History of Art and Literature | Helping to Understand Mass Migration
Scenes of exile and banishment are commonplace in English literature. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night begins with a shipwreck on the coast of Ilyria (present day Adriatic coast) and with Viola’s words, ‘What country, friends, is this?’ as she comes ashore. Richard II sees Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke sent into exile on the king’s orders, and King Lear’s ‘unaccommodated man’ has formed the basis for an understanding of the refugee as a figure of ‘bare life’ who exists outside the terms of citizenship and social belonging. We can reach back even further into the Western canon for refugee stories: Aeschylus’ fifth-century play, The Suppliants, for example, is about a group of women fleeing forced marriages and claiming asylum in Europe.
In fact, the refugee figure is far more central to literary history than we might think, mapping a line of continuity from the ancient world to the present day. In recent years, stories of refugees and asylum seekers – both fictional and based on testimony – have entered the mainstream, with emerging and established authors engaging with the refugee experience. In opening up a politics of recognition of the refugees and asylum seekers so familiar to us now en masse from news footage and reportage, literature and arts offer counter narratives able to reaffirm the political and social subjectivity of border crossers and shine a light on what’s happening outside the journalistic frame. They help us shape, critique and deepen our engagement with this age of mass migration and displacement.
One ancient play, Euripides’ the The Trojan Women (415 BC), has found renewed contemporary relevance through a production developed by a group of Syrian refugee women in Jordan. The project, called ‘Syria Trojan women’, brought together a group to perform a devised version of the play, which was adapted to reflect the participants’ own stories of exile and persecution. A documentary about the project called Queens of Syria, directed by Yasmin Fedda, highlights the extent to which the women identified with the characters in the play. Such was the power and contemporary resonance of this ancient narrative that many of the participants interviewed expressed concerns that anti-Bashir sentiments would be gleaned from the lines they speak in the play. Fatigued by the continual news footage of the Syrian war, participants found in The Trojan Woman another
frame through which to view their experience of the war. Aeschylus’ words offered an alternative way of expressing grief or pain at loss and separation.
Important though these outcomes are, the production is not just about identifying historical parallels or finding expression for individual experience. The participatory storytelling and public performance aspects of the project work actively to promote understanding and dialogue between refugees and host communities in Jordan. The play offers participants and audiences a way into difficult social and political questions (most often tackled by politicians, sociologists and political theorists), and the moral and ethical assumptions that underpin them: questions about humanitarianism as political practice and humanism as a set of values. Such questions are central to all our lives, and having conversations about thorny political challenges through the arts is an ancient practice we must continue to nurture.
I am currently running an AHRC network: Responding to Crisis: Forced Migration and the Humanities in the 21st Century. For more info and to get involved see: www.respondingtocrisis.wordpress.com