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Book review of Sam Miller’s Migrants: To move is to live, to live is to move


Sam Miller’s ‘Migrants’ takes a sweeping view of migration and sets it at the centre of the human story

Mumbai,ISSUE DATE: Apr 17, 2023 | UPDATED: Apr 7, 2023 21:27 IST

What is the common thread uniting the Neanderthals, Turkish guest workers, Christopher Columbus and the Trojan prince Aeneas? They were all migrants. The Neanderthals moved around seasonally, guest workers travelled from Turkey to Germany for work in the 1960s, Columbus roved the world in search of continents and the mythical Aeneas roamed until he arrived in Rome. All of them feature in Sam Miller’s sweeping historical account of human movement, Migrants: The Story of Us All. Miller, a journalist and former BBC correspondent who has himself traversed several countries, parses the entirety of human history through the lens of migration. It is his aim, he writes in the prologue, to “restore migration to the heart of the human story”, to bust the “myth of sedentarism”.

Modern debates around migration are charged, political hot buttons that boil down to visas and borders. The news is full of images of North Africans fleeing to Europe, or Mexicans trying to cross into the US. In the contemporary imagination, the word itself may conjure up images of desperation and poverty. But migrants are so much more, in Miller’s telling. His thesis is simple: migration is the throughline of the human story, no matter how settled we believe ourselves to be, ultimately we are all children of migrants.

Starting from the earliest humans, who dispersed out of Africa, Miller dredges up episodes from the past to fortify his position. For his purpose, the word ‘migrant’ is value-free. It thus encompasses colonial adventurers, West African slaves as well as Jewish refugee communities. Migrants is an enormous work of synthesis, and Miller’s choices are both obvious and idiosyncratic, as any panoramic view of history must be. Along the way, he unravels some popular myths; the Neanderthals are not quite the dim-witted ancestors we have been told they are, and the Vandals vandalised little.

Miller has a relaxed style and leavens the telling with charming personal interludes—his potted family history, his grand-aunt Polly’s flight from the embers of the Russian empire, his quest for answers in his own DNA. Throughout, he is careful of acknowledging his own privileges; perhaps too often at pains to remind us that while he, too, is a migrant, he suffers from none of the backlash visited upon other kinds of migrants.

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