Book Review: Contemporary Asylum Narratives
Contemporary Asylum Narratives: Representing Refugees in the Twenty-First Century, Woolley, Agnes, New York (USA), Palgrave Macmillan (First Published 2014) pp 239
ISBN: 9781137299055 (Hardback) Price: US$100
Contemporary Asylum Narratives announces its objective upfront; it seeks to enquire into “the communicability of the asylum experience” in narrative fiction, films, and theater (2). However, this volume is much more than your regular exegeses of cultural narratives about refugee experiences in Britain. It thoroughly contextualizes its textual archive within current legislative definitions of terms like “asylum” and “refugees” in UN documents, Britain, and Europe, within juridical protocols and proceedings that decide whether the refugee has a valid reason to be granted asylum or not, and key theoretical scholarship on migration, globalization, and ethics of narrating the other (Homi K. Bhabha, David Farrier, Stuart Hall, Jacques Derrida, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Simon Gikandi, Khwame Anthony Appiah, Paul Gilroy, and Arjun Appudurai amongst others). This comprehensive critical framework clearly lays out the complex history and discourses surrounding the current refugee crisis in Europe for both academic and non-academic audiences. But without rendering it simplistic in any fashion. It also allows the book to make a crucial intervention “in the tension between migration as a ‘poetics of relocation’ (Bhabha, 1994, p. 225), and the materiality of displacement, statelessness and border crossing” (4). In other words, Dr. Woolley’s book serves as an invaluable supplement to literary and cultural scholarship about immigration experiences that often-chiefly focus on nostalgia for the home country and challenges of assimilation in the host country (Salman Rushdie, Anupama Jain, Malashri Lal and Sukrita Paul Kumar), racial melancholia (David L. Eng and Shinhee Han), and generational divides amongst immigrant populations (Piyali Bhattacharya, Susan Eckstein and Mette Louise Berg, Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur. Contemporary Asylum urges a more in-depth, expansive conversation around lived experiences of immigration from below by asking – How do you narrate the story of those who are caught between host-land and homeland; not metaphorically but in real life? How do you make their trials and tribulations visible in order to sensitize the public to their stories when the latter’s survival depends on their remaining invisible; imbricated with the bodies of ships, of trucks, and the system, sometimes illegally? How do you let the refugees’ voice come through versus speaking for them? Herein, Dr. Woolley’s work is a welcome addition to critical deliberations on the immigration experience of at-risqué populations such as Aihwa Ong’s ethnographic account of Cambodian refugees in California in Buddha is Hiding; Refugees, Citizenship, the New America (2003), Inderpal Grewal’s study of Sikh refugees in the U.S. in Transnational America: Feminisms, Diasporas, Neoliberalisms (2005), and Mahmud Mamdani’s memoir on Ugandan Asians’ experiences in Britain in From Citizen to Refugee: Uganda Asians Come to Britain (2011).
Drawing on a range of narrative media and genres, this volume makes a compelling argument for how self-aware fiction and non-fiction, film and theater confront “proliferating sites of exclusion in Britain […] [to] provide unsovereign spaces, in which authorial sovereignty is undermined through an insistent attention to the challenging aspects of [narrating the traumatic conditions that make one a refugee and] imagining and representing asylum” (211). The author deftly unpacks how storylines, dialogues, formal, and para-textual elements produce the text itself as an imaginative site for readers to ethically connect with refugee subjects. Here communication is engendered in two ways. One, readers are invited to extend towards refugee lives in the pages of the book or on the screen through imagining who these people are, the places they have left behind, and how they experience Britain. Refugees are never “native informants” (Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak), instead readers must do the work of reaching out to them. Sometimes such exertions can be frustrating and/or discomfiting given the challenges of encountering historical, economic, and cultural others. But as the author underscores, such crises are deemed as important starting points of communication between British natives and asylum seekers. Two, these texts are extremely self-aware and critical of their own intrusive gaze into refugee lives. Subsequently, audiences pick up on this which then creates opportunities for them to reflect on the violence of modes of seeing and unseeing refugees. It also foregrounds the unfairness of government committees requiring asylum seekers to furnish a clear, coherent, and empirical narrative that fits legislative bills for who counts as an “authentic refugee” even in the face of severely traumatic migration experiences.
