- Author’s note
- Reflecting on the question of non-participation
Paloma Fernández Sobrino *
« I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.
Windows of my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?) »
The tobacco shop, Fernando Pessoa
Since childhood, I have had a strong feeling of being a “migrant”, to the point that it is now part of my construction as a person, my inner architecture. When I was barely four years old, my parents, my sister and I emigrated from Castile to Catalonia for work reasons. My father was then working as a labourer in the petrochemical industry. Following the closure of a chemical plant in Puertollano (Ciudad Real), where we were born, almost all the workers in the plant were transferred to the north of Spain, to places where industrialisation was widespread and our country was closer to Europe.
In Catalonia, I grew up and learned that the world was a large and complex place where we live with different people. A world with paths that do not end where the paths of Quixote end. At school, I learned Catalan, as well as Castilian, my mother tongue. Other ways of seeing life and the absence of absolute truths came with learning Catalan. Catalonia gave us the opportunity to go from deep Spain into “modernity” and the possibility of meeting other people, other idiosyncrasies, other landscapes and above all other beliefs. Catalonia helped me grow, taking into account multiplicity; and not only me, my family and my origins. But this same place that helped me grow with an awakened mind, paradoxically left me with a bitter feeling, a bitter awareness of the word “migrant”.
The opportunity we had, was also an uprooting for me, a feeling of “not belonging”, of “not fitting in” in a landscape and, consequently, led to a lot of insecurity.
Much later, when I was 27, I decided to leave Catalonia and moved to France, where I have now lived for more than a decade. I came by choice, hoping to find my place, wanting to grow.
I learned to speak French and to think about the world in French. France is my second home and the place where I have been able to establish my ideas. I’m glad to live here, for everything this country has given me intellectually and professionally; all life-enriching experiences, the good people I have met and because here my son Otto was born. But I still feel like an outsider, like a dry flower “photoshopped” onto an irrigated landscape. In the wrong place or rather, out of my natural place. Here I go from day to day with a certain artificiality that transforms what I understand as my “true self”.
Here, I always walk hand in hand with loneliness. That loneliness of not being with “your own” with your “unconditionals”, with those people who have seen you grow up and who you can go to at any time, good or bad, to seek solace or a hug.
When I began my journey north, I didn’t expect to find solitude; I thought only of treasures, which I also found. But the loneliness has been a surprise and it is difficult to manage.
This project was born of this, from a desire to share and understand this strange feeling of loneliness; a need to share my questions and my disquiet with other people, with other points of view.
I know that not all migrants share this feeling of being alone; but all migrants have a strong feeling in common, perhaps a feeling that no words can ever describe accurately and that goes beyond categorisation. A feeling that runs through this encyclopedia.
Because of this project, I have got to know many people, and a lot of those people have got to know each other; sharing a little bit of our loneliness or our realities and visions of the world.
Migrants or not, intellectuals or not, a large group of people in four countries have worked together for two years to write The Encyclopedia of migrants; whose aim was to « build a work of art together », which has ended up representing an opportunity. An opportunity for dialogue, to get closer to each other with our differences and what we have in common, to try to create new spaces for a more human reflection; to resist the violence of reality with a bit of daring and focusing on respect for the human being.
An intimate encyclopedia of migrations, which contains intimate, authentic and real-life stories. An Encyclopedia of migrants, both in its construction process and its outcome; we hope to be a source of wisdom for new thoughts, new policies that need to be recycled, daring, as we have dared, a delicate and respectful approach to the complexity of the human being.
* Paloma Fernández Sobrino, director, creator of inter-disciplinary projects. Creator and artistic director of the Encyclopedia of migrants.
Thomas Vetier *
Today you are about to read an encyclopedia which is unique in many ways. One thing it does have in common with its predecessors, however, is that its “encyclopedic” size does not offer a single reading; quite the contrary. Opening it means stumbling upon pages containing photographs, pieces of writing and finally, lines and lines of life stories. In this respect, the 400 authors of personal letters, the creators and supporters of the project, the 16 authors of scientific texts, the 16 photographers, the members of the “focus group 1” who have been part of the project over the last three years, the “contact people2”, the project’s partner associations and organisations, etc. would all like to thank you for immersing yourself in these unique pieces of correspondence, which are living proof of the contemporary history which is unfolding before our eyes.
