Blog piece
20 January 2020

What sort of maps can help us navigate the brutal vagaries of forced displacement? This question depends evidently on the type of help we might need, and there can be no asking it in abstraction of the fundamental disparity in position between the refugee/asylum seeker and the citizen or researcher of the receiving nation. And yet, despite the radical polarity that conditions relations between guest and host, theorised in Jacques Derrida’s landmark work on the ambivalent imbrications of the notion of hôte and echoed in a vast range of anthropological study on rituals of hospitality, might it be that the practice of imagining new spaces and making them “exist” on maps and in collections disrupts the host-guest dichotomy? This is the fundamental question that a group of affiliated participants have been addressing under the auspices of ULIP’s Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression over the past 18 months.

The group meets with a fluid group of often undocumented or only recently documented participants in the Václav Havel public library in northern Paris for a weekly workshop that is both a practice of hospitality and the occasion for reflective engagement with it. The “hosts” are guests inasmuch as many are foreigners in France, they do not belong to the library staff, the workshop has no official status and nothing is taken for granted. They convene the workshop as amateurs who are also researchers, inviting others to join them in their explorations, for the pleasure, for the “journey”, and not to learn as such. They are, however, perceived as “citizens”, which they are. In contrast, the “guests” are often not citizens and that fact is the reason why they seek a “safe place” in the library. Yet they are also hosts inasmuch as the library is more “home’” to them than the convening participants: they are already there, they may already be engaged in activities at the same table, and they are often asked to re-invest “their” space in a different way with us around a table, chatting and drawing or writing on sheets of paper. People join for the duration (approximately 2 hours 30 minutes) or for 10 minutes. Every session is different, but the overarching framework is to build a book collection of one-off volumes that map their experience between testimony, drawing, “self-help” advice and inscriptions of self in various forms. As the activities evolve in unpredictable ways, one key interest focuses on the way the shapes and images on paper and in the books tend to displace respective positionings so that, more than Derrida’s “unconditional hospitality” and its requirement that we do not ask the name of the guest, what matters are the porosity of the expressions rather than any possible designations.

The books that the group are making are gradually building a collection that will ultimately be included within the catalogue and holdings of Paris City Libraries. The name Numimeserian has been given to the collection, a hybrid word that was offered by a participant as being of no particular language but the meaning: “one must not neglect the little things.” Many of the “things” in these books are slight, possibly inconsequential, difficult to assess and value. Yet their emergence within a busy corner of a public library and the safeguarding of them by the librarians confers upon them a quality of reference. This quality is another focus of the enquiry emerging from this project and will be addressed through a number of planned research meetings, including later in spring 2020 in the context of the OWRI Language Acts programme, thanks to a small-grant award. The questions we will be pursuing include:

How does the horizon of a library shelf and the possibility that this material may be consulted, intersect with often intimate, quiet need for people refugees and asylum seekers to represent a world that is no longer accessible? What do the shapes of the houses, streets, trees, birds and flowers of this world also tell us of often punitive and demoralizing displacement? How does the possibly therapeutic dimension of drawing and chatting in a convivial manner relate to the possible emergence of new agency in and through these imagined spaces? And what sort of resource for navigating our collective future do these books offer?