Guest post by Johan Schimanski, literary scholar and border researcher at the Universities of Oslo and Eastern Finland. Johan has participated in EU and Norwegian research projects on border concepts, border aesthetics and migration literature. As a researcher he focuses on the analysis of texts describing borders and border-crossings within the framework of border poetics. Johan is on twitter @johanschimanski. This is the third instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on ‘The Memory Politics of Migration at Borderscapes, organised by Karina Horsti.

The Deportation Holding Facility (Politiets Utlendingsinternat) At Trandum, Partly Visible In The Lower Left Corner Of A Plane Window (Photo Johan Schimanski)

Deportees may have immediate memories and narrative memories of border-crossing, deportation, surveillance or media spectacle. And they may also have traumatic ones, so visceral and threatening that they block out the normal function of memory, replacing it with nightmarish images and bodily reactions. The case of Maria Amelie, a Russian national deported from Norway, highlights the need for longer, more literary narratives of deportation in the public sphere – not just state and media images – in order for both deportees and others to be able to negotiate such traumatic memories. 

A very public deportation 

In 2011, the Norwegian Police Immigration Service carried out 4744 forced deportations. Most of these went unnoticed by the public, and deportees remained nameless. However, Maria Amelie (a pseudonym), was the subject of intense media coverage initiated even before her deportation. 

Her blog about life as an undocumented migrant in Norway and her book Ulovlig norsk (‘Illegally Norwegian’) had not only made her a public figure, but also the subject of police surveillance. The interest from the media following her deportation back to Russia eventually caused a change in Ministry of Justice and Public Security guidelines on the law on foreigners (the so-called ‘lex amelie’) allowing her later legal re-entry into Norway. 

In 2014, she published a second book describing her incarceration in the Trandum deportation facility near Oslo Airport. The book Takk (‘Thank You’) is meant as an expression of gratitude to her supporters, but also an attempt to make the private trauma of deportation visible, counter accusations of being a privileged, ‘de-ethnicized’ migrant, and make the untold stories of fellow deportees she met at Trandum heard. 

The Covers Of Maria Amelie's Ulovlig Norsk (2010) And Takk (2014), With Half And Full Portrait Images Of Amelie Symbolizing A Transition From Invisibility To Visibility (Images: Pax Forlag)

Pathologies of the Visible’ 

Political philosopher Hannah Arendt has argued that visibility is key to political agency. To be seen – or indeed, to be heard – is a basic criterion for entrance into the public sphere. However, Arendt points also to the pitfalls and paradoxes of being made visible and audible. It is not enough to be seen, if one is seen as an alien rather than as an active person. For democracy to function properly, Arendt argues, we must be seen as political beings (‘public visibility’), but be allowed to keep or birth and origins out of the picture (‘natural invisibility’). 

Migrants are particularly aware of the need to find a balance between expression and exposure. Social anthropologist Chiara Brambilla and media scholar Holger Pötzsch have similarly used the concept of in/visibility to compare the dangers of visibility at the border through techniques of border surveillance (which threaten migrants), with more positive forms of visibility such as participatory videos about border-crossing (which give them their own voice). 

Amelie’s book Takk is a careful negotiation of what Arendt-inspired philosopher Marieke Borren, writing about migrants, has called the ‘pathologies of the visible’. According to her migrants are denied political voices (‘public invisibility’), but made visible as racialized bodies in the media (‘natural visibility’). 

Glass Borders

Glass and glass divides have been often used as references to barriers of exclusion, allowing vision but denying physical access. By using the symbolism of glass borders, in the form of windows, mirrors and camera lenses, Amelie, too, explains how surveillance and media coverage can produce exclusion, alienation and other traumatic effects of a bodily nature. 

For example she describes the glass wall which separates her from the guards in the reception area of Trandum. Compounding matters, upon entering the facility Amelie is asked to strip naked and hunch over a mirror placed on the floor as part of a body search process. Through the windows of the facility, planes leaving Oslo airport are frustratingly visible. 

Surveillance /Body: Quotes From Takk, By Maria Amelie (Translation by Johan Schimanski)

In her narrative Amelie uses the metaphor of glass not only to signify a lack of access, but also feelings of alienation. It was a photo of a window she had published on her blog which had made it possible for the police to identify where she lived and arrest her. In other words, being visible does not necessarily lead to empowerment. 

The search mirror at Trandum instils in Amelie a sense of self-alienation, as do the camera lenses of photojournalists outside Trandum and the court buildings in Oslo. She depicts her body as an outer, visible, but hollow shell, and experiences a split between herself and the ‘Amelie news story’. Throughout the book, she describes traumatic bodily effects such as rage, cold sweats, weeping, angst, dizziness, black-outs, lip-biting, numbness, shaking, icy sensations, nausea, cramps, swaying back and forth, etc. Imprisoned, she fantasizes about using glass shards from a mirror or a window to cut into her body. She feels caught behind the glass walls of an aquarium. In passages where the phrase ‘jeg ser’ (‘I look’ or ‘I see’) is repeated in an insistent rhythm, she experiences herself separated from the world she lives in, looking in. The glass surfaces are borders which not only wall in her body, but also threaten the borders of her body and psyche. 

I Saw…I Saw…I Saw…: Quotes From Takk, by Maria Amelie (Translation by Johan Schimanski)

Through her narrative, she also creates the basis for resistance to such pathological in/visibility and the neurotic repetition of fixed traumatic images. She encourages other, less vocal deportees she meets at the facility to write their own accounts. She engages in a form of written counter-surveillance, using her notebook especially to record attempts at intimacy and normality made by individual guards and police, their apologetic claims that they are ‘just doing their jobs’. At one point, trauma becomes infectious, when a policewoman begins weeping while escorting a weeping Amelie to the airport to be deported. 

Public narratives and ‘de-spectacularization 

The case of Marie Amelie shows not only how a heavily-mediatized deportation is transformed from police action into news story, and then into a book. It also highlights how a subsequent published narrative may change the image of border-crossing that is formed in the media coverage. Amelie’s narrative not only reverses the police gaze, but also reconstructs a liveable life story out of a traumatic state. 

Indeed, while the literary form of a book may be heavily dependent on subjective and imperfect memory and not as ‘up-to-date’ as a media report, it allows authors such as Amelie to avoid many of the dangers of the spectacularization that is part of the medial construction of migration crises. Her book serves as a reminder to researchers in migration studies of the need to analyse public discourse and images for their border symbolism (in this case the symbolism of glass borders). Faced with monitor screens, mobile devices and virtual windows through which we experience the spectacle of deportation, the book’s pages provide alternative ‘windows’ to the world. 

In January 2017, the Norwegian newspaper VG reported that ‘lex amelie’ has so far enabled the re-entry of 12 deported migrants into Norway. 

Note: The blog draws on research within the EUBORDERSCAPES project working package on ”Border-crossings and Cultural Production” and the NOS-HS workshop on “Borderscapes, Memory and Migration”.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Schimanski, J. (2017) Windows, Mirrors, Lenses: The Trauma of Visible Deportation . Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/06/windows-mirrors (Accessed [date])