You will understand that this encyclopedia does not consist of the classic type of knowledge one normally finds in such a work. Forget common nouns, phonetic transcriptions, grammatical categorisations and countless definitions; you will open the pages where life experiences and knowledge gained from life form a collective work. This hybridisation, initiated and supported by the artist Paloma Fernandez Sobrino, brings us an encyclopedia which provides us, beyond the exposition of personal narratives with a kaleidoscopic and engaged view of the paths taken by migrants. In fact, and without denying the subjectivity which is inherent in this type of project, this book carries with it a “committed” dimension, to avoid using the term “political”, in the recognition of individual and collective fates linked to migration journeys which are made more difficult, to a greater or a lesser extent, by strict border restrictions becoming increasingly prevalent in Europe and around the world.
This project, bringing together people whose lives have taken various paths – migratory or not, if we go back to using the usual categorisations – from its preparation stage right up to its production stage, has been the vehicle for reflection and the exchange of perspectives regarding questions which may have seemed simple at first glance, but which uncovered tensions regarding what they represent: what is a “migrant” and, therefore who can be part of the encyclopedia? Although this is not the place to go into them, these exchanges took place with the objective of confronting the points of view of numerous participants in the focus groups and constructing reflective and critical foundations for this work. In the time spent together, therefore, the very “borders”, the very “limits” of the project that were questioned, became challenged and ultimately redefined.
Questioned from a research perspective, this encyclopedia is also an innovative project. Indeed, the stakeholders in these discussions, the associated scientific coordinators and researchers participated in the development of “tags” given to the project. Through its participatory and collaborative dimensions, it has helped to open new reflective perspectives and practices in terms of “research-action” regarding migration issues. It replaces in this respect, and fairly, in my opinion, the scientific “theorising” regarding this subject in a scientific “discourse” which, redefined in this way, comes down from its pedestal. Captured as such, scientific development breaks away from its usual habits to enter new time-scales for research, in the here and now, in the subjectivity of encounters, in the field output and finally, in sensitive, shared and militant commitment3.
These exchanges, this pooling of experiences with the other people involved in the project – particularly with activists and the inhabitants of the Blosne area of Rennes – have resulted in the emergence of new issues and debates regarding the purpose of the encyclopedia you are now holding in your hands. In fact, looking to limit the people able to give their testimonies in the encyclopedia indirectly poses the problem of the position of the “other” attributed to the person telling their story compared to that of the person listening. Through this, the question of national “borders” and the crossing of them as the (only) objective and representative criteria in the definition of a “migrant” is also asked. Faced with these contradictions, the project had to have some operating rules. In a system where public policies contribute to the establishment of borders which are enforced through of the authority they project, we find that the opposite take place with this encyclopedia, which has served to deconstruct the presence of monolithic structures to present the question of borders through testimonials given in “ordinary speech”. As such this encyclopedia participates in the deconstruction of the rigid representations of borders, bringing this together with a political objective for change and the recognition of individual people. Placing these borders into perspective allows us to work on the “margins” if not on the “limits”, and on the representation of otherwise “closed” territories.
Through open debates on the identity of the participants, their identification or self-identification as “migrants” or on the words used in the encyclopedia, the team brought into play their own representations, their own categorisations, their own borders. From this emerged different positions and passionate discussions regarding the scope of the project. The project was fuelled in this way by the institutional definitions on migration as proposed by UNESCO. Having found these definitions to be limiting, they chose to refer to Article 4 of the Fribourg Declaration on Cultural Rights: “Everyone is free to choose to identify or not to identify with one or several cultural communities, regardless of frontiers, and to modify such a choice; No one shall have a cultural identity imposed or be assimilated into a cultural community against one’s will.” This positioning, which aims to provide guidelines regarding possible discriminatory practices emanating from pre-categorisation in a project concerning opposing interests, allows us to question the radical visions of otherness which are predominant in our societies.
