With the refugee crisis dominating headlines and dividing political parties, what role does fiction have – if any – in changing attitudes? Do writers even have the right to create fictionalised versions of refugee stories? Clare College, Cambridge played host to Cambridge PEN’s event ‘Writing Refugees’ which explored these challenging but ethically crucial questions.
Speaking at the event were Zoe Lambert and Michelle Green, who have both written fiction books based on refugee issues. Green is the author of Jebel Marra, a collection of short stories which, although fictional, are all deeply rooted in Green’s own experiences whilst working in West Darfur as part of Oxfam aid work. Lambert is also an author of a collection of short stories, hers entitled The War Tour, which focuses on asylum legislation in the UK, and the after-effects of war on individuals’ lives. The collection was written during her anti-deportation activism and campaign work for asylum-seekers in Manchester.
So why not write a journalistic investigative piece? Well, for Green, fiction has a ‘different texture’ to journalism. Complaining of the many ‘condescending aid memoirs’ that used, arguably even exploited, real life events, Green argues that she didn’t feel it was her place to tell the stories of the people that she met – ‘it wasn’t my voice to give’. Just as Green used fact to ground her stories contextually, Lambert emphasised her study of the legal procedures regarding the asylum process, even including examples of documentation within the collection, to really highlight the ‘efficacious, bureaucratic voice’ of the dehumanising system.
Fiction, then, has something unique to offer to this controversial and topical issue. Indeed, Green’s collection was sparked by her frustration at the way the media reuses images of conflict which, over time, just reinforce an idea of the situation abroad as a ‘distant war’. Instead, as Green puts it, fiction ‘bypasses the analytical reading of a newspaper’ and ‘hits somewhere deeper…compassion’ – it is a uniquely ‘visceral’ form. Whilst the often uncompassionate, fickle media is repeatedly criticised by some, Lambert stresses the lack of empathy during the asylum-seeking process and that in contrast to a court of law, where ‘innocent until proven guilty’ presides, the ‘burden of proof’ is on those seeking asylum – ‘you are a liar until you prove yourself innocent’.
‘What you have to remember,’ a former supervisor told Lambert, ‘is your position of power’. Indeed, both authors acknowledged this fear of appropriation within their writing; how can a Western author write tell the story of a refugee when they cannot possibly know what it feels like to experience that life firsthand, let alone write about it? Whilst Michelle described the writing process as one of ‘continual self-reference’, Lambert went as far as to send her work to various editors from around the world to check her work.
What lies at the heart of this issue is compassion: fiction may not be able to change governmental procedure or sway debate, but its presence alone opens up a discussion, not only about the refugees, but about how we empathise with others. A solicitor once told an ayslum-seeker that Lambert campaigned for, who was about to try to prove his story to the courts, to imagine his life as a film, to ensure his story had a ’cause and effect’ narrative style. Perhaps, then, this all demonstrates the strange way we relate to something we haven’t experienced and actually how problematic that is for those suffering. Literature is clearly important in bringing the reality of the refugees into open discussion, but something needs to change when a refugee, in order to make sure his story sounds realistic to the government, must think in fiction.
With thanks to Cambridge PEN for hosting this event, and Michelle Green and Zoe Lambert for speaking.
Image: A distressed vessel discovered by the US Navy (USN) Oliver Hazard Perry Class Guided Missile Frigate USS RENTZ (FFG 46) 300 miles from shore with 90 people on board, including women and children. The RENTZ provided assistance and took the Ecuadorian citizens to Guatemala, from where they would be repatriated. (SUBSTANDARD)