The introduction substantially and efficiently grounds the reader in the murky, multilayered context of immigration policies and practices in Britain and public responses to it from the late 20th. C to the present. Dr. Woolley’s volume thus starts out strong. It continues to amaze and impress further as it investigates how three different literary genres (novels, films, and plays) navigate the precarious politics of representing refugee figures and documenting their testimonies. Each chapter critically engages with genre conventions and relevant theoretical concepts. It also offers compelling, original close readings of the narrative and enters them into conversation with existing critical scholarship on the text. Such rigorous and exhaustive readings of all primary texts allows Contemporary Asylum to foreground not just the diverse representational anxieties concomitant upon encounters between British citizen-subjects/authors and refugees but also shows how such tensions are engendered at intersections of race, class, caste, gender, age, and sexual identities of both parties, their physical locations within the island of Britain, and at different points of refugee’s journeys to or from Britain.
The book’s clear and cogent organization further adds to its appeal. Each section deals with a specific medium of representation and is divided into an introduction, two chapters, and a conclusion. Such consistency not only helps one better remember the arguments made in each section, it also allows someone who needs to read the author’s analysis of a particular text to access that section quickly and easily. While the entire volume would be a welcome addition in any graduate class dealing with refugee narratives, the depth and detailed analyses in each short chapter makes it particularly amenable for undergraduate classes where the instructor might only want to use a chapter or part of one.
In the first section titled “Hospitable Representations,” the author studies two novels – Graham Swift’s The Light of Day (2003) in chapter one and Caryl Phillips’ A Distant Shore (2003) in chapter two. In the former, the Croatian refugee Kristina has an affair with her English employer’s husband, is outcast, and must finally leave the country. But before that eventuality, Sarah, her English employer hires a private detective, George to track the lovers’ movements. George subsequently takes to conjectures, speculations, and rampant imaginations of who Kristina might be and what her former homeland must be like. A violent murder in south-west England makes him immediately relate it to the Croatian countryside during the war. It is moments like these that highlight the individual mind’s attempted empathy towards the refugee figure even though such hospitality is problematic given the detective’s drawing on Orientalist stereotypes to imagine the other and their homelands as sites of violence and excess. In A Distant Shore, Woolley limns the “communicable empathy” between the female, English protagonist Dorothy and the African refugee Gabriel/Solomon. Dorothy’s age and newness in the village of Weston marks her an outsider to the community just like Gabriel/Solomon, given his color and foreign nationality. However, the high point of this chapter’s textual analysis lies in how the novel becomes “the act of hospitality” by “[r]ecovering through the imagination the ‘unseen and unheard strata of experience (Clingman, 2007, p. 57) of which forced migration is a part.” Thus, the novel doesn’t attempt to tell Gabriel/Solomon’s story for him. Instead, its disjunctive structure and rapid “perspectival shifts” connect readers to the characters’ traumatic experiences as refugees and outcastes (53).
Part two studies Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (2000) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (2006). Both films offer up stories of minority migrants while being troubled by the camera’s own interpretative gaze upon refugee subjects. In the former, the camera and the audience become complicit with state surveillance mechanisms and exploitative male pornographic gaze in acts of “looking at” refugees as objects of curiosity. Such representational strategies foreground that looking into “the world of asylum” is always a complex act, an ethically murky territory, given the voyeuristic and dehumanizing modes and means of spectatorship. In reading Children of Men, Woolley draws on Giorgio Agamben’s theorization of the camp as the “materialization of the state of exception” where power “openly confronts [this bare body that is] pure, biological life,” in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1995) to foreground how Cuaron’s “probing camera technique” (99) makes visible the British government and citizens’ complicity in exercising power and oppression at refugee campsites. Despite its radical futuristic imagination of extra-national spaces and humanity as more empowering than the nation-state and citizenship and its designating Kee, the poor, black refugee woman as the one to birth that future, chapter four critiques the film on two counts: one, the film’s “ill-defined” (109) and vague conception of what such a community would look like and two, as Kee becomes the “symbol and bearer of pure humanity” her political subjectivity becomes diminished reducing her and her newborn to tabula rasa(s) for others to script the new world order on.
