DURING ONE KEY MOMENT, E. Lily Yu’s disquieting debut novel On Fragile Waves offers a kind of authorial self-critique regarding the representation of diasporic migrants. A character Yu calls “the writer” has traveled to Australia to interview asylum seekers in the Afghan migrant community there and to visit detention centers as part of her research. The writer is given a tour by Sister Margaret, a nun and a tireless advocate for refugee families — including the Daizangi family, whose story forms the center of the novel.
The writer spends the day peppering detention center inmates with questions about the conditions they have endured. Later, she reflects with Sister Margaret, saying, “I asked the wrong questions, didn’t I?” The nun responds that she, personally, would ask the detainees about joy: “When you have nothing and no reason to hope, when the odds are impossible and not one but two governments stand against you, how do you laugh? How do you see beauty? How do you still show kindness and love?”
The glimmers of joy experienced by the asylum seekers — who include young Firuzeh Daizangi, a 10-year-old when she arrives in Australia; her little brother Nour; and their Abay and Atay (mom and dad) — are often upstaged by the traumatic experiences of the family’s triumphant and tragic journey. Fleeing wartorn Kabul, Afghanistan, the Daizangis endure deadly ocean squalls, inhumane treatment in a detention center off the coast of Australia, and further degradation once they reach Melbourne, as the children attend school and the parents seek work. Amid horrific displays of mistreatment, disastrous run-ins with nature, and a sadness that threatens to swallow them whole, the book offers depictions of tenderness and the fierce love a family has for one another.
Yu never lets the reader lose sight of the youthfulness of her protagonist. As a child, Firuzeh has whimsical fantasies, a belief in the magical, and a longing for stability, connection, and a place to call home. In this way, the novel bears similarities to other works by artists from refugee communities. Ifrah Mansour’s one-woman play, How to Have Fun in a Civil War, for example, takes place during the Civil War of Somalia, where the young Ifrah plays and dreams and seeks love just like any child. Like Mansour’s compelling drama, Yu captures the playfulness in her young characters, even when they are acting out, practicing their new English swear words, and losing patience with each other.
The novel also bears some resemblance to the mixed media work of Syrian American artist Essma Imady. A parent, Imady has exhibited work that draws on stories she recorded from families who left Syria as refugees. Her exhibition Thicker than Water, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art in 2018, investigated the notion of survival, hope, and parenthood in similar ways to Yu’s novel.
Yu employs gorgeous imagery, like her description of the sky the night her characters leave the detention center: “Moonlight washed the gnawed coral pinnacles, frosted the skeletal phosphate cranes, and drenched the canvas tents where a hundred dreamers dreamed gray, grim, and miserable dreams. The sky was salted with stars.” This heightened language drifts throughout the novel, and in some cases, the narrative shifts completely into a poetic format, where words are mapped out across the page like a drawing. Yu opens the book with a poem full of onomatopoetic words of warfare. You can hear the machine gun sounds in her made up words: “tak,” and “daz daz daz daz daz,” and “bamp.” Elongated dashes give space for silence between explosions, where a child, and then another, are born.
Yu’s imagery-rich language in these moments of lyricism contrasts with other parts of the book that are stripped down, with sparse dialogue and a sense of emptiness between the lines — like the ones she creates in her poems. Often, Yu doesn’t indicate who is speaking, instead letting the dialogue flow in short sentences of a few words from each speaker. This is a family in a constant state of urgency, and also a state of waiting. The way they talk to each other reflects this tension: terse speech thick with understated meaning. The parents, Bahar and Omid, share an electrical current that sparks and ripples between them in the silences.
The primary protagonist, Firuzeh is a somber, introspective girl. She seems aware of how the events of her young life have stolen from her the precocious energy she had in Kabul, where she was a top student. Once, she was eager, her arm shooting up in class to gain her teacher’s attention constantly, but “the Firuzeh fizzing with answers and fishing for praise, had been left in a locked-up, empty house on a dusty street in a past Kabul,” Yu writes.
