Show Less
Open access

Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

Show Summary Details
Open access

Delphine Munos: Jopi Nyman. Displacement, Memory, and Travel in Contemporary Migrant Writing. Leiden and Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017. Pp. 251. ISBN: 9789004342057.

←306 | 307→

Jopi Nyman. Displacement, Memory, and Travel in Contemporary Migrant Writing. Leiden and Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2017. Pp. 251. ISBN: 9789004342057.

It is been a decade or so since scholars working from within the fields of postcolonial literatures and diaspora studies started challenging celebratory understandings of mobility. Indeed, Iain Chamber’s over-optimistic and influential conceptualisation of (postmodern) identity as migrancy – or of migration as a means of crossing borders and breaking barriers of thought and experience (see Chambers 2) – has been notably challenged by critics such as Vijay Mishra (2007), who has argued that diasporic subjectivity was also informed by stasis and melancholia, or Sara Ahmed (2000), who has aptly addressed the ways in which decontextualized celebrations of movement were interlocked with dubious forms of “stranger fetishism.” As early as 1996, Avtar Brah pointed out in her now-classic Cartographies of Diaspora that the metaphorization of migrancy as border-crossing was complicit in lumping together divergent categories such as the nomad, the exile, and the migrant. Today, the so-called “refugee crisis” gives new momentum to Brah’s astute remark that “the question is not simply about who travels, but when, how, and under what circumstances” (182).

Jopi Nyman is conscious of the many critical pitfalls and blind spots that romantic conceptualizations of travel, mobility, and migrancy have generated in postcolonial scholarship, and he starts his volume by reminding us that many contemporary texts dealing with experiences of migration and relocation “give at least as much impetus – if not more – to dis-ease and discontent as they do to the celebration and uninhibited performance of postmodern subjectivity” (1). Organized around the three key themes of displacement, memory, and travel, Nyman’s collection examines contemporary literary narratives of global migration and deals with texts whose generic anatomy ranges from culinary memoirs, through novels, to short stories, poems, and autobiographies. The originality of Nyman’s corpus needs to be underlined, as the critic discusses literary texts by star authors such as Caryl Phillips, Abdulrazak Gurnah, and ←307 | 308→Monica Ali, but also looks at narratives by less celebrated writers such as Jamal Mahjoub and Simão Kikamba, and even by non-professional authors. By highlighting the ambiguous aspects of mobility in selected contemporary narratives of global migration, Nyman’s stated goal is “to push the boundaries of postcolonial and transcultural studies” (7) – indeed, to do better justice to the complexity of texts showing us that, today, “the global is present in the local, the binary notion of centre and periphery is being erased, and established paradigms in both European and postcolonial studies are in need of refinement” (7).

Nyman’s volume falls into three Parts. Part 1 focuses on texts dealing with forced migration and displacement in Africa, Europe, and the United States. The narratives under study are refreshingly eclectic as far as genres are concerned, as they range from texts included in the first three volumes of Refugees Writing in Wales (2003; 2004; 2005), to Kikamba’s South African refugee novel Going Home (2005), to Jamal Mahjoub’s short story “Last Thoughts on the Medusa” (2008), to Ishmael Beah’s memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (2007). The chapter on Kikamba’s Going Home specifically delivers on Nyman’s promise to complicate both the binaries at play in the postcolonial paradigm and the overemphasis on transcontinental migration intrinsic to transcultural studies. Indeed, Kikamba’s novel, which has been under-examined by postcolonial scholarship, refreshingly portrays migration within African countries – from Zaire to Angola to South Africa – and is shown by Nyman to tackle head-on the institutionalized forms of violence African refugees are subjected to in closed spaces such as the headquarters of the Angolan secret service or the Lindela Repatriation Centre in the vicinity of Johannesburg. In many ways, Nyman’s analysis of selected texts included in the first three volumes of Refugees Writing in Wales complements his discussion of Going Home, in that it suggests points of commonality between the politics of exclusion towards refugees in contemporary Britain and towards the so-called Makwerewere in South Africa. Yet, perhaps because Nyman tries a bit too hard to paint a comprehensive picture of the many professional and non-professional contributions included in the Refugees Writing in Wales project, his analysis can be cursory at times and ends up lacking context. For instance, his reading of poems by the Algerian author Soleïman Adel Guémar brushes over the poet’s imagery of military violence and organized torture, making it uncertain whether Guémar’s graphic evocation of an Algiers “ordered to the electrodes” (qtd. in Nyman 25) in fact relates to the Algerian War of ←308 | 309→Independence or to the Civil War during the 1990s. Also, several projects rooted in different parts of Britain have mediated the refugee experience (see for instance the two volumes of Refugee Tales (2016; 2017), which are linked to the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group), so a discussion comparing the methodologies, outcomes, and regional differences at play in these endeavours would have been welcome. Chapter 4 focuses on Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Home and compellingly addresses the ways in which this autobiographical text foregrounds the paradoxes of its child protagonist’s subjectivity – as a child soldier, Ishmael is both a killer and a victim – and yet follows a linear script of trauma and recovery which culminates in Ishmael’s transformation as an American adolescent, thus problematically designating the globalized West (specifically the US) as a space of purification and healing. Transcontinental movement between Africa and the globalized West is also central to Mahjoub’s short-story “Last Thoughts on the Medusa.” Nyman’s discussion of ekphrasis beautifully captures the ways in which Mahjoub’s protagonist’s viewing of Géricault’s painting in the Louvre finally substitutes literal for symbolic forms of border-crossing, which ultimately testifies to the protagonist’s transformation from “victimized migrant” to “a young Afro-European” (86) able to think through, and beyond, a colonial legacy of violence and institutionalized erasures.

