Cashing in on Refugees

Monikka Eliah

Hey Debby, it’s not cute to perpetuate stereotypes about other communities and capitalise on their experiences by opting to tell their stories—so quit it. In recent years, the conversation of who can tell what stories has become more frequent. As we move towards more inclusive narratives and diverse representation, it is valuable to negotiate where our privilege and responsibility lies and recognise that the imagination is not impervious to the damaging social and cultural assumptions and expectations ingrained in our subconscious. It is also valuable to understand the authority writers assume over the subjects of their stories and how narrow representation of complex experiences fail us as creators, fails other communities and fails our audience. I am particularly interested in unpacking these structures with regards to refugee or migrant stories.

The imagination is undoubtedly a valuable tool in writing. It enables us to create engaging work unencumbered by conventions or established structures. It allows us to collect samples of our experiences and mould them anew. Pumpkins are filled with pink worms made out of sand and shoes are made out of tightly wrapped vine leaves stained with black tea. Somewhere in the excitement of pretending, we forget it’s not magic.

It is not without fault or limitation. To imagine is simply to renegotiate the resources or knowledge already at our disposal. If we accept knowledge as information received through education or experience, it is not possible to know or imagine an experience that we have not been exposed to in some sense. When it comes to refugee and migrant experiences, accessible literature, surface level interactions and sensationalist media are the central source of information for the majority. This is confirmed in my conversations with others where I find myself answering the same questions consistently ‘What is the difference between an Assyrian and a Syrian?’ , ‘How come you don’t look middle eastern?’, ‘Did you come by boat?’. This never ending rat wheel of misconceptions is echoed in the Arts. From the novels recommended to me in primary school as part of bookweeks and premier reading challenges through to the texts, theatre, film and television I engage with now, there is a consistent story that shapes itself when someone is writing about the refugee experience they didn’t have. Set against the backdrop of poor Arabs fleeing from a dystopian Agraba, a white saviour emerges to help them navigate the challenges of war and displacement. The refugee existence always begins at the point they decide to escape. Their lack of back story supplemented with vivid descriptions of mountains, fields and deserts or fresh fruit, cured meats and baked bread from their home country. Their hobbies are always menial tasks like repairing old clothes or, as a Boomer working on a detention story suggested, chopping wood. Despite being plagued with inaccuracies, these stories continue to saturate the market and perpetuate stereotypes.

There is a power in storytelling. A writer assumes authority over the narrative or community they are representing. The decisions they make regarding characters and narrative affect how readers come to perceive the individuals and groups being featured. For readers lacking any connection to the community or experience represented, there is no means to challenge the view presented by the author and the text will undoubtedly inform their interactions with the ‘other’. This becomes particularly problematic when the writer is not a member of the community being represented. How can someone who has never has never been a refugee, suddenly become the voice of refugees? It is terrifying to consider that the cultural narrative of a community is being determined by someone without any direct investment or connection to that community. It is one thing to feature a single character with a particular experience that may not be your own. Though this can be problematic as well, I can appreciate collaborative writing processes where it is executed successfully. However, to assume total authority over and capitalise on the trauma of a community you have no connection to is appalling. This authority is often denied, with writing presented as means to empathise with other cultural experiences. This act of ‘empathy’ is made redundant when a writer lacks the sensitivity to acknowledge that their actions are not in the best interest of the community. In empathy, there is a mutual vulnerability and understanding. It is not an experience where one weaves another’s devastation or displacement into capitalistic gain under the guise of allyship. Writing and assuming authority over another cultural group is not a means of exercising empathy. It is self indulgent and exploitative.

The experience of seeking refuge or migrating is a small portion of someone’s life. There is a time before and a time after that is often ignored. Writers who insist on writing about the experiences of refugees—never having had any experience of war or asylum seeking—will often take what are complex human lives and keep them looped in a state of desperation. Refugee and migrant narratives cannot and should not exist independent of complex historical, political, cultural and social threads. These threads are particularly necessary for culturally specific stories that fall out of mainstream, as this information is valuable in establishing context and enabling any measure of genuine understanding or connection. Attempting to create stories without consideration to these factors is a massive disservice to those being represented. The characters are often wholly lacking in autonomy and self determination and live on the mercy of the West. I witness the detriment of these narrow representations in my engagement with others. As soon as people catch whiff that I was born overseas, their focus shifts to a cluster of moments when I was afraid or in need. They want me to talk about it over and over to satisfy their fix for fat-free nuggets of refugee uncomplicated by my individuality. What is valuable to note is that, whilst research can help to fill in some gaps in information related to the political or historical, the cultural and social impacts are only truly accessible to those within the community. As a member of the community, your experiences are well rounded and you are better equipped with the tools necessary to take on the weight of representation . You have an automatic sense of responsibility and are considerate of how the portrayal affects your family, friends and relatives. The motivation is rarely curiosity or capitalistic gain. A writer representing their own community is focused on empowerment.

About the author

Monikka Eliah is an Assyrian-Australian writer from Fairfield and is part of the Sweatshop Writers’ Collective. Monikka has participated in National Theatre of Parramatta’s Page to Stage program and Curious Works Breakthrough Program and was a recipient of the Southland’s Emerging Artists Award in 2018. Monikka’s work has been published in The Big Black ThingSBS Life and The Lifted Brow.