As the novel progresses, Firuzeh’s focus turns inward. She contemplates her circumstances in great detail and takes on the burdens of others, acutely aware of the distress her parents feel as they face their struggle, and unsettled by the conflicts that arise between them. She comes to take on the despair of the other asylum seekers they encounter as well: a mother weeping for her lost daughter, or a boy who ate glass in a desperate act of despair.
Firuzeh can also see ghosts — or at least one particular ghost. She converses with a friend she lost, Nesima, who returns to the side of the living to face the world. Nesima offers solace to her friend when Firuzeh’s parents favor her brother, and helps her with her schoolwork. She provides comfort when Firuzeh faces difficulty making friends, and near the end of the book, she helps her face a crisis by intervening through her ability as a ghost to know peoples’ whereabouts.
Scenes with Nesima are perhaps the most fantastical element of the book, from an author whose previous novellas and short stories have existed in the world of fantasy, speculative fiction, and dystopia. The dystopia of On Fragile Waves is only too close to our current world, and Yu’s descriptions of cruelty, like that of detention guard Quentin Marks, mirror our reality. A descendent of convict settlers, Quentin is a former bartender and oyster-shucker-turned-merciless-overseer of asylum seekers, exerting the small power he has in the world violently on the people in his charge. His character personifies the horror stories we hear of horrendous treatment asylum seekers have faced here in the United States and elsewhere in the world.
The device of conjuring Firuzeh’s dead best friend serves a practical purpose, giving her someone to share her hopes and dreams with. Firuzeh complains to her friend about her little brother, and Nesima offers insight into the relationships between her family members. Nesima also offers wisdom to her friend, and wry commentary. She articulates the injustices Firuzeh faces, stating out loud thoughts which Firuzeh might never have articulated.
The relationship between Firuzeh and Nesima isn’t without difficulties, however: the main character sometimes relies on her friend but sometimes pushes her away. She accuses Nesima of being like a nightmare, eating the living piece by piece, story by story. The climactic confrontation culminates with a key theme seeded throughout the book: how stories are the thread that holds Firuzeh and her family together.
Stories lift the family’s hearts throughout their travels: stories they tell each other, made up or remembered, sometimes with beginnings and not endings, or with endings and no middle. “You keep forgetting the middle parts,” Firuzeh complains to her Abay and Atay, when they try to bribe her with a story in exchange for her giving them English lessons. “It’s true,” Abay responds to her. “There are white holes in parts of my stories.”
Some of the stories are fairy tales, like one that begins similar to the Brothers Grimm story “Hans My Hedgehog.” In Yu’s version, the handsome husband is a snake named Khastehkhomar, not a hedgehog, who turns to a handsome man at night. His wife, Bibenegar, following bad advice, burns the snakeskin in the fire when her husband is in human form, and he tells her she must wear out seven pairs of iron shoes in order to even have a chance getting him back. Yu introduces the story at the beginning of the novel and returns to it near the end, when we find out Khastehkhomar has gone off and married a demoness. The story foreshadows allegorically what Bahar and Omid will live through, but it is also told reassuringly, a calming tale for themselves and their children. Bahar and Omid take a similar tack with the story of Rostam and his steed Rakhsh, a Persian myth Yu has inserted into the novel. Abay and Atay recount the adventure of Rakhsh to their children, encouraging them to imagine their own journey as an adventure. The family embarks on an epic saga like that of Rostam, with moments of magic and wonder, and also betrayal.
The stories help give the children meaning, help them weave some sense of themselves in the world. The stories also act as a thread that ties them to not only the intricate bonds of their family, but also to new connections as the novel progresses. In the boat, in the detention camp, and later at school in Melbourne, the two children go from asking for stories to telling their own, and eventually making their own narratives for themselves. But the stories are often broken, eaten away by nightmares, by trauma, by tragedy, by war. All that is left is fragments, and that is what Firuzeh and her brother are left with to build from as they look toward the future.