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Refugee Writing – Writing the Refugee

Jopi Nyman

The aim of this paper is approach critically the notion of Black Europe by focusing on the figure of the refugee and its cultural construction. While the issue has been foregrounded in the social sciences by examining the questions of forced migration from social, political and media studies perspectives, critical studies of the cultural production by and about the refugee(s) are hitherto rare.

In this paper, which seeks to outline the themes of my proposed larger project dealing with refugee writing, I will address two aspects related to the thematic, representation and self-representation, in the context of Black Britain. In other words, it is my to larger aim examine, first, fictional and autobiographical narratives written by African refugees in the United Kingdom collected in anthologies (e.g., Ngalle Charles et al. 2003 and 2004; Langer 1997), and, second, to address the continuous stream of cultural and literary representations of African refugees and asylum seekers to Britain we have witnessed in recent years. The need to revise questions of national identity and Englishness based on strategies of exclusion is evident in the controversial novels by Black British writers such Abdulrazak Gurnah (By the Sea, 2001), Caryl Phillips (A Distant Shore, 2003), and Benjamin Zephaniah (Refugee Boy, 2001), and also in novels by other writers examining similar issues (e.g., Bernard Ashley’s Little Soldier, 1999). Through an examination of the construction of the refugee and/or asylum seeker in various cultural texts, I will seek to historicize this on-going narrative representation of refugee identity in the larger context of Black European history.

While the notion of forced migration has a long history, its traditional representation has often focused on the exile of political leaders and intellectuals. In an increasingly more globalized world, however, a constant flow of refugees to the centres of colonial empires generates not only representations of unwanted and illiterate people seeking to enter Europe. However, to counter such dominant images popularized in mainstream media and what Kundnani calls “new popular racism” (2001), it is highly relevant to examine the counterdiscursive strategies utilized by (im)migrants themselves and to address their self-representations. I am also arguing that the current emergence of refugee writing is another example of what Stuart Hall (2000) describes as the unintended effects of globalization: these narratives function as critical sites countering the values of homogenization and alleged progress.

In my proposed paper, I will pay particular attention to the autobiographical and discursive construction of the refugee in a variety of cultural texts. In so doing, I will seek to address questions such as the following ones:

  • How is the position of the refugee/ asylum seeker imagined in the texts with reference to questions of home and in-betweenness?

  • In what ways do discourses of nation and race regulate the production of the identity of the refugee? To what extent do self-representations disrupt desired national narratives?

  • In what ways do (im)migrants negotiate their position amidst such discourses?

  • Does refugee writing construct shared, transnational networks to cope with the experience of dislocation?

In my earlier research, I have addressed questions of diaspora, nationalism and post/colonial identity in various genres and texts of British, American and Commonwealth writing spanning the twentieth century and several literary genres ranging from fiction and travel writing to autobiographical narratives and media texts (see Nyman 2000, 2003, 2005; Nyman and Blake 2001). This research will be based on a similar theoretical framework combining postcolonial critiques of nationalism with insights from the field of cultural studies. One of the strong points in this study is to connect the non-canonical narratives of refugees and exiles anthologized and published by minor UK publishers to the context of globalization on the one hand and to the cultural production of better known Black British writers on the other hand. In future, the analysis can be supplemented by i) addressing earlier narratives of African exile in the UK, ii) approaching the thematic from a cross-cultural perspective and discussing transnational links between refugee writers and iii) examining different national responses to similar phenomena.

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