[Fern Books, 2022]

Tr. from the French by Christine Gutman

Papers is a meditative yet searing portrayal of France’s asylum system. A hybrid work of poetry and monologue, the book records the voices of people seeking refuge in France from Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Mali, as well as those working to make France a place of welcome. Papers results from a commission that French writer, musician, and actor Violaine Schwartz received to create oral histories of current and former asylum seekers in Besançon, a French city around sixty miles east of Dijon and close to the Swiss border. Schwartz interviewed ten people seeking asylum, read their legal and personal documents, and attended hearings at the National Court of Asylum and the Besançon Administrative Court. After returning to Paris, she then met with refugees living rough near her apartment and visited Français Langue d’Accueil, a language school and cultural center created to serve refugees. The point, Schwartz writes, was “To just listen / To listen to those words and write them down.”

Papers is a bricolage of voices, shifting between monologues by those seeking asylum—under the quasi-bureaucratic title of “Life Events,” each with their own case number—and allies in a series titled “Of Hospitality.” Interspersed throughout are shorter texts that disrupt the stripped-back, disembodied testimonies. “Philosophy,” for instance, from close to the book’s end, comprises sharp interrogatives: “Is the State the enemy of freedom? // Is the Nation a myth? // Does man make History or vice versa? // Is life fair? // To be happy, must one be indifferent to the world? // What’s the point of philosophizing?” Papers does not attempt to answer such questions. But the stories of displacement force the reader to confront them. The book asks the reader to reflect on the cost of indifference to the world, particularly as the state translates human life into the abstractions necessary for bureaucratic processing.

Bureaucracy—heartless, inefficient, capricious—is a recurrent touchstone. A glossary (also present in the French edition because such arcana is natural to no one) introduces readers to the barrage of acronyms that envelop those within the French asylum system, from ADA (welfare allowance for asylum seekers) to ZAPI (a pre-deportation airport detention facility). The “Life Events” describe intolerable delays, arbitrary judgments, and contortions necessary to turn the complexity of displacement into a form legible for the French legal system. Schwartz renders each testimony without ornamentation or description, leaving only reported speech. “Waiting. / That’s all you do,” states the speaker of “Life Events, File No. 9878692438882,” a man who fled persecution in Ethiopia and spent five years attempting to gain refuge in Europe with his young family. After a year of waiting for his case to be heard in France, he receives a hearing in 2011, but his request to hold the interview in Oromo, his native language, is ignored. The translator speaks Amharic. No Oromo speaker was available, and he’s told, “If you don’t do it today, it’s an automatic rejection.” After an interview conducted in a language he “only half understood,” he waits eight months for the official response: No. They appeal. More time passes. Another rejection. But then they secure refugee status for their daughter, though for her own alone: He and his wife receive no official status. Finally, in 2014, the law changes and they are granted a ten-year residence permit. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issues birth certificates for the family, mixing up the family’s first and last names. “But it was too complicated to change. / So now that’s our name.”

Often, we like to think that resettlement is a happy ending to a tragic story, but as Papers makes clear, it is rarely so simple. Resettlement can create a new cycle of uncertainty and estrangement, an idea evoked in “Life Events, File No. 01126220022112,” the story of a man served with an OQTF (mandatory exclusion from French territory) in 2015. His father has been granted a residence permit because of ill health, his mother because of her marriage, and his sister because she was a minor. Yet upon turning eighteen, the son is deported to Kosovo and the family separated. His attempts to get back to France trap him within a bureaucratic cycle of increasing cruelty: The authorities refuse to acknowledge he was deported by the French police and accuse him of faking documents. The son concludes he must “play dead. / It’s the only solution.” He’s able to go to school—but he “can’t really sleep at home anymore, at night. / Because they come at dawn. / And they bang on the door. / Very, very hard.” 

According to the UN High Commission on Refugees, at the end of 2021 there were 89.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Of this staggering number, only a fraction was resettled as refugees: 57,500. These statistics say nothing about those who have died seeking refuge. The Refugee List, a Twitter account run by the artist Christoph Jones, memorializes the 48,467 people who have died trying to reach Europe. Displacement is a defining feature of the contemporary world and a condition of immense hardship. But achieving justice for those displaced is a constant struggle. Papers challenges conventional modes of understanding about displacement by foregrounding the words of displaced peoples themselves, giving shape to their journeys and representing, with unflinching clarity, the challenges they face.

