Between Hope and Horror: The Refugee Camp in Literature (working title)
Refugee camps are central spaces in the lives of millions of forced migrants and the settings of many literary texts dealing with forced migration. Still, literary scholars have researched them very little so far. Most of the studies on refugee camps were instead done by scholars in forced migration studies, anthropologists, geographers or philosophers. However, leaving these places that feature so strongly in a lot of literature to be analysed by other disciplines altogether would be a mistake. For literary studies can add substantially to our understanding of the camp as a space.
This dissertation project is laid out as a study of how the refugee camp as a space is presented, characterised and discursively negotiated in literary writing. A number of contemporary texts set in the SWANA region and at the borders of Europe, such as Atia Abawi’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes (2018), Daniel Alarcón’s short story “The Thousands” (2017), Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s The Gurugu Pledge (2017), Helon Habila’s Travelers (2019), Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017), Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns (2016) as well as a collection of stories entitled Voices from the ‘Jungle’: Stories from the CALAIS REFUGEE CAMP (2017), will be analysed with regard to the role the camp plays in them, for their characters and for the development of their narratives. The aim is to find out how these texts can contribute to our knowledge and shape our understanding of the refugee camp as a space.
Henri Lefebvre’s notion of ‘social space’ provides the framework for this, which means that the refugee camp will not be viewed as a fixed entity, but as a space that is actively produced, both by its inhabitants, who, in trying to make a life for themselves, interact with each other in creating town-like social structures, and also by exterior forces. According to Lefebvre, space is not only a backdrop to politics but an active agent of hegemonic power. As a mechanism and tool of the global political response to issues regarding forced migration, the refugee camp is deeply embedded in modern-day power relations.
It follows that for geocriticism, the literary theory that builds on Lefebvre, space is more than just a setting in which actions take place. Its representatives, most notably Bertrand Westphal and Robert Tally, argue that understanding how power structures reveal themselves on a spatial level is the first step towards reversing them, that that knowledge necessitates change, even. By providing an insight into how larger societal power mechanism are inscribed in space, literature can create the prerequisites for that. Following this premise, this project positions the literary texts’ spatial depiction as productive interferences in the discourse on forced migration.