Chaucer and Humanitarian Activism

Refugee Tales, a recent adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, is more than a retelling of one of our “great books” of English literature ...

Refugee Tales, a recent adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, is more than a retelling of one of our “great books” of English literature. It is a project of humanitarian activism that reveals the entangled, and often impenetrable, links between language and culture that have created an inhumane immigration system in the UK. Through its engagement with Chaucer’s 14th-century Middle English frame narrative, Refugee Tales takes us back to a crucible of English culture in order to construct a new one in which the recognition of humanity across borders is paramount: where the social and political response to immigration involves believing in, respecting, and upholding the dignity of people whose life experiences lead them to faraway new places.

Featuring contributions by Patience Agbabi, Ali Smith, and Chris Cleave, among many others, the two-volume Refugee Tales is designed to raise awareness about both the processes and the effects of immigration detention, as part of the larger humanitarian project of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.1 In short works of poetry and prose, the contributors retell the stories of those they have interviewed. Tales of refugees, asylum seekers, and detainees are offered alongside those of truck drivers, court interpreters, and other players in the immigration system, providing a well-rounded account of both the individuals who move these exclusionary processes along and those who are trapped within them, “waiting for whenever” in indefinite detention.

The project’s explicit aim is to end such incarceration by rousing readers’ political activism. At a deeper level, it invites us to change our discourse of immigration, to create what editors call a “language of welcome” and concomitantly produce a culture that never denies refugees their humanity. The project self-consciously draws on The Canterbury Tales. Writing at a time when English was only beginning to secure its place among the country’s aristocracy, the “father of English literature” played with the co-constitutive nature of language and culture to create new possibilities for both.

Deemed inferior to Anglo-Norman (French) and Latin, Middle English was the vernacular mother tongue of medieval England and excluded from institutional spaces such as the church, court, and schools. It wasn’t until 1362 that it became the official language of Parliament. At the turn of the 15th century, The Canterbury Tales helped push English into a more privileged linguistic space at a political moment when its institutional dominance was solidifying.

With the literary acuity that Chaucer helped bring to the English language came prestige and, ultimately, power. It would later become an imperial language, facilitating degradation and devastation around the world; but in the late 14th century, it was a language of possibility. Poet Lavinia Greenlaw has remarked, to quote a paraphrase from David Wallace, “reading and working with Chaucer … is like meeting with English before the paint has dried.”2

The narratives we hold about what it is to be a refugee must first and always come from refugees themselves.

Refugee Tales returns to Chaucer to recapture the freshness of the English language, take hold of its power, and create something new. If, as Audre Lorde has taught us, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” then Refugee Tales transforms the imperial power of English into a tool of resistance precisely by speaking through Chaucer—a looming, masculine figure of the English canon and a visionary poet who wrote in a language that still held the potential for “welcome.”

Patience Agbabi tells the final tale of the first volume, a poem that individualizes the book’s title as “The Refugee’s Tale.” It bears starting with, for it captures a primary message of the whole collection: listen. As the speaker asks about the burn mark on the refugee Farida’s hand, they “look in the mirror of each other’s eyes” and their conjoined voice breaks the reader’s assumptions: “You already have a story of the torture / I suffered in my war-torn homeland. / But these marks are from cooking bread for my family, / this is the first time I’m cooking in my life!” University-educated, with a career in banking, a husband, and six children, Farida is from Sudan and never wanted to leave. Her story reminds us that the narratives we hold about what it is to be a refugee must first and always come from refugees themselves.

In telling and listening to these tales, we can reshape the language through which we have created a xenophobic culture of exclusion. In “The Interpreter’s Tale,” poet Carol Watts relates the experience of a court interpreter, who must “translate everything that is said.” But what might seem like a straightforward task—translate the words of the asylum seeker to the court so that their case may receive a fair hearing—reveals the insidious effects of linguistic borders: “Words are tarmac and concrete / they can be prison houses or their unlocking.”

If the judge can hear these words with a trusting ear, then they can open possibilities for the refugee’s security and crack the walls that xenophobia erects; but the trust, the interpreter tells us, is in her words: “Word for word / I am not believed. / I am believed when she is not.” Trust slips away the moment her voice speaks for the asylum seeker.


American Storyteller

By Eric Bennett

The demoralizing irony is that refugees are pushed to believe in the very system that refuses to believe in them. “I thought you would help me, you say,” ends Ali Smith’s “The Detainee’s Tale,” the story of a survivor of human trafficking who ends up imprisoned in the same place he sought protection. After escaping enslavement as a child laborer in Ghana, and then again in Luton, England, the Detainee makes it to London, where he contacts the Home Office for help, to obtain asylum. “Help” arrives in the form of officers who are sent to arrest him.

Amid several releases and arrests, he hears repeatedly: “We accept you are a victim of human trafficking. But we need to reconsider the case.” He is left in limbo, always vulnerable to arrest and never able to do what he wants most: to go to college. Smith recounts that the only “flash of anger” visible the whole time he tells his story is the moment when he speaks of coming to “this place” where he thought he would receive help.

