granddaughter. His return is a provocative experience that ends with the realization that there aren’t always answers to our questions about the past.
The Light That Remains is a haunting read. Champagne writes that history is “like walking into a swamp, never knowing if you will be able to walk out again.” If history keeps repeating itself, these stories imply, we may never find a way out.