A good book can forge powerful empathies – a quality that would appear to be in short supply in post-Brexit Britain, at least when it comes to the immigration debate.
In Refugee Tales, which was published by Comma Press last month, readers are asked to follow the paths of anonymous refugees: we escape slavery, twice; we pay a smuggler to take us on a rickety boat; we hide more than a month in the back of a lorry; and we spend half a lifetime in the UK, working and paying taxes, and then are thrown in detention.
Yet in her chapter, The Detainee's Tale, Scottish writer Ali Smith reminds us that we are also not them. Smith is one of 14 poets and prose artists who relay the stories in Refugee Tales, crafted in an echo of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; stories told by a group of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury Cathedral, written in the late 14th century.
Smith talks to a Vietnamese boy, one of an estimated 30,000 men, women, and children detained each year in the UK – the only country in the EU that detains migrants indefinitely, sometimes for years at a stretch.
Smith writes: “[T]he whole time I’m there I will feel the paper edge of my VISITOR band round my wrist rough under my sleeve – I say paper, but I suppose I mean plasticised paper, because later when I try and rip it off I can’t, it won’t tear, and I’ll have to remove it with scissors – I will feel it keenly, the whole time, the reminder that I can leave. I will want to leave.”
The reader, too, can leave these stories behind. Like Smith, we can cut off the wristband.
But Refugee Tales is not just about creating brief sympathetic bonds, severed once the book is shut. Its goals are broader: to reconstruct the language used to discuss migrants and to change the visibility of migrant-detainees.
To do this, organisers have tied the book to long public walks across the UK with refugees and supporters, the first of which took place a year before publication. Back in June 2015, a group that reached up to 150 hiked from Dover on the English South Coast to Crawley, passing through Canterbury, over nine days.
The book and walk both challenge what David Herd calls “deeply national spaces”: English national identity and North Downs Way. They aim to change both.
The point of the walk, Herd wrote in the book’s afterword, “was that people who are hidden by and from the culture, rendered invisible by the procedures of the state, were here taking and asserting their places in the landscape”.
A second, five-day walk starts on Monday, this time heading from Canterbury to the seat of British political power in London’s Westminster. More than 200 are expected to take part. Anyone interested in walking a leg can sign up at refugeetales.org until the last moment, Herd said over email.
For those who can't participate in the walk, there's still the textual journey. Most of the tales depict jaw-clenching injustice. Among these, the one that strikes hardest is perhaps The Dependant's Tale, told to and crafted by novelist Marina Lewycka.
The teller here is not beaten or enslaved or caught in the midst of a war, and yet she tugs at the heart. After all, she is only eight years old when security agents come pounding on her door in the small hours of the morning. Indeed, more than one tale has security agents arriving in the early hours, bursting into homes, just as they might in a repressive dictatorship.
In The Dependant's Tale, these security agents take the eight-year-old girl, her younger brother and her mother, to live in a Dickensian immigrant detention centre called Yarl's Wood. A maze of difficulty follows. Ultimately, a community of Welsh friends stand up for these detainees and fight for their release. It takes years, but the whole family is released and reunited. At the time of the tale's telling, this "dependant" is in her third year of law at the London School of Economics.
Yet this is not a happily ever after, Lewycka relates. The student still aches from the loss of her childhood. "From time to time I still wake up in the night shaking with fear when I hear a loud banging or shouting. But then I realise it's only a nightmare." This final 'only' rings loudly in the reader's ears.
The 14 tales are told in vastly different registers – from Joycean stream-of-consciousness to Chaucerian Middle English to sonnets, to straightforward journalism. Each, in its way, challenges the way migrants’ stories can be told. Herd said it was crucial that “there is not one form of narrative” in the book, but many.
And the book is ultimately successful in getting the reader to rethink words like “migrant”, “indefinite”, “security” and “detention”. This is important, Herd said, as the UK’s system of indefinite detention is possible because of the ways in which we talk about it.
“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.”
M Lynx Qualey is a freelance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.wordpress.com