the series of events in a book, film or play
story from ancient times, especially one that was told to explain natural events or to describe the early history of a people
Firuzeh’s family flees the threats of Afghanistan, traveling to Australia by way of Pakistan, Indonesia and Nauru in On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. Hope quickly turns to despair as the young woman observes the refugees around her resort to lies and bullying, prostitution and suicide. Firuzeh does not know how to respond when pressed about why the family left, and a doomed friend retorts, “We need reasons like we need water or air…. I’ll find you your reason.”
Experienced refugees warn that Australia is cruel, lonely, hard. After a lengthy process of confirming citizenship, the government offers families $2000 and plane tickets to return to Kabul. Only refugees who persist through the delays and indignities make it to Australia, and a prostitute reminds Firuzeh that those who still treat others with kindness, even after repeated pain and humiliation, are wealthy. Others, including the Australians who fear and resent the refugees, are poor.
Beauty and creativity can be found even in hardship. Early on, the family tells favorite stories to entertain and inspire one another. Only a few stories reach the status of myth. “There’s something about beginnings and endings,” explains Firuzeh’s imaginary friend. “That polishes them so smooth you nearly see your face in them. Then you open your hands and let them go, and the current pulls you onward and way. Behind you, those stones sink down to the mud, where no one will ever find them again.”
Individual tales of hardship go quickly forgotten for Australia's policies nad public opinion. Firuzeh’s family receives a TPV – a temporary protection visa – without understanding the consequences of a three-year stay. A few Australian teachers understand that such visas are “inherently destabilizing” for children absorbing a new language and culture. Others resist examining the deeper consequences:
‘I don’t think our government would do anything evil. Besides, isn’t Afghanistan safer these days? With the Americans there, and everything?’
Mr. Early said, ‘I haven’t heard much in the news lately.’
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’
The refugees endure long waits to enter Australia and start a new home life. E. Lily Yu details the meager rations and crowded conditions of refugee camps, with guards freely dispensing sleeping pills and other psychiatric medications to ease boredom and maintain order among detainees. “Sleeping is an easier way to wait,” notes one character. “All of us had something to wait for, and that kept us going…. Now the minutes of our lives are wasted. Time scrapes our nerves.”
Never-ending hardships replace the hopeful storytelling. “What a story, your family’s,” observes Firuzeh’s imaginary friend. “Over and over, without an end.” Firuzeh admits she does not like how her family’s story is going and Nasima suggests “You can change it…. If you want. If you’re brave. If you remember how.”
Family cohesion crumbles as the couple and two children lose respect for one another. Upon learning about their temporary status, the mother urges the father to take action while Firuzeh insists their father is a hero who will think of something. The argument intensifies, the father blaming his wife for working and neglecting the children while she criticizes him for weakness and men's habit of blaming problems on wives. The wife repeats her mother’s assessment that hers husband is a frightened boy, not a man, and the Firuzeh’s father strikes her mother.
Firuzeh, who always admired her father, lashes out, telling him she hates him and wishes him dead. The man weeps, wondering how his more assertive wife and children will ever survive in dangerous Afghanistan.
Of course, such tragic scenes unfold daily in the camps and neighborhoods where refugees try to start anew, so common that most fail to notice their own role in the dangers of routine cruelties and entrenched inequality.
The anger and recognition of temporary status changes the world for Firuzeh and her brother who runs away. Searching for him, she boards a train full of happy students, “holding bookbags as shields, laughing and shoving each other. Firuzeh hated them wit ha black and overwhelming passion. Not one of them had to worry about deportation, or a missing brother, or a broken mother…. ”
The father takes desperate action, giving his family a reprieve, and Firuzeh contemplates how the stories of Australia differ from those of Afghanistan and wonders if they are still useful. The imaginary friend reminds that “Stories go where people go…. In dreams, in fresh tellings, in memories.”
Taking control of one’s story, sensing how others respond and making adjustments that suit the author and her audience, can make all the difference in surviving the life we're handed. And we won't recognize that the making of a myth is underway, and our own role, until long after the fateful conclusion.