- Asylum Speakers: Caribbean Refugees and Testimonial Discourse
April Shemak has written an interesting and vitally important book on the underreported and often tragic aspects of refugeeism and asylum as it occurs at the borders of the United States. In recounting this complex process, Shemak concentrates on the experience of Caribbean refugees seeking entry into the US, particularly those from Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and highlights the ways in which US policy often places aspiring asylum seekers at the margins of political and economic existence, as "both political and economic refugees exist at the threshold of the civic space of the host nation as they attempt to gain entrance" (13). At the same time, refugeeism necessarily draws on both orality and otherness: "refugee testimonial discourse functions as a political ritual situated on the periphery of citizenship . . . the asylum seeker must be able to speak in the idiom of the host nation to prove his or her 'well-founded fear'" (17). The unfortunate outcome of this policy of discursive othering, most often, is an effective depersonalization at the hands of the state. [End Page 551]
Shemak provides effective context and perspective for this argumentative framework at the very outset of her thesis, by recounting the tragic saga of Joseph Dantica as an example of an all too common outcome of the process of refugee incarceration. Dantica, a minister of religion and the uncle of the well-known Haitian-American writer Edwige Danticat, fl ed Haiti for the United States in 2004 and sought refugee asylum, citing violent attacks on his person and his church as evidence of a well-founded fear of death. He was immediately incarcerated and deprived of necessary medication; when he suffered a violent seizure, it was determined that he was "faking." Eventually transported to a hospital in shackles, he waited twenty-four hours to be seen by a doctor, and soon died in detention. What this trajectory shows is that refugees are more often than not treated like criminals, Dantica's case serving as a microcosm of the presumption of guilt that plagues this often invisible process.
Shemak frames refugeeism as a human rights issue, one that takes place in the shadowy "contested spaces of articulation" of the nation's peripheries (3). As a result, she claims, the central role played by discourse in testimonial narratives and their corollary of marginalization "requires reshaping the boundaries of US ethnic, transnational, and postcolonial studies" (4). This politicization of language subverts the law of unconditional hospitality into a praxis of restriction and exclusion.
Chapter One examines the phenomenon of Haitian boat people and the insistence on their "inter-diction" on the US border, and the effects of this restriction of speech and movement on any and all articulations of refugeeism. Alternating between permission and prohibition, US policies on refugeeism have long been characterized by the passage of xenophobic legislation that proscribes discourse and associates Haitians with "the 'enemy' and criminal forces against which the United States must protect itself " (47). Indeed, rather than seeking to "comprehend the complexities of Caribbean history and identity" (46), refugee discourses are often delegitimized in a process of narrative analysis predicated on a praxis of othering that ignores "cultural factors affecting narrative styles" in favor of "Western legal processes that value linearity and transparency" (60), thus often victimizing the prospective refugee. Shemak's analysis of this restrictive regime continues in Chapter Two, where she examines the implications of the US Coast Guard practice of photographing refugees, including "the ways in which visual representations of racial difference often served to uphold colonialist doctrine" (91). This scopic policy forms a key part of a system and structure of domination and control, one whose inequities "help illuminate our understanding of how Haitian refugees are visually presented and situated amongst a number [End Page 552] of social and political factors including the criminalization of refugees in the United States, INS attitudes toward Haitians as liars, and the historical perception of Haitian physical 'deviance'" (91). Photographing Haitian refugees, then, works alongside Government policies...