By Spencer Wolff
On July 27, 2009 a group of some sixty refugees, armed with rocks and makeshift weapons, assaulted the UN refugee bureau (UNHCR) in Rabat, Morocco. Windows were shattered, guards and police injured, security cameras smashed to the ground. Eventually the Moroccan army was forced to intervene. Those of us in the building barely escaped with our lives.
The story behind that dramatic day, and why a group of refugees would attack the very institution sworn to defend them, is the subject of my forthcoming novel, The Fire in His Wake (McSweeney’s, 2020). My own personal history, how I went from a quiet street in West Greenwich Village to shielding my face while rocks crashed into my office, and a battle raged before the UNHCR, lives in those pages as well.
In 2009, the UNCHR in Rabat tended to a small population of refugees, mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Arès, the central protagonist of The Fire in His Wake is one—though the novel is also told through the eyes of Simon, a young employee at the UNHCR. Arès’ narrow escape from certain death, and his epic trans-African journey, is a classic story of migration. His numerous attempts to break into Europe, by boat across the Mediterranean, or through the barriers at the Spanish enclave of Melilla, could be ripped from yesterday’s headlines.
This may all seem a far cry from the leafy, winding streets of the West Village. But growing up on Morton Street, just two doors down from the exiled poet-laureate Joseph Brodsky, alerted me to the fact that refugees are hidden all around us. Like so many New Yorkers, my own family history testified to this: from great grandparents who narrowly escaped murderous pogroms and undertook perilous journeys to the New World, to German relatives who never had that chance. We are an immigrant city and stories like these abound, etched into the kindly wrinkles in our neighbors’ faces that we pass by every day in the streets.
Listening to such tales in my youth led me to apply for a position at the UNHCR. It also helped me understand the longings of the refugees I met in Rabat. From their perspective, Europe was a modern Ellis Island, a gateway to a new life. They were hardly any different from Brodsky himself, cast out as a young man by a brutal dictatorship. Desperate escapees, trying to survive in a hostile land until they could find passage onward. When they finally discovered that there was no way out, they took a stand worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. The Fire in His Wake tells their story and that of a group of aid workers whose best intentions only pave the way to catastrophe. It’s a novel full of suspense and unexpected humor, and there’s even a love story thrown in for good measure. Many New Yorkers will likely recognize themselves in its pages; Joseph Brodsky surely would.
The Fire in His Wake (McSweeney’s, 2020) is Spencer Wolff’s first novel. It will be published on June 23, 2020.