“You have to tell a story”: Emma Jane Kirby on reporting the migration crisis

by Emma Jane Kirby in conversation with Hettie O’Brien

The howl mutated into an unbearable screeching. The Optician felt his stomach knot. Something was roaring underneath the waves. Whatever it was, the Optician had a gut feeling that when they found it, it would be truly terrible. He forced himself to regulate his breathing and tried to nod reassuringly at Teresa who was looking at him in horror. Then, suddenly he saw something.

“Fish! I see three big fish there! Francesco – five o’clock!”

Francesco maneuvered the boat in the direction of his outstretched arm. The Optician kept his eye trained on the black dots he saw bobbing on the water and tried to steady his mind. But his brain was arguing with his eyes. What kind of fish would be on the surface of the water, idiot? Come on, what kind of fish?

“More fish there!” Maria was pointing slightly to the right of his outstretched arm, leaning over the rail, her face screwed up to the sun. But the Optician was still staring with a professional intensity at the objects he had spotted, focused as fixedly as a customer in his own shop sitting in front of the reading charts. He willed his eyes and brain to recognise and interpret the forms.

Galata drifted closer, the little boat dancing nervously up and down in the slight swell. They were thirty metres away and the frenetic clamouring was intensifying.

The Optician recoiled. One of the black shapes he was watching lengthened, partly lifting up from the water and then flopping down again into a ball. It disappeared, leaving a white froth of disturbed water.

Oh God no.
Please God no.

“People!” Giulia screamed. “There are people in the water!”

From The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby (London: Allen Lane, 2016)


Six years on from the start of the Syrian civil war, the migration crisis has developed a rich and powerful imagery: pictures of overcrowded rubber boats at sea, of Aleppo’s obliterated streets, and of makeshift settlements in Calais. Though the scale of the dislocation can be overwhelming, images and objects – like the picture of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach – have helped awaken UK public opinion to the human cost of the crisis. As part of our new series on migration, Hettie O’Brien spoke to Emma Jane Kirby, an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered the European migration crisis for the BBC. Her recent book, The Optician of Lampedusa, blends fact and fictive elements to tell the real-life story of Carmine Menna, a local optician who found himself at the centre of the crisis when he rescued drowning migrants from the Mediterranean.

HO: What happened on the day in October 2013 that the story revolves around?

EJK: The coast guard are so flat out with boats, all the time. But something went badly wrong that day. The migrants were less than a kilometre from shore. They could see the light. They told me that they were so close to land, they could see the headlights from the cars – they’d all gone up to celebrate on deck, that this was Europe, their new home, their new life.

Then somebody lit a towel to use as a flare. They’d turned off the motor, which meant the bilge pump wasn’t working. Unfortunately… the gasoline spilt along the deck and it burnt the deck. They all moved to one side of the boat. And then, it tipped.

HO: In the book, you portray the journalists working in Lampedusa as opportunistic and insensitive. Do you think this tendency is reflected in how migration is
documented in the press more broadly?

EJK: I think you see it all over the place, not just in Lampedusa. Of course, journalists have to be impartial and take a certain cold distance. Nobody wants to see a reporter, live on air, crying their eyes out. But I’m never embarrassed to say that I cry all the time – and I won’t apologise for that… The day we stop crying, is the day we lose our humanity. These are human beings, and they are suffering. You can’t turn a blind eye to that fact.

HO: In saying you cry regularly, do you ever become desensitised to what you’re reporting?

EJK: I don’t think I have been; I believe the way to explain the migration crisis to people – without them getting lost in the sheer thousands of migrants arriving every day and drowning every day and losing it in those numbers – is to pull out that one face, that one person. You have to tell a story. Sometimes, images break through, like that dreadful image of the tiny little body being washed up.

It’s a bit like the question of how you explain to this generation what the Holocaust was. It’s the face – the face that sticks out from the numbers – that makes people relate. We always have to find ways to tell stories, to make people understand. It isn’t enough to say people came in and were handed high-energy biscuits and a bottle of water.

HO: Single events, like being handed high-energy biscuits and bottles of water, are documented and reported in the news. We don’t really hear about the affective non-events, such as feelings of fatigue and shame. It takes a literary account to document these non-events.

EJK: Yes, exactly. What I really wanted to show was that life went on after that dreadful event, but it had shattered those lives – their lives will never be the same again. On the third anniversary, I went back to Lampedusa and went out on the boat, with the optician and his friends. When we were having dinner together, the optician told me how, when he pulled that first boy out of the water – he said, ‘I felt something like… something like… love’.

I think that’s what I wanted to show. We aren’t likely to meet people on the migration trail, and when we hear about them, we feel only pity for them. Those real encounters between people are visceral.

HO: The Lampedusa Cross in the British Museum captures a social reality and curates and preserves how it will be remembered by future generations. Did you want to do a similar thing?

EJK: Yes, I think I did. We have to document this for future generations, just as the British Museum did when they so bravely decided to display a piece of living history. What will future generations think of our policies towards Syria, towards refugees? As a journalist, I have to remain impartial. But the thing about the book is it doesn’t matter what you think about migration – whether you’re right or left, pro or anti. What you can’t ignore is that thousands of people are dying on Europe’s doorstep.


About the Author

Emma Jane Kirby in conversation with Hettie O’Brien

Emma Jane Kirby is a foreign correspondent for BBC Radio 4's The World at One and the author of The Optician of Lampedusa (London: Allen Lane, 2016). Hettie O'Brien is a freelance writer who is currently studying for an MPhil at Newnham College, Cambridge.