Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Strawberry Fields By Marina Lewycka and Living Libraries

(The Official Guide to the 28th Annual International Festival of Authors, Oct 17-27, Toronto. As you can tell, it has quite a star-studded line- up )

I bought tickets to go see Marina Lewycka talk about her book "Strawberry Fields" at the International Festival of Authors here in Toronto, but sadly I was sick that weekend and missed the talk.

"Strawberry Fields" is the author's second book (the first was the very funny "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian) and while this one is pure comedy too, the author is wanting to draw our attention to the plight of Britain's migrant workers most of whom travel there from poorer countries in Europe like Ukraine, Latvia, Romania etc.

Just like some of the characters in Lewycka's book, real migrants come to Britain as seasonal agricultural workers (they are not qualified but have paid corrupt officials for the necessary documents) . On arrival in Britain they are met by unscrupulous "agents" who confiscate their passports and send them to work in strawberry fields where they collect strawberries (a backbreaking job) for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for a paltry sum, most of which is returned to their employers as food and lodging fees. Lodging usually consists of a caravan that the migrants share with atleast 10-12 other people. Infact, in Britain, Lewycka's book was called "Two Caravans" but the name was changed to "Strawberry Fields" in the US because the publishers weren't sure how familiar we were with caravans this side of the pond!

Britain is not the only country where migrant workers are exploited and underpaid, journalist John Bowe in his book "Nobodies" documents how workers in the orange orchards of Florida are herded into hellish living quarters and treated with brutal force by labor contractors if they mishandle the fruit. From an article written by him in the Newyorker:

"... To get to the fruit, pickers must climb twelve-to-eighteen-foot-high ladders, propped on soggy soil, then reach deep into thorny branches, thrusting both hands among pesticide-coated leaves before twisting the fruit from its stem and rapidly stuffing it into a shoulder-slung moral, or pick sack. (Grove owners post guards in their fields to make sure that the workers do not harm the trees.) "

As I write this I look at my glass of Tropicana juice with suspicion. Do we as consumers need to now question where our food comes from, under what conditions they were grown and if anyone was harmed in process?

"Strawberry Fields" is a work of fiction and "Nobodies" is investigative journalism but I have coupled them together because migrant labor and modern slavery is a common theme in both books.

For a more detailed review of Strawberry Fields go here


Living Libraries

(from Radio Australia's Don't Judge a Book by it's Cover)

Lismore in New South Wales, Australia has recently joined some cities in Europe with a "Living Library". The 'books' in this library are a group of people with unusual occupations and lifestyles -- or people from different social, religious and ethnic backgrounds. There are over 50 volunteer 'living books' in Lismore's catalogue.

Visitors have the opportunity to 'read' one of these 'books' for an informal half-hour conversation. The library creates a safe environment where people who would not normally meet can sit and talk.

Isn't that a great concept? Apparently it's been around since early 2000 but only in a few select cities in Europe. Lismore's current selection of living books includes
a Filipino Migrant, an Indigenous Australian person, a homeless person, a farmer, Muslim, person with a physical disability and so on.

Ofcourse, each Living Library developed throughout the world will be unique as it will have its own issues to deal with...if your community had a "Living Library" which "book" do you see yourself borrowing? :)


Sanjay said...

Lotus, I am so sorry that you could not get to the Intl Festival of Authors, since you were unwell. Maybe you can go this coming weekend? I so hope you can.

I loved this post! I particularly liked how you combined the fiction and the non-fiction books that deal with the same issue in a different yet relevant manner.

Strange that publishers thought caravan was less familiar here? But the title "strawberry fields" clearly gets your attention.

It was tough reading what these migrant workers have to go through.
Would you happen to know what kind of research Marina Lewycka did to write this book? I am just curious.

How does the plight of these workers in Britain compare to the South American migrant workers or migrant workers in the Mid East? I ask you this since you lived for a while in the ME.

It was heartbreaking to read how Oranges are harvested. You do pose an interesting question about knowing the details behind how some of the food gets to our table. I suppose it depends, not all migrant workers suffer this abuse right? When possible buying locally from small or local farms helps.

Better enforcement would help but in the US that is not happening, it is a rather vicious circle where the labor is often illegal, the work hard and not something a lot of Americans would want to do. The businesses get cheap labor. It is the dark underbelly that no one wants to really talk about. Having said that, there is a legal program for seasonal agricultural workers to come over.I would like to think that this abuse does not happen there. Any indication of that in John Bowe's book?

The "Living Libraries" concept is so neat and what a nice find Lotus! A lovely way of bringing people together so that they at least try to understand those that are not like them. If I had to borrow a "book" I would like to talk to a religious conservative.

Thank you for a wonderful post as always.

Nyssaneala said...

Strawberry Fields/Two Caravans sounds just as good as her first book! That's too bad that you missed out on seeing Marina Lewycka speak. I hope you are feeling better.

