Li Yawen is currently a PhD student in English Literature at the National University of Singapore jointly with King’s College London with Research Scholarship. Prior to coming to NUS, she completed her BA in English in China, MA in Comparative Literature at University College London, and worked for two years as a journalist and editor in China. She also volunteered teaching English in China, Nepal and Thailand as well as helping out in various non-profit events. Her doctoral project aims to formulate productive dialogues between feminist and sibling discourses, trauma and biopolitical studies, and comparative English-language literatures in the context of China’s One-Child Policy.
On the Reimagining of Displaced Subjectivities for Refugee Writers in The Displaced (2018)
In his foundational work on biopolitics, Homo Sacer (1998), Giorgio Agamben follows Hannah Arendt’s critical inquiry into the problems of refugees in relation to the rights of the nation-state, and explicates the normalizing politicization of refugees’ bare lives, whose subjectivities may be stripped of place, symbolic value and human relations conveniently (Agamben 75-79). Published in 2018, The Displaced consists of 17 stories written by refugee writers worldwide. While continuing to reminisce the traumatic experience of being forced to flee from home and wars, as well as highlight their marginalized political conditions in the host countries, the refugee subjects in The Displaced move beyond the sweeping categorization of “Homo Sacer” and manifest incredible survivance (survival and resistance; Vizenor), both in reclaiming social visibility over the course of acculturation, and in dealing with losses and nostalgia by transforming the idea of being displaced and misplaced into a sense of belonging, which they can cultivate in the quotidian details of everyday life as well as creative writings, a process of “unlearning strangeness as confinement…assuming anew the predicament of deterritorialization” (Minh-ha 30). By collating a diverse range of refugee experiences, the editor Viet Thanh Nguyen addresses the particularities of refugee subjectivities and the more covert post-border-crossing traumas that even the “successfully” assimilated migrants have been suffering from. Significantly, Nguyen insists on keeping the refugee memories close to him, an “incorporating” mnemonic practice (Connerton 72-104) echoing throughout the book that involves constantly reimagining the forgotten traumas, so as to remind himself of, and do justice to, the innumerable refugees who did not survive emigration and/or remain socially unseen. This presentation also aims to explore the intersection of the real and the imaginary in selected refugee stories that transcends the dichotomy of archival/nonfictional memorialization and literary representation, to unveil new possibilities for the “recentering of displaced subjectivities and experiences” (Schlund-Vials 94).
The anthology begins with the refugee experience of a second-generation Afghan American, Joseph Azam, whose narrativization of his coming of age as a refugee in America unconventionally minimizes the detailing of experience of several forced displacements caused by histo-political chaos and the sentiments of leaving every provisional “home”. Contrary to the reductionist manner in which Western media used to (and perhaps still) cover refugee stories, which relegates refugee subjects to a singular victim’s position who crave for Western intervention and patronage, Azam reasserts his subjectivity by focalizing retrospectively his interiority that evolves through his name changing (from “Mohammad” to “Yousuf” so as to sound like Joseph, and eventually adopting “Joseph”) as an adult narrator. “Name” is the locus, like “eyes” in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes, of which those with strange and foreign sounds (to the mainstream ears) are metonymically perceived as a subjugated positionality. Azam complicates this association with the ambivalent idea of mimicry which suggests, transposed from a postcolonial context, the immigrants/refugees, willingly or unwillingly, imitate the language, dress, politics, or cultural attitude of the mainstream Americans in the hopes of being accepted by, assimilated to, or becoming them. However, as proposed by Homi Bhabha, mimicry is a double vision which also “articulates those disturbances of cultural, racial, and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority” (129). The nuanced depiction of Azam’s inner turmoil regarding name changing alludes to, therefore also exposes and disturbs, the social hostility and structural policing imposed upon refugees in host countries (America in this case), including the self-policing gesture deeply embedded within refugee communities. This can be evidenced by Azam’s father, who supposedly bears stronger cultural identification with Afghanistan as a first-generation refugee, upon detecting his son’s dilemma— “being identifiably foreign or secretly false” (17)— makes the decision, almost in a self-erasing manner, of registering his son officially as “Joseph”. The disturbance evoked from this symbolic suicide across generations of refugees foregrounds the problematics of refugee discourse. Although Azam comes to terms with his hybrid identity by means of conflating the names in the end, which suggests that refugee identities could not, and should not, be singularly constituted by either the ethnic homeland or the new country, but rather contingent on the individual experience, the powerful question remains: who or what causes these struggles, compromises, and agony to happen? Azam’s story shows that there are no overt perpetrators to be found and much has to be reflected on at a social and communal level.
