I am told that you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
-- Bertold Brecht
“On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.”
Like many influential contemporary thinkers, Arjun Appadurai and Giorgio Agamben suggest that globalization invites us to rethink our relationship with the nation or “postnation” (Appadurai; Agamben). One emblematic figure crystallizes the urgency of such a challenge: the refugee (Nyers; Shemak; Bohmer; Chetail). In European urban centers--regardless of whether we speak as refugees, to refugees, or about refugees--complex transnational dialogues emerge. They often occur between people who do not speak the same language and who have neither the same history nor culture, but still want to or have to share the here and now.
Recent fictional accounts of the difficult and often violent encounters that develop around the figure of the refugee restructure the “we” that constitutes the postnation. Olivier Masset-Depasse’s Illégal (2010), and Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand (2008) have helped me formulate the hypothesis that the presence of the refugee inaugurates a global crisis of storytelling--both for those who are asked to justify their presence in a new country and for those who listen to testimonies.
Literature on refugees highlights the crucial importance of narration for the asylum-seeker (Noiriel; Farrier). A felicitous account told in a ritualistic administrative context turns an asylum-seeker into an official refugee. If contemporary thinkers are right to argue that refugees “represent the political future of a transnational world” (Shemak 15), it might be because their right and obligation to transform their life into a specific type of story are shared by the nationals who decide whether they want to bother to listen to them. Suggesting that the refugee is one of the most representative figures of globalization means that the original interview [End Page 13] during which the claim is presented has become a paradigmatic cultural event: an allegorical scene that assigns speaking and listening positions to “us” all. “We” are either the refugee or one of the representatives of the state (defense lawyers in the best-case scenario, translators, or members of the refugee board). To the extent that such conversations between the refugee and the interviewers take place behind closed doors, it requires extrapolation and imagination to recognize those dialogues as part of our (everyone’s) everyday life. If “we” have to learn the language and rhetoric of such exchanges to improve the quality of such forms of communication, then both fiction and the analytical and critical tools of the discourse analyst will help. “We” need new hermeneutic and narrative skills since the interview is only one of the most climactic scenes of that transnational drama.
Until and after that interview, the refugee as a storyteller is in administrative limbo between the supposedly performative nature of the refugee’s claim (a refugee is an identity predicted by the Geneva Convention; refugees cannot be “refoulés”--turned back [Farrier 154]) and the de facto situation of a Kafkaesque “waiting before the law” that the application procedure installs (Kafka 3-4). However, during that ambiguous period, the refugee lives with and among other refugees, citizens and non-citizens from whom they are not quite not different, to paraphrase one of Homi Bhabha’s famous formulas (Bhabha 86). The “before” and “after” periods may last for years. In which case, the state of uncertainty becomes the refugee’s norm or perpetual absence thereof, but it is also “our” norm because it has already changed the nature of what we think of as communication between members of our community.
How do we, as cultural analysts, who are also actors in the play around Refuge, account for the specificities of the globalized dialogues in which we participate? How do theorists and interpreters analyze the works of contemporary authors (filmmakers, novelists or essayists) who seek to represent those forms of storytelling? The refugee’s life depends on how one story is interpreted by institutional actors and...