In, on, around, across the Mediterranean: Displacement, ethics & the challenge of representation in fiction, drama, life writing & the arts

image of a dark blue seaBlue skies and sunny beaches – rickety boats perilously crowded with migrants. Space of encounter, cradle of culture – border patrolled by coastguards and drones. The images of the Mediterranean struggle to escape the stereotypes, and the narratives around and across this sea seem to be arranged around recurring binaries: tourist travel – trafficking of migrants; the crowded beach (or the picturesque quiet cove) – the overcrowded refugee camp looking out to a forbidden sea; poverty and destitution – wealth and prosperity; the refugee as victim – the refugee as criminal (or at least scrounger).

How do literature and the arts challenge these perceptions, binaries and stereotypes in representations of migrants and refugees? Can the Mediterranean be re-shaped as a space of possibility and of disruption of assumptions and power structures? How can narratives located in and around the Mediterranean offer resistance and different modes of constructing, or disrupting identities?

This seminar will consider how works of fiction, of life writing, for the theatre, and in visual arts – each focusing on different areas of the Mediterranean – challenge dominant representations to create alternative imaginative spaces of autonomy, dignity and responsibility; how they engage audiences to see beyond the alienation of the other.

Speakers:

Silvia Caserta (University of St. Andrews, UK), “Speaking (up) from the abyss. The Mediterranean middle passage in Lina Prosa’s Lampedusa Beach

Mariangela Palladino (University of Keele, UK), “‘Etre vraiment vrai’: Exhibiting visual stories of migration in Morocco”

Rita Sakr (Maynooth University, Ireland), “The ethico-politics of mixed-genre, relational life-writing in Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me

Meritxell Joan-Rodríguez (University of Barcelona and European Institute of the Mediterranean, Spain), “The ‘Mediterranean Borderland’ through the works of Najat El Hachmi”

Chaired by Lucia Boldrini, Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature, Goldsmiths, University of London

Abstracts

Silvia Caserta , “Speaking (up) from the abyss. The Mediterranean middle passage in Lina Prosa’s Lampedusa Beach

How, and to what extent, can contemporary Mediterranean narratives help us interrogate, and problematize, our own assumptions about what the Mediterranean is, how it gets experienced across its shores, and what role it has to play in the current dynamics of migration and global mobility? In the Italian play Lampedusa Beach (2003), by Lina Prosa, the narrative of a young African woman’s dramatic attempt to migrate is able to propose an alternative Mediterranean as a generative space of critique and resistance. In Prosa’s play, the protagonist Shauba experiences, and narrates at the same time, her Mediterranean middle passage, whose tragic epilogue the play can only allude to. Within the space of the sea, and on the heterotopic space of the boat on which the woman’s journey takes place, Shauba creates the space of her narrative resistance, even beyond the physical annihilation of her own death. The present moment of the Mediterranean crossing does not erase the past, but reclaims instead a connection to it, where the past inevitably brings about the specters of Italian colonialism. At the same time, a possibility for a Mediterranean future arises precisely from Shauba’s suspended physical and narrative journey.

Mariangela Palladino . “‘Etre vraiment vrai’: Exhibiting visual stories of migration in Morocco”

This paper explores how participatory, arts-based methods provide tools for sharing stories about migration and displacement, with the potential to disrupt dominant representative practices routinely reducing migrants and refugees to either victims or villains. Deploying such methods may generate alternative (e.g. multivocal, fragmented, ambiguous etc.) narratives that eschew the usual performative requirements of truthfulness and authenticity imposed on migrants and refugees, notably within asylum interview processes. The paper centres on one example of such participatory, arts-based methods deployed in the Moroccan context for the project ‘Arts for Advocacy: Creative Engagement with Forced Displacement in Morocco’ which – in partnership with civil society organisations – aimed to facilitate critical engagement and advocacy relating to migration more broadly. The visual narratives resulting from this project partake in the creation of a site of protestation that outstrips the singular issue of representation to address more broadly fraught politics of migration. The paper highlights how the creative process resulted in counter-narratives of migration by departing from confessional, truthful and ‘authentic’ accounts of victimhood. Crucially, the deployment of visual arts-based methods provides another stage for migrants and refugees to critically engage with an audience over their own reflections on (and not simply experiences of) migration.

Rita Sakr, “The Ethico-Politics of Mixed-Genre, Relational Life-Writing in Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats With Me”

This talk explores Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats With Me as a Gazan mixed-genre prose-poetic war-chronicle in diary form, mediating the aesthetic and ethico-political implications of the severed limb in terms of the challenge of embodied relationality to the dismembering impact of techno-biopolitical violence not only on the bodies of Palestinians and their lived spaces of refuge on the threshold of the Mediterranean but also on representational possibility, responsibility and communicability.

