Beautiful and Thought-Provoking, Refugee Tales Gives a Voice to the Unheard

For me, the migrant crisis has always felt like a crisis the news media is unequipped to deal with. While terrorist attacks or natural disasters are presented to us with the ease of a cinematic finale; with images that force our jaws to hit the floor as we comprehend what exactly has happened and what it means, whenever I see the images of refugees like Aziz, arriving by some fraudulent description of a boat, I am left with a great big void where comprehension should sit. We don’t and cannot see the Syrian civil war that interrupted Aziz’s life as an engineering student or that visited ‘despots, droughts, and deities’ to his country. We don’t see the packed-out vans or the threats of torture and death. We don’t see his fantasies of the England of his imagination, the decision to dip stale bread in water so that it was soft enough to eat or the uncertainty of detention centres that would come to plague his life. 

Aziz is the subject of Dragan Todorovic’s The Migrant’s Tale, the first story in Comma Press’s Refugee Tales (edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus). The collection, published in 2016, contains the voices of those pulled into the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe. 

Transcribed by novelists and poets such as Ali Smith and Inua Ellams, they attempt to tell the stories of migrant workers, political and religious refugees, and those who help them in their passage from one country to another. The stories attempt to fill in the supermassive hole behind headlines like EU Curbs Rubber Boat Sales to Libya by chronicling the journey of individuals through the mayhem. 

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s The Arriver’s Tale opens with the somewhat flippant line, ‘I came by air. It may sound odd to say that – what other way then?’ because this is only a minor detail to the subject of the story; they are not their journey or the means they took. Gurnah instead focuses on the person behind the journey, in this case, a man who stands up to the female genital mutilation in his country.

This approach not only humanises each of the subjects but adds to the cacophony of voices included in the collection and, with the assistance of established writers, is done so with effecting skill. 

Inua Ellams’ The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale follows Dani and the eponymous minor, Senebesh. Senebesh repeatedly asks Dani for stories to entertain her as they try to escape from religious persecution to England. Senebesh’s father has been imprisoned for being Pentecostal Christian in a place where only Orthodox Islam or Christianity is accepted. Ellam shows Senebech’s begging for a story from Dani immediately after the pair have watched ‘three people die of thirst on the truck, listen to others wailing in the night, hallucinating, asking for beers and cold drinks before a silence claimed them.’ Expressing in one scene not only the dynamic of Dani and Senebesh and the dangers they are experiencing but the importance of stories and their telling.

 the movement of asylum versus the pain of standing still

Now, Comma Press has released the second volume of these stories, and like the first, each one stands out not only because of its tone, perspective or voice but because of its choice of style and form. Most are narrative prose, but they are interspersed with more loose, poetic stories. Ian Duhig’s The Walker’s Tale uses a repeating, poetic structure to not only simulate the step-by-step nature of the walker’s story – ‘I go two steps, she moves two steps away…’ – but to likewise help us feel the almost rhythmic doubling of the migrant’s journey as he moves from country to country and then city to city, meeting with the same experience of beatings and death and the constant need to move

‘Step outside your detention centre, get kidnapped; stay in, get

beaten,

abused, starved. Because he can mind animals, he’s taken to a farm…’

This theme of doubling is brought up again in Helen Macdonald’s The Student’s Tale, the story of a university student accused of spreading his Christian faith to other men. The student, in talking to the narrator, reaches a point where he feels it necessary to repeat his worst feeling:

‘‘Several times,’ you tell me, ‘I see my death.’

Then you say it again. ‘I see my death.’’

The narrator offers as the reason for this the recent discovery that short-term and long-term memory is recorded in the memory simultaneously, ‘Which makes everything that ever happens to us happen twice.’ This idea of doubling, of mirroring, reflects the unspoken dualities of these refugees: their status as a refugee versus their life before and where they are going versus where they are coming from. But Refugee Tales introduces us to another duality: the movement of asylum versus the pain of standing still.

The student in Macdonald’s tale is sent to a detention centre where inmates cut themselves with razors and lash out in violence while governments and changing laws decide where he will be sent to next. 

 Waiting indefinitely to be removed imminently

Kamila Shamsie’s The Lover’s Tales, a magnificently written story about moving and not moving, follows John, who has ‘‘nowhere to go’, which may be another way of saying ‘no way of going.’’ Embroiled in an uneasy relationship with a woman named Sarah, whose father is a government financier in a country where John’s own activist father has been murdered, he is held captive first by the corrupt government and then by the police in London, who hold him in a detention centre for six months after John is convinced to take on illegal work. Here he must fear for Sarah while being unable to return to his country or support his family. 

The system that holds these refugees is likewise represented in this second volume, with each of the tales adding to the overall impression of its Kafkaesque complexity. Alex Preston’s The Witness’ Tale tells of a migrant’s experience with the law as it fumbles through the prosecution of a people-smuggling gang and is complimented by Rachel Holmes’ The Barrister’s Tale, which tells us of the almost cynical process of preparing asylum applicants for their case. ‘Waiting indefinitely to be removed imminently. It’s like Beckett and Orwell met for a bender on Bloomsday in The Kafka’s Head.’

This is what literature and these stories are able to present; the breadth of these people’s lives. Something an image based media cannot hope to accomplish. 

But what makes Refugee Tales unique, and which also spares it from accusations of choir pandering, is the feeling of ineptitude inherent in these writers trying to express the stories of refugees. This is present throughout both collections – this idea of the writer either unable to sufficiently translate or give justice to these stories – but is explicit in Ali Smith’s The Detainee’s Tale. 

Another victim of movement and stillness, Smith’s ever brilliant ability tells us of a detainee’s life on the cusp of being moved in and out of holding cells and detention centres. Always just about to return to Ghana where his life will be in danger or low paying illegal work. Smith is unafraid to show us both her hesitation in telling the refugee’s story and her fascination with it. ‘I am an idiot. But I’m learning.’ While it provides everything we might want from our literature or even our news, it is, however, ultimately useless to the story’s subject, who, when he notices the narrator finishing the transcription and getting up to leave, says:

I thought you would help me. 

A provocation not of the collection’s quality but of our complicity. Our sitting back and just watching.

Refugee Tales 1 & 2 are published by Comma Press and are both out now.​

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