writing back to borders: refusals of Displacement, dislocation and disenfranchisement in refugee WRITING

My SSHRC funded dissertation project locates an undertheorized space of transitions and intervals in refugee narratives between displacement and resettlement such as airports, refugee camps, migrant boats, and detention centres. I argue that these interstitial spaces engender radically different narratives and representations of belonging, which contest and re-imagine attachments to nation, citizenship, and homeland in the cultural-political discourses surrounding refugees. By examining writing that emerges from and/or about these spaces, my dissertation demonstrates how this writing shifts the narratives and representations of refugees from being exclusively the victims of injustice at the borders to being not only the agents of their own narratives but agents of critical and generative political imaginaries.

In doing research for this project, I have come across an abundance of refugee narratives in print as well as in other mediums such as stage, television, and even video games. As part of my work, I have created a resource page for those doing work in the fields of forced migration and critical refugee studies who are looking for representations of refugees in various different cultural texts. While it is not a complete list of resources, you will also find links to research networks in these fields in addition to other creative projects dedicated to giving a platform to refugees from every corner of the world.

You can access the resources page by clicking this link.

Below, you will find abstracts to some of my research presentations across the Association for Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE), Canadian Association of Postcolonial Studies (CAPS), and the Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) since 2019. I archive them here for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I like referencing them from time to time. The second reason is that they are useful models for myself and other graduate students writing proposals for CFPs. 



Making Life in limbo: Stories of Community and Making Commons in Camp de la lande – 2022

Between 2015 and 2016, thousands of refugees from Syria, Sudan, and elsewhere made a community out of a refugee camp in Calais, France. To locals, the camp was called ‘Camp de la lande,’ but to its residents, it was “the Jungle.” The residents, with the aid of volunteers from across Europe, set up shelters, stores, and libraries inside the camp. Because “the Jungle” drew attention to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its soil, the French government demolished the Jungle with little warning. A great deal of Postcolonial scholarship has emphasised the spatial aspect of enclosures like “the Jungle,” which demarcate a place outside the commons of the nation through walls, fences, and surveillance (Mbembe 2019, Rifkin , Agier 2018, Wheliye 2014, Woolley 2014, Morgensen 2011, Farrier 2011, Rifkin 2009). However, much more can be said about refugees’ relations and experiences with time within these enclosures. How do refugees living in camps or detention centres imagine future possibilities beyond where they are situated? How do they resist or refuse the ways in which enclosures rob refugees of time? Situating this presentation within the stories of “the Jungle,” I argue that its residents alongside volunteers ruptured both the spatial and temporal borders of the enclosure and in doing so imagined alternative ways of being together for the future. I advance this argument through a Postcolonial and Critical Refugee Studies framework, examining two published testimonies of “the Jungle,” Threads from The Refugee Crisis by Kate Evans and Voices From the Jungle by the ‘Calais Writers.’ This presentation reads how these testimonies imagine, although at times ambivalently, the future possibilities found and made within “the Jungle” through a vocabulary of companionship, solidarity, and care. By reading these works, we can come to better understand how refugees creatively imagine and enact alternative futures.

Traces and Residues of Migrant Boat Journeys: Reading the MV Sun Sea and Komagata Maru through a liberal economy of affirmation and forgetting   – 2021

Between 2009 and 2010, two Thai ships, the MV Sun Sea and Ocean Lady, brought 568 Tamil asylum seekers to the Canada’s West Coast. Border authorities seized the ships and detained their passengers as security threats. For many criticizing this anti-migrant response, the arrivals of these ships echoed that of the Komagata Maru in 1914. This steamship entered the West Coast’s Vancouver harbour, but its 376 predominantly Sikh-Punjabi passengers were denied from disembarking as British subjects entering Canada. Scholarship on these incidents often use either the Komagata Maru as a lens for attending to the MV Sun Sea or vice versa. Part of the reason is that shortly after the government had apologized for its response to the Komagata Maru, it was detaining Tamil asylum seekers and arguing for their deportation. In suggesting their link far exceeds a temporal coincidence, this paper explores what makes it possible to think the MV Sun Sea and Komagata Maru together. It argues that they are interlinked by an economy of affirmation and forgetting in Canadian public and political discourse. Furthermore, this economy frames how these boats are remembered unequally in service of the Canadian nation-state.