Thus created by over 400 hands, this encyclopedia, which does not deny the legitimate pitfalls of its creation, presents multiple routes and destinies, which are constructed in part in mobility, many years ago or more recently, at an age where memories are fuzzy or with a maturity that allows one to take a step back, conditions which are happy or not so happy, by high-speed train, on foot or by boat, by choice or out of necessity, or both, with or without papers, with or without their family, etc. Of course, all the entries are not exclusive of one another and are not an exhaustive framing of what is meant by “migrant(s)”. This last categorisation, which refers to the special treatment of social phenomena as well as language (known as “sociolinguistics”) calls into question once again the notions of language and mobility through speeches, performances, attitudes, etc. especially to those who are identified as, or who identify themselves as migrants.
This encyclopedia hopes to serve as a support, due to its emphasis on languages and individual trajectories, in the process of recognising the life paths in each one of the cities represented in the project and, more so, in the countries participating in the project. Each author engaged in the letter writing participates in this new literacy, this new discourse through exposure which is voluntary and comes from the heart. You will find the emotions, thoughts, insights, philosophies, joys, etc. that reflect contemporary realities of a world where people come together in an ever greater number of cities – an example is made here of Gibraltar, Cádiz, Lisbon, Porto, Gijón, Nantes, Rennes and Brest – which serve as melting pots for urban identities that don’t usually meet.
This encyclopedia thus brings with it the weight of its testimonies to propose a new discourse on “migrants”, a discourse by migrants. It brings together, just like its more “specialised” contemporaries, a body of knowledge – expert and valid because it comes from lived experiences – which is available to you. It is, ultimately, a testimony of the geopolitical state of our world, just as much as a new means of intervention.
* Thomas Vetier, doctorant en sociolinguistique-sciences du langage (PREFics – Université Rennes 2, Rennes). Il fait partie du Groupe de réflexion du projet et a joué le rôle de personne contact à Rennes.
1 – The focus group met 7 times between October 2014 and October 2016. More than 40 artists, social science researchers, third-sector activists, migrants, non-migrants and public officials attended each occasion. The meetings were a full day of non-hierarchical dialogue in which everyone got to have an equal say. The aim was to look into the project’s fundamental questions such as the place that should be accorded to linguistic diversity, who can tell their story in the Encyclopedia, and how to categorise the testimonies. All the issues studies are available to read in issues of the Journal des débats and synopses written by Thomas Vetier are published on the project’s website.
2 – These are the experts of the encounter who establish the link with the migrants and collect their testimonies. They are responsible for the encounter with the migrants and play an accompanying role in order to get the most valuable information from their personal letters. Once the relationship has been established with each migrant, they introduce the photographers who will take their portrait.
3 – Note another illustration of life stories coming together in Fatimata Hamey-Warou and Christian Leray’s work, L’arbre à palabres et à récits.
L’âge de la tortue – Céline Laflute & Antoine Chaudet *
The Encyclopedia of migrants is an artistic experiment which, on artist Paloma Fernández Sobrino’s initiative, collates 400 migrants’ life stories in a single encyclopedia. The initial base for this contributory piece of work was the Le Blosne area of Rennes, France, and it now links eight cities on Europe’s Atlantic seaboard between Finistère (in Brittany) and Gibraltar, namely Brest, Rennes, Nantes, Gijón, Porto, Lisbon, Cadiz and Gibraltar ).
This large-scale European cooperative project follows Paloma Fernández Sobrino’s previous collection initiative in Rennes’ Le Blosne area when she first met the L’âge de la tortue team in 2007. This constantly progressing collection of personal testimonies first took the form of postcards and was then transformed into two published works in 2008 and 2011. It was created through regular meetings with migrants in Rennes and, later, Tarragona. Each published testimony was the result of meeting an individual and a relationship formed around a shared project. In fact, there were far more meetings than the number of published testimonies suggests. This collection process created a dynamic which has endured in the local area and the city. In 2014, Paloma asked the L’âge de la tortue team if they would like to pursue the collection project but with an even bigger scope and with the aim of producing an iconic object: an encyclopedia.
