As someone who comes from a post-war society and who moved a lot, I have been thinking about migration, exile, and the meaning of narrative for as long as I remember. This year’s Mellon School has introduced wonderful new ideas and a whole new set of questions that I am greatly inspired by and will continue to grapple with long after our seminar is over.
What has surficed for me throughout the last weeks' conversations in our seminar and evening lectures is the role of narrative and the responsibility we have towards the narratives around which our work is centered. In her evening talk and the afternoon discussion, Lizzy Davis Cooper invited us to question our relationship to our own work and engage with it beyond intellectual levels - she advised us to find what feels right as well. What is our motivation behind engaging with certain narratives and how do we use them? Is the story we are telling our own to tell? I believe these questions should be at the center of all work we do, but especially as related to the current refugee “crisis” and the narratives of experiences of those caught in the middle of it.
The experiences related to traumatic events or forced migration represent a tare in our time, a fracture in our narratives. They are a shock to the system, both personal and the collective. The need to make sense of these experiences pushes us towards arts and projects in memory stitching, storytelling, artmaking. (Among others.) But who does this stitching and why? The refugees themselves? The artists in exile? The well-meaning aid workers and artists from the wider “international community?” And more importantly - who are these stitches made for? Who benefits from these narratives and why? How do we make sure we do not “weaponize them” in our well-intentioned artistic and scholarly work?
As someone who has been displaced by armed conflict and who intimately experienced the well intentioned but misguided interventions and artistic advocacy projects conducted and created by the outsiders, I was always acutely aware of the importance of these questions. I understood the consequences of misrepresentation, and of narratives “stolen.” I embarked on a personal and professional journey of reclamation of what I believed were my narratives and stories to tell through my own work, but I constantly stumbled over one thing - closure.
Disrupted by traumas of war, my own personal narrative turned into a lifelong journey of theater work and human rights activism and research, but in all that work I was seeking continuity, understanding, and ultimately - closure. Our seminar took me on an unexpected journey in which I found the key to continued engagement with the migration and human security-related issues by reminding me of something incredibly important - not all narratives have (or should have) a closure and not all applied theater is responsible to resolve a social issue or propose a solution.
As artists and scholars, we should question our biases, our intentions, and our effectiveness, but I strongly believe that we should not let it get in the way of our creation. Putting the responsibility on theater to speak about issues such as refugee “crisis” only if it resolves an issue, proposes a solution, or has a strong message is an unrealistic and unfair request. I believe that as long as a conversation is started, the theater has fulfilled its purpose. It has offered a journey, a thought, and experience. It prompted motion - emotional and physical. Once we can comfortably claim that the story our work tells is ours to share, perhaps the only way to get closure is to keep the narrative open-ended and allow for others’ interpretations to help stitch our own personal, intellectual, and artistic work.