What isn’t migrant literature?

All I have to do here is carve out a space, but I can’t stop thinking about the wood shavings that will fall to the floor. My co-editor and I want to make a regular feature on The Migrationist where we can come together to discuss migrant literature. This piece was to be an introduction, a review ‒ a survey of the terrain. But here I am, knife in hand, fearing that carving out a space may leave too much to lose.

For if there’s anything migrationists share, it’s a wariness of defined spaces. Our preoccupation with the legal and political boundaries of the nation-state lies at the heart of this suspicion. No sooner does a space open, then a border closes – or so it seems. We’re no less sceptical of the public discourse surrounding migration. Label-gazing is crucial to our field: it’s the first step in unpacking the stifling stereotypes of our inherited cultures.

Despite all this questioning at the border, the field of migration studies is not ruled by cautious deconstructionists. On the contrary, embedded in the social sciences, with an eye to influencing policy, migrationists construct their own ‘order of things’: irrregular migrant, economic migrant, cross-border migrant, second/third/fourth generation migrant, host-country, source-country, primary and secondary migration, transnational migration, internal migration, chain migration…As the mass movement of people consumes governments and the organisations they fund, the migration knowledge-producing machine is running at maximum speed.

This is where you’re probably wondering: what has any of this to do with migrant literature? The answer could be “everything”. Over the life of this new column, I’m sure some of my fellow contributors will find that literature by, or about, migrants, has the potential to deepen their understanding of the subject of their social science research. Literature, fictional or non-fictional, offers itself as another source of evidence: suggesting an alternative perspective or presenting the migrant experience in aesthetically pleasing (and highly quotable) ways. There’s a space here for that.

Others will take literature by, or about, migrants and their descendents as a subject in and of itself. Since the 1980s, when erstwhile marginalised writers from migrant or minority backgrounds crossed the border into the western literary establishment, migrant literature has claimed its own field of research within the humanities. This movement was echoed in the publishing world, where competing migrant identities still vie for attention in a thousand shades of suitably exotic dust-jackets. This comes complete with its own thematic catalogue: exile, displacement, loss of identity, acceptance, homecoming, hybridity, longing…Contributors who delve among those shelves are also very welcome in this space.

The embrace of migrant literature by an enthusiastic West did not go unscrutinised. In a post-colonial, post-modern landscape ‒ how could it? Celebration of the creative migrant voice was closely observed by post-colonial critics: watchful of potentially (or inevitably) neo-colonial impulses in the West’s relations with its cultural ‘others’. When the subaltern spoke it was to warn former imperial powers of the violence involved in its cultural representations of post-colonial peoples. This included the reception of migrant experience: ‘…the whole notion of authenticity, of the authentic migrant experience, is one that comes to us constructed by hegemonic voices.’[1] For those who wish to analyse the power relations involved in the production and consumption of migrant literature; to turn down the hegemonic white noise and crank up the subaltern voice – bring it on. I’m eagerly making room for you here.

The space is widening but I’m still uneasy. The fact is that none of these approaches come even close to my own motivation in reading migrant literature, or in wanting to discuss it here with others on this blog. The truth is – I enjoy it. And, although our blog is ‘informed by academic discourse’, it needn’t be formed by its classification system. Migrationists shouldn’t unthinkingly replace one set of labels with another. Literature, after all, precedes criticism. It’s a means of creative expression, not an interview transcript or a political treatise. So I’m also making space here for contributors who want, first and foremost, to revel in the text.

From this perspective, I have come to ask: what is it about migration that makes migrants and non-migrants want to write and read about it? It seems to me that a prime attraction is the emblematic quality of the migration experience. The movement of protagonists through space and time, and across cultures and landscapes, offers writers a means to distil, contain and apply narrative structure to the human life span in all its messy complexity – without sacrificing any ingredients. The migrant experience provides the dramatic forum to explore the fundamental themes of literature:  the interaction between self and society, the complexity of identity, the comfort of the familiar, and the attraction and fear of the strange. As anyone who has migrated themselves knows, migration is life writ large. It makes protagonists of us all.

Such a realisation widens the scope for considering migrant literature far beyond the works that accompanied the global mass movements of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly in a blog edited by history geeks, there’s a space for this kind of analysis here. The ‘migration experience as literary device’ perspective cuts through time and space, allowing a tunnel through the political migrant-hegemony divide to observe a common humanity. Take (just for example) a few Dead White Males and Females of the nineteenth century: Charles Dickens on the horrors of a Victorian childhood illustrated through urban migration, Elizabeth Gaskell on dislocation and identity crises via internal migration, George Eliot’s critique of social mores through the integration of ethnic ‘others’, and Henry James on loneliness via the experiences of transatlantic migrants. The migrant experience lent dramatic scaffolding to the issues these authors wished to explore in their work.

However, for the most part, the issues themselves were identified through the author’s migrant background or interaction with migrant individuals or communities. Identifying the ‘migrant experience’ as a literary device, while interesting, has sort of glossed over the fact that many of the fundamental themes of literature[2] are the stuff of migration. Migration is fundamental to our humanity, and accordingly: to our literary traditions. This is a fact our ancient texts knew well: Rama in exile, Ulysses returning home, Gilgamesh’s isolation in the forest and Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to the west. When we haven’t been migrating ourselves, we’ve been dreaming it up in our collective consciousness.

I promised to make a space on The Migrationist where we can come together to discuss migrant literature: here it is. You’re all welcome to contribute: suitably, it has no borders. I’m dropping my knife and picking up the wood shavings, I’m not sure why I thought it was needed. After all, what isn’t migrant literature?


[1] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, The Post Colonial Critic.

[2] I.e. the interaction between self and society, the complexity of identity, the comfort of the familiar, and the attraction and fear of the strange.

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One comment

  1. […] huddling them too close together and becoming blind to their engagement with the outside world. In my last blog I suggested that a discussion of migrant literature can only benefit from open arms and a flexible […]

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