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Migrant Literature as part of the Refugee Week at the French Institute

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

On the occasion of World Refugee Day (20 June), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) works to commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees and raise awareness on their issues. Behind this humanitarian crisis, and beyond the statistics, there are individual lives and stories to be told.

Artists, Filmmakers and Writers resorted to produce creative works to try and portray the origins of migration as well as the many difficulties linked to integration. While the focus of the stories nowadays seems to be around the many refugees arriving from Africa and the Middle East trying to settle in Europe, migration is a historical and international phenomenon. The European Refugee Crisis is certainly one that needs addressing, however on culturetheque and in the mediatheque, we have also selected books and documentaries that illustrate lesser-known exodes.

In Tropique de la violence, Natacha Appanah tells the story of clandestine migrants, coming from the Comores to the island of Mayotte.

In l’Art de perdre, Alice Zeniter agilely questions the complex relationships between France and Algeria (between the 1940s toward nowadays) and shows how history unfolded at the expense of personal choices.

In Là où les chiens aboient par la queue, Estelle Sarah Bulle focuses on life in a rural part of Guadeloupe before settling in France – an experience quite different to the one so often dreamed about.

In La terre qui les sépare, Hisham Matar confides intimate thoughts about the Khadhafi regime in Lybia, the Arab spring, the disappearance of his father and the need for him to find a safe place in the United Kingdom.

In Histoire de la femme cannibale, Maryse Condé's story touches upon migration from North African Countries and the Caribbean towards South Africa. More specifically, questions relating to mixed-raced couples are addressed.

In all these stories, readers eventually realise that war or repression can have disastrous consequences on family lives and that problems linked to integration and hybridity cross several generations.

The issues associated to finding a place one can call its own in a foreign country has been the topic of novels by Omar Benlaala and Fatou Diome. They show how difficult it is to be caught between two cultures, two histories. Feelings of misplacement, uprootedness and rejection are strong, yet they can be overcome.

Omar Benlala through Tu n’habiteras jamais Paris recalls his father’s exile from a village in Kabylie to Paris, showing that perseverance eventually pays off. Among others, the frustration of learning a new language is subtly illustrated.

Fatou Diome in Impossible de Grandir explores childhood, solitude and being Franco-Senegalese now that she has lived many years in Alsace.

"When I landed in France, as Édouard Glissant said, there is the look of the son and the vision of the stranger. Same thing in Africa, I'm in and out. " Patrick Chamoiseau

Finally, Phillipe Claudel and Patrick Chamoiseau in their latest novels question the responsibility of politicians and citizens all over the world towards helping refugees settle and feel welcome in Europe. They condemn cowardliness, indifference, egoism, vanity and arrogance. They hope that literature (prose and poetry) will create new imaginaries and change the current story of a black Mediterranean cemetery.

Chamoiseau reminds us that identity nowadays is multiple and moving per se. Globalisation and its numerous external influences have changed how we perceive and define ourselves. People can no longer find their reality in a vacuum.

Overall, all these stories have the power to move and hopefully instil a feeling of kindness and give an insight on the complexities of migration and identity.

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