“Manjeet Mann is an actress, playwright, screenwriter and director. She is the founder of Run The World- an organisation that works with women and girls from marginalised backgrounds and helps to empower them through sport and storytelling. She lives in Kent.”
The Crossing is written as a narrative poem connecting two teenagers, Natalie, who lives in Dover, Kent and Sammy a teenage boy from Eritrea. The story relates the forces that cause people to feel so desperate that they are driven to migrate and about the poverty and lack of chances that some people endure in Britain. It relates the creativity and inner strength and courage that keep both Sammy and Natalie trying and hoping. Human dignity, humanity and the empathy that can exist between people of different backgrounds and experiences are explored. The story is about love and hate and how people can rise above adversity and help each other.
Manjeet Mann explores what it is to be a migrant from a country like Eritrea. What is it that impels Sammy to leave his mother, his family, his girlfriend Sophia, who has gone missing possibly abducted? The conditions he lives in are dire. Young men like himself are conscripted into the army. They are treated as slaves. They lose their freedom. They are abused. Sammy and his friend Tesfay, who decides to escape Eritrea with him are of conscription age. That would be a strong enough reason. There is an added need to escape for Sammy. The murder of his father, Baba, and also following in his fathers beliefs, his strongly held views about free speech and democracy. Sammy and his family want those freedoms and they won’t get them in Eritrea. He thinks, because his father was hunted by the authorities, he will be watched and targeted too. His mother , like all mothers, wants the best life for Sammy. The family obtain enough money for Sammy to pay for the fake documents that will get him across the border. They gather money to pay the human traffickers who they hope will get them to Europe and eventually Britain.
Nat , in Dover, takes on her mother’s role after her mother’s death. Her mother had worked for an organisation that helps and supports migrants. She was also a cross channel swimmer who swam to raise funds to help migrants. Nat returns to swimming herself, which she gave up after her mother died, and trains hard to do a channel swim to raise money for the same causes her mother espoused, causes that help and support migrants like Sammy and his best friend Tesfay. Mel, Nat’s best friend sets up a donation page for her and supports her friend in her ambition.
Both Sammy and Nat suffer the death of a parent and are grieving. Both have the will to fight to make their lives better and in the case of Nat other peoples lives better such as Sammy’s and Tesfays.
In contrast, Nats brother, Ryan, becomes disillusioned. He thinks the migrants coming into Dover are taking jobs and homes that he and his father and Nat need. They are on the verge of eviction. His antagonism for the migrants drives him to join the EDL, The English Defence League, a nationalist right wing group who use violence to make their point. Nat can see how her brother becoming a member of this group gives a purpose to his life but she finds it hard to understand that he can’t see that the immigrants are not the problem. Why doesn't he feel like her and their mother?Other societal issues need to be fought against and fought for. The problem is not immigrants. She thinks of migrants as equal human beings to herself, like her mother did, in need of help, support and love. Ryan, on the other hand,sees the migrants as not deserving of what Britain has to offer. To him they are ,” others,” less deserving, perhaps even less human, an invading group, not like him.
There are other important themes explored in this novel. Nat and her friend Mel love each other. The love between them is tender and sweet. Tensions are explored in their relationship such as Mel comes from a wealthier more comfortable family that Nat. On the other hand Nat’s family are struggling to find a home for themselves and feed themselves. This causes some friction but their love for each other is much stronger than their differences. They are mocked by Kevin a boy in their class at school . Kevin also bullies and demeans Fazel a migrant in their class. The two girls confront Kevin in no uncertain way.The world has many, “Kevins'.” In another novel the issue of Kevin is something that could be explored further.
The message of this novel is that often the rules of our society need to change and develop to take account of everybody. This novel shows that real people do not fit into an ideology and it portrays all human beings as equal. If this book does anything it should help us to be open to others through listening and understanding and through positive action.
It is not a long story, however it manages to pack in philosophical issues about ambition, hope, suffering and taking action. What enables Manjeet to do this is the narrative poem style. Much of it is written in the first person which makes it direct and visceral. The often short lines are distilled experience and emotion combined in a few words which pierce right into you. Sometimes the lines are fragmented into single words, each word draining every bit of meaning and emotion out of the moment. The book is classed as a Young Adult novel and so it deals with immediate sensations and emotions and because of that I felt refreshed and connected to the action.
Here is an example. Baba, was Sammy’s father, taken and murdered by the Eritrean army in front of his wife and his son because of his outspokenness criticising the regime.
“His blood seeps
Into my shirt
Staining my skin
I breathe into the
Our salty tears
His iron blood
Which soaks into
That we live
The story switches quickly and often between Sammy in Eritrea and Nat in Dover, relating their personal experiences of loss and pain. Connections and similarities build up at an intense rate.