In our collective imagination, encyclopedias are works that contain a considerable amount of knowledge which is widely agreed to be true. If we then narrow our view to look at Diderot and Alembert’s Encyclopédie , we see that the idea was not just to compile knowledge as exhaustively as possible: it was also a venture which sought to move beyond the unscientific Middle Ages, to demonstrate how mankind could elevate its condition and take control of its surroundings using technology and science and to represent the world as seen through latest scientific discoveries. It was thus a political project as well as a scientific and philosophical one which found its identity in opposition to ideas maintained by ecclesiastical power. While Diderot and Alembert were the project’s originators, lending it a vision, symbolic meaning and dynamism, they nonetheless had to set up a contributory system to create their encyclopedia. This was especially vital if they were to collect specialist knowledge for each subject and complete the vast amount of work that their exhaustive ambitions implied.
As well as the symbolic dimension of the encyclopedia concept, other essential characteristics were borrowed by the team behind The Encyclopedia of migrants. These were the ambition to express a vision and create a project which makes sense within the society in which it develops, to take stock (as a juncture for a vast range of knowledge) and finally to generate a shared work through contributions. To do this, the L’âge de la tortue team encouraged people with all different kinds of backgrounds to join in the initiative so as to generate a cross-fertilisation of approaches, knowledge and ways of viewing the world. This determination to base the work in collaborations came to fruition in a multi-disciplinary network of artists, researchers, third-sector activists, citizens, public officials and European structures such as third-sector organisations, local authorities and institutions in France, Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar. This network existed to encourage all participants to contribute – migrants, first and foremost – from day one of the project. The set-up guaranteed that the project would be coherent and stay true to the idea that we needed to give a voice to people who are not often given the chance to express themselves. To structure this huge undertaking, the team decided to implement it over a particular area: the European Atlantic seaboard between Finistère in Brittany (the project’s original home) and Gibraltar. Europe’s Atlantic frontier is made up of areas looking out onto the sea which have always been connected to one another and which, as far as migration is concerned, have surely been less studied than the Mediterranean. It is a place where we can view our local, national and European histories in their context.
Using the contributions and knowledge which participants have shared, we honour the diverse paths which migrants have taken in life and we collectively adopt the encyclopedia, a symbol of French and European culture, for what it represents: a space for knowledge generally considered to be true. The ultimate aim of this art project centring around migration and developing an intercultural dialogue in Europe is therefore twofold:
— Recognising migrant people’s place in our society by contributing to written records of migration’s history and shared memories around it.
— To use a symbol of “legitimate” or factual knowledge – the encyclopedia – to collectively create another type of knowledge.
The project emerged from the observation which we all shared that current representations of migrants tend to lack nuance. Either deliberately or because they are reductive and repetitive in nature, elements of political discourse and certain media depictions have ultimately created an image of migrants which is both stigmatising and harmful. In a geopolitical context where migration has been a constructive force – it is impossible to imagine Europe coming into being politically without freedom of movement – civil society, third-sector organisations and artists have a responsibility to actively offer representations which are more respectful of migrants and their journeys through life. The question now is not so much to paint a picture than to encourage migrants to express themselves, so that we avoid veering towards excessive simplification and overly hasty categorisation. The Encyclopedia of migrants does not claim to be exhaustive or to reveal any kind of objective truth. Instead, it presents readers with a multitude of life stories, and by reuniting as many different perspectives as it does personal narratives in a single work, it gives a kaleidoscopic vision of migration. Readers looking for certitudes will not find them here, but the project does offer everything they need to construct a sensitive, complex, heterogeneous depiction of migrants which is open to otherness. The project also aims to break down barriers between disciplines and to cast off our habit of looking at our world from a single viewpoint, so that together we can make a representation of migration in which a variety of perspectives can be expressed.
