“Literature with A White Helmet: The Textual-Corporeality of Being, Becoming, and Representing Refugees"

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Asaad, Lava
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Middle Tennessee State University
This dissertation asserts that the refugee crisis and its literature should not be examined as if it is a one-dimensional phenomenon. Not all refugees’ experiences circle around getting on a boat only to become a problem for a reluctant host county, although that certainly does happen. With the large number of texts produced and their common themes and styles, “refugee literature” can actually be thought of as its own unique genre. This study explores issues of refugee writers, contemporary works of fiction and nonfiction on the refugee’s body and experience, the biopolitics of refugees, and disputes over the ethicality of representing refugees by writers and human rights activists. The dissertation relies on a broad selection of texts by authors who, in one way or another, have experienced displacement, witnessed it, imagined it, or co-written about it. Although attention has been given to refugee writers and their story more recently, this study argues, specifically, that the refugee crisis is not a recent one and internal displacement is a refugee experience in itself, granted that we broaden the media-presented idea of refugees. First, the dissertation cautiously approaches labels frequently used in academic discourse (like migrant, immigrant, refugee, persecution, human rights, and nation-state) relying on their political meanings. The refugee crisis is a political crisis par excellence. Second, the dissertation applies a new understanding to the refugee crisis through examining works by writers who are not commonly associated with being refugees. It is important to note that I am not romanticizing the label nor am I approaching it metaphorically. I am merely expanding the label to include voices and experiences that would not usually be considered as refugee literature. Finally, the work also includes “typical” refugee narratives in order to reach a new understanding of these texts beyond the common plot tropes of persecution and escape. The dissertation adds a thread, usually missing from critical lenses on migration, that assesses Human Rights Literature in ways that problematize issues of agency and speaking on behalf of the refugees.