Migration, Identity and the Literary Imagination by Iman Humaydan

“We are all migrants… Writers are migrants.” This is how the Scottish writer Alison Louise Kennedy ended her opening remarks at the seventh annual European Literature Days Festival in Spitz, Austria. These words were a primary focus of discussion throughout the festival. There were discussions about the identity of literature and migrant writing in Europe, especially in its relationship to writers’ new locations.

Amidst Europe’s explosion of migrants and refugees, this subject is connected to the nightmares of the second decade of the third millennium. What can literature do? How does it reflect reality? What is the role of literature today? Or can a writer simply say, “I write literature, create art, use imagination, I have no connection to what’s going on right now…”?

AL Kennedy’s words made me think about the “committed literature” of the 1970s, that became paired in our minds with the ideological systems which collapsed, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall, to the erosion of the Soviet Union, to the failed regimes in the Arab world. But what Kennedy is talking about is deeply different and current. Her language gives individuals and their own initiatives space in the face of the widespread public frustration that permeates art and culture. This gives literature a role that has no relationship to the system, but rather allows it to stand as a critic of rampant globalization that has increased poverty, unemployment, shifting wars, political and humanitarian refugees.

But through these larger themes, many questions about the novel itself came to me and they need answers. Is the novel today a sociological microcosm of marginalized communities in the world? Does it directly display—even if through writing—the violence happening in these communities that history doesn’t witness? Is it there to satisfy curiosity about lives in these communities for readers sitting in in the world’s centres of power? Or is a novel’s readership and place tied to its literary and artistic merits beyond where it came from and the language it is written in?

History is made in different languages. The issue of language is also at the heart of conversations about migration and writing. Europe has dozens of languages and the question remains if we can say that there is such a thing as a European literature? I don’t understand why there’s such insistence on fixing a description of literature or identity: European literature, world literature, Asian literature or whatever other word we use? It’s Literature before anything else and this is where its importance resides: in its humanism and how close it is to the tragedies of individuals in their existence, dreams and fears. Needless to say the debate about European literature does not include the works of Arab writers who became Europeans and live in Europe if they still write in their language.

To immigrate to Europe at a young age, live in a country not your own, and write in your mother tongue is problematic. It raises questions about the relationship between writers, places, and communities. It also brings up writers’ visions of themselves and their roles. Many Arab writers have found a kind of balance: I am a political (or non-political) refugee, I write in my language and I write my memories. I am not a European writer.

Writers migrate from one European country to another and live there not wanting to always be presented as refugees. Perhaps this is more pronounced in the case of writers who try to write in the languages of their new countries, since many around the world find another homeland in the languages of their host countries and bring that new language to their creative works (like Milan Kundera and Atiq Rahimi). Of course language is the primary player in the field of literature and its world. What language do we write in? What do we write about? For whom? But isn’t the most important thing this writing shapes a reflection of humanity, amidst violence and faced with the commodification of creativity?

Writing and Migration
After my conversation with the Afghan French writer Atiq Rahimi, and the screening of his film, The Stone of Patience, I found exciting possibilities in his description of the migrant writer from one country to a totally different one culturally. He said, “Je suis empaillé, I am stuffed.” This is an ironic reference to children’s toys. I understand this to mean, “Perhaps I am both at the same time.” Rahimi added, “I am not a political refugee but a cultural refugee.” Perhaps these words and his desire to distance himself from politics make Rahimi the opposite of what he intended. Does culture lead to politics or the reverse? In any case, it is difficult to separate between the two.

Similarly, there are migrant writers who travel to Europe having been coerced to leave their countries and writers who travel in order to discover new places, have new experiences and write about them. It’s the people coming from countries that experience daily violence who lose in their victimhood any human support from the world. This leads writers to then revaluate the values of the world around them. They begin to rebuild their world from scratch, having lost confidence in any notion or laws of human rights. We can walk down the street in any Arab capital, to experience for one day what a Palestinian or Syrian or Iraqi lives. This can lead us to realize what the word cruelty means, but also indeed to realize that such surreal cruelty is beyond the current European imagination. What does it mean then to write about migration? For refugee writers, writing about migration means learning how to deal with conflict but in another language. And to dream of a peace that is missing.

Globalization was able to advance global wars through mirco-local means. But it won’t always succeed in keeping these wars far from the centres of power. The weakest are influenced by this and strongest will bear its consequences. In France, no one can forget Charlie Hebdo and the recent attacks. In Germany, Austria and other European countries waves of refugees and people fleeing violence, about whom the world remains silent, are arriving daily on its soil.

On my final day in Spitz, I walked from the hotel to the ancient castle where we had our roundtables and conversations. The leaves on the trees were changing, putting on their beautiful fall colours. I felt they changed each day. Slowly the sounds of the birds warbling were less a song of summer. Morning there is calm. You need only to open your window to touch the branches where the birds sleep at night. But they fly away quickly in the early morning hours.

In this calm… the image of thousands of Syrians in little tents under the snow in the Lebanese mountains comes to my mind. And through the words of AL Kennedy there is a second image, the little boy who drowned and whose body they found on the seashore. We must extricate ourselves from the fiction of silence and indifference. We must speak up.

By Iman Humaydan

Translated from Arabic by Michelle Hartman

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 21 January 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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