Locating, crafting and mobilising narratives of displacement: The role of the arts in activating the voices of displaced women
Migration narratives operate as a counter-discourse to a world demarcated by colonialism, empire and racism. British migration narratives emerged at the end of the twentieth century as a direct consequence of the British Nationality Act (BNA) of 1948 – an act that saw many Commonwealth citizens (mostly former colonial subjects) arrive in the United Kingdom. That is not to disregard the presence of immigrants in the United Kingdom prior to this: rather, the BNA produced a minority population for the first time. From here, migration narratives on the experiences of exclusion, conflicts over meanings of national traditions, and reflect upon the significance of collective identity in a multi-racial international society. The latest generation of British fiction builds on these contributions made by earlier immigrant and minority fictions as they situate British culture within contemporary contexts of transnational integration and cosmopolitan belonging (Vadde 2015). Taken together, they offer alternative ways of thinking about colonialism ‘as it existed historically and as its legacies appear today’ (Gebrial 2018: 19). Crucial to wider decolonial agendas, these narratives are illuminated and imagined through artistic representations such as literature, theatre, paintings and so on – and yet, these representations can only offer a segment of the story. That is not to say that they are inadequate, or lacking, or simply false: in fact, the opposite is the case.
Migration narratives impart truth, though, crucially, the physical, emotional, and intellectual resources required to actualise this truth are not always readily accessible to everyone. For instance, the narratives of displaced women, who are doubly subordinated by class and gender, and disadvantaged due to precarious employment and legal status (Bassel and Emejulu 2015), are often neglected from mainstream discourse. In this context, ‘displaced’ refers to a refugee, asylum-seeker or migrant. How, then, can we mobilise these narratives?
It is our task, as migration scholars, to explore alternative ways to locate, access, and mobilise marginal narratives without reproducing the same systems that seek to oppress them. Consider the academic institution, for example. The university operates as a site of knowledge production: it has the power to determine which histories, knowledge, and intellectual contributions are studied (Bhambra et al. 2018). These powers manifest in minor and considerable ways: from governing the authors we write about, to establishing traditional researcher/participant roles in quantitative and qualitative research. How, then, can we reorganise this dynamic so as to acknowledge people as active agents involved in the processes of knowledge and cultural productions?
Over the past decade, qualitative researchers have been utilising arts-based methods to provide ‘new perspectives’ on the lived world, often leading to a ‘radical, politically grounded statement about social justice’ that disrupts common-sense understandings of reality (Finley 2008: 72). Arts-based methods and their many variations – including creative practice, arts-based research, and arts-informed research – consist of engaging with artistic ways to engage research participants and contribute to destabilising traditional ways of conducting qualitative research (Cole and Knowles 2008: 55; Kara 2015). The arts thus complement conventional qualitative research by capturing aesthetic, emotional, sensory and tacit experiences that cannot easily be put into words (Ball and Gilligan 2010; Bagnoli 2009; Gauntlett 2007). In the contemporary context of migration, researching displacement requires methods (such as the arts) which are capable of embracing the ‘multifarious mysteries and paradox[es]’ of the field (Foster 2016: 118).
Employing arts-based methods as both a method and a practice to work creatively with displaced individuals is well established in Anglophone countries, predominantly in the UK and Australia. Though, more creative projects are emerging in Germany and Canada. In these contexts, there is a greater focus on deploying participatory arts methods within a larger interdisciplinary and collaborative team of scholars and creative practitioners to investigate the everyday experiences of displacement (see, for example: Responding to Crisis, Arts for Advocacy, and Refugee Hosts). In some cases, academics are revisiting the feasibility and fit of the term ‘arts-based methods’ and are considering more appropriate terms, such as ‘creative engagement’ (Jeffery et al. 2019). Some are also rethinking the term ‘participant’ in order to adopt a more democratic term such as ‘knowledge holders’ (Lenette 2019). Why, then, are the arts integral for assembling insights into the experiences of displacement?
Existing research demonstrates how the arts can improve access to marginal/unrepresented groups by (re)valuing the experiences and expertise of displaced individuals who are left – and often, kept – at the margins of research and academic debates through creative research practices (Jeffery et al. 2019). This relies on participatory practices, whereby researchers who employ such methodologies do not merely work with individuals as ‘participants’ but as co-constructors or co-creators, producers, and sharers of knowledge (Lenette 2019). Remaining open to these types of research practices is essential, particularly for those working with displaced women.
Displaced women are a demographic that is overlooked in UK research. I have employed the word ‘displaced’ here to refer to a refugee, asylum-seeker, and migrant. As a result of women’s exclusion, their experiences are limited to narratives of trauma and pity, as well as grief, dislocation and loss. However, there is a growing recognition in cultural theory that women are able to subvert and often challenge the ‘victim’ identity by using the creative arts (Erel et al. 2017; Esin 2017; Lisiak 2016). My doctoral research attempts to address this lacuna: it examines how the arts can challenge these stereotypes for women living in Stoke-on-Trent. Throughout the 10 months of fieldwork, I have learned that the research process is about being open to new possibilities. It is about embracing the ‘messiness’ of research to ‘hear’ the voices of the people you are working with. Only by prioritising this will we gain a nuanced understanding of displacement.
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Natalie Ilsley is a 2nd year Doctoral Researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Manchester. Her research explores how displaced women negotiate the ambivalent experience of resilience through the creative arts. She earned an MSc in International and European Politics from the University of Edinburgh, and a BA in English and American Literatures from Keele University. Ilsley is interested in the creative arts, postcolonial methodologies, representations of displacement, and narratives of resilience. She is also Co-Director of the multidisciplinary PGR-led network, New Voices in Postcolonialism, and is funded by the AHRC. @NatalieEmma123