Academic journal article Refuge

Between Law and the Nation State: Novel Representations of the Refugee

Academic journal article Refuge

Between Law and the Nation State: Novel Representations of the Refugee

Article excerpt


Given the degraded profile of the refugee in contemporary discourse, it is tempting to seek alternatives from a rich tradition of literary tropes of exile. However, this article argues that the romanticized figure of the literary exile ends up denying, albeit in positive terms, a genuine refugee voice, as much as the current impersonal hegemonic concept of the refugee as found in law. Ultimately, the spell in which refugees find themselves trapped today can be broken only by opening up a space of politics in which the refugee herself can be heard.


Etant donne le profil degrade des refugies(e)s qui existe au sein du discours contemporain, la tentation de trouver d'autres possibilites d'approche a partir d'une riche tradition de figures litteraires de Vexil s'impose. Cet article maintient, cependant, que la figure romantique litteraire de Vexil aboutit, bien qu'en termes positifs, a un reniement de la voix authentique des refugie(e)s, au meme titre que la conception hegemonique et impersonnelle des refugie(e) s que Von trouve actuellement dans la legislation. Enfin de compte, le sort qui tient les refugie(e)s prisonniers ne peut etre brise que par la creation d'un espace dans la dimension politique qui puisse donner voix aux refugie(e) s eux-memes.


The figure of the exile in literature, or the literary figure in exile is a familiar, if not in fact a hackneyed one. (1) However, over the last fifty or so years, this tradition has died out. In its place we find, instead, the exile not so much as hero as victim; shamed rather than valorized; an object of history as opposed to being an active shaper of her own life and of the broader sweep of events. The refugee is no longer a romantic figure, overcoming tragedy to triumph. In this article I identify two major reasons for the break between the exile literatures of the past and those of the present. The first is the post-colonial settlement, which has left us with a fairly rigid international state structure, demarcated with borders that are becoming ever-more policed and impassable. Previously migrants of all types had benefited from much more contingent spaces, that is to say spaces in which sovereignty was contested, often overlapping or in flux, and where there were little to no border controls. Second, the advent of the international refugee law regime has transformed the asylum-seeking process from one dominated by rival political or religious ideologies, in which refugees were often active subjects, to a highly bureaucratized process focused on categorizing and managing the movement of migrants.

In this depoliticized and delegitimized nadir of the refugee, perhaps one place to seek out her voice is in literature. There is now a rich stream of writing on the relationship between law and literature, which variously seeks out law as described in literature, law as itself a literary form, and other parallels. (2) It is sometimes claimed that whereas law presents itself as Truth, literature offers itself as an artful reflection of reality. Therefore, there is a space within literature in which the monolithic narrative of law can be ruptured. (3) But equally, the relationship can flow in the opposite direction, whereby hegemonic legal concepts become reflected in literature and beyond into the wider culture. In short, as Kieran Dolin notes, works of literature "may question the boundaries established by the law, or they may simply reflect such boundaries." (4) So in this article, while attempting to show how images of refugees are passed into literature from the law, I am also interested to see whether or not literature, in turn, creates what Edward Said has described as an "affiliative" space, within which the refugee can be reimagined. In The World, the Text and the Critic, Said describes "filiation" as the adherence to a tradition--including "a party, an institution, a culture, a set of beliefs, or even a world-vision. …

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