This is Where I am is a narrative woven together from the differing perspectives of two central characters – Abdi an asylum seeker who has fled Somalia with his daughter, and Deborah, a woman who has withdrawn from her world after the death of her husband. The story centres around their journeys, both emotional and literal, to reconcile their past with their present.
Gradually we learn both of these character’s back stories and their own tragedies. Abdi fled Somalia and then a Kenyan refugee camp to seek asylum in Glasgow, but in the mayhem of his exodus his wife was left behind. Deborah spent much of her time caring for her husband, who eventually died of a muscle-wasting disease: at the point we meet her she is afraid to rebuild her life.
Through out the story there are several subplots around the lives of other migrants and asylum seekers – Abdi’s daughter who witnessed the trauma of her mother abandonment and won’t speak; Gamu who has been refused permission to stay in the UK due a Working Tax Credit mix up; and Rula, an illegal immigrant who commits suicide as a final act of desperation. Despite this, there could have been a stronger critique of the structural forces at play and a more nuanced portrayal of how abstract governmental policies and international politics dictate the daily lives of people.
This book did strike a particular chord with me because I live in Glasgow. I remember the tumult that resulted from Glasgow City Council losing its contract with the Home Office to house asylum seekers. I too love Kelvingrove Museum and Loch Lomond, one of a number of backdrops against which Deborah and Abdi’s relationship strengthens. However, I did wonder whether these aspects, which are so integral to the book, would have such resonance with readers outside of Scotland, and in particular outside the UK.
The pacing in the novel dips a bit in the middle, and could have done with some firmer editing to tighten it up. It was also a little clunky in dialogue relying on Glaswegian dialect which were then translated for Abdi’s (and presumably non-Scottish readers’) benefit.
However, there are passages in this novel that are beautiful, and conveyed the desperation and grinding poverty of those living in our refugee communities.
During a recent conversation, a woman who came to Glasgow as a asylum seeker 10 years ago tried to explain to me how it feels to arrive in a city where everything is so unfamiliar. ‘Its like swimming in a big sea’, she said, ‘ on your own. Its terrifying’. Karen Campbell has captured this terror and bewilderment and has managed to weave it into a story that is ultimately uplifting, even if a little flawed.