“A Refugee Crisis”
by Callan Wink
from the August 20, 2018 issue of The New Yorker

One of my favorite comment exchanges came thanks to Callan Wink’s “Breatharians.” There Wink — and I — were accused of animal cruelty; specifically, the slander went that we like to torture cats. But that isn’t the only reason I smile when I think of Wink’s work. He’s a talented young short story writer, and I’m glad to see his work again in The New Yorker! The magazine published his debut fiction — “Run Dog Moon” — back in 2011 (see our thoughts here). “Breatharians” came the next year (here are our thoughts — don’t miss the comments!). The next fiction of his I read, “One More Last Stand,” showed up in Granta in 2013; I considered it the weakest of the three, but I still remember it fondly (my thoughts here). In 2016 his debut collection of stories came out from

I haven’t had a chance today to look into “A Refugee Crisis,” but I’m excited to read it as soon as I get a moment. In the meantime, please feel free to comment below to join in a conversation about this story.

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By |2018-08-13T17:36:39-04:00August 13th, 2018|Categories: Callan Wink, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |5 Comments


  1. David August 14, 2018 at 7:05 am

    There is a tendency, I think, for some readers to want to resist stories about writers. Sometimes the perception is that the writer thinks he is just being clever to be indirectly self-referential and it’s been done many times before, so not really all that clever at all. Sometimes it might seem to be just too self-absorbed, or as Wink has this character put it, “the sort of navel-gazing drivel that I regarded with contempt”. And I can see how some might see how Wink explicitly acknowledging the latter problem as his clever attempt to get away with doing the former. But I don’t think any of that is what is really going on here. The story here is ultimately more about what it can be like for people who know writers personally and how being a writer can impair one’s social relationships, as the professional observational eye gets in the way. It’s a bit like the idea of someone who is a therapist who might, when getting in a fight with a loved one, throw in a “and how does that make you feel?” The job is an inescapable barrier, of sorts, to real contact.
    One of the ways Wink seems to make the character more clearly less autobiographical is in the list of writing ideas he has him make that M discovers. The list does not just indicate someone who is using his real experiences as fodder for his writing, but he is also someone who is more than a bit of an ass and has a very low opinion of M. It is really the latter that bothers M more than the former. It also reveals a lack of authenticity in the real experiences with people the character is having, something that might also help explain why he is having difficulty with his writing.
    Overall I liked this story and I like Wink’s writing perhaps more than the story itself. The story at the start about the guy who takes tourists dogsledding just seems at first glance like a nice introduction to the place and a bit of the main character, but it is a well chosen anecdote to reflect the ideas of the rest of the story. Her is a guy who was a competitive dogsled racer who is now just going through the motions in what might seem like a parody of that to entertain unathletic tourists. The contrast between the authenticity of his former experiences in the Iditarod and the uninspiring fake version put on for tourists makes a nice parallel to the writer’s problem of comparing the authenticity of lived experience to the cannibalized versions he puts together for his reading audience.

  2. Julian Wyllie August 14, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    This story is suffocating in a good way. For the most part, all we’re given are the perspectives of a successful writer who’s writing about a writer in peril, as well as a woman who returned from a foreign country that has refugee problems, as well as a problem of her own.

    In that premise we’re presented with a man who’s happy to complain about writing as well as a woman who is apologetic about being in a guy’s space while she mentally recovers. Insert various lines about privileged Americans complaining while others in the world have less. We even get a commentary here about how well-off white women use their time to save blacks and browns in “other” places, even when we know they have the opportunity to go back home whenever they please.

    Passages I most enjoyed were when the protagonist was distracted by his house guest doing mundane things. At one point, he asks her to put headphones on for her movies in bed time (she’s fond of Bollywoods) which leads her to apologize for being too loud. She also apologizes for “not putting out” and adds that him not getting any for her impromptu stay must be an inconvenience to the writer who “generously” allowed her to stay. It’s hilarious because you know that all along he doesn’t mind her being there because at the end of the day he’s gonna get to write an edgy story where he fake complains about the whole ordeal. Without her, we know he wouldn’t have had anything real to write about, which is the key problem his story about a writer struggling to write has. Whew.

    These finer points made M the true star of the story for me. Her diatribe on “the magic trick” women can do with their bodies fits as both a commentary on the world and a big explanation for her thought process in comparison to his. Yes, she’s worried about something concrete, we read, but so is the writer writing about how hard it is to exist and write, we get again towards the conclusion.

