Refugee Tales IV is the latest instalment in the Refugee Tales series, and the first to not only present the experience of those detained in the UK but also those who have been detained in countries across the world. This volume features stories spanning Canada, Greece, Italy and Switzerland, calling for international insistence on a future without detention. First-hand accounts of the injustice faced by individuals seeking asylum are paired with author retellings to bring to attention the UK immigration system’s infringement on basic human rights despite the adoption of the 1951 Refugee Convention seventy years ago.
Rachel Seiffert is an author of four published novels. In 2003, she was named one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists, and in 2011, she received the EM Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her novels have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, the Dublin/IMPAC Award, and longlisted three times for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, most recently in 2018. She currently teaches at Birkbeck, University of London, and runs workshops for young writers with First Story.
To celebrate the launch of Refugee Tales IV we invited Rachel Seiffert to write an exclusive piece for The Comma Press Blog about her experience writing the refugee experience and the process of telling someone else’s story of detention.
It’s quite a thing to be tasked with, writing someone else’s life.
In my fiction, I often start with others’ stories. The urge to write is invariably sparked by hearing or reading others’ experiences, whether long past or recent. My characters have included the daughter of a Waffen SS officer in 1945, a Polish asparagus picker on a German farm after the fall of the Wall, a British man who served with the RAF in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurgency. These characters are based variously on family members, on testimonies found in my research, and interviews I conducted – and I’ve been writing like this for the best part of 25 years, so I’m familiar with the questions my approach raises. What right do I have to write this? What is my purpose? Will my writing be worth this mining of someone else’s life? In the course of this grappling with the ethical ins and outs, characters evolve and develop; they are often amalgamations in any case; they always become someone else in the writing. The events my characters witness may be the same in essence as those I came upon in my research, but in serving the narrative I create around them, and the questions I am seeking to address with my writing, my characters take on traits and ticks and a life of their own. If I’ve done my job well, they become their own person, alive and tangible to the reader.
In writing a Refugee Tale, however, I was not writing a character, or creating a narrative for them to serve; I was writing a person. A Refugee Tale is not an interview, either – it is not journalism; there, even when the writing is sympathetic to the subject, the individual is often lost among the statistics, the issues, the policy announcements, the protests.
David Herd, poet and editor, speaks of Refugee Tales as a walking project. Each year since the project’s inception, former detainees, current asylum seekers, volunteers, writers and members of the public come together for a few summer days, walking together through the English countryside, and exchanging stories. Both the walking and the stories are acts of sharing, of solidarity. For my work to accord with this, therefore, the writing had to be conducted in the same spirit: as an act of solidarity.
It began with listening. The pandemic did not allow for me to meet G in person; we spoke in video calls instead. Me sitting at my laptop in my home in London, G on his phone – provided by GDWG – in the northern English town where the Home Office had placed him; he had been released from detention, and sent there to await the decision on his leave to remain. But although we had to speak at a distance, it meant that I could speak to G more than once; it meant I could also allow the writing space and time to take shape.
I did not record our calls – this felt too intrusive, too unintuitive. But I did make notes, mostly writing G’s words verbatim: his phrasings; observations he made that stuck out for me – particularly anything he repeated. I read and re-read these notes between our conversations, and afterwards too, looking for threads. I was learning G’s life in the process: the facts of his biography; Ghanaian boyhood, London teenage years and twenties; his school days, his working life, his time in prison – and his experience of Home Office detention. But what emerged beyond this was the strong feeling of a life now put on hold – of being kept waiting. G was experiencing ‘the detention after detention’, which I have learned since is common to many asylum seekers here.
Point of View is a mainstay of creative writing teaching. In my classes, I encourage my students to try different combinations of grammatical person and tense, and explore the effect; to scour their book shelves for all the variations on offer, and to think why the writers might have chosen to employ them. Third person/past tense is the most common, the least ‘visible’ of the combinations; it’s often the one writers adopt, unless we make a conscious decision to do otherwise; it’s certainly the one I reached for in my first draft. But G’s story felt all wrong told that way – too distant and detached – as though I were talking about someone who was not there.
I began to write to G instead of about him, using the second person, using the present tense. I began to narrate our conversations, addressing him directly. I was feeling my way through the writing at this stage, rather than thinking or deciding per se, but in the process, I brought the writing far closer to the experience of talking to G.
What emerged was an amalgamation – not of many people into a character – but of all my calls with G, all the reading of his words in between. Now, I found myself able not just to tell the events of G’s life – important as they are; so revealing of the colonial thinking still ingrained in this country’s institutions – but I was also able to put him on the page at the same time. All the small gestures and smiles and frowns and pauses as we talked; G’s humour, his pride, and resilience; the textures of a person; the process of making a connection. I could show how his past lives in his present; how the cruelty of detention stays with him; how hard the wait is afterwards. This country is his home; it has been for decades – is it a crime for him to want to remain?
I wrote a Refugee Tale for G, to mark his experience, to share it – and because, as David Herd puts it: ‘what each story says when it details the fabric of an individual life, is that we have to make a future in which people are not detained.’
Refugee Tales IV is out now and available to purchase with all proceeds going to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help.