Jade Amoli-Jackson’s “The Friend’s Tale” tells the story of “Alice,” a mother who went to England to protect her second daughter from the same trauma of female genital mutilation that she and her first daughter had suffered. “She wanted [her daughters] to be proud of her when they were old enough to understand.” But they were all sent back to Nigeria because, she was told, “her case had no merit”; if she wanted to appeal, she had to do so from outside the UK.

The promise of help is only an illusion, a narrative spun to create a vision of a culture that too often won’t materialize. It is meant not for those who need it, but for those who have created it. “Everything is deliberate,” as the subject of David Herd’s “The Appellant’s Tale” says.

In “The Dependent’s Tale,” we hear the story of an eight-year-old child, awakened in the middle of the night by “the big man in a uniform” shouting at her to get her things. Her seven-year-old brother is screaming, her parents are downstairs; she isn’t allowed to talk to them. There are eight men in the house, “escorts” who work for a private company hired by the government, all to detain a sleeping family of four. She incredulously remarks to her storyteller, Marina Lewycka, “We were so dangerous!”

The family is eventually put into a van with “a wire cage in it, and … locked in the cage as though [they] were wild animals or something.” Or something. They are taken to the Yarl’s Wood detention center, a prison where immigrants who have never committed a crime can be locked up indefinitely. Women for Refugee Women recently conducted a study that showed that a large number of women held at Yarl’s Wood are sexual assault survivors, whose detention is a violation of UK policy. Yet their imprisonment persists.

We find hope not in the stories themselves but in their telling and our listening—in the reconstruction of our own perspectives.

The Dependent and her family are held for 24 days before being released, but even then they remain trapped: for the next several years, “the big man in a uniform” reappears repeatedly at the foot of her bed, sometimes in real life and sometimes in her nightmares. She becomes caught in the circuity of the system, shuttled from one place to another, separated from family, deported and returned, and detained again. The first time she is taken, the Dependent hears a phrase that will be repeated to her again and again: “‘We’re taking you home,’ they kept saying, as we drove away and left our home behind.” She is pushed through a system whose language defines her as a perpetual outsider.

Immigrants are always seen as belonging elsewhere, as only staying in a host country, always primed for return. Their “home” is their country of origin, never that of arrival. “The Dependent’s Tale” almost offers a happy, or at least hopeful, ending. The Dependent is eventually reunited with her family and ends up studying law at the prestigious London School of Economics. She becomes what we often like to call “a success story,” someone to parade out as a marker of social progress, or a symbol of immigrant strength and bootstraps grit.

But she won’t let us have this ending, instead reminding us: “I was robbed of my childhood. … Whatever people think about the rights and wrongs of immigration, it can never be right to treat children like this.” Her tale ends with a nightmare that she can’t contain within the safety of dreams: “From time to time I still wake up in the night shaking with fear when I hear a loud banging or shouting. But then I realize it’s only a nightmare.” Borders are dismantled, but not the ones that destroyed her childhood.

We find hope not in the stories themselves but in their telling and our listening—in the reconstruction of our own perspectives on immigration, peoples’ movement across space and borders, and what it means to welcome immigrants not only into our homes but also into our linguistic framework and the culture it produces. This reconstruction requires our active participation. We can lament the global refugee crisis and hope for change, but if we do not act to produce that change from the inside, from that space between language and culture that literature opens up for us, we are only voyeurs of a problem we consistently define yet never resolve.

What would our world look like if we taught literature like Refugee Tales in our high schools and colleges, to students beginning to form what will become enduring (and ever hardening) perceptions of where they belong in relation to that world? What would it mean to never teach Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales without Refugee Tales alongside it? As much as Chaucer is the father of English literature, Refugee Tales and the culture it creates can be its future.

The project organizes an annual walk of solidarity through southeast England that reclaims a landscape marked by centuries of exclusion. As David Herd puts it in the afterword to the first volume, “Deep within the Refugee Tales project is a proposal that the language of national space be re-read, that we read back through to find the expression that gestures outwards.”


For World Literature

By Caroline Levine

On a recent trip to England last summer, I stopped in London to catch a small leg of this “pilgrimage,” where the profundity of the literary project came into sharp relief. As I later stood in line at the Philadelphia airport to re-enter the United States, I thought about the passport in my hands and how this tiny document transports me into a space of welcome, the same space whose door is locked to others. I had only ever thought about that line as an inconvenience, not as life and death, never as the demarcation of my humanity. Many of us never think about the lines, often broken and circuitous, that many people take to get here and survive—to create new possibilities not just for themselves and their children but for the world we all live in together.

Immigrants aren’t visitors or perpetual outsiders, despite how hard our systems and ideologies work to make them so; immigrants become insiders the moment they arrive, even if they are suspended as outsiders within. Refugee Tales compels its readers to listen to and share firsthand stories about the immigration system; it reminds us that a culture of inclusion begins with a language that welcomes.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. Per Comma Press, all book profits go to the Gatwick Detainee Welfare Group and Kent Help For Refugees
  2. David Wallace, Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 1.
Featured image: Ford Madox Brown, Chaucer at the Court of Edward III — Watercolor Version (1854). Watercolor with bodycolor on paper. Wikimedia Commons