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‘Refugee Tales’, Changing the Way We Understand Asylum Seekers

The people behind ‘Refugee Tales‘ are on a mission to change the rhetoric around refugees, asylum seekers, and immigration detainees. They want a “language of welcome”, and they are doing it in an innovative way. On a walk of solidarity with refugees from Dover, UK to Crawley, UK (which is more than 70 miles), writers shared stories and learned from refugees. Next week, Comma Press will be releasing a short story collection entitled, Refugee Tales, an emulation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1478 opus, The Canterbury Tales.  The original work follows a group of pilgrims as they journey from London to Canterbury, engaging in a friendly story-telling competition along the way. The Refugee Tales will be shared across the United Kingdom, and “writers will help tell the tales of asylum seekers, refugees and detainees, as well as the stories of those who work with them. As the project walks it will create a space in which the language of welcome is the prevailing discourse, a political carnival in which the act of listening is a common resource.”

Image Courtesy of Luminarium 

It is unlikely, then, that Refugee Tales will pick up on Chaucer’s levity, given that the stories are centered around the grim predicaments of Europe’s current refugees. The book follows the basic structure of the Old English collection with each of the 14  stories focusing on a singular character. Titles like “The Detainee’s Tale” and “The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale” give one a sense of the kinds of stories we will be getting from the upcoming book. The collection is primarily based on conversations between the featured writers and detainees.

Contributors to the collection include Scottish writer Ali Smith, British poet Patience Agbabi,  London writer/journalist, Chris Cleave, and many others. While there is certainly enough creativity among the authors to produce compelling work, they won’t have to flex their imaginative muscles too hard to put themselves in the shoes of the refugees.  The contributors will be collaborating directly with current and former refugees as well as immigration workers, who will remain anonymous. On the subject of the book’s fictionality, Comma Press has said: “These are not fictions. Nor are they testimonies from some distant, brutal past, but the frighteningly common experiences of Europe’s new underclass – its refugees.”

Image Courtesy of Common Dreams

The contributors seem to be merely lending their skill to transcribe the stories of real people.  While the book is labeled a short story collection, it is just as much a gathering of actual testimonies. In fact, the whole genesis of the idea came from a visiting session held by Gatwick Detainees Welfare group, where volunteers were able to talk to those held in the two detention centers in Gatwick airport.  Charity worker Anna Pincus is cited as saying that the major takeaway from the visit was the sense that the detainees “wanted their stories to be told.”  

The stories will be told and distributed next month during a “pilgrimage” from Canterbury to London, a la Chaucer. The writers and detainees will attend various events along the way, and cap off the journey in London with a final performance featuring Jeremy Irons and Billy Bragg. While we can’t tell how well the stories will hold up against its Dark Age counterpart, it can’t be denied that the work is being produced and distributed in a totally new and unique way.  

Image courtesy of Whitstable Biennial.