In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, his unfinished account of a 13th-century pilgrimage, the host, in his cheerful and accommodating manner, suggests that as they walk the pilgrims should tell tales. Not their own tales, which might be the modern way, but the tales of other people. It becomes clear too that the tales themselves are largely the result of other journeys.
In so structuring the work, Chaucer inscribes into the language (which he was helping to create) a deep connection between poetry and human movement. And so a disparate group of fellow travellers bind themselves through the telling of other people’s stories.
It is for these reasons that The Canterbury Tales is the perfect model for Refugee Tales, an extraordinary project in which I am currently involved. Conceived a year ago by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, the aim is to tell some of the stories of refugees and detainees during a walk from Dover to Crawley (home to Gatwick Airport), two key points of entry into the UK. Following the route of the old Pilgrim’s Way across the North Downs (not the route Chaucer’s pilgrims actually took but one their contemporaries would have recognised), our nine day, 80-mile walk started on June 13 in Dover’s Market Square.
Setting out to celebrate the contributions migrants make to the UK, while symbolically recognising the journeys they have made, the key demand of the project is an end to indefinite immigration detention. As I write, we have reached the village of Chilham, having stopped in Shepherdswell and Canterbury en route – and, as we go, more walkers join us every step of the way. The reason they are joining us, as they tell us with a sense of relief, is that they want to participate in this spectacle of welcome.
The key similarity between our project and Chaucer’s poem is that at every stopping point writers help to tell other people’s tales: The Migrant’s Tale, The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale, The Lawyer’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale, among others. In each case, a novelist or poet has collaborated with the person whose tale is being told to help communicate the experience of coming to or living in the UK. The tales are clear in their articulation of the journeys undertaken, of the deeply damaging effects of indefinite immigration detention and also of the bare life that follows detention that is the experience of tens of thousands of people currently living in the UK.
Telling others’ stories
There are multiple echoes of Chaucer’s project in The Refugee Tales. One such echo is the simple fact that the tales are being told by other people. This approach is not without its difficulties, as the organisers of the project are acutely aware. But one crucial consideration for all concerned is that while the people whose tales are being presented badly want them to be told, they often do not want to be seen or to be heard telling them. This is principally because having been detained they fear the prospect of being re-detained, a dismayingly common occurrence.
The fear and secrecy that surrounds immigration detention is well understood by those who work with detainees. What we didn’t fully anticipate was the effect of the collaboration itself. A number of the writers involved in the project have reported on the effect that the process has had on their thinking about writing. Each of the tales takes its own form, from Patience Agbabi’s heroic crown of sonnets, to Ali Smith’s narrative, to Dragan Todorovic’s dialogue with Chaucer – but in each case the language is clearly marked by the demand of presenting another person’s story, by the ethical and aesthetic considerations of helping to shape another person’s account.
As things stand, the realities of immigration detention and the post-detention regime are not often talked about. This is perhaps starting to change, thanks to a growing pressure from detainees and activists. But as I have discussed elsewhere, arbitrary and confusing as the immigration and asylum process appears to the person at the receiving end of its tortuous delays and decision-making, one thing that holds the apparatus together is the systematic exclusion of the utterance of the person detained.
This is most apparent in the detention bail hearing, the occasion when the detainee seeks release. On those occasions, the detainee is not permitted to attend, but is mediated by a video link from the detention centre which, as well as being frequently faulty, fundamentally impedes any effect of actual human presence. Additionally, the proceedings of the hearing are not written down. This part of the story, like just about all aspects of the detainee’s story, is kept from the record. Just as when Chaucer wrote his sequence, so the purpose of The Refugee Tales has been to re-open the language to the facts of human movement, to put the stories of people seeking asylum in the UK on the record.
The sequence of The Refugee Tales (16 in total, with two performed each night of the walk) is constructed so as to trace the trajectory from arrival to final decision. “The Migrant’s Tale” tells the story of a person who left Syria on his second attempt, smuggled in a lorry from Turkey to the UK, hidden behind packing cases while suffering the pain of kidney stones. When he arrived:
I was put in a detention centre, at Gatwick. It was as bad as in Syria. I was very ill … it took them a hundred days to let me go.
Then there’s “The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale”, which starts “under a jeep in a car park in Khartoum” with the young girl trying to stifle “the laughter which is as ripe as fruit in her mouth”. The tale traces a journey through the desert and then across the Mediterranean where the unaccompanied children see dolphins and “the water-drenched flesh of refugees”.
“The Appellant’s Tale” tells the story of a man who arrived in the UK in 1984, recruited in his home country to work for the BBC World Service. After 28 years of entirely legal work he was picked up on the basis of a tip-off by the UK Border Agency and plunged in to the Kafka-esque world of the British detention system. As he tells it, describing the sheer impossibility of making himself heard from within detention: “the way it looks, you are a nobody. It means you have no story”.
“The Arriver’s Tale” is the story of a man who has been in the UK for eight years, having left his country of origin when he objected to FGM. Since arriving in the UK he has been detained, has been unable to work and has been relocated each time he started to establish a community. This, he explains patiently, is the definition of limbo.
As writers on The Refugee Tales have observed, what one finds on going back to The Canterbury Tales is a political geography we can recognise, as in “The Man of Law’s Tale”, for instance, with its account of a deeply troubled journey from Rome to Syria, and then from Syria to the north of England where a young refugee, Constance, finds herself falsely accused.
More fundamentally, by appropriating Chaucer for a project aimed at communicating the accounts of people who have experienced immigration detention, Refugee Tales looks to help re-open language to the realities of human movement, and to share and circulate stories that have been scandalously silenced.