Part three engages with Kay Adshead’s The Bogus Woman (2001) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Credible Witness (2002). Both raise the question of “narrative possibility” (123) vis-à-vis refugee subjects. In contradistinction to fixed UN definitions and legislative expectations of coherent, empirical narratives from asylum seekers, Adshead and Wertenbaker’s plays limn the narrative fractures, traumatic silence, and dissonant storylines that characterize refugee narratives. Drawing on Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s definitions of trauma and Cathy Caruth’s theorization of bearing witness to such trauma, Woolley underscores how both texts engender a reciprocal “bearing witness” between the refugee protagonists and British audiences. This is supplemented by the creative use of the theatrical space e.g. the “shared perceptual field” (138) that enables the audience access to the refugee woman’s point of view in Adshead and “the constantly shifting terrain” of the stage that more effectively performs a dismantling of the walls of “Fortress Europe” in Wertenbaker (157). Finally in part four, Woolley considers Chris Cleaves’ novel The Other Hand (2009) and Kate Clanchy’s non-fictional account in Antigona and Me (2009) to establish how “paratextual” (Gerard Genette) elements – authorial engagements with heterogeneous texts in producing their work available in reader’s guide and notes sections, epigraphs, and in narrative allusions – gesture at multiple voices, experiences, and modes of storytelling that contest and complicate the single truth of refugee experience ordained by the author and government policies for granting asylum.
As outlined above, Contemporary Asylum makes a significant contribution to postcolonial, migration, and refugee studies. It is also critical to mobility and transport studies. For instance, the introductory chapter begins with an x-ray image of refugees from French documentarian Elias Grootaers’ film Not Waving, But Drowning (2009). The film negative that also serves as the volume’s front cover, shows the refugees trying to imbricate themselves with the cargo in the large shipping containers and the metallic structure of the truck that is carrying them to their asylum destinations. As Dr. Woolley notes, their very survival depends on their succeeding to make themselves invisible to the border patrol at the checkpoint. This powerfully renders the volume’s subject of representational anxieties in narrating refugee stories. On the one hand Grootaers wants to make visible the hardships of the asylum seekers from Pakistan but on the other, he is deeply aware of the risks of exposing them. This immediately makes accessible the difficult responsibility of narrating refugee lives. But it also underlines how studying transport systems today must necessarily take into account their human cargo, be they refugees on clandestine journeys or in networks of sex trafficking and human smuggling. Contemporary Asylum offers brief glimpses of such encounters between humans and modes of transport in the book e.g. Alexander’s mother’s journey from Russia to the U.K. in search of her son in chapter six and Little Bee’s deportation journey aboard an airplane as both a moment of privilege and a moment of being under erasure in chapter seven. However, the rich interpretative possibilities of analyzing such moments remain unexplored in the current volume. This said, Contemporary Asylum Narratives delivers an ambitious, rich, and nuanced critical reading of how contemporary literary and visual cultures document, complicate, and intervene productively in xenophobic political and public discourses vis-a-vis the current refugee crises. It not only considerably expands and reinvigorates the scope of literary-cultural studies of migration by engaging with lived experiences from below, it also reifies the importance of artistic work and a liberal arts education for a more inclusive, empathetic future.
Dr. Sreyoshi Sarkar,
Ball State University, IN, USA