When one works with those who have had to leave behind everything, often stories and their deep groundedness in orality is all they have been able to carry with them across geographical boundaries. This is not just a metaphor. It is the ground, the reality of migrants’ lives. How do you carry a lifetime in 30 kgs of checked in baggage? And that is for those who are the more privileged migrants. Travel on a rickety rubber dinghy packed without an inch to spare between people, and you’d be lucky if the life jacket around your neck does not suffocate you.
In such circumstances, stories become many things - memories, life rafts, entertainment, lullabies, home.
But for many refugees in the current hostile climate for refugees, stories have become currency. The relationship between stories and their exchange as currency is not new. In traditional stories, one finds storytellers plying their trade for coin. Scheherazade told stories to save lives of women in her husband’s kingdom and herself. But she also told stories in response to the king’s command ‘Tell me a story’. The choice of story was up to her. And that changed everyone’s story in the kingdom. Telling stories has not been divorced from earning a living or saving a life.
But in the current climate of the importance of ‘personal’ and ‘cultural’ stories in almost every part of our lives, stories take on a commodification where life and death are the stakes that are in play. Right-wing media and discourse trades on ‘stories’ of the parasitic nature of migrants, and on the other hand, sympathetic discourse equally relies on ‘stories’ that reveal the strength and vitality of migrant presence and contributions. Almost everyone speaks through these ‘stories’ – starting from personal instances told in third person that progressively get more abstracted and rarified as they travel over print, tongues and impressions. They sway policies.