I have heard some sad stories about the treatment of apple pickers here on the east coast, in Pennsylvania. And, unfortunately, many of the people in the communities where migrants go for seasonal labor hate the fact that they are there (yet are unwilling to do the work themselves).

iliana said...

The Living Libraries is great. What a wonderful concept to get people to actually form communities.
I'm sorry you missed out on the book fair. Short History of Tractors is one of my book group reads for December and I'm looking forward to it.

Melody said...

After reading your review, I decided to get 'Strawberry Fields'. I checked with the bookstore and they have the UK version instead. Anyway I bought it... can't wait to read it. Thanks for the great review/recommendation, Lotus! :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

I know, I wish I could have gone this weekend but I don't have tickets! *waaa*

The title certainly gets one's attention...I was humming the Beatles song "Strawberry Fields Forever" as I read, I still can't get the tune out of my head! :)

Lewycka is Ukranian herself and I am guessing that a lot of what she writes about is based on what she has heard from fellow Ukranians. Apart from that I am not sure what research she did. Now I feel even worse that I couldn't attend the talk!

Conditions for workers in the Middle East are equally bad, if not worse. As you might know, many of them come from the sub-continent and the Phillipines and once they arrive their passports are confiscated, they risk terrible injury at the construction sites (which is where most of them work) and being a desert many of them have to work even when the temperatures touch 50C!!! And for all their trouble they are paid the equivalent of $5-7/ day! Someone I know is writing a book about the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf, I'll let you have more information soon.

I hope you get to converse with your "book" some day. I have been giving much thought to whom I would like to meet....I guess it would have to be someone my path would never cross in everyday life...maybe a Sufi or a Rastafarian?

THanks for your comment Sanj, will get back to you with the information soon.

Lotus Reads said...

@nyssaneala ~ I am much better thank you! It was a touch of cold with fever, but I'm over it now. How are you doing? I haven't read Lewycka's previous book but I would love to. It was a contender for the Orange Prize wasn't it? The big day is almost here you must be so excited!!! :)

Yes, it's true, racism is another big thing a lot of these migrant workers face. In her book Lewycka's characters hardly ever get to mingle with the local people. Non-assimilation is harmful for the migrant and yet we allow it to happen. I guess language is usually a big factor.

Lotus Reads said...

@iliana ~ Hello! Yes, I think the Living Libraries is truly a great concept, can't wait for my library to get one!

@Melody ~ I hope you enjoy the read! I didn't really do a detailed review because Lewyncka's cast of characters is huge and it would have taken me a long,long time to write about them. THanks for letting me know that you are getting the book!

Sanjay said...

Oh Lotus! I am so sorry that you can't go this weekend to the authors fest. But I hope you can go to some upcoming events, but more important is the fact that you have recovered from your cold.

:-) @ humming the Beatles song, perhaps you will post an audio file of you humming the tune for us? Would make a nice companion to the post no? :-)

But on a more serious note, thank you for your response. I assumed Lewycka was not British, how interesting that she is Ukranian and that certainly will have helped with writing the book.

The information you provided about migrant workers in the ME is truly gut wrenching. The money that they earn while meagre in terms of the country where they work goes a long way back in their homeland, but they deserve more protections. I am glad someone is writing a book about that, I am looking forward to reading it when it comes out.

Incidentally I came across a news article that studies farm workers in the state of NY in today's NYTimes link. Farm workers are entitled to some basic protections but they have far less rights than workers in other industries legal or not. From the article... Eighty percent of the farmworkers interviewed said their employers did not speak their language, and 56 percent said they were unaware of the laws that did relate to them, like the right to safe housing and transportation and protections against pesticides.

You pick a very interesting "book" from the "living library" indeed, but then knowing you that is not a surprise :)

Thank you for your response buddy!

jenclair said...

Glad you are feeling better, and I know missing the talk must have been disappointing. Your reviews of these two books are certainly timely, and perhaps a combination of fiction and nonfiction is the best way to put the plight of these workers in the most personal and human terms.

Asha said...

Sorry you missed that, hope you are feeling better now!:))
I love your header, very nice. Love the books too, enjoy!

Dark Orpheus said...

Ah, sorry you missed out on Marina Lewycka. I would have liked to see her myself. I enjoyed "History of Tractors" - the dynamics between the sisters were particularly interesting - especially how they came to become different people because of something that happened one night.

In fact, you reminded me I have to get around to reading that copy of "Two Caravans" soon.

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanjay ~

lol@ suggesting I post an audio file of me humming "Strawberry fields forever", that would lead to the instant demise of my blog for sure!

Thank you for the link, it is so upsetting to think that so many of these workers don't even know their rights or benefits. The fact that they are poor and hardly speak the language make them ideal candidates for exploitation, and unless conditions change for them in their home countries, they will continue to go where the jobs are. I guess John Lennon was right when he said, "Strawberry fields forever".