Entitled “Memories of Migration,” Part 2 continues to give pride of place to African (and African diasporic) writers, but opens on a discussion of Climbing the Mango Tree (2005) and The Language of Baklava (2005), two culinary memoirs written, respectively, by Delhi-born Madhur Jeffrey, the popular chef and author of Indian cookbooks, and by second-generation Jordanian-American Diana Abu-Jaber. Nyman’s reading of Jeffrey’s and Abu-Jaber’s memoirs foregrounds food as being central to the formation of migrant subjectivity because of its ability to create community and trigger memory beyond relocation and across the generations – which is nothing new. Still, the critic manages to break new ground by addressing the ambiguous transgenerational dynamics at play in Abu-Jaber’s memoir, one that is expressed through the protagonist’s eating disorders as well as through the opposition between migrant communities’ “culture[s]; of food” and America’s diet obsession. The next two chapters, an analysis of Gurnah’s Pilgrims Way and of Phillips’ Dancing in the Dark highlight the Janus-faced nature of melancholia – specifically of racial melancholia – and problematize the process of staging one’s own cultural otherness and/or performing racial stereotypes as one that ←309 | 310→oscillates between subversion of, and conformity with, dominant racial hierarchies. For Nyman, neither Phillips nor Gurnah advocate that new communities be “based on exclusiveness or a shared racial consciousness” (129) in the new location. Indeed, the blackface performances of Phillips’ protagonist do not signal subversion, but only reinforce his self-hatred and spiritual paralysis; likewise, Gurnah’s migrant characters find little solace in “passing [themselves] off as […] exotic[s]-in-exile” (qtd. in Nyman 125–26). Significantly, it is only through his relationship with Catherine, who simply “relates to him as a fellow human being” (128) that Gurnah’s protagonist somehow manages to get over the losses brought about by the Zanzibar Revolution and the pain of relocation.

The first two chapters of Part 3 of Nyman’s volume, entitled “Migration, Travel, and Postcolonial Europe,” returns us to writings by the Sudanese-British writer Jamal Mahjoub. The opening chapter deals with Mahjoub’s road novel, Travelling with Djinns (2003), a book which, for Nyman, “places Europeanness within a transnational framework” (158). Indeed, in many ways, Nyman shows that Mahjoub’s protagonist’s wanderings from Denmark to Germany and then from France to Spain in an old Peugeot with his son only constitute a pretext to meditate on Europe’s “colonialist and racialist constitution” (161) while “show[ing] the transculturation characterizing its past” (162). The next chapter is devoted to Mahjoub’s The Drift Latitudes (2006), which also emphasizes the transnational component of European identity through the stories of the German refugee Ernst Frager and of his two British-born daughters, who are unaware at first of each other’s existence and have affiliative and filiative links, respectively, to Sudan and the Caribbean. As Nyman sees it, the “dispersed family” (184) plot allows Gurnah to locate hybridity and multiplicity at the very heart of Britishness – just as Gurnah’s choice of Liverpool as the background to Frager’s relationship with Miranda, the daughter of West Indian immigrants, gives him ample occasion to revisit the history of a city associated with the transatlantic slave trade and with other forms of boundary crossing. In the last two chapters of his volume, Nyman looks at Monica Ali’s Alentejo Blue (2006) and then at In the Kitchen (2008), two texts which are less known than her much fêted debut novel, Brick Lane (2003). Set in contemporary rural Portugal and comprised of nine intertwined chapters, Alentejo Blue received mixed reviews by critics baffled not only by the piecemeal structure of the book, but also by Ali’s choice of location, which was deemed too exotic. Yet, in what appears to be, at times, an over-enthusiastic rescue mission, Nyman ←310 | 311→argues that Ali’s choice of an apparently peripheral Portuguese village allows her to create a “translocal” narrative, in that the transnational networks in which the village’s inhabitants participate “expan[d]; the meaning of the local” (209) and by extension, complicate, even reverse, the binary relationship between centre and periphery. Nyman’s reading of Ali’s In the Kitchen is less programmatic. By discussing the ways in which Ali employs the conventions of the katabatic narrative to portray the ethical awakening of its protagonist, an executive chef whose kitchen staff consists of workers from all over the world, Nyman aptly shows that Ali raises fascinating questions of responsibility in relation to transnational labour, which suggests that the “new Britishness” imagined in Ali’s novel is both “relational and ethical” (229).

Beyond its imperfections, including the absence of a concluding section and a number of typos which grows exponentially in the last chapters of the book, Nyman’s volume makes a vibrant contribution to the field of transcultural studies and postcolonial literatures. Although much more could have been done about the intersection of literary form and postcolonial issues in the globalized era, the generic anatomy of Nyman’s corpus is exquisitely diverse, his choice of texts is engaging, and his resolve to bear witness to the current entanglements between the local and the global in contemporary postcolonial writing is both convincing and well-informed. Displacement, Memory, and Travel in Contemporary Migrant Writing will appeal to students and scholars working from within the field of transcultural studies and postcolonial and diasporic literatures, as well as to those with an interest in refugee literatures and trauma and memory studies.


Delphine Munos

Humboldt Foundation / Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London & New York: Routledge, 2000.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London: Routledge, 1996.

←311 | 312→

Chambers, Iain. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. London & New York: Routledge, 1994.

Mishra, Vijay. The Literature of the Indian Diaspora: Theorizing the Diasporic Imaginary. London & New York: Routledge, 2007.