    And in that end, to her, he’s just a guy who is ignorant to global affairs if it’s not going to go in one of his books, which is a fair assessment. But to him she’s just another white girl happy to have found something bumper-sticker worthy to believe in. Readers are left to decide who’s the bigger fool. I’d say both, I think.

  3. Ruby August 18, 2018 at 6:47 pm

    Wow I didn’t find this story to be making anyone out to be a fool (nor am I very appreciative of stories that do, since we all know by now nothing is that simple.) It certainly questions its narrator at every turn, but then again, the narrator is also ostensibly doing the questioning! To me, beyond the self-reflexivity, this is a story about distance–about the distance a writer consciously or unconsciously keeps, often at his own peril, between himself and the people he plans to write about, about the distance we all manage to keep between ourselves and the people we know are suffering (in part due to our inaction) elsewhere in the world, about the distance between men and women and our notions of power and solace, about the distance between what you said to somebody you cared about and what you really meant, about the distance between fiction that enlivens and the uncomfortable reality it comes out of. If I were teaching this story in a class I would ask: Who are the refugees in this story? And what are the crises?

    This story proved much more resonant than I expected going in (I had not read Wink before.)

  4. Victoria Weinstein August 23, 2018 at 9:34 am

    I was disappointed in the sloppiness of this story. It seemed to be a draft that someone should have encouraged Wink to work further. I get that it’s a story about a writer struggling with his process, but I feel like I could see too much of the scaffolding of Wink’s own outline as I read, but not in an artistic way — just in a lazy, I-didn’t-feel-like-working-on-this-any-more way. M. was a cliche, and he handled her character in a casually misogynist way that I did not appreciate, reducing her to smells and body parts and SJW slogans. The narrator isn’t just stuck, he’s an uninteresting asshole. I like characters who are assholes, but not boring ones. The guy was barely alive.
    The convenience of the insulting notes about M. was totally unbelievable to me. The tone of his notes was inconsistent with the narrator’s voice through the rest of the story, and I felt like again, I could see Wink’s own work in progress rather than a complete piece.

    The dogsled guy was the one element that felt literary and finished.

    So I thought it was a decent idea poorly executed and one of the worst short stories the New Yorker has published in a long time.

  5. Larry Bone August 27, 2018 at 8:45 pm

    “The Refugee Crisis” seems like a very accurate picture of a particular type of gifted writer protagonist.  And he doesn’t have to be a writer but could be any gifted professional.  Writing seems just something he can do well without ever much effort.  He was born with the craft that other writers sweat blood to achieve.

    Writing advice counsels that successful writers only write what they most care about.  The protagonist seems to care most about sourcing some income for the next 6 months to a year and a half.  By contrast, his rich young lady friend lives what she most cares about.  She may have a few flaws but in this world of entitled haves and reaching for anything have-nots she is much more sympathetic and interesting.

    The first person I-me-me-I tone is off putting so the seal the deal keep the reader reading to the end detail of really pungent sled dog doodies holds the reader’s attention.  The writer’s success is unbelievable because most successful writers in the top 4 to 6 per cent have to teach at a university or teach English to survive.  Even if they have a really successful novel, they are only paid twice a year.

    If the protagonist was paid a large advance, he could have to return it and/or be permanently dropped by his publisher and agent if he doesn’t produce something in 6 months depending on his contract.  So the writing part of story doesn’t seem plausible.

    Perhaps the writer could be like Vladimir Nabokov having trouble writing a book until a news story appears about a 13 year old girl kidnapped and made into a sex slave, which resulted in his best selling novel, “Lolita.”

    If the squalor of human nature turns you on, this is an entertaining short story.  Otherwise it is well put together thematically and relatively well executed but otherwise not very interesting.

    Wink explains this story in the lines:

    “Some people are people.  Some people are monsters.  Most just seem casually vacant and can’t be bothered to care.”

    So we have this former best selling author vacant of any awesome story idea who sorts through the detritus of his easy-going sorry self serving life, trying to cobble table scraps of someone else’s life into a huge best seller.  Possible but pretty unlikely.

    Maybe the crisis of the refugees is that most people are becoming more vacant and more introvertedly self serving about it as the number of refugees worldwide increases into hundreds of thousands.

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