One day we will find a language for this

New Warscapes volume explores travels and lives of migrants and refugees beyond mainstream portrayals.

Image: Warscapes.

We are bombarded daily with news of capsized boats and vast numbers of dead migrants as they traverse deserts and oceans. In the midst of our constant attempt to redefine ethics against the backdrop of shame, photographer Mario Badagliacca assembles, photographs, and re-renders objects left behind by migrants and refugees in the “boat cemetery” in Lampedusa, Italy. It is displacing to contemplate a child’s milk bottle, tattered t-shirts or a pair of worn-out shoes, as they cannot help but map vividly a poetic of loss. “One day we will find a language for this,” the author Maaza Mengiste writes in her accompanying lyric response piece to Badagliacca’s work which reflects on the migrant crisis.

Badagliacca’s gut-wrenching artwork, titled “Frammenti” (fragments), and Mengiste’s reflection appear together in Mediterranean, the first print volume published by Warscapes magazine. Cumulatively Mediterranean is an attempt to explore an archeology of memory and the travels of migrants and refugees, well beyond mainstream portrayals of these desperate experiences.

Warscapes, an online initiative that was started seven years ago, has always shown a powerful instinct for spotting new frames of reference and allowing for urgent ideas to emerge. I had the privilege of collaborating with Warscapes very early on and have always bowed to the idea that Warscapes never tended to be determined too much by monetary logic or internet trends. Founded by New York duo Bhakti Shringarpure and Michael Bronner, and sustained by the unwavering commitment of Shringarpure as editor-in-chief and a gang of talented editorsWarscapes has remained a gentle, artistic and politically committed presence in a rapidly changing and ideologically wavering digital zeitgeist.

Mediterranean defies framing; it is fresh and ever-changing with each page. The mix of disciplines, the complex juxtapositions within and between pieces, and the sparks of deep humanity underscoring the work make this collection a potent tool for reinventing our way of reading the horror of a crisis that has been fed by shameful and recurring stereotypes for far too long. Beautiful to touch and feel, this first Warscapes print text seems located somewhere between magazine and book. It resembles periodicals such as Granta and n+1, yet it could be a stand-alone volume that’s easy on the eye, and which shows great attention to detail and design.

The anthology carries the reader into new territories with an exciting mix of a multi-form and multi-genre approach to do what the magazine always did: open up a space and create new paths to rethink the same tired narratives around war and displacement. And so it is that we are carried along on passing clouds: from the intense beauty of Ali Jimale Ahmed’s poems to Ismail Einashe’s intimate portrait of a young Gambian boy in Italy who migrated by himself to Sicily, to the pained and pointed anger of Jehan Bseiso’s poetry. There is a melancholic piece by Léopold Lambert that evokes the Mediterranean as an abyss and is grounded in the work of artist/architect Ana Dana Beroš. You suddenly stumble upon wide-framed, shocking photos of a Panopticon-style prison in the Netherlands that has been turned into a detention center, its sunken, dinghy feeling captured wonderfully by Afghan-Iranian photographer Mujtaba Jalali.

Hassan Ghedi Santur’s long dispatch from the now demolished “Calais Jungle” in France breathes life into the human struggle of these journeys, his writing capturing everything from humor to pain, enthusiasm, optimism, frustration and loss that the color his characters’ experiences. Santur tracks the journeys of three young men from East Africa and exposes their lives in limbo in the camps, lending depth to the hopes and the dreams they continue to pursue.

There is a unique, unexpected focus on food and recipes. Two women — from Somalia and Eritrea — share recipes of foods they miss making and sharing, and narrate their complicated and harrowing refugee stories. Veruska Cantelli speaks with researcher Mary Bosworth about the food politics in camps and detention centers. Cantelli writes:

When food is denied, controlled, rationed, part of one’s life management becomes someone’s else’s domain, and the act of giving swiftly starts to accommodate discipline. Images of food lines in refugee camps in Europe, the banning of meals as a tactic for keeping migrants from settling — which led to the arrest of a volunteer in the Italian town of Ventimiglia — are just two examples in which food in the current European migrant crisis is being turned into a weapon of control.

In this conversation, both Bosworth and Cantelli emphasize the centrality of food as memory, and thus as a tether to home and community.

There is a focus on African migrants, though not explicitly. Warscapes has always delved deep into the continent, whether through literature, poetry or interviews, and has pushed consistently against the image of “senseless war” perpetrated in the mainstream about conflicts on the African continent. Mediterranean considerably extends this mission.

There are some powerhouse writers included here: Edwidge Danticat, Chika Unigwe and Boubacar Boris Diop. They have contributed short, lyric fictions, and here, I wish these works were longer so to allow more space for a deeper engagement. It does seem, though, that ultimately the book is projecting the argument that migrant and refugee experiences tend to exist in a fragmentary form, they play with the poetics of dislocation and rupture. Mediterranean presents short pieces, actual snippets and splinters that project the reality of fractures. They create a powerful mirror, a kind of essential short-circuit to push the reader beyond given perimeters of a news climate that over-emphasizes the perfectly rounded linear narratives. Most of all, it does not want to be a déjà-vu of voyeuristic tours of a crisis, but a journey into the intricacies of compelling fractures and their arising stillness, a vivid and poetic rendering of these very fractures. It sheds a new light, and in the process, it becomes an essential barometer to chronicle what Derek Walcott would call “the living images of flesh that saunter through the eye.”

Mediterranean ends with an offering of sorts: a pedagogical compass for educators, an open syllabus that hints at the heart of the journey of this book. Its versatility makes it infinitely teachable, and a powerful resource for scholars. Indeed this is a book that begs to be used.

Further Reading