Handmaid's Tale: Episode refugees

February 6, 2018

We've been watching the Handmaid's Tale, late as usual -- by design. I feel it's an adequate adaptation for a contemporary American audience. But then, I'm not a great fan of Atwood in general. I can see where romantic enhancements don't "betray" the original. I admired the novel, but more from the perspective of a student of dystopian fiction. It was vivid and it made sense. I expect any TV adaptation to be seriously compromised, because money and audience. But tonight's episode, #7, had a surprising effect. It's not in the novel. It tries to depict the situation of refugees from Gilead to "Little America" in Toronto, modeled, I speculate, on the enclave of American expats during the Vietnam War (which included William Gibson). The surprising effect was that I was watching a dramatization -- stylized and punch-pulling, to be sure -- of an escape by an American across a dangerous border of their own country. I was watching with my wife, a refugee from Hungary in 1956, who crossed the Hungarian-Austrian border on her knees, with little scissors to snip the guidewires of landmines, with a baby in a knapsack on her back, at the age of 11, as Soviet tanks fired abstract volleys into the night to scare the refugees, even though they did not see them. It's a rich story. Worth telling, but then there are so many of them. My own parents crossed the same border in 1947 -- there were somewhat fewer landmines, but the guards in the towers were still exhorted to shoot to kill. In both my parents' and my wife's case, the families were separated. In Etti's case, mother and two small children crossed before the father. In my case, my father had to leave before wife and one-year old child. So I'm thinking, watching this Hollywood (yeah, yeah indie) representation of fleeing one's homeland, how little even I, the later child of refugees who risked getting shot, living in barely tolerated poverty, getting deported, crossing the Atlantic, starting from nothing other than the help of their compatriots who preceded them, how little this country is able to image the difference between a refugee and an immigrant. My own parents angrily rejected the idea that they were immigrants. In any case, I think about that Korean notion of han, the sense of dread and guilt that Koreans seem to believe is a genetic inheritance, a sort of epigenetic trace of the sufferings of previous generations. I have been insulated from all of that. No one has lived a more conflict free life than me. And yet, I've carried a form of survivor's guilt all my life. I'm the child and husband of refugees, and there's probably nothing that has structured my life more than that. No wonder science fiction became my favorite kind of literature. There are aliens that adapt very well to new hegemonic planets. My mother did it well. Others are just waiting for the chance to return to the home planet. Like my father. And then there are the "anchor babies." We are anchored here, but the memory of flight is stronger even than our own memories. And that's not even close to expressing what people like Etti feel, who witnessed and carried the refugees, tanks firing, bodies falling around them, at age 11, who acknowledge in their old age that it was nothing special. Just t


he human condition.

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