Refugees in the Jungle of Imagination


A new graphic novel follows migrants' tattered threads of hope
Written by
Kate Evans, from "Threads: From the Refugee Crisis" (Verso)

 

Kate Evans's graphic novel Threads: From the Refugee Crisis (Verso, 2017) maps the landscape of an iconic site of the refugee struggle in Europe: the Calais migrant camp known as the jungle. The sprawling urban shanty, housing migrants from all over the world at the edge of France and England, has now been officially dismantled by authorities. But Evans, who visited with other volunteers from Britain, has worked to document the refugees' experiences on paper. She focuses on a specific place and individual experiences, but they form a universal composite of suffering that has been met with varying degrees of sympathy, panic and fatigue from "host" societies in Europe and North America. Across many refugee communities, such art projects have proven to be a vital tool for collective healing and for creating a record of genuine history, told through the eyes of survivors.

The title "Threads" is telling, perhaps: a thread is a story we spin for ourselves, a yarn we use to entertain fellow travelers; it's the sinew that holds us together when suffering wears down all other protections.

Every day, for the world's refugees, the thread is the narrative of hope they grasp onto when everything else has come undone. Against a backdrop of jarring colors depicting human tragedy and triumph, it's hard to see any optimism springing from Calais's ruins. Since the demolition of the camp, pockets of refugee settlements have resurfaced on Europe's urban landscape, a dispersed "illegal" transient population floats around the continent as officials fail to deliver essential humanitarian needs or provide for their resettlement. And the wars keep raging on, driving tens of millions from their homes and dispersing families over seas and checkpoints

Kate Evans (Verso)

Yet places like Calais have become more invisible in a way. Amid the buried news headlines we see that European officialdom has gotten more adept at erasing their communities from the ghostly landscape through police and imprisonment in suffocating detention centers, or by warehousing them in even grimmer encampments outside the borders, or simply ignoring their cries, prefering deafness to conscience.

As Evans notes, "The Fortress Europe is ossifying." The Jungle's makeshift refuge seems like the cultural moat where the West's humanity evaporated. With tens of millions displaced around the world, maybe society just needs a new way to name the very phenomenon of the refugee; perhaps one day we'll all be living amidst displacement as a general terminal state of being.

But where the colors converge, new possibilities emerge. Evans notes that one device she uses as an illustrator is to create unity across characters by using parallel coloring; imagine if it were only so simple to look at the people across from us and see all we have in common laid bare. But doing so would require a perspective that levels us, as equals, side by side in the trenches of a war we own, but did not create. 

"We need to question why there are migrants, why it is happening, what is it about the state of the world which is displacing so many people. We need to question militarism, we need to be noticing climate change and the factor that it plays in wars as well as other forms of displacement," Evans says.

"This whole idea of the worthy refugee, the one who's left because they've been politically targeted... fundamentally, if you're going to be shot because your home is a warzone, or you're going to be shot because of your political beliefs, or you're just going to die anyway because you cannot grow any food--what actual difference does this make? It blows apart this distinction between the economic migrant and political refugee, when you consider that large parts of the planet are becoming uninhabitable."

Evans challenges the idea of where we consider the legitimate crossing of boundaries to begin: Migritude is the way of the world today, it can be resisted or embraced, but regardless, it is part of us. 

To read more on migration struggles around the world, see Verso's migrant solidarity reading list, compiled for World Refugee Day.

--Michelle Chen, June 20, 2017

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