Writing their own stories

19 June, 2019

MSc alumnus Theophilus Kwek reflects on a seminar series he organised at the RSC that brought refugee writers, and those who work with them, to the department to consider literary responses to home, dislocation and refuge.

‘Because we were not in our country, we could not use our own languages, and so when we spoke our voices came out bruised’.

Drawn from her debut novel We Need New Names, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, the poignant words above by Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo strike at the heart of what many migrants and asylum seekers find as they chart new lives and plans in new surroundings. Often under immense pressure to alter their narratives, adopt new identities, or accept painful uncertainties, even those who count English as their first language face an uphill struggle to tell their stories on their own terms.

Some of these challenges, and how migrants living and writing in Oxford have chosen to respond to them, were brought to light in a new seminar series at the Refugee Studies Centre in early 2017. ‘Words of Welcome’ featured readings and discussions led by four successful young poets who are refugees or migrants, alongside two writers who work directly with refugees in Oxford: poet and novelist Kate Clanchy (a teacher at local school Oxford Spires Academy), and poet and musician Alan Buckley (a psychotherapist at Refugee Resource, which provides counselling and support to refugees in Oxford). Across three afternoons, we – faculty, students, and members of Oxford’s writing community – were not only swept along by their stories, but transported in the telling to a different experience of the city that they, like us, knew as their own.

All four young poets had spent formative years in Oxford, and spoke candidly about the difficulties of finding a place for themselves in its landscape and fabric. Sharing a portion of her memoir, Asima Qayyum described scenes and landmarks on the Cowley Road – which, even as a child, seemed to her ‘pretty, clean, but undeniably dangerous’. Against the beauty and uncertainty of a ‘world [she] didn’t fully grasp’, school provided a kind of ‘refuge’ where teachers, friends, and the poetry she discovered all helped to ‘make [her] whole life’. Shukria Rezaei, also a student at Oxford Spires Academy and awardee of the inaugural Forward Prize Studentship for 2016, echoed these sentiments in her poem, ‘Glass of Tea’. Encountering the city’s unfamiliar geography, she found herself at a loss, ‘swirling like a tealeaf in the streets of Oxford’: even the sun overhead seemed to ‘move without a future’.

Finding ways to write their own stories proved integral for the four poets to recover a sense of ‘being themselves’. For some, this involved describing a world radically different from the knights and castles they found in storybooks. As dual-nationality poet Tarzina Khatun put it in a beautiful ghazal, writing allowed her to turn ‘crackling tumbleweed […] into coarse coconut hair’, evoking landscapes and characters familiar to her and thus finding that she could ‘make her mark on the world’.

For others, being able to recount their experiences gave them a sense of ownership and order that was otherwise hard to find. Azfa Awad, who first arrived as a refugee from Somalia, spoke of how telling one’s story in a prescribed way could spell ‘the difference between life and death’ for so many asylum seekers. An opportunity to shape the narrative – to decide its course and contours – was the only thing that would prevent her story from ‘eating her up’. Appointed as Oxford’s first Youth Ambassador for Poetry, Azfa was not only able to tell her story to various audiences (including the Queen) but also to teach other children about the importance of making their voices heard.

These themes resonated across a range of other recent events and initiatives in the University, such as in Syrian writer Samar Yazbek’s talk on ‘Writing in Times of War and Revolution’, part of the RSC’s Public Seminar Series, and in poet and translator Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s reflections on ‘Poetry in Migration’ at the Oxford Centre for Christianity and Culture. Too often, efforts to address or understand the challenges that refugees and migrants face neglect the role of creativity and artistic expression in their lives, or worse, disregard their voices and narratives altogether. As Qasmiyeh (himself a Palestinian refugee) suggests in a recent interview, writing allows those who have been displaced to ‘retrace [their] unfinished traces’. On our part, listening to their stories is key to ‘seeing [their] faces in their absolute gift’ – and there is something humane and necessary about doing so.Whether in our personal or professional lives, the seminars point us to ways of deepening our welcome towards refugees and migrants. Empowering others to write their own stories begins with being willing to listen – and then to speak for, and support them, in their own words.

Theophilus Kwek is a writer and researcher based in Singapore. His poems, essays and translations have appeared in The Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, Mekong Review and The Irish Examiner. He was formerly Editor-at-Large at Asymptote, and now serves as Co-editor of Oxford Poetry. He is an alumnus of the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

This reflection was originally published in Oxford Development Matters, Issue 3 2017. 

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About the author(s)
Theophilus Kwek
Alumnus of the MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies