The Many Voices of Displacement

Our world currently faces the highest numbers of displacement in its history, even higher than immediately after World War II. In 2015, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) announced that “65.3 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide, as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations” (Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2015). Of this number, 21.3 million were refugees, 40.8 million were internally displaced people, and 3.2 million were asylum seekers. Moreover, UNHCR estimated that at least 10 million people globally were stateless at the end of 2015. These numbers were in 2015, and we can all agree that the situation today in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, which have had the highest numbers of refugees, have not ameliorated but gotten even more drastic and heartbreaking.

The countries hosting most of the refugees have been Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia, and Jordan (Global Trends, Forced Displacement in 2015); and yet, when we listen to the news, it seems as if it is only the E.U. and the U.S. that have been grappling with carrying and handling what they present as a burden imposed on them.

According to a report by Pew Research Center, “The U.S. public has seldom approved of accepting large numbers of refugees. In October 2016, 54 percent of registered voters said the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria.” In the past year or so, under Trump’s administration, we have, moreover, been witness to rising xenophobia, especially toward Muslims, accompanied by official attempts at halting or limiting their acceptance into the country, resulting in even fewer refugees arriving in the U.S. There has also been the continuous official rhetoric around the need to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, further alienating the Hispanic community, and the most recent news about separating children at the U.S.-Mexico border from their parents and using that as a deterrent policy.  

In this dire global and domestic environment, the literary and arts scenes do not seem to be doing enough to represent and bring forth the massive extent and complexity of this human catastrophe. Yes, of course, there are works that address migration and displacement, but browsing through what exists out there, do we really get a sense of the magnitude of the disaster our world is facing and our own roles in it? I fear not. What aggravates the issue even further is that a lot of works that delve into the subject do so through problematic modes that might actually do more harm than help to spread the narratives of the displaced. Another problem is that the ways the publishing and marketing world function actually amplify the marginalization of these works and as a result of those voices they are to bring to us.

In my upcoming Lit Fest class, One Writer, Many Voices, we will discuss the issue of displacement and migration by looking at some of the works engaging with the topic and analyzing their modes of narrative, while also discussing the publishing and market forces affecting them. Our aim is to find ways to reconfigure the page as a welcoming open-border space that can actually respect the dignity of the lives of the displaced and their struggles, while bringing out the complexity of the global socio-economic and political context that has led our world to where we are today as well as our personal and collective roles in it. Our hope would be to move, both in our literature and our lives, toward different, more inclusive, empathic futures. 

Poupeh Missaghi is a writer, English/Persian translator, Iran's editor-at-large for Asymptote, and an educator. A Ph.D. graduate from the University of Denver's creative writing program, she has published fiction and nonfiction in Catapult, Entropy, Guernica, and elsewhere.