‘Refugee Tales’: ‘People Who Work With Language Can Contribute To That Change’

It’s World Refugee Day, a day aimed — according to the UN organizers — at showing “world leaders that the global public stands with refugees”:

downloadThe #WithRefugees petition being delivered to UN headquarters in NY demands:

  • Ensure every refugee child gets an education.
  • Ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.
  • Ensure every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution
    to their community.

This comes just three days before the release of Refugee Tales, ed. David Herd and Anna Pincus, a moving and challenging collection that aims to change the landscape for refugees in the UK, particularly the language and laws that allow for indefinite detention. It takes its first leap from Canterbury Tales, and it is structured as a set of anonymous “as-told-to” narratives, written up by fourteen different authors. But it is not “only” a book — it is also tied to a walk across the English landscape, with refugees and supporters.

For an essay that will appear elsewhere, Herd answered a few questions about the collection. They are here reproduced in a longer version:

I’d love it if you could start with the genesis of the project. Why? Why Canterbury?  

refugee-cover-400dpiDavid Herd: The original idea was simply to try to communicate the stories of people who have been held in indefinite immigration detention. The two charities involved in the project – Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help – have long experience of working with people detained in Immigration Removal Centres, at Gatwick (Brook House and Tinsley House) and at the Dover Immigration Removal Centre. As the ‘Afterword’ to the book details, the UK is the only country in the EU that detains people indefinitely, sometimes for many years, with 30,000 people being detained every year. The idea behind the project was simply to enable the stories of those who have been detained to be heard, and in that process to call for an end to indefinite detention. The idea was always that the stories should travel, so that they might be introduced to people who knew nothing about the situation. The model of The Canterbury Tales worked partly because of the conjunction of story-telling and traveling, but partly also because by walking along the North Downs Way, from Dover to Crawley, the project passed through Canterbury.

How, then, did each of the Tales come about?

DH: All the Tales were commissioned specially for the project. As the Afterword explains, writers were put in conversation with the people whose tales were being told. The writers then had the freedom to arrive at whatever formal decisions they felt necessary to communicate the tale in question. The range of formal decisions will be clear to anybody who takes a look at the book. Thus, The Appellant’s Tale is a straight telling of the story in question, while The Refugee’s Tale, for instance, by Patience Agbabi, is told in a sonnet sequence. There are lots of things to consider when thinking about the various decisions that went into the way the tales were told. The first is that anonymity is at a premium in the UK asylum system because those who have to report to Home Office reporting centres are often fearful for their safety. For these reasons we had to be very careful not to disclose identities. As regards the different formal decisions – from the prose poetry of The Chaplain’s Tale to the more formal narrative structures of The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale and The Lorry Driver’s Tale – this range is one of the ways the project seeks to change the language around asylum and identity. Crucially, then, there is not one form of narrative in this book but rather there are many.

How did you decide on which tellers, which writers? And how did you match them?

DH: The people behind the tales are people with whom, one way or another, the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group has worked. The writers, on the other hand, also express the range of the project. They are a combination of poets and novelists, a balance of men and women, and have themselves a mix of backgrounds. The crucial thing about the arrangement is that wherever necessary the person behind the tale was offered therapeutic support and all necessary after care. This is because the telling of the tale could potentially, in itself, trigger flashbacks of trauma.

What have been the major dates/markers in the Refugee Tales project? And going forward, how many people are signed up for the July 3-8 walk?  When does registration close? Will there be further walks after that?

DH: As you can imagine, the project is logistically complicated. Planning for the June 2015 walk began in March 2014. Planning for the 2016 walk (3-8 July, 2016) began in September 2015. Like last year, there will be a core group of about 60 walkers who will walk the whole route. In addition, and again like last year, there are many people signed up to walk just for a day or a couple of days. Last year we had 150-200 people walking at any one time and the indications are that this year there will probably be more, especially as we get closer to London. People can sign up right until the last minute. The key date this year is July 3. That is the date of the ‘Day of Thought, Performance and Action’ that takes place at the University of Kent. The day will feature talks and contributions from people who have been detained alongside such leading writers and campaigners as Ali Smith, Ben Okri, Marina Warner, Patrick Kingsely and Shami Chakrabarti, The purpose of that event is to change the language by which the question of indefinite detention is currently framed. Tickets for that event, like for all other events, can be bought on the website: www.refugeetales.org

What has changed since you wrote your Afterword? 

DH: The crucial change is that the Immigration Bill, then going through parliament, has now become law. In 2015 a UNHCR report expressed grave concern at the prolonged periods of time people spend in indefinite detention in the UK. This was followed by a cross-parliamentary inquiry that called for a limit (of 28 days) to any such detention, on the grounds that indefinite detention has such a damaging effect on individual lives. These interventions notwithstanding, the architects of the Bill reaffirmed the Government’s commitment to Indefinite Detention. The re-affirmation of the policy in the face of such widespread and authoritative opposition is a significant and deeply concerning development.

Is there a danger of readers taking the stories in Refugee Tales at a distance, thinking, “Oh those poor refugees, we’ve told their stories, shed a tear, now that’s that”? 

DH: As should be clear to anybody who reads the book, it has a quite specific objective. It aims to call attention to indefinite immigration detention in such a way that those who how assert and maintain the policy cannot ignore the extremely damaging effects it has on people’s lives. The fact that the project is walking again, this time from Canterbury to Westminster, and the fact that new tales are being told, is our way of seeking to ensure that the project effects change. Change is key, as the Afterword looks to articulate.

And how do you, as an artist, see the relationship between poetry & political action? 

DH: That would need an essay, or maybe even a dissertation to answer!. One thing that can be said, however, is that indefinite detention is possible because people seeking asylum are constructed in such a way by official discourse that the culture as a whole can permit the practice. Crucially, then, the discourse itself, which is to say the language, has to be addressed and altered. People who work with language can contribute to that change.