The poet and teacher shares his motivations for creating the Refugee Tales project – a literary journey of solidarity with refugees, asylum seekers and detainees, modelled on Chaucer’s great poem of travel and storytelling.

Part of the PEN Atlas #RefugeesWelcome series.

For the person who visits a detention centre, it is a striking element of the process that one is not allowed to carry a pen and paper into the building. In one respect this is a catch-all policy; a person’s pockets have to be emptied. In another respect, this holding of the detainee and the ex-detainee outside the language is replicated across the asylum system. One sees an echo in the voucher system, the individual held symbolically outside the currency. More explicitly, it is a surprise to discover that the immigration bail hearing, one of the few mechanisms by which an individual might be released from detention, is not a hearing of record. The judge asks a series of questions, but nobody is writing the questions, or the answers, down. Nobody, that is, except in recent times, the excellent Bail Observation Project, realizing as they did the necessity for documentation. More than this, the detainee himself or herself is typically not present in the hearing, but is relayed, by a video-link, from the detention centre itself. The effect of this video relay is, inevitably, significantly to diminish the presence of the individual, to make their appeal, as a person, easier to ignore. More surprisingly still, given what is at stake in the occasion, the asylum appeal is not a hearing of record either. There will be a written determination, composed by the judges, but the exchanges themselves, the questions put by the Home Office for instance – that’s all off record.

It is this fact, the holding of people outside the skin of the language, that principally motivated Refugee Tales, inspired, as the project was, by Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group’s 20 years experience of visiting and talking with people who have been detained. The content of the tales is paramount, of course, but the process of composition was also important. Each writer [participating writers included Patience Agbabi, Inua Ellams, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Marina Lewycka and Ali Smith] talked at length with the person whose tale it was, either in person or where necessary by phone. In each case the writer was invited to take the necessary formal decisions towards a 20-minute performance. Equally, the tale had to be grounded in the reality of the experience that the person’s original telling presented.

To understand what’s at stake in such a telling we need some background thoughts. The question, obviously, is why should people not simply have told their own tales, the question being most pressing in the case of the asylum seekers, refugees and former detainees. There are two principal answers to this question. The first is that, in a number of cases, the person concerned remained so traumatised by the events that had caused them to make their journey, and also, subsequently, by the treatment they had experienced in the UK, that it would have been inappropriate (simply not possible in practice) for them to speak in front of an audience of between 100 and 200 people. The second reason was that, given the constant risk of re-detention, those who had been detained did not want their names attached to their tales. To be clear, they very much wanted their tales to be told, but not in a way that might identify them. Anonymity was at a premium because in the UK people in the asylum system fear reprisal.

There is much that might be said about this narrative dynamic. Two things in particular, however, should be remarked on by way of context. One is the fact that to tell another person’s tale one has to listen at length and very closely; at such length, in fact, that the experience being relayed grafts on to and alters the listener’s language. This is what the writers reported; that having collaborated in the way they did their relation to the language was significantly changed. More importantly, there is a thing that the people whose tales were being told repeatedly said. What variously they said about the process was that it was a relief that the tale was being told, though for the reasons given above they could not, in the immediacy of the moment, be the person who told it. More subtly, what people said was that they were relieved the account was being passed on. What that passing on of a story means, in this context, is a matter for some consideration. What perhaps it means is that a story that belongs to one person now belonged, also, to other people; that other people have acknowledged the experience that constitutes the story, but also that in making that acknowledgment they have registered responsibility. These are tales, in other words, that call for and generate a collective, that need to be told and re-told so that the situation they emerge from might be collectively addressed.

For all the shifts in the discourse around migration that have followed the current crisis, the question of indefinite detention, a cornerstone of UK immigration policy, has remained almost entirely absent from the debate. The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. Further demands follow: the entitlement to work and the entitlement to be educated; the entitlement, in other words, for a life not to be held brutally in suspense. Various forms of pressure will be required to achieve these objectives, but key to those pressures, certainly, will be the circulation of stories. Whatever else, the language needs to change.

Find out more about the Refugee Tales Project and the anthology Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus and published by Comma Press.

#RefugeesWelcome: this piece is part four of five in a PEN Atlas series responding to the refugee crisis. Read other pieces in the series.

Good Chance, a theatre dome established in the Calais ‘Jungle’ from October 2015 to March 2016, has erected a solidarity dome at London’s Southbank Centre, with events and workshops running throughout this week. Find out more here.

Illustration © Roberto Sitta/CreativeConnection, 2016.