Refugee Tales II: Caroline Bergvall, Kamila Shamsie & Marina Warner; Central Library, 16 October 2017.
This is not an actual title of one of the short story collections that make up Comma Press’s Refugee Tales. It’s how I’ve synthesised the message of the stories. In fact, even the phrase ‘short story collection,’ may be slightly misleading. There are stories, and they are short. But it’s not short story fiction. Here are stories told by refugees, asylum seekers who have survived the journey to the UK, in the hope of finding a safe place for themselves, and their families, if they’re fortunate enough to have their families with them. But we, the general public, hear their stories through the medium of storytellers, of writers: Ali Smith, Kamila Shamsie, Marina Warner, Helen Macdonald, are amongst the list. Given the contentious nature of the questions surrounding issues like, who has the right tell the story of the ‘Other’? Cultural appropriation, and controlling another’s narrative, how do we have a collection like Refugee Tales? It’s because they are refugees, because they are the ‘indefinitely detained’ people. Locked away in detention centres across the UK, hidden from view, denied a voice – a platform to speak from. It’s one of our basic rights as a human, isn’t it? To tell our own stories, ourselves?
This is where the Charity Gatwick for Detainees Welfare Group come in to the picture. The aim of their project is simple: bring these voices to the centre, give these people the space to speak, a safe place. Taking the Canterbury Tales as a narrative framework, Refugee Tales tells the stories of real-life refugees and their endurance in the face of terrifying, inhumane experiences. Experiences that do not end when they reach the UK. The book is a collaboration between the Charity, the writers and Comma Press.
Ra Page, editor of Comma Press, introduces Anna Pinkus, founder and co-ordinator of Refugee Tales, Kamila Shamsie, award winning writer and journalist, and Marina Warner, award winning writer of fiction and cultural history.
Before the readings begin, Ra Page gives us an overview of the Charity’s work. We learn that the group supports and befriends people at the detention centres, there can up to 700 held at any one time – they’re not criminals, they haven’t done anything wrong – they’ve simply asked for asylum. For this, they’re held indefinitely. Ra Page puts it into perspective for us: ‘If you’re in a prison, you can count down towards the end of your time, but a detainee centre, you count upwards, the number of days you’ve been held. There is no limit to this number, no line that marks the end. You just count the days. The longest count, that we know of, is nine years’.
Nine years. It’s not just a matter of physical detention, there’s the effect on the person’s mental health – never knowing if you will be given asylum, never knowing if you’ll be returned to the country you escaped from to face further horrors. There are people who’ve had to endure torture – will they be handed back to their tormentors?
What is the point of this suffering? Why, and how, here in the UK is it possible to hold people seeking safety in this inhumane matter? One answer is the silence surrounding the issue. How do you respond to something you don’t know is happening? How do you respond to asylum seekers when the label itself is treated as a dirty word – the individuals lumped together as some homogenous group with no identity except the one imposed on them by others? And if these asylum seekers, these men and women, these husbands and wives and sons and daughters and grandparents, aunts, uncles, orphans – because yes, there are those who’ve lost everything and everyone, how do these asylum seekers let others know of their plight if there is no space to speak? More so, if their right to speak freely is taken away?
Refugee Tales, is one medium through which the ‘whispered stories’ of asylum seekers can be told. Their stories can only be whispered because they know they’re not really safe. There is the ever present fear of recriminations from the regimes that have already caused lasting physical and psychological damage. So they quietly tell their stories to the writers, who, protecting the identity of the speaker(s) put it into writing.
Two of these stories are: The Mother’s Tale and The Lover’s Tale, as told to Marina Warner and Kamila Shamsie respectively. The writers read them in turn. The stories, as expected, are dark and profoundly moving, the more so for the emotional restraint in each writer’s performance. Kamila Shamsie, narrating ‘John’s’ story, maintains an objective distance, whilst Marina Warner draws on religious, allegorical, references to convey Cecilia and Ambrose’s story.
John’s story is one of abuse and torture. His name has been changed for his safety, likewise, his country of origin is demarcated as a line. Kamila Shamsie draws a line through the air each time it comes up in the reading. John managed to escape from his country of origin to a nearby country a number of times – only to face recapture, imprisonment and torture, each time. He has a wife and three children – none of them are safe. The friend who helped him to escape to the UK was killed for helping him.
Cecilia lives with her daughters and her husband, Ambrose, (though everyone knows they’re not married, we’re told in the story) ‘live in a single room, about the third of the size of a tube carriage.’ Ambrose, a computer engineer, came to work for a company: ‘but I overstayed my visa. For six years now, I have been an “illegal immigrant.”
Ambrose isn’t always at home, he’s been ‘picked up three times.’ Each time he’s been held indefinitely at the detention centre. Each time he’s been released – no explanations, no reasoning, no idea if he’ll be deported or allowed to stay. Each time they pick him up, he doesn’t even know if he’ll ever be allowed to see his family again. But then, he’s released. He goes home to Cecilia and his daughters – they wait. Wait for the next time he’s taken away. Again, the question arises – what is the point of this endless suffering? Marina Warner tells us how depressed Cecilia is, it comes through clearly in her narration: ‘I am afraid,’ she says, ‘all the time. It’s all I can think of. And when I try to remember, my mind’s a blank.’ Cecilia can’t face leaving the room anymore because ‘last week an asylum seeker who, when asked […] said he was an asylum speaker, and was savagely beaten up.’
There is a tremendous round of applause from the audience after the readings and a stimulating Q&A. The situation is bleak, it is toxic, but there is that small hope too. Stories have a power. This is what Refugee Tales in its Canterbury Tales narrative framework is about. Taking the stories of the silenced and turning up the volume so we can hear them.
At the start of the interview, Anna Pincus recounted a conversation she’d had earlier, about Germans who said they did not know there were Concentration camps in their villages. ‘How could they not know this? And yet, we realised, it is possible. We have these detention camps, 32,000 people detained in eleven centres across the UK. People being broken down, systematically, reduced by this kind of regime. Our Charity has a very specific target – to end this indefinite holding.’
I wonder how many of us, the general public, are saying now ‘I knew/I didn’t know.’ When Kamila Shamsie read John’s story, it ended with him saying, ‘The system is bit…’. But what I heard, and noted down was: ‘the system is a bitch.’ A rather apt Freudian slip, I think.