Five Best Books About Writers on the Run

From a Wall Street Journal story by Patrick Bixby headlined “Five Best Books About Writers on the Run”:

The Big Sea
By Langston Hughes (1940)

1. Langston Hughes begins this autobiography and travel memoir with an astonishing scene: In the spring of 1923, having recently taken a job as a mess boy on a freighter, the promising young poet gathers all the books he had acquired during a brief interval at Columbia University and unceremoniously heaves them into the waters off Sandy Hook, N.J. Bibliophiles may recoil at the thought, but for the 21-year-old Hughes, “it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart—for it wasn’t only the books that I wanted to throw away, but everything unpleasant and miserable out of my past.”

With a deceptive bluntness, owing something to the subdued lyricism of the blues, he goes on to recount his early experiences of withering poverty, parental estrangement and racial intolerance, as well as his efforts to evade these heartaches. “The Big Sea” tells of bookkeeping and English teaching near Mexico City, sailing from port to port along the west coast of Africa, and scraping by as a waiter in the nightclubs of Paris, among many peregrinations. Hughes eventually finds his way back to books and back to the U.S., where he determines to make his living as a writer and assumes a central place among the black literati of the Harlem Renaissance.

Transit
By Anna Seghers (1944)

2. German-born Anna Seghers began composing her fourth novel while aboard the Capitaine Paul Lemerle, a converted cargo ship that had sailed from Marseille to Martinique in April 1941, its decks crowded with refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied France. In “Transit,” her unnamed male narrator faces the same necessity, after his recent escape from a German concentration camp. He also navigates a perfidious love affair, a stolen identity, his own ambivalence about leaving, and the labyrinthine recesses of diplomatic bureaucracy.

Marseilles, that bustling Mediterranean port, promises a passage to safety, but takes on an all-too-Kafka-esque ambience: “Everyone, especially the foreigners,” the narrator tells us, “guarded their passports and identification papers as if they were their very salvation. I was amazed to see the authorities, in the midst of this chaos, inventing ever more intricate drawn-out procedures for sorting, classifying, registering, and stamping these people.” This setting makes for a starker, more desperate version of the getaway story made famous in “Casablanca.” Meanwhile, Seghers’s world-worn spokesman, far more than Humphrey Bogart’s iconic character, lays bare the existential uneasiness brought on by the absurd contingencies of wartime, when a paperwork delay can be the difference between life and death.

Second Class Citizen
By Buchi Emecheta (1974)

3. As an 8-year-old girl growing up in late-colonial Nigeria, Adah fosters a secret ambition: “That she would go to the United Kingdom one day was a dream she kept to herself, but dreams soon assumed substance.” In time, these dreams direct her toward a vocation—“Could she be a writer, a real one?”—so that this tale of migration and maturation becomes an example of the Künstlerroman, a novel about the development of an artist. But this is an example unlike any in the Western tradition, including that classic of the genre, James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

Realizing her ambition requires that Adah first leave behind her male-dominated society, which obliged her to marry at age 16 and bear five children by age 22. But if England augurs new prospects, what she encounters is “a cold welcome” from the English and the suffocating expectations of her unfeeling husband and the Nigerian immigrant community. For a time, her dreams dwindle away, and yet her defiant spirit eventually leads Adah to write her life story. In its essence, this is also the narrative of Buchi Emecheta’s journey to authorship. Developing an artistic double-vision out of her strained relationship with two cultures, part of both, spurned by both, she would become one of the first internationally celebrated African women writers.

Joseph Anton
By Salman Rushdie (2012)

4. This massive memoir is many things—globe-trotting travelogue, trenchant geopolitical commentary, celebrity gossip column. But it is principally an account of Salman Rushdie’s life in hiding from the fatwa, leveled against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989, following the publication of the Anglo-Indian novelist’s grievously misconstrued “The Satanic Verses.” To tell the story of these harrowing years, scuttling between safe houses around the U.K., with the occasional trip abroad in search of respite, Mr. Rushdie treats himself like a character in one of his novels.

He uses the pseudonym devised for his protection (based on two of his favorite scribes, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) and narrates events in a detached if not entirely objective third person. This enables him to stir sympathy for his sometimes-unsympathetic hero, to examine the dark psychology of a man ensnared by a death sentence, and to settle a few scores with mullahs, publishers, ex-wives and literary rivals. But now, in the wake of the recent attack on the author by a knife-wielding zealot, the passages that resound most emphatically are those in defense of the imagination: “There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened . . . and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back. And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes, of their lives.”

Unaccompanied
By Javier Zamora (2017)

5. Javier Zamora’s enthralling debut collection of poetry opens with an image that concentrates the personal and political substance of all that follows: “This is my 14th time pressing roses in fake passports / for each year I haven’t climbed marañón trees. I’m sorry. / I’ve lied about where I was born.” In 1999, when he was 9 years old, the poet-to-be journeyed—by bus, boat and foot—more than 3,000 miles across three international borders from his small town in El Salvador to join his parents in California. Years later, after earning degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and New York University, Mr. Zamora began assembling a series of poems that tell the story of this perilous trek and the fellow migrants who shielded him from harm.

Interlacing memory and imagination, the poet also gives witness to the mingled familial and national histories that preceded his flight: his mother’s exposure to far-right electioneering; his father’s encounter with a helicopter, tossing dead bodies into a field; his uncle’s murder at the hands of a local teacher—all during the U.S.-sponsored Salvadoran Civil War. Poignant as they are, these incidents are rendered still more affecting by the recognition that migration has not brought his family peace and a return home is all but impossible. Yet, from its very first line, “Unaccompanied” also declares the imperative to honor such experiences in verse.

Selected by Patrick Bixby, author of “License to Travel: A Cultural History of the Passport”

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