Guest post by Hanna Musiol, Associate Professor of English at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). Her research interests include literature, law, curation, and critical pedagogy, with emphasis on storytelling, migration, political ecology, and human rights. She has developed several public humanities and global classroom initiatives in Europe and the US, and she publishes frequently on literary and visual aesthetics and justice. This is the final instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘The Memory Politics of Migration at Borderscapes’ organised by Karina Horsti.

Education, Migration, and ‘the Violence of Organized Forgetting’

One of the key functions of education, Henry Giroux reminds us in a recent interview, is to produce not only skilled workers but ‘critical, self-reflective, knowledgeable [global] citizens’. But, in his view, it is also education—instrumentalized, alienating, and market-driven—that fosters the opposite: the cultural amnesiacs, unaware of their complicated place in history and incapable of ‘mak[ing] moral judgments and act[ing] in a socially inclusive and responsible way’. The mainstream presence of neofascism and anti-immigrant xenophobia in Europe and elsewhere certainly documents the dangers of such ‘organized forgetting’, especially of the West’s own contribution to the current refugee crisis, of its own migrant history, its colonial past.

At the moment when UNHCR figures for forcibly displaced persons stand at over 65 million, and as the global migration crisis is growing, humanities scholars and educators are encouraged to study education and immigrant ‘integration’ (or whatever assimilationist euphemism is mandated at the time) by many funding bodies and academic institutions. But not in the ‘long view’ sense. For instance, 2015’s 1.2 million euro Humanities in the Research Area (HERA) bids titled ‘Uses of the Past’ included no funding scheme to include academic institutions in the former European colonies as equal partners examining the European past. We are asked to engage in ‘integration’ projects, in other words, but are rarely mandated to examine the failures of education to help ‘forgetful citizens’ remember. We are not asked to tackle the violent and institutionalized memory work ‘we’ engage in in our own fields. The way we, too, build and police borders. Often ferociously.

Storytelling as a Civic Practice

New migrants share their life stories publicly all the time—it is a mandatory part of any legal process—but while few migrants fully benefit from the narrative labor they perform, their narrative labor sustains both carceral border and creative industries. (Frontex’s staff is to double, and its budget, separate from Schengen states’ contributions, is projected to reach €322 million, by 2020.) Research and education often require such involuntary sharing of life stories, too. It is then not surprising that many migrant storytellers in our classrooms and our research projects are exhausted by how their narratives are exploited. By the affective labor we demand in addition to their stories. (Sarah Ahmed, in ‘Melancholic Migrants’, and Dina Nayeri, in ‘The Ungrateful Refugee’, talk about the burden of such demands.) By how little we hear (not in the ablist sense, of course).

Yet, migrants and refugees have many stories to tell on their own terms, many narrative styles to express them in, and many motivations to share their experiences. As Viet Thanh Nguyen points out, ‘we come wanting to do more than just sell our stories to white audiences. And we come with the desire not just to show, but to tell.’ In order to tell, migrants must find, or imagine, or force into being an audience of listeners. Zakaria Mohamed Ali’s trenchant film about his return to Lampedusa is titled, desperately, To Whom It May Concern, precisely because while the story is always there, the willing, generous listeners are not.

Of Borders, Travelers, and the Humanities

At my home institution, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the grassroots response to the migration crisis involved bringing local migrants with academic backgrounds or aspirations into the local academic networks, especially in the public health, medical, and humanities fields. (The work was done under the aegis of the ‘NTNU for Refugees’, although this name is misleading, as we work not for but with refugees, in recognition of their expertise, agency, and contributions to our city and research community.) Many refugee-involving projects have focused on providing measurable, strategic skills, and for good reason. However, the immeasurable, long-term civic potential of the humanities and the arts has often been overlooked.