Booklogged said...

Ohhhh, Lotus, how sad that your missed the presentation. It's good to know you're feeling better.

I like the way you read a fiction and nonfiction book about the same subject in such time proximity. It must help with understanding the problem.

Lotus Reads said...

@Jenclair ~ Thank you. I didn't think of it at the time, but now when I see the two books side by side I find that together they give us a much better picture of the problems with migrant labor.

@Asha ~ Glad you like the header, thanks!

@Dark Orpheus ~ I haven't read "History of Tractors" , but I've been told it's a much better read than "Strawberry Fields/ Two Caravans" so I am looking forward to it.

Special K said...

Finding out where your food comes from and how it was produced is really hard work, but it's important - it's also one of the strongest ways of telling (factory) farmers that we demand better practices in production of our food.

Olivia said...

What are possible solutions for migrant labour?

Tara said...

I'm sorry you weren't able to attend the talk!

I'm just getting more and more distressed, saddened, and angry about all these things I keep learning about our food supply, every aspect of if. I really don't care to eat strawberries if this is the cost. However, if the migrant laborers weren't putting up with it, it might not be so widespread. I think it might all go back to poverty.

I'm very interested in seeing a new documentary called The Price of Sugar. The trailer is just stunning.

Lotus Reads said...

@booklogged ~ Thank you I am much better now! This is the first time I have read a fiction and non-fiction book dealing with similar subjects back to back and I found it to be quite a rewarding experience!

@Special K ~ Welcome! Yes, it's hard work indeed! We need more John Bowes and people like him to help us know which farms we should be avoiding. Even then it would be a herculean task and I am not sure how to go about it.

@Olivia ~ You ask a good question and I don't have the answers. Migrant workers usually have it so bad in their own countries that they are willing participants in their exploitation. I guess we have to come down harder on the unscrupulous agents that bring these workers (illegally) across the border, promising them all kinds of things and delivering nothing.

Lotus Reads said...

@Tara ~ Thank you so much for letting me know about the documentary "The Price of Sugar"...after you mentioned it I read some of the reviews and it is definitely going on my "must see" list, thank you!

Beenzzz said...

Oh no! I'm sorry you got sick and had to missed the presentation. Speaking of slave labor and sugar/plant production, you might find some of the Guyanese literature out there interesting. I know.... I'm obsessed about this topic and mention it a lot. :)
You know, we all go through life wearing clothing and eating food that has been in one way or another reaped or made by a slave labor population somewhere in the world. It breaks my heart to think of how these people suffer, but it's the children involved that sends me reeling.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Beenzzz!

Yes, you are right, infact, I have a movie sitting right here called "Guiana 1838" and I can't wait to view it because it is a historical docu-drama that tells the true story of the Indians who were shipped out of their country to work on sugarcane plantations in the British West Indies. Have you seen it yet?

Beenzzz said...

I haven't seen it yet!!!! I really wanted to see it, but couldn't obtain a copy anywhere. I guess I'd better dig through Amazon and see who is distributing it. Please do let me know how it is!

Lotus Reads said...

I certainly will! And if you can't find a copy, let me know, I would be happy to send you mine ( I bought mine at the local Indian store!)

Beenzzz said...

Hi Lotus,
I found a copy and bought it! It should arrive anytime between now and who knows. :) I can't wait to see it and compare notes with you. Thank you so much for your generous offer though!

A Reader from India said...

Lotus, how sad that you couldn't go for the festival of authors. Good to know that you are feeling better now.

It was very disturbing to read about the plight of the migrants - am going to think twice before buying any imported fruit.

Living libraries are an intriguing concept, thank you for sharing. The term 'living libraries' sounds like an oxymoron - every library, every book is so full of life!


Lotus Reads said...

@beenzzz ~ Yeay, hope it's good. I'll try and get to it this weekend!

@A Reader ~ Yes, living libraries does sound like an oxymoron, good observation Reader! :) The plight of migrants, like child labor, almost seems to be a necessary evil. If they don't work, they starve. I honestly don't know if anything is going to change for these people in a hurry. Sorry to end on such a pessimistic note, but that is how I feel.

Nymeth said...

Unfortunately in Portugal we also have dreadful situations with immigrants from Eastern Europe being exploited. There have been some terrible cases, especially with women who were brought over and basically made into sexual slaves.

Marina Lewicka's "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian" has been recommended to me several times. I need to make sure I read it next year, as well as Strawberry Fields.

Lotus Reads said...

@Nymeth ~ Yes, so true, sexual slavery is another huge problem for women migrant workers. Lewycka touches on it briefly. I was told "A Short History....Ukranian" is a much better book than Strawberry Fields. One criticism many readers have leveled at Strawberry fields is that it tends to have far too many characters, but so absorbed was I in their lives that I didn't notice. Just letting you know since you plan on reading the book at some point.

Thank you for stopping by Nymeth!

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