Meritxell Joan-Rodríguez, “The ‘Mediterranean Borderland’, through the works of Najat El Hachmi”

The Mediterranean has been understood and continues to be conceived as a border that, one the one hand, serves as a framework for a Mediterranean identity difficult to describe; and, on the other, functions as a boundary traversed by (post)colonial logics and exclusionary practices. Taking the Chicana epistemology as a cue, I read the Mediterranean space as a Borderland (following Gloria Anzaldúa’s denomination) that allows for the conflation of multiple cultural traditions, social codes and languages, whilst problematizing any rigid understandings of identities and identifications. From this point of view, the Mediterranean Borderland is a territory of enriching interminglings and also a space of tensions and frictions. In this seminar, I will analyse the works by Najat El Hachmi (Beni Sidel, 1979), as well as their reception in Catalonia, where she grew up, in order to delve into such and understanding and to better comprehend individual and collective processes of identity construction in the Mediterranean. El Hachmi’s case puts forward an idea of the literary space as a mode of dwelling and her works facilitate the creation of genealogies and imaginaries that consider subjectivities as hybrid and fluid, whilst contesting the hegemonic historical discourses that, in Europe, disavow the subjects conceived from the lenses of alterity.

The participants

Silvia Caserta is an Associate Lecturer in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests lie primarily on contemporary Italian literature and culture, approached within the broader cultural and geographical framework of the Mediterranean. Her first research monograph, which focused on Italian orientalism and colonial amnesia through the reading of a large corpus of travelogues and memoirs, was published in 2013 by Aracne Editors, with the support of governmental funding awarded to the project because of its national interest. Before moving to the U.K., Silvia earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, and she is currently editing the book that emerged from the dissertation, which is tentatively titled An Alternative Mediterranean Space. Narratives of movement and resistance across Italy and North Africa.

Mariangela Palladino is Senior Lecturer in Postcolonial and Cultural Studies at the University of Keele. Her fields of expertise include migration and displacement, participatory methods and African literatures. She was Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project ‘Responding to Crisis: Forced Migration and the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century’; Co-Investigator on the AHRC-ESRC funded project Arts for Advocacy: Creative Engagement with Forced Displacement in Morocco and an AHRC Knowledge Exchange and Impact project MARAM: Mobilising Access to Rights for Artists in Morocco. These projects explored forced displacement, the role of the arts and the use of creative methods. Mariangela is currently Principal Investigator for the AHRC-GCRF MADAR Network Plus (2020-2024). She has published on migration and mobility. Mariangela co-edited a special issue of Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture on Creative Engagement with Migration (2019) and her latest work is included in the EUP edited collection Refugee Imaginaries. Research Across the Humanities (2019).

Rita Sakr is Lecturer in Postcolonial and Global Literatures and Director of the MA in Literatures of Engagement at Maynooth University. She is the author of Monumental Space in the Post-Imperial Novel: An Interdisciplinary Studyand of ‘Anticipating’ the 2011 Arab Uprisings: Revolutionary Literatures and Political Geographies, co-editor of The Ethics of Representation in Literature, Art and Journalism: Transnational Responses to the Siege of Beirut, and co-director/co-producer of the RCUK-funded documentary on Beirut, White Flags. Her recent and forthcoming work on migrant and refugee cultural production is included in Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture and a Cambridge UP volume on Diaspora and Literary Studies, among others. She is currently senior co-investigator on a mixed-methods research project that seeks to assess the psychosocial needs of first-generation Arabic-speaking adolescents in Ireland. She is co-founder of the Irish Network of Middle Eastern and North African Studies.

Meritxell Joan-Rodríguez completed an MA in Comparative Literary Studies at Goldsmiths College and holds a PhD in Linguistic, Literary and Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona. She is a researcher in the group “Literary Cartographies of the Diaspora”, within the UNESCO Chair “Women, Development and Cultures”, at the same University. Currently, she is the coordinator of the Gender Department of the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed).

Lucia Boldrini is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of the Centre for Comparative Literature. Her research interests include fictional biography and autobiography; Joyce, Dante and modernist medievalism; comparative literature; and literature on and from the Mediterranean area. Among her books: Autobiographies of Others: Historical Subjects and Literary Fiction (Routledge, 2012); Joyce, Dante, and the Poetics of Literary Relations (CUP, 2001); and as editor, Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction, with Julia Novak (Palgrave, 2017). She was Academic Co-Director, with Ivan Callus and Stella Borg Barthet, of the Strategic Partnership “Mediterranean Imaginaries: Literature, Arts, Culture” (2016-2018). She is a member of the Academia Europaea, and currently serves as Vice-President of the International Comparative Literature Association.