The humanities, of course, is a beleaguered field, seen as ‘slow’, inadequate to address current global problems, when not openly threatened with annihilation. And yet, when we are at our best—when we are not building aesthetic white supremacy mausoleums or acting as soulless accountants of aesthetics—we are able to nurture not only the aesthetic but also the civic dimensions of storytelling. More important, we can create the conditions for listening, reflection, and reciprocity. Such storytelling conditions, Gianluca Gatta of Archivio delle Memorie Migranti reminds us, are key and have much to do with how ‘we do language’, how we do the arts. And the stakes are high. If we succeed, we can make ‘civilizations heal’, promises Toni Morrison.

Of Borders and Travelers was motivated by this decadent social dream, and in 2016, our initiative devoted to storytelling, Anglophone literature, and migration theory opened its doors to students, refugees, and guests from far and wide—from Lofoten, Molde, Oslo, and Trondheim in Norway, to Afghanistan, the Czech Republic, Eritrea, Germany, Syria, Poland, Iran, the US, and Libya.

That fall Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandro Mezzadra, and Brett Nielsen taught us that borders are not just walls. They divide, but they also connect and generate. And so we focused not only on what the national, economic, linguistic, technological, gender, racial, ethnic, environmental, legal, and disciplinary borders are, but more so on what borders do to us, how they make us into strangers, travelers, tourists, citizens, migrants, fugitives, but also allies of our global moment and specific local space.

Over several months, we focused on ‘doing language’ and storytelling together. We wrote and read a lot; we listened; we debated ideas in class, in digital spaces, and in public; we collaborated; we drew new cartographies of Trondheim, and searched for new bridges and bordercrossings. We translated texts into Norwegian, Arabic, German, Farsi, Czech, finding new words, new ways of seeing and saying things in our mother tongues. (How does one translate Beloved into Farsi, which has no gender-specific pronouns?’, wondered Gulabuddin Sukhanwar. Or, reflect the nuance of Toni Morrison’s tone in German or Nynorsk?, asked other participants.) In the end, we saw cultural, linguistic and transmedia translation as a ‘crucial . . . form of border crossing’ (Rebecca Vollan).

Fourteen weeks of Of Borders and Travelers had not resolved systemic inequalities, of course, but it forced us to recognize that barriers to access to education, research, knowledge-making, public space, and, yes, the future, for some of us and not others, have a history and, often, a colonial architecture. Most important, it forced us to rehearse our social roles as storytellers, listeners, and co-producers of knowledge and theory about our times.

Mahamed Aman, the author of the ‘Return to Lampedusa’ audio-map (Photo: Mario Badagliacca)

The Right to the Future

Current debates about immigration oscillate between the humanitarian and the carceral discourses, both of which seduce their publics with the promise of integration or homogeneity, with little concern for the genealogies of the marginalization of migrant communities, inside and outside of academia. Moreover, such conversations about migration gesture, often in fear, to the great beyond—the ‘future of the nation’, of Europe, of the global economy, the ‘future’ in the aftermath of migration.

It is time that academics and non-academics together claim the right to coexistence, to our futures being tied to each other, and tied, inseparably, to knowledge, research, and storytelling (Arjun Appadurai). And since the right to such a future is tied not just to the right to tell, but also to an obligation to listen and to remember, academic institutions must both acknowledge their complicity in producing migration history amnesia and engage in collaborative, reciprocal, nearly forensic narrative work across borders of nations and disciplines to redress it. Only then can we be more than barometers of impending human rights crises or mournful historians of disasters.

Acknowledgements: Of Borders and Travelers would not have happened without a small army of volunteers and collaborators: Kristen Over, from Northeastern Illinois University Chicago; Gianluca Gatta, from Archivio delle Memorie Migranti; Hannimari Jokinen, the curator of ort_m [migration memory], Hamburg; Adria Sharman, from Trondheim Kommune; Larry Siems, the editor of Guantánamo Diary; The ICORN Trondheim Refugee Writers at Risk; Sebastian Klein, from The Falstad Human Rights Center; and Olga Lehmann, of Trondheim Poetry Nights. First and foremost, however, credit goes to the NTNU students and Trondheim-based refugee academic guests for the extraordinary intellectual work they accomplished across many borders of our world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Musiol, H. (2017) On Migration Research, Humanities Education, and Storytelling. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/06/migration (Accessed [date])