A team of nearly 500 people have been in action since February 2014 to bring the work you are reading into being. The project was started in the Le Blosne area of Rennes, when more than 100 people took part in the focus group that has gone on to support undertakings since the idea was first formulated. This focus group is an experimental off-shoot of projects led by L’âge de la tortue and of the belief that a project which aims to encourage participation should be collaborative at the earliest opportunity – in other words, from day one. The focus group’s objective has been to put the project in context, debate the directions it is taking and suggest potential developments so that it can mature. Particularly important to this latter point was establishing a methodology that could be transferred over to teams in the eight European partner towns.
With this reflective, methodological work having been set out during a multi-disciplinary multi-national seminar , the eight country teams collected personal testimonies over a period of six months with the aim of gathering 50 life stories from each locality. To do so, each team used a highly successful framework. Two contact people would meet migrants and support them as they told their story, and two photographers used a collaborative approach to taking each contributor’s portrait. Each testimony always takes the form of a handwritten letter in which the individual tells a loved one back home what their experience of migration has been like. These are written in the person’s first language , translated and accompanied by a portrait photo. These testimonies are put into perspective by scientific contributions by social science researchers.
All this content – 400 handwritten letters, 400 translations, 400 photo portraits and 16 scientific texts– was then formatted in the formal style of a classic encyclopedia in quarto size, with a typeface suitable for long pieces of text, two columns of writing separated by a black line on the page, frequent use of black and white, and a leather-bound cover with gold lettering. At 290 x 450 mm in size, 10 kg in weight and with 1750 pages over 3 volumes, the book is both impressive and luxurious. Eight copies were made, and each partner town bought one as a local heritage piece. Such a small press run was chosen so as to underline the book’s value as a treasured item of local heritage. While the project was broadly inspired by Diderot and Alembert’s Encyclopédie, it is also firmly rooted in the present day. For that reason, a digital version has also been created. The aim of this online copy, which is available unlimitedly and free of charge, is to make sure the work is accessible to the wider public. It also has search tools which let users find testimonies according to criteria of their own choosing. The digital version is constantly accessible to a large number of simultaneous users and allows both categorisation of content and keyword searches, and this flexibility will be an asset when it comes to increasing awareness of the project, especially in educational settings.
Alongside The Encyclopedia of migrants, the project team has chosen to produce and commission:
— A website which serves as a communication channel for the project, publishing its news and themed blog posts (on topics such as photography, life story collecting and making the documentary film) and giving access to various different works, namely the digital Encyclopedia, the documentary and the educational resources.
— A documentary film with the aim of recording the various steps involved in making The Encyclopedia of migrants and focussing on the project and, in particular, the relationships which emerged between participants.
— A set of educational resources including all the methodological tools which were used to get the project up and running and a user’s guide to the Encyclopedia and other related works (i.e.: the teachers’ booklet). These are available to download on the project website, the idea being to make the resources available to the public in the way advocated by free software culture.
— Evaluations which aim to pinpoint best practice from among the methods used, as well as the project’s weaker areas so that we can maintain a critical perspective on its development and feed into future projects.
At the moment of writing, the project is entering the final chapter of its operational phase which runs from 2015 to 2017 and follows the 2014-2015 planning stage. With the publication before you finished, this vast project’s next aim is to give the Encyclopedia a life in the wider world, so that it does not gather dust either literally or in the digital world and it acts as a real resource which people can use to explore the history of migration to our towns and our European space. It is also in the hope that it will make manifest, trouble and question our representations of migrants and give rise to debates around how we see migration and the people who undertake it; that it will bring a new context to the ever more pressing political issues linked to managing migration and how we welcome migrant people; and that the work itself is seen by us other citizens as a record of a human experience which is both historical and resolutely contemporary and timeless. We hope that it will contribute to inter-generational dialogue, give voice to personal and family histories and lead the way for new initiatives whether they be educational, research-based, artistic, citizen-led or of any other stripe.
