The idea behind Refugee Tales certainly makes for good advertising. Marketed as a twenty-first century version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where refugees replace pilgrims, it sounds like a new entry on an award-studded list of contemporary takes on the canon, including Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.
Such publicity, however, turns out mostly to be a red herring. The main influence of Chaucer on the project is apparently the formula used to title the individual pieces. Those tantalised by the packaging of Refugee Tales may find something to sate their curiosity if they direct their attention to a different literary conversation altogether, one that circles a familiar question about the treacheries of mediation: how to manage the ethics of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, in a way that faithfully conveys their experiences without inflicting further harm?
In a project that asks established writers to tell the stories of migrants, refugees, and detainees who cannot, for various reasons, tell the stories themselves, every piece must engage this question on some level. Their answers take various forms: lyric essays, hybrid poem-essays, dramatic monologues, short stories, and poems (both formal and free). However, even the most sophisticated pieces contain pitfalls.
how to manage the ethics of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves without inflicting further harm?
Consider ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ by Ali Smith. For the piece, Smith meets a former detainee in an empty college classroom and interviews him about a life story that includes child labour and human trafficking. From the very beginning, she stresses her role as mediator by writing the story as though she is repeating everything the detainee says back to him: “The first thing, you tell me, is that school stops,” she says. She delivers the rest of the detainee’s story—the plantation in Ghana, the illegal sweatshop in the UK, the catch-and-release cycle of detention centres and prisons that follows his application for asylum—in the same manner, her voice directed toward his as though asking him to confirm that she has understood him correctly.
Initially, this seems like a good thing. By deferring to the detainee, she acknowledges that her version of events is only an interpretation and that the detainee is the ultimate authority. As the story progresses, though, her mediation starts to direct attention away from the detainee’s experience and toward the emotional edification of the people who consume it. Anyone who has read a moderate amount of fiction from the past thirty years will recognise a familiar pull when Smith repeats the detainee’s experiences in the second person present tense for extended periods. Such moments feel practically indistinguishable from the perspective that contemporary authors adopt to place their readers in visceral relation to their main characters.
Here is one of the earlier appearances of this second-person point-of-view—the first paragraph of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.” Here is Smith, describing the detainee on the plantation: “You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside and pour them into baskets… The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag.”
If the third-world problems of ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ are worlds away from first world problems of McInerney’s novel, is the narrative appeal of the one significantly different from that of the other? Both invite readers to become the protagonists of their respective narratives, a miserable yuppie in the one and a child labourer in the other. As far as Bright Lights, Big City is concerned, this identification is anodyne: the main character is a fiction and his voice is only endangered by his self-destruction. When it comes to ‘The Detainee’s Tale,’ however, such identification becomes questionable. It contains the possibility of turning the detainee’s real suffering into a tourist destination, a dangerous place readers can visit comfortably to perform their empathy.
skillful writing in the service of good intentions can still, without meaning to, contribute to the voicelessness of the voiceless
This is not to single out ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ as especially faulty. If a few pieces navigate the issue of mediation with a bit more care, several do so with a great deal less. Rather, it is to show in detail an unfortunate truth about Refugee Tales as a whole: that skillful writing in the service of good intentions can still, without meaning to, contribute to the voicelessness of the voiceless.
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.