Following a similar intergenerational trajectory, Reyna Grande, a Mexican American writer, in “The Parent Who Stays” portrays a childhood marked by forced separations with her parents due to her ineligibility for an official “refugee” identity, as well as the familial estrangement after her eventually successful border-crossing. “It is the central irony of my life that my parents emigrated to try to save our family, but by doing so, they destroyed it” (42). In calling upon more attention to be paid to the complicated and buried family traumas that most immigrant children have to tackle with as a result of forced separation, Grande contends that the moment of border crossing brings no closure nor healing for refugees but only unfolds more borders to be crossed. One of the most common challenges for refugees, and Grande is no exception, is the language barrier. Even after she acquired the language, Grande could not resonate with the stories of middle-class Americans taught at school, which echoes how Chimamanda Adichie comes to identify the essential gaps between the British literature she grew up with and her own experience of growing up in Nigeria (“The Danger of A Single Story”). Documenting and revalorizing her displaced refugee experience in an adopted language becomes her way of survival. However, though the subsequent barriers did not stop Grande from realizing her ambitions, the pain derived from the resultantly broadening gap between her and her parents in meeting the social demand of assimilation, as well as witnessing the disintegration of her family of origin would not go away. Towards the end of her story, Grande, as a mother herself, is able to reimagine and reconcile with her parents’ decision of risking everything to emigrate. “His (my father’s) decision to immigrate has allowed me to be the parent…who stays” (44). The belated sense of gratitude hints at the constantly renegotiated refugee subjectivities and the metamorphosis of old familial relationships enacted through the arrival of new ones.
Vu Tran, as a Vietnamese American, his refugee experience shares a lot of common grounds with Azam and Grande’s in regards to familial estrangement, mimicry, regaining refugee consciousness in the writing process, etc. Tran’s literary inquiry into the refugee subjectivity reveals that the identity formation of a refugee is fragmented from the outset, contradictory in nature (craving for consistency vs performing to assimilate), whose existence can be conveniently disregarded or targeted, if the performance is not well received. Though his desire to memorialize the loss during the emigration has been gradually replaced by his new memories in America as a successfully assimilated immigrant, Tran is able to reconnect with Saigon almost immediately after 14 years. “…it was the shock of recognition amid aliens, over and over” (82), which implies that something about the place and people of origin irreducibly enriches the refugee identity making and remaking process, and that each time of revisiting the past reinforces and reforms their (particularly ethnic) awareness of themselves. In an uncanny manner, Tran also rediscovers his another life there, the life he once participated before he left at five and sustained his presence as a ghost, “and ghosts never die” (83). Caught in the intersection of the real and the imaginary past, like Azam and Grande, Tran embraces both, an encompassing attitude that rejects the false dichotomy of homeland and host country, and constructs the refugee subject as a convergence of a myriad of possibilities and potentialities.
The selected autobiographical narratives exhibit the similar conundrums and different focuses of thought of refugee writers in recollecting their experience of displacement. Collectively, they demonstrate that there exists no singular nor universalizable refugee story and highlight refugees’ subjectivities in interpreting their past to redefine their presence, while also manifest a dialogical and collaborative resonance, as well as a shared potentiality of transcending their respective historical and cultural confines. The fluidity and inclusiveness embodied by refugee subjects, both at a geopolitical and a symbolic level, and the almost ontological yearning to constantly reconstruct themselves, defies the antiquated forces of racism and xenophobia or partisan community politics that threaten to suppress them.
Adichie, Chimamanda. “The Danger of A Single Story”. TED: Ideas worth spreading, July 2009, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.
Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 75-79.
Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”. Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis, Vol. 28, 1984, pp. 129.
Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 72-104.
Minh-ha, Trinh T. Elsewhere, within Here: Immigration, Refugeeism and the Boundary Event. Routledge, 2011, pp. 30.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives. Abrams, 2018.
Schlund-Vials, Cathy J. “Creating Something in Times of Destruction: The Potential Energy of Refugee Writing”. Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 29:2, 2018, pp. 91-96.
Vizenor, Gerald. Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 2008.
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