How can creative storytelling enable new ways of thinking about and representing displacement? In this piece, Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami reflects on the process of writing her fictitious account, Alice’s Alternative Wonderland, which was originally displayed in three parts on Refugee Hosts. Alice’s Alternative Wonderland is the fictitious account of a child’s experiences on the European refugee trail; here the author traces the way in which her critical tale was been inspired by Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass,’ which transposes objects and events from the real social and political tableaux of Victorian Britain into a perplexing world of criticism and satire. In this reflection, Tahmineh outlines how, and why, she has used critical storytelling in an attempt to understand the experiences of displaced people on the trail to safety.
Reflections on Alice’s Alternative Wonderland
By Tahmineh Hooshyar Emami, University College London
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass is a political allegory in fiction which has underpinned and structured a critical analysis of the spatial politics of refuge. Lewis Carroll’s fictional piece was a starting point for me to analyse how our bodies are defined, shaped and influenced by space. In this context. Steve Pile speaks of Alice’s relationship with and reciprocal effect on space in the following manner: Alice was
‘at odds with her space. Poor, dreaming, misfit Alice, while pursuing the time conscious white rabbit, was either too big or too small for her space; too sane for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and dangerously outspoken in the Queen’s Court.’
The investigation into Carroll’s dream-spaces targets fundamental questions surrounding concepts of spatial memory and perception, particularly with regards to children. The juxtaposition of a semi-tragic fictional tale against the so-called refugee crisis provides a comprehensive view of the events that have unfolded in a short space of time, pinning the highly volatile and unstable situation in order for it to be analysed. My Alice is a character that embodies the fears and dispossession that Caroll’s character experienced as a refugee child in Wonderland, particularly amidst the on-going disputes over child-refugees and their right of asylum in countries like Great Britain.
The main character of the story, Alice, is a complex invention, part child, part author and concurrently, the voice of every refugee the author has interacted with. The author herself is layered into the number of Alices in the story, envisioning the world of refuge and nomadism through the eyes of the child. The creation of a fictional general persona has allowed me to anonymise and ethicise the information gathered through my research.
The subject becomes the result of an amalgamation of factual and imagined realities reflected in story and journal writings; perhaps I have become the adult projecting my own self onto the child, or else, it is the child that aspires to be the adult-author. Much like Carroll’s Alice – who was fond of being two people, scolding and contradicting herself at times -, the voice of Alice becomes the collective voice of the refugees who contributed to my research, and it is thus used as a vehicle to facilitate the processes of anonymizing and ethicizing the research methodology and writing mode.
The character of Carroll’s fictional tale, Alice, becomes the vehicle that allows us to look through the lens of a single child and analyse the particularities of immigration from a specific perspective. This fictional vehicle operates on several levels, the first level of which is the geographical narrative of the dream world and more specifically, the landscapes that guide and shape her pilgrimage through Wonderland. The scale-less pool, the nonsensical pathways which always lead back to the Looking-Glass house or the chessboard landscape of woodland and meadows, all reflect the nineteenth-century rule-bound bourgeois society of Britain where, according to J. S. Mill, laws and social norms had combined to eliminate individuality. In the same fashion, the migrant trail through sea, crop fields and woodland can be interpreted as a compressed and miniaturized replica of the current shifting political norms ruling the European Union.
The second level is Alice’s character which often echoes her upbringing in a Victorian imperialist society. As the child-imperialist struggles to grapple with the non-conformist Wonderland dominated by rules and logic unknown to her, she tries to maintain her sanity by talking to herself, and recites poems to test her memory and verify if she still is the Alice she was before her descent into the rabbit hole.
Despite the familiarity of Wonderland and the events Alice stumbles upon, she is soon to realise that this is a world which contradicts her logic-bound reality. She hovers between sense and nonsense, reality and fiction, variation and repetition, even linearity and circularity.
‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that!’ said Alice to herself, rather sharply; `I advise you to leave off this minute!’ She generally gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it), and sometimes she scolded herself […] for this curious child was very fond of pretending to be two people.’
The motifs and spaces of Wonderland influence Alice’s experiences and understanding of the operational modes of this nonsensical universe. At the start of her journey, she finds herself to be either too large or too small for the spaces she inhabits; however, she soon learns to alter her scale according to the spatial conditions she faces. As previously mentioned, the motifs and games that appear throughout the story are mere reflections of the socio-political norms of the British bourgeois society at the time.
In Wonderland, unlike space, time exists in a psychological or rather, perceptive sense. The static and reversed time of the dream world is overlaid with Alice’s normative understanding of it. Despite the fixity and stagnation of physical time at the six o’clock tea party, psychological time allows Alice and the creatures to enter and leave the tea party and to expect the experiences of Wonderland to come to an end. Similarly, in the Alternative Wonderland, which narrates various points of the journey in the moments of repose and stagnation, time perception expands to the indefinite continuous unfolding of events; whereas on the move, perception of time is reduced to the sheer interval between two successive events or destinations.
The fifth level of operation of the ‘Alice vehicle’ is represented by the use of words and poems which follow the linguistic logic of Wonderland. The inhabitants of the dream world have frequent altercations with outsider Alice and challenge common sense references and dictionary-bound definitions. The creation of a specific dictionary/glossary for this piece of writing links to yet another methodological inspiration from the linguistic exchanges in Wonderland. Carroll allows words to break from their dictionary definitions and adopt new/altered meanings. For instance, the word ‘jungle’ loses its original definition set out by the Oxford Dictionary in the following manner: ‘An area of land overgrown with dense forest and tangled vegetation, typically in the tropics.’ And gains a new meaning which I have tried to set out here: ‘A forum or coming together of various nationalities to co-habit a particular space and build an organic city.’
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
The transitoriness of refugee status emerges from a perpetual sense of movement and an absent sense of belonging, which create a strong connection to Alice’s status as an outsider in the fictional setting of Wonderland. The unlikely scenario of Alice being a refugee in the nonsensical universe is set as a hypothetical background to start a conversation on transitional spaces. Similar to her constant progression through dream-spaces, coherently or otherwise connected, refugees pass through sequential spatial conditions of various scales.
Comparable to Alice’s sudden and unintended descent down the rabbit hole and into the perplexing world of Wonderland; the condition of refugee-Alice imposes a set of abrupt and unanticipated circumstances to which she must conform. Having ventured into the heart of unknown countries whose laws are alien to the story’s subject, she must now discern logic by transcending both immaterial linguistic/legislative barriers and physical borders. Alice’s memories, often-real accounts composed from news extracts, data and travel journals, are complemented by fictional input from the author in order to create a less disjointed, highly detailed plot. The term ‘critical imagination’, coined by Jane Rendell defines best the production of the narrative as an indispensable element of research and analysis in the field of migration studies. She describes this methodology as ‘an analytic mode to outline the structure and form of her response, and memories – sometimes real, sometimes fictional – to create the content-filled detail.’ This is embodied in my three-part fictional story.
NB: This piece is an early version of a chapter which will be published in a forthcoming, open access book entitled Refuge in a Moving World: Interdisciplinary Conversations, edited by Refugee Hosts’ PI, Dr. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (UCL Press, 2018).