Nat for her part has recently, within a matter of weeks of this narrative, lost her mother to cancer. Her mother was the driving force and positive impulse of the family. Her father becomes distant and introverted after her death.
“ I touch the screen
Wanting to grab hold of her
To reach through my phone and
I wish she were still, here Dad.
I know , love, I know,.
Dads desperate to keep it together
but he is broken
We all are.”
Ryan, Nat’s brother is being influenced by the EDL, The English Defence League, a national front style organisation that aggressively attacks and confronts immigrants to Britain.
“I try to see
Try and understand..."
The end word of one piece of narrative about Natalie is the first word or phrase of Sammy’s next dialogue and vice a versa.
This switching back and forth between the main characters helps create an empathy between the two characters who do not know each other or of their parallel lives at the start of the story.
News cameras and journalists follow the plight of immigrants from Eritrea and other places people feel the need to escape from on their way to Calais to get to England and to other destinations in Europe.Nat sees Sammy first on the TV news and feels empathy for him. She later sees his picture in a magazine. She tries to get in touch and after Sammy has reached Calais somebody helping in the camp gives Nat, Sammys -email. They start messaging. They talk about their dreams and hopes. After a visit to one of the Calais camps Nat is being driven back to the ferry and Sammy sees her drive past . There are a number of missed chances to actually meet like this during the story.
Towards the end of the novel there is a surreal moment when we think they actually meet. Do they? Nat is swimming the channel with her support team and getting near the French coast. She is exhausted and begins to a hallucinate. Sammy for his part has become desperate about his asylum claim. He thinks he will never be granted it. Walking on the beach and thinking of freedom a few miles across .the channel he walks into the water and starts to swim. In her hallucinatory state Nat sees Sammy swimming towards her. They touch hands and then he is gone. She thinks she is dreaming and swims on to complete her crossing. So was this really Sammy? There is a strong feeling that it was. Sammy is found drowned pulled up by a trawler in it’s fishing net. News of his death reaches Nat through social media and she is so stunned she falls to the floor weeping.We get a sense of what it is to be really desperate certainly from Sammys point of view and partly from Nats point of view too.
The story ends with Anthony, a refugee from the Calais camp who makes it to England and met Sammy, Hamid who also makes it across the channel, Fazel, Mel and Nat along with other people who have heard about Sammy, altogether standing on the White Cliffs near Dover. Hamid, Sammys friend from Eritrea reads messages from Sammy's mother and family and they scatter his ashes over the sea.
The last verses describe Natalie continuing her work supporting refugees in the migrant camps of Calais feeding them from a makeshift kitchen. Nothing has changed. Camps are dismantled and migrants moved on but others come to replace them. And the ending is repeats Nats mothers words of hope and dreams.
“Natalie, look at the stars
I will be looking too.
They are the same ones you see.
This is how we are all connected.….”
We do not hear how her father is now coping or what her brother Ryan is doing. It would be interesting to know.
This book helps the reader empathise and promotes a positive and loving approach to others especially those who are suffering greatly and immigrants in particular..
An example of how systemic racism works in Britain is our education system. The National Curriculum includes some colonial history from the white colonialist point of view and it mentions some Afro Caribbean History and Indian History. These subjects are kept within separate sections as though they have no connection to the rest of our history. It does not explore how our whole history is imbued with our colonial past and certainly does not explore what effect that has on minorities today and the sytemic issues they have to contend with. Here are the only statements from the National Curriculum hidden away in a non statutory section that touch on these issues.
“ a study of an aspect of social history, such as the impact through time of the migration of people to, from and within the British Isles.”
“Britain’s transatlantic slave trade: its effects and its eventual abolition.”
( Non statutory National Curriculum Key Stage 3)
Notice the study of the slave trade is only required up to the date of abolition. This seems to me to be keeping the problems of systemic racism we have today, at best, at arm’s length and at worst completely out of sight.
David Olusogo’s book” Black and British A Forgotten History,” provides a history of ethnic minorities in the British Isles over thousands of years. It explains how racism has developed and been reformed to take on different aspects in every generation from the time of slavery to the latest iteration.
All of this is relevant to Sammy, Hamza, Natalie and Natalie’s brother Ryan who is attracted to an aggressive anti-immigration group and also Natalie’s father who is lost and confused. What our government does in education, immigration law and in its strategies for settling refugees affects us all and the way we live.
“The Crossing,” by Manjeet Mann published by Penguin Books 2021
“Black and British. A Forgotten History,” by David Olusoga published by Pan Books 2016
The National Curriculum (History) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-history-programmes-of-study
Key Stage 3 mentions slavery and immigration but only requires a limited study.