“They expect to come across their own humanity through your tragedy” – Hassan Blasim.

refugee-cover-400dpiThe UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) is urging people, this month, to “read a book for World Refugee Day.” Surely, why not?¬†Books are, after all, an important mechanism of socio-narrative movement. They can help us take, as Refugee Week¬†promises in their tagline, “Different Pasts,” to knit together¬†a “Shared Future.”

But what sorts of books are we to read? The titles on the UNHCR recommendation lists aren’t necessarily recent, and they vary widely: There are novels about refugees from World Wars I and II; stories about women fleeing from contemporary spousal violence; refugees from Palestine in 1948; from Vietnam, Chile, and Sudan. In some ways, this diversity of tales seems useful in widening the discussions around¬†human movement.

But, as the¬†upcoming “Refugee Literature Workshop” asks, what does it mean to place such different narratives together under a single “refugee” umbrella? What does it mean for “refugee literature” to be placed outside a “national literature,” particularly when the latter¬†is not a literature of staying-put, but a literature of priveleged movement?

Some on the UNHCR list, such as Silent Night, Unholy Night: Refugee Stories, seem themselves to re-enact a sort of detention. They range their stories out in front of the reader, museum-like, and we watch from behind glass: shaking our heads, clicking our tongues, feeling ourselves blessed. We are not from Saudi Arabia, at least.

“All literature,” Youssef Rakha wrote in a recent essay for The Common,¬†“…remains an expression of the culture that produces it and a working-out of the power relations that control that culture.”

Just so, the framing of¬†“refugee literature” often keeps it at the margins, reinforcing symbols and meanings that underpin¬†contemporary borders.¬†Still,¬†there is also the¬†minority literature that disrupts, such as the forthcoming¬†Refugee Tales,¬†edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. In¬†Refugee Tales,¬†there is¬†a¬†clear¬†attempt¬†to wrestle¬†with power: to shift categories, change language, question itself, contest accepted¬†practices. As¬†Refugee Tales’¬†David Herd writes at the end of his afterword: “Whatever else, the language” — and how it binds up the ways we see or don’t see those people we call “refugees” — “needs to change.”

(Hopefully) disruptive events in the coming months:

June 10: A Country of Refuge Readings, London: The launch of A Country of Refuge: An Anthology of Writing on Asylum Seekers, edited by Lucy Popescu. Details here.

June 21, Welcome Literary Event, London: “Do join us for a diverse evening of literature, discussion, poetry, film, readings, theatre and performance with Ahmad Massoud, Taghrid Choucair-Vizoso, Hassan Abdulrazzak, Stephen Watts and Juan delGado with a screening of the film Journey into Memory by Hala Mohammad.” Details here.

July 3,¬†‚ÄúBeing Detained Indefinitely‚ÄĚ A Day of Thought, Performance and Action, Canterbury.¬†Details here.

July 8, Launch of¬†Refugee Tales,¬†London:¬† Ali Smith will read ‚ÄėThe Detainee‚Äôs Tale‚Äô and Billy Bragg will perform. Details here.

July 8,¬†Strangers: Jeremy Irons & Shakespeare, London: What would Shakespeare make of the refugee crisis?¬†He imagined Sir Thomas More delivering a powerful plea on the issue ‚Äď which Jeremy Irons has agreed to perform for us on Queen‚Äôs Walk directly outside the Southbank Centre.¬†It‚Äôs Shakespeare‚Äôs last surviving handwritten play script.Details here.

From two disruptive Iraqi writers:

Sargon Boulus:¬†‚ÄúA Refugee Tells‚Ä̬†(trans. Youssef Rakha)

Hassan Blasim: ‚ÄúA Refugee in the Paradise That is Europe‚Ä̬†(trans. Jonathan Wright)

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