“The Displaced”: invisibility and hypervisibility in a hostile climate

By Zhenya Bourova


The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives

Edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Abrams Press

In his introduction to The Displaced (2017), Viet Thanh Nguyen writes that “[i]nvisible and hypervisible, refugees are ignored and forgotten by those who are not refugees until they turn into a menace”.

Nguyen was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer (2015). He is also the author of The Refugees (2016). In The Displaced, he brings together the voices of 17 writers who reflect on their own very different experiences of invisibility and hypervisibility in countries including the United States, South Africa, Italy, Thailand, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Some of the experiences described in The Displaced are universal ones: the difficulty of preserving bonds of family and friendship across distances geographic, temporal and cultural; and the struggle of individuals against indifferent bureaucracies with the power to determine their fate.

Yet these essays are also firmly anchored to the backdrop of Donald Trump’s America, where xenophobic anxieties have been legitimised through the adoption of increasingly restrictive immigration policies. These policies are expressly critiqued by the writers of The Displaced, creating a sense of urgency that precludes the treatment of their experiences as metaphors of any kind.

In “Common Story”, David Bezmozgis – once a stateless person, the child of Jewish parents who fled the Soviet Union in the 1970s – is now a Canadian citizen serving as an observer at an immigration hearing. His own family’s lucky escape was made possible by a confluence of favourable government policies of which his parents took advantage. Conscious of this, he refutes the idea that those granted citizenship are somehow more “worthy” than those who are denied the right to stay.

Bezmozgis’ parents are able to establish themselves in Canada while remaining “flawed and unexceptional people”. However, in “The Ungrateful Refugee”, Iranian-born Dina Nayeri argues that acceptance for refugees of colour comes at a price that white American citizens – and white refugee families from Eastern Europe – do not have to pay.

This price is the perpetual performance of gratitude to their adopted homeland. Nayeri and her parents are continually asked to retell their story of leaving Iran. Their story is sought not as a source of insight into them as people, but as a backdrop for the re-articulation of American superiority:

“Month after month, my mother was asked to give her testimony in churches and women’s groups, at schools and even at dinners. I remember sensing the moment when all conversation would stop and she would be asked to repeat our escape story. The problem, of course, was that they wanted our salvation story as a talisman, no more.”

The act of leaving – and becoming a racialised “other” – has a doubly destabilizing impact on the refugee identity. This impact is explored in “New Lands, New Selves” by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, who left Zimbabwe for South Africa as a child. In the midst of a series of xenophobic attacks targeting foreigners in Johannesburg, she experiences for the first time what it is to be “part of a larger group called Zimbabweans who were out of position, not in our proper place”. She anchors her sense of self by clinging to childhood memories that, in the end, are not enough to stop her from feeling like a foreigner even when she returns to the Zimbabwean city she once called home.

Ultimately, the focus of the writers in The Displaced is not on the many acts of bravery, opportunism and sacrifice that made up their escape stories. The escape story is the least threatening kind of refugee narrative for a middle class white Australian audience. It calls for an overhaul of our cruel policy of offshore detention, but does not invite us to examine the racial inequalities that continue to place migrants of colour at the margins of our society even after they are admitted to “the lucky country”.

Among those who can afford to ignore these inequalities are established migrants like Bezmozgis’ family – and, similarly, some of my own – who, despite their own experiences of loss, scarcity and precariousness, have become indifferent to the claims of more recent asylum seekers who are “not like them”.

The writers in The Displaced argue for the opposite of indifference. They draw on their experiences to call for a continuous empathy with those who are forced to flee their homes, and those who remain marginalised. As Nguyen suggests in his introduction, such empathy is ultimately radical, because it necessitates a call for wide-ranging political change:

Many laws say that borders are sacrosanct, and that crossing borders without permission is a crime. Unpermitted migrants are thus criminals and the refugee camp is a kind of prison. But if borders are legal, are they also just? Our notions of borders have shifted over the centuries, just as our notions of justice and humanity have…