So how should we bring The Encyclopedia of migrants to life? In the short term, official handover ceremonies have been organised in each of the eight partner European towns in the months after publication in the first half of 2017. Here, the local authority’s purchased work will be publically, physically presented to local decision-makers. This will be an important public occasion to mark the moment when the Encyclopedia is unveiled in each partner town, with all local contributors and leading public servants in attendance. With this public gesture replicated in each local authority, every partner town will symbolically recognise the role of migrant people in their urban history. The nature of each event will vary according to the area: it might involve speeches, public readings, exhibitions or public debates, for instance. The purchased copy of the work is then kept in an appropriate space such as a multi-media library, town archive, contemporary art collection or museum so that the printed version of The Encyclopedia of migrants can be read by the public and used for research projects in times to come. In the medium and long term, each local authority and each related local organisation will be responsible for using this resource so that it continues to live and breathe and to flourish as a driving force for projects and debates around migration which involve our project’s many contributors and partners. Our humble yet ambitious dream is that The Encyclopedia of migrants becomes a reason for us all, collectively, to never cease re-examining the reality which is coming into being around us and constantly reconfiguring contemporary society.
* Céline Laflute, coordinator at L’âge de la tortue. General coordinator and production director of the Encyclopedia of Migrants. Antoine Chaudet, in charge of communication and graphic design at L’âge de la tortue. Director of graphic design, photography and communication for the Encyclopedia of Migrants.
1 – Gibraltar is a British overseas territory which, unusually, is constituted as a state and is about the size of a town (6.8 km², with a population of 30,000).
2 – Fernández Sobrino, P. & Cousseau, B. (2008). (Partir…). Rennes, France: L’âge de la tortue. Fernández-Sobrino, P., Eidenhammer, A., Sauvage, A. & Pallarès, M. S. (2011). PARTIR esguards…miradas…regards. Rennes, France: L’âge de la tortue.
3 – Diderot and Alembert’s Encyclopédie (also known as the Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers or Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades) is a French encyclopedia which was published between 1751 and 1772 and became emblematic of the Age of Enlightenment. In total, it includes 17 volumes of text, 11 volumes of illustrations and 71,818 articles.
4 – The focus group met 7 times between October 2014 and October 2016. More than 40 artists, social science researchers, third-sector activists, migrants, non-migrants and public officials attended each occasion. The meetings were a full day of non-hierarchical dialogue in which everyone got to have an equal say. The aim was to look into the project’s fundamental questions such as the place that should be accorded to linguistic diversity, who can tell their story in the Encyclopedia, and how to categorise the testimonies. All the issues studies are available to read in issues of the Journal des débats and synopses written by Thomas Vetier are published on the project’s website.
5 – At the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration in Paris, November 2015.
6 – 16 photographers all used a shared methodology, the main idea of which was to ask individuals to give their input as to their shoot’s scenography and which shot to use in the final work.
7 – In most cases – everyone was free to choose which language they wished to use.
8 – There are four versions of The Encyclopedia of migrants, one for each of the project’s national languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese and English. Almost all the 400 testimonies were written in individuals’ native languages then translated into the language local to the country where the team met them (French in France, for example). This was done by the migrants themselves, sometimes with help from a contact person and/or third party. This initial translation was then used as the basis for translations into the project’s other three languages – a life story collected in France would be transposed into Spanish, Portuguese and English. All though both these stages in the translation process have been done with the utmost care, it is likely that this methodology has created discrepancies between the original letter and secondary translations. If we were to check that the different versions of the texts matched across all the 74 original languages used, we would have had to employ more than 100 proof readers, which would not have been possible either financially or in terms of the project’s schedule.
9 – www.encyclopedie-des-migrants.eu / www.enciclopedia-de-los-migrantes.eu / www.enciclopedia-dos-migrantes.eu / www.encyclopedia-of-migrants.eu
10 – The film was made by Frédéric Leterrier and Benoît Raoulx as part of the Film et Recherche en Sciences Humaines (FRESH) programme which is jointly led by the Maison de la Recherche en Sciences Humaines at the Université de Caen–Normandie and the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme de Bretagne (MSHB). The film is available on the project website: www.encyclopedia-of-migrants.eu/en/projet/film/
11 – These evaluations were carried out throughout the project’s implementation period in collaboration with academic partners and all the project’s participants. They concluded with a seminar in Gibraltar in summer 2017 which focussed on overall results and the future outlook.
