The Unwanted covers the crisis in Syria from 2011 through 2018 by focusing on the many ways refugees have left or have tried to leave the country, enduring dangers such as smugglers, border police, and deportation in trying to seek resettlement in other countries. In an author’s note, Brown asserts that his purpose in writing the book was to focus only on the refugee experience, rather than try to sum up the complicated cultural landscape of Syria. However, in many ways the book focuses on being a refugee in the broadest possible sense. Experiences are anonymized and generalized; we do not follow any individuals and none of the characters, despite representing real people, have names. If any individual appears repeatedly, it is only over the course of a few panels. The longest we follow an individual is four pages, from a jihadist checkpoint to a smuggler’s boat, where he disappears into the crowd of other refugees, each one indistinguishable from the last, where their greatest power comes from their numbers rather than their lives. The refugees as people are not central to the story, but rather serve as a mass of fleeing people without identity. The result is a depersonalized representation of the “refugee experience,” homogeneous in its portrayal, with the primary focus on the act of fleeing rather than adequately addressing resettlement, rebuilding community, or homesickness. The author does not discuss nor seem to grapple with the difficulty of consolidating the struggle of millions into a single story, though he notes he felt like a “voyeur to tragedy.” While drawing up a fictional narrative about real events can be similarly problematic, the approach Brown takes feels more voyeuristic, like a documentary divorced of emotion.
While it’s clear that the book is well-researched, with nine pages of bibliography and four pages of author’s notes in which he describes his visits to refugee camps in Greece in 2017, by generalizing the experience it lacks emotional depth. In the notes about his visits, Brown describes the settings, not the people; he remarked that it seemed “unnecessary and cruel” to ask refugees to “recount their awful experiences,” but at the same time it removes the opportunity for interpersonal connection and getting to know the people past their status as a refugee. The people portrayed don’t really participate in the story. They have no control over the narrative. We begin to understand their struggles, but not who they are as people. We see a portrayal of their hardships, but not of who they are. While I can appreciate that the quotes used were taken directly from refugees, because they were pulled from the articles mentioned in the bibliography, it adds another layer of removal from their source, adding one more degree of separation and maintaining the distance between reader and refugee. Many of the quotes are said by refugees directly to the reader, turning their faces away from the violence depicted to describe the circumstances. Separating them from the story creates an eerie and unnerving feeling, as if a horror movie broke the fourth wall. Additionally, because Brown takes pieces from different people’s lives and experiences, the narrative of the book is not driven by the people, but rather reads more like a collage or scrapbook.
The Unwanted resists some comic book conventions in its style—the art is in panels, but the text is mostly narrative text, complete with paragraph breaks, indentation, and a serif font, which I’m not sure I’ve seen in a graphic novel before. The art is somewhat abstract and imprecise, a very sketchy style, lending a sense of impermanence fitting to the work. Often people’s eyes are portrayed as dark, shadowy sockets, which only adds to the feeling of removal, drawing the reader further away from the experiences of the people portrayed rather than closer to them. Violence cannot be confined by borders—black clouds of smoke rise past panel boundaries, explosions burst into the gutters, guns peer past the panels, escaping their own borders to search for the refugees who are crossing borders. A “flood” of refugees stream in from off the side of the page, ignoring the panel boundaries completely. While the art is mostly watercolor, some aspects seem more like mixed media, in particular, explosions that take up an entire page.
One aspect of the book that struck me as strange was that at no point do any of the characters address Syria as their home. There seems to be a total rejection of the country, with no discussion of nostalgia, homesickness, what they love, cherish, and miss about the home they had to abandon. In this sense the story seems very one-sided and flat, and might have benefitted from a deeper exploration of the characters as people.
The book only serves to strengthen the image portrayed on the cover and by the title; The Unwanted frames refugees as a problem rather than as people. It focuses on fear, and feels like watching a horror movie, where you are forced to watch panicked characters flee from the danger that haunts them. I found it more anxiety-inducing than empathy-provoking. Unlike other works that I’ve read and reviewed about refugees, this book does not leave the reader with recommendations for ways to become involved, though a portion of the proceeds from the book are donated to The International Rescue Committee. Brown’s goal may have been to capture the “refugee experience,” but I found that The Unwanted was a missed opportunity for deeply connecting to people rather than to the traumas they’ve experienced.
In addition to the heavy subject matter, in regards to content warnings, librarians wishing to shelve this title should be aware that the book shows corpses, blood, and military weapons, but without portraying graphic violence or deaths.
The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees
By Don Brown
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Teen