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English Professor Gives Voice To Refugees In New Book

Oct. 8, 2010
SHSU Media Contact: Meredith Mohr

April ShemakIn her new book, “Asylum Speakers: Caribbean Refugees and Testimonial Discourse,” author and assistant professor of English April Shemak gives a voice to refugees and mixes current immigration issues and literature by examining stories told largely from the perspective of Haitian refugees.

After years of research and writing, she is looking forward to the book’s publication next month.

The book takes an interdisciplinary approach to Caribbean refugees seeking asylum in the United States by examining their personal testimonies and stories.

“I was finishing the book during the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath, and it really allowed me to think about refugees differently, especially in writing the book,” Shemak said. “The typical mental picture is that refugees are fleeing from some kind of government persecution; but now here is a group in the midst of a natural disaster as well. I started thinking, what does this mean for the refugees? And more importantly, how do we witness refugee migration? I hope people who read my book will think about these questions as well.”

"Asylum Speakers" is a compilation of writings from Haitian-American and other Caribbean authors, including Edwidge Danticat, Nikòl Payen, Kamau Brathwaite and many others. It also includes theoretical work taken from Jacques Derrida, Edouard Glissant, and Wilson Harris, human rights documents, government documents, photography and historical studies.

“Although it is mostly literature, thematically it intersects with the human rights issue,” Shemak said. “I found the issue that refugees face the most is that they are largely silenced, because they are not part of an official discourse. They’re fleeing from their home, but they’re not officially immigrants. They’re in the middle of the journey.”

One of the writers examined in the book, Haitian American Nikòl Payen, writes a series of autobiographical essays. Although she is not a refugee, she worked as translator at Guantanamo Bay with Haitian refugees in early 1990s. During this time, a large number of refugees were trying to get to the United States by boat but were intercepted by the Coast Guard and taken to Guantanamo.

“Her stories are about her experience working for the government, and more than that, the experience of being in between (as an American citizen of Haitian descent),” Shemak said. “She is feeling a certain level of complicity and uncertainty of her role as a translator, and whether she is helping them or not. It is an interesting take on testimony because she’s not telling her story to gain asylum but more looking at her experience as a translator and working with refugees.”

Not only personal stories, the book also includes a chapter on Central American refugees, and one on Haitians who emigrate to the Dominican Republic for economic purposes.

While working towards her doctorate at the University of Maryland and writing her dissertation, Shemak became interested in the idea of personal stories as a genre and linking it with refugees. It was through this interest that the book really came together, Shemak said.

“The overall thread of the book is the issue of testimony because it is, in an official sense, how refugees gain asylum through the stories they tell of their life,” Shemak said.

By doing this, the book weighs the question of “truth value” associated with different methods of witnessing. Shemak noted that if channeled in the right way, testimony could be a powerful resource for refugees.

“Sometimes there are a lot of restrictions on testimony, particularly if refugees have experienced some kind of trauma. Recounting those experiences in an asylum interview can be very difficult – issues of memory and history come into play for someone who is telling their story,” Shemak said. “At the same time, it can also be the most powerful thing they have, especially if they don’t have documents or legal representation to support their case.”

Shemak said she hopes these stories will help readers to change the way they think about the issues of immigration and ethnic studies, especially in the immigration issues we currently face in the United States.

“Sometimes the only thing that a refugee has to convince officials that they should be let into the country is their story,” Shemak said. “Even after the Haiti earthquake, U.S. immigration policy hasn’t changed much. If a non-government organization processes them, or if they can gain temporary protected status, then they have a better chance of success. But a lot of times all they can rely on is the power of their own testimony.”

Shemak will read excerpts from her book at a book release party held during the English