Reflecting on the question of non-participation
Thierry Deshayes *
The results of The Encyclopedia of migrants are impressive and reflect the plurality and density of testimonies of those 400 people who agreed, often enthusiastically, to take part in the project. However, we must mention here, in a reflective and critical way, a problem which cropped up repeatedly while we were putting the Encyclopedia together and at the various meetings: that of the initial distrust of many potential witnesses, their refusal to participate, their abandoning of the project during the course of it and/or their misunderstandings and criticisms of it. Which questions do these situations bring up? What meaning can we assign to them? What can we learn from them?
The way in which the project was presented to the potential narrators assigned them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the case, the role of “migrants” just as it assigned the other participants, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles of researchers, artists, contact people1, etc. We can, however, make the hypothesis that among these roles, that of “migrants” is the most likely to never be chosen and is therefore the most likely to suffer. Thus, whereas the other participants perhaps apply their sensitivity, their personality, their history, their desires to their role within the project, the “migrants”, i.e. people who, along with other defining features, have a migration background, can more or less be included in this category, so to some degree, can identify with and place more importance on this aspect of their life course. What role could this assigned category have played, consciously or unconsciously, in the participation or non-participation of potential narrators in the project? Some conversations with the latter – but also with other participants in the project – can give us some clues regarding answers and can also open up other questions. The following points were raised in the course of discussions:
— Fear and mistrust among narrators, of exploitation (rightly or wrongly), i.e. the fear of being used for a purpose which serves interests other than their own, or other than those which are presented to them, for example, professional interests (arts, science, politics, etc.).
— The fact that in the distribution of roles, the narrators, who may have the resources and desire to participate in a capacity other than that of their status as “migrants” (for example, in a political, intellectual or artistic capacity), are those who are most often approached by contact people precisely because of this. To what extent were they aware of the scientific and artistic aspects of the project? To what extent were they able to discuss political issues? To what extent were the personal narratives presented and understood regarding their literary, artistic, political or intellectual potential? To what extent can one reach beyond the initial framework and status of “migrant narratives”? In fact, some narrators, for whom writing a letter is not an unusual expression of intimacy, have nevertheless taken the opportunity to “divert” the subject of the letter not (or not only) to address their declared destination, but the “world” from poetic, artistic, political, self- analytical perspectives, etc. However, for the same reasons, the constraint of the letter format dissuaded several potential narrators.
— The idea that a migratory journey could be viewed as something special, even exotic. We heard some potential witnesses refuse to participate because they said they had not “experienced anything special”, and therefore had “nothing valid to say”. The underlying assumption – probably not unique to “migrants”, nor to the project – is that migration would reflect a peripheral, exceptional, even dramatic phenomenon. This idea is also confirmed by the fascination we have with the letters which appear the most dramatic, as if they were more significant to the reality of migration than the others. To what extent could these preconceptions, from one side or the other, have contributed to the selection of the “choice” of narrators and the content of their letters?
— The fact that individuals who have undertaken a migratory journey obviously also have other defining features. They could be women, religious, sporty, executives, black, residents of a neighbourhood, workers, activists, etc. To what extent did these features contribute to “eliminating” potential narrators for whom the “migrant” label is no longer relevant in their lives, for whom the migratory journey is not a subject deemed (sufficiently) interesting or inspiring? To what extent are those who participated those who are also the most well-known in this category and in this area? To what extent did this influence the letters of those who participated? To what extent did this contribute to the reproduction of dominant representations of migration?
— Conversely, many potential narrators would not want to go back on their migratory journey for fear of reliving a painful past, of stirring up personal suffering, of discussing publicly what is no more, of addressing questions or unresolved issues. The assignment could then constitute a recurring reminder and a perpetual reconstruction of realities they would rather forget or put aside, or at least not make public. What types of migratory journeys could therefore have been overlooked here?