Yet while Papers represents the limitations of the French asylum system, the book also includes the voices of people who refuse bureaucracy’s dehumanizing tendencies. Through a series of pieces titled “Of Hospitality,” the book collects stories of those who have worked to provide refuge in France. We hear about the creation of Français Langue d’Accueil, which provides French language lessons and cultural programming for refugees, the everyday kindness of someone who hears refugees speaking a language they understand and helps them, and a retired gendarme who makes his town on the Swiss border host a resettled family from Iraq. “Okay,” the gendarme thought while watching a television report on ISIS in 2014, “it’s all well and good to get upset, you know, but it would be better to do something!” So he persuades his town to host an Iraqi family in an unoccupied apartment, eventually welcoming the Hadaya family on August 7, 2016.

One of the most laudable aspects of Papers is that it represents the complexity of displacement and resists simplified, sentimental accounts. For instance, the third “Of Hospitality” installment is told from the point of view of someone who agrees to host Issa, who arrived in France as an unaccompanied minor from Mali. As the speaker puts it, Issa “clearly came here for economic reasons,” elected by his village to leave for Europe to earn a better living and send money back home, rather than fleeing war or persecution. As such, Issa does not fall within the recognizable bounds of asylum according to the French government. But what Issa’s story makes clear is the cruelty of pretending economic reasons can be separable from political reasons, a false distinction made by Western countries as they adjudicate who has suffered enough and in the right way to be given refuge. Issa’s story further highlights the limitations of asylum policies unable to recognize the historical injustice Mali experiences as a former French colony.

In its foregrounding of the individual narratives of people seeking refuge, Papers recalls similar projects that seek to counter the voicelessness of refugees. The UK-based Refugee Tales publishes an annual collection of tales produced by those with experience of the asylum process in collaboration with writers, including Abdulrazak Gurnah and Ali Smith. South African artist Candice Breitz’s video installation Love Story (2016) more provocatively interrogates the need in the Western media for refugee voices to be heard through familiar (white) faces by having Hollywood actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore perform monologues retelling the experiences of refugees. Whereas Refugee Tales and Love Story foreground the collaboration between creative partners, Papers dissolves each voice into bureaucratic anonymity, Schwartz herself only feeling present in the prologue and acknowledgements.

These works challenge the idea that listening is a passive activity. They argue instead that listening creates recognition and that witnessing the humanity of others makes it impossible to dismiss their suffering. Art can enact this moment of translation, making something previously unknown known. Such defamiliarization not only removes us from the everyday but fundamentally changes our relationship to the world around us. In its polyphonic curation of voices from those enmeshed within France’s capricious asylum system, Papers makes a profound contribution to this ongoing act of imagination.

Interwoven throughout Papers is the leitmotif of the migratory bird. A series of concrete poems titled “Meanwhile . . .” comprise lists of birds arrayed across the page above verbs arranged in a V formation, akin to a flock of migrating birds. These poems offer an alternative to the artificial, arbitrary, and unnatural character of human borders. In French, the visual aspect of these poems is strikingly rendered by crafting the V formation from “volent,” a capacious word encompassing “they fly” and “they flee.” The flying Vs take on an almost onomatopoeic power in the repetition of “volent” echoing the sound of wings. Rendering this auditory aspect is perhaps the most difficult task faced by Christine Gutman in her excellent translation: Defined by the play between sign and signifier—the graphic representation of a word and its meaning—concrete poems cannot be translated, but Gutman adds a new propulsive rhythm to Papers by patterning the formations from fly / flee / free. While we lose the polyvalence of “volent,” we gain the ambivalence of whether these verbs are imperatives or statements, whether they are instructions or reflections. In such a way, they reflect the competing forces acting upon people displaced from their homes.

Displacement is a global phenomenon that demands to be understood in an expansive framework: Transnational crises do not have national solutions. The translation of Papers contributes to this project by shedding light on the human experience of the French asylum system. But perhaps thinking in such macro terms simply reproduces the logics of bureaucracy that Papers reveals. What the book offers instead is testimony to the importance of fostering hospitality, cultivating welcome, and creating spaces of refuge. Yet this, too, is insufficient. “It’s a drop in the ocean,” the speaker hosting Issa in their spare room says. “And there’s something unfair and arbitrary about it too.”

Daniel Davies is a board member of PAIR, a Houston-based nonprofit serving refugee youth. He lives, teaches, and writes in Houston, TX. He can be found at @daniel_j_davies.

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