Disrupting Refugee Literature: ‘Whatever Else, The Language Needs To Change’

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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“They expect to come across their own humanity through your tragedy” – Hassan Blasim.

disrupting refugee literature: ‘whatever else, the language needs to change’
The UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is urging people, this month, to “read a book for World Refugee Day.” Surely, why not? Books are, after all, an important mechanism of socio-narrative movement. They can help us take, as Refugee Week promises in their tagline, “Different Pasts,” to knit together a “Shared Future.”

But what sorts of books are we to read? The titles on the UNHCR recommendation lists aren’t necessarily recent, and they vary widely: There are novels about refugees from World Wars I and II; stories about women fleeing from contemporary spousal violence; refugees from Palestine in 1948; from Vietnam, Chile, and Sudan. In some ways, this diversity of tales seems useful in widening the discussions around human movement.

But, as the upcoming “Refugee Literature Workshop” asks, what does it mean to place such different narratives together under a single “refugee” umbrella? What does it mean for “refugee literature” to be placed outside a “national literature,” particularly when the latter is not a literature of staying-put, but a literature of priveleged movement?

Some on the UNHCR list, such as Silent Night, Unholy Night: Refugee Stories, seem themselves to re-enact a sort of detention. They range their stories out in front of the reader, museum-like, and we watch from behind glass: shaking our heads, clicking our tongues, feeling ourselves blessed. We are not from Saudi Arabia, at least.

“All literature,” Youssef Rakha wrote in a recent essay for The Common, “…remains an expression of the culture that produces it and a working-out of the power relations that control that culture.”

Just so, the framing of “refugee literature” often keeps it at the margins, reinforcing symbols and meanings that underpin contemporary borders. Still, there is also the minority literature that disrupts, such as the forthcoming Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. In Refugee Tales, there is a clear attempt to wrestle with power: to shift categories, change language, question itself, contest accepted practices. As Refugee Tales’ David Herd writes at the end of his afterword: “Whatever else, the language” — and how it binds up the ways we see or don’t see those people we call “refugees” — “needs to change.”

(Hopefully) disruptive events in the coming months:

June 10: A Country of Refuge Readings, London: The launch of A Country of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers, edited by Lucy Popescu. Details here.

June 20, Welcome Literary Event, London: “Do join us for a diverse evening of literature, discussion, poetry, film, readings, theatre and performance with Ahmad Massoud, Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Stephen Watts and Juan delGado with a screening of the film Journey into Memory by Hala Mohammad.” Details here.

July 3, “Being Detained Indefinitely” A Day of Thought, Performance and Action, Canterbury. Details here.

July 8, Launch of Refugee Tales, London:  Ali Smith will read ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ and Billy Bragg will perform. Details here.

July 8, Strangers: Jeremy Irons & Shakespeare, London: “What would Shakespeare make of the refugee crisis? He imagined Sir Thomas More delivering a powerful plea on the issue – which Jeremy Irons has agreed to perform for us on Queen’s Walk directly outside the Southbank Centre. It’s Shakespeare’s last surviving handwritten play script.Details here.

From two disruptive Iraqi writers:

Sargon Boulus: “A Refugee Tells” (trans. Youssef Rakha)

Hassan Blasim: “A Refugee in the Paradise That is Europe” (trans. Jonathan Wright)

Click HERE to read more

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