— Some people, sometimes the same ones, also refused to participate in order to protect their own privacy which could also impact on the privacy of their relatives (families, communities). The boundaries between protection and social pressures are particularly unstable in this context. Photography, for these same reasons, has often been a barrier to engagement in the project.
— Potential narrators have explicitly said they did not recognise (or no longer recognised) themselves in the concept of “migrants”, meaning that they could be reluctant or even confused when asked to apply the concept to their situation. This concept could thus appear to have negative connotations, sometimes be considered bleak, or associated with the most recent waves of migration, even with the “refugee” situation. The mention of it was in some cases viewed as a symbolic downgrading.
— The fact that the “migrant” category is easier to apply to people from “other races”, that is to say, non-white, or people who have emigrated from outside Europe, whether by “migrants” or “non-migrants”. Some contact people report that their interlocutors have less often thought to refer them to people who have come, for example, from the United Kingdom (first origin, from far away, from Breton immigration, for example) than to people from countries outside Europe.
— Moreover, several potential narrators we met refused to participate due to a lack of interest, refusal to talk publicly, being reserved, etc. In other words, the issue of (non-)participation is not solely due to political issues. If we refuse to limit the potential narrators to the “migrant” category, it is then up to the “non-migrants” among us to show our empathy.Would those of us who have not migrated accept to write such a personal letter, to be published later? Would we agree to be photographed and thereby exposed? The answer seems simple: “it depends on the person”. In other words, when we talk about the non-migrant majority, we recognise a subjectivity among individuals. We should do the same for migrant minorities, whose individuals are no more political, social, economic, etc. products than “non-migrants” are.
— Finally, some potential narrators expressed the view that the project “is useless”, which implies four assumptions: 1. that the project should be used to do something about the migration situation or the circumstances of “migrants”; 2. the fact it claims, at one point or another, according to its perception by potential narrators, to serve some purpose; 3. the fact that some potential narrators expect something (or that they no longer expect anything), indeed that they feel that they do not get equal treatment because of their status as “migrants” and that a project on migration should be concerned about and question or work on these political problems; 4. that it does not do this. In any case, it takes us back to the nature of the project. Is it a political project? Artistic? Scientific? For whom? Who decides?
In conclusion, and whatever the aims of the Encyclopedia in this regard, the (non-)participation of potential narrators calls into question the critical potential of the project. Indeed, it certainly questions, and remarkably so, the politico-media (economic, statistical, legal, sensationalist, etc.) construction of the figure of “migrant” by proposing something far too rare — to give a voice to 400 of those most affected by the subject. On a symbolic and ideological level, the problem of the migrant minorities in France (not) having (enough) opportunity for expression is fundamental. But to what extent is The Encyclopedia of migrants reproducing without its knowledge – we all do it, even with the best intentions in the world – through the “bias” exhibited here, certain contemporary representations concerning the issue of migration and the image of the “migrant”? How and by what means were those of us who have, of course, witnessed but also been a part of their migration, and who are also narrators and participants in our common social reality, able to (re)define their identities and act in, on and through the project as they would have wished? These questions seem essential to consider for the future of the Encyclopedia and for projects which are to follow.
* As a PhD student in language sciences and sociolinguistics (at PREFics and the Université Rennes 2 in Rennes, France) and applied social science (Université de Montréal, Québec). Member of the project’s focus group and contact person in Rennes. Thierry Dehayes has written this text with help from some of the project’s participants, including people who chose (or chose not to) give their testimony, researchers, contact people, activists and citizens involved in the focus group. In alphabetical order, they are: Joëlle Couillandre, Hafida Dani, Anne-Marie Giffo-Levasseur, Anne Morillon, Caterina Pellizzer, Shorena Talakhadze, Thomas Vétier and Bernard Vrignon…
1 – The contact people were the participants in charge of finding narrators and assisting with the production of their testimonies.
The Encyclopedia of Migrants is a collaborative project. Please do not hesitate to send your comments to: contact[at]agedelatortue.org