Contraventions: Refugee Experience Between The Aesthetic and The Social – 2020

The category “refugee” has become a precarious term in postcolonial studies. Critiquing the field, David Farrier describes the refugee as a “scandal” (2011) for postcolonial studies insofar as the field neglects the contingencies of the refugee in its broader theoretical repertoire. While postcolonial studies as of late has attended to the refugee as an urgent theoretical and aesthetic problem (Davies & Isakjee 2019, Gallien et al. 2019, Nguyen 2019, Woolley 2014), in large this scholarship has remained predominantly speculative, offering few tools to calibrate the term for the diverse experiences and histories of 25 million displaced people. Yet, postcolonial studies is uniquely positioned to advance scholarly understanding of the refugee across the social sciences and humanities beyond the immediate purview of the politico-judicial framing that has come to dominate ongoing conversations, because it is committed to anticolonial interrogations of the “entanglements and interactions between the material and imaginary” (Gallien 2019) within global capitalist modernity. How do we open up the category of the refugee beyond its politico-judicial framing, a framing which risks reproducing the confining logics of “border imperialism” (Walia 2013), and into the multitude of aesthetic representations of displacement, historically and contemporarily? Contending that the refugee is not a monolithic totality, but a totality of shifting aesthetic, historical, and national relations (Glissant 1990), this paper attends to how refugee narratives re/imagine their contingencies, in ways that recuperate refugee experience from the myopia of politico-judicial representations. This paper, then, proceeds to examine Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do (2018), a retelling of Bui’s family history of displacement and asylum amidst war-torn Vietnam that continues to haunt her family in America. This haunting animates Bui’s journey to uncover her parents’ experiences of displacement, revealing not only how these experiences linger long after arrival, but that these experiences transcend temporal, geographical, and generational borders. Bui’s memoir underscores the onto-epistemological limits in understanding the refugee through exclusively politico-judicial analytics. These analytics capture a specific moment in the displacement narrative, entangled within nation-state bureaucracies that not only confine the refugee spatially, but onto-epistemologically. Through a postcolonial analytic, this paper urges an understanding of refugee experience as much more than encounters with nation-state borders and flights from homelands..

Technologies of Belonging: Refugee Print Cultures in the Settler State – 2020

In the summer 2018 the seemingly impossible happens: a prisoner of Manus Island not only publishes a memoir about Manus Island but wins Australia’s Victorian Prize for Literature. The text in question, Behrouz Boochani’s No Friends But The Mountains (2018), emerges through the migratory networks of the Asia Pacific region—from the coast of Indonesia’s Kenadari to Christmas Island—eventually to be claimed by the Australian nation-state. Indeed, Australian novelist Richard Flanagan introduces him as “great Australian writer,” and yet the text is originally written in a thousand fragments in Farsi and sent over WhatsApp to philosopher Omid Tofighian who would then translate Boochani’s story into English. The only Australian trace in the text is the brutal and tortuous regime of Australia’s anti-immigrant government. Boochani’s narrative arrives at a moment when postcolonial and migration studies engage the problem of belonging and community. How do settler nations, broadly speaking, produce and maintain national boundaries through varying technologies of belonging such as print media (Dhamoon et al. 2018, Bahng 2018, Hedge 2016, Anderson 2006, Said 1994)? As Hedge suggests, technologies of belonging “demonstrate how the political, social, and communication infrastructures shape and mediate the nature of transnational connections forged between the migrant, the nation, and the realities of dislocations and relocations” (14). Postcolonial scholars working on migration narratives, then, are thinking through how these narratives “cannot be contained within a single national perspective” (Dhamoon et al. 9). While these scholars are rightfully elaborating the legal, political, and imaginative dimensions of this problem, to date a there is minimal scholarship on how refugee print objects specifically and the settler print cultures that take them up are edifying the borders of the nation-state as well as inscribing other exclusionary measures of belonging. This presentation contends, in light of this question, that Boochani’s memoir textually resists Australian print culture’s attempt to claim him and his text as its own. As such, this presentation identifies a “double exception” (Puar 2007, Ong 2006) in settler print cultures, wherein the settler nation is exceptional in its celebration and acceptance of refugee narratives all the while maintaining politico-juridical exceptions to asylum claims as set out by the 1951 Refugee Convention. The print production of Boochani’s memoir, although refusing a single national perspective, is ambivalently caught up in reproducing the borders of Australia. Even as Australia continues to deny Boochani entry into the nation, along with many other asylum seekers on Manus Island, it celebrates his refugee narrative and its significant contribution to Australian literature. Boochani’s text signals how refugee print cultures are mediating a multitude of transoceanic connections between migrants, communities, and nations that refuse the optics of a single nation.


Scenes of Captivity: Migration and Detention in Global Literature – 2019

Postcolonial critics have taken up the paradigms of bare life and the camp, emerging from Agamben’s and Foucault’s work on biopolitics, in order to shed new light on migration, detention, and coloniality (Abdalkafar 2018, Rifkin 2012, Mbembe 2003). However, these paradigms often foreclose questions about speaking and speechlessness that nevertheless animate postcolonial modes of inquiry. As Kamari M. Clarke laments, the paradigms of biopolitics often sacrifice “questions of self making,” along with questions of resilience, resistance, and representation, for questions of “biopower” (466). In what ways are precarious migrations—such as those by boats traversing the Mediterranean Sea or caravans crossing central America—speaking against these paradigms? How are literary representations of precarious migrations depicting life as more than just bare, but also deeply invested in a plethora of modes of self-making, resilience, and political determination? This presentation contends that there is a politics of representation wedded to the knowledge production of biopolitical critiques of migration. As such, scholars invested in a politics of life, such as Agamben’s bare life or Butler’s precarity, must attend to how life pushes back against the representations offered by these theories. Intersecting between the insights of postcolonial critics of biopolitics (Puar 2017, Weheliye 2014) and theorizations of representation (Sharpe 2016, Spivak 1994, Fanon 1952), this presentation foregrounds a conversation within two texts that belong to a growing body of literature concerning migration in a time marked by a multitude of refugee crises. First, the graphic journalism of Kate Evans’ Threads: From the Refugee Crisis (2017) offers a glimpse into the Paris Jungle, where the cosmopolitan refugee camps exhibit an abundance of resilience and determination in the face of an arrested temporality and right-wing extremism. Second, in The Boat People (2018), Sharon Bala’s fictionalization of one Tamil refugee reveals the tremendous endurance possessed by asylum seekers within the slow violence of Canada’s detention system. This body of literature, traversing the tried and true categories of the local and the global, is not only narrating and historicizing the deeply troubling Euro-American responses to mass migration, but it is challenging a world made of borders between race, religion, and place. Future postcolonial readings of this literature, which seek to interrogate colonial relations of power, depend on theoretical positions that make space for migrant voices.


Beyond Canadian Settler Colonial Time: Apology, Healing and Progress in Canada’s Shared History – 2019

This paper seeks to shift the dialogue around truth, reconciliation, and redress that emerged with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hollow apology to Indigenous peoples in 2008 for the Canadian government’s involvement in the residential school system. Harper produces a settler colonial narrative of a “shared history” and a “desire to move forward together” (Harper 2008) as a nation, which simultaneously absorbs Indigenous history into Canadian history and erases Indigenous historical agency. While scholars have attended to the problematic work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation in the wake of Harper’s apology (Wakeham & Henderson 2008, Stanton 2011, Mackey 2013), how this narrative of a “shared history” works to engender a “settler colonial time” (Rifkin 2017) remains a much-needed area of interrogation. This paper investigates how temporality in the literature is posed as a naturalized continuum that attempts to conjoin both indigenous and settler narrative into a natural, progressive timeline. As Mark Rifkin writes, “natural time appears as if it were a singular, neutral medium into which to transpose varied experiences of becoming, such that they all can be measured and related through reference to an underlying, “real” continuity—a linear, integrated, universal unfolding” (2017). What discursive strategies or technologies does the Canadian settler-state use to naturalize a national “union through time” (Rifkin 2017) and how do Indigenous futurities configure into this unity? More importantly, what does it mean for a settler state such as Canada to call for the moving forward and away from its past through apology? Beginning with Mark Rifkin’s concept of “chronobiopolitics,” which he describes as the cultural and state management or orientation of Indigenous experience, narrative, and story through the production of a unified settler-time, this paper attends to the synchronization of Indigenous and settler time through the rhetoric of healing that belongs to settler colonial narrative of Canada. Additionally, this paper engages Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done (2017) and Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus (2014) to think through how Indigenous knowledge—in the form of storytelling and ethnographic research—interrupts, resists, and refuses settler colonial time. Ultimately, this paper contends that Canadian settler colonial time, which is often imagined through discourses of reconciliation, apology, and healing, both orients and manages Indigenous narratives and produces a coherent national unity through time. By interrogating settler colonial time in the context of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this paper demonstrates how apology continues to produce a naturalized and progressive continuity of the settler state, such as with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent apology on behalf of Canada for turning away Jewish refugees in 1939, that works to enclose or erase stories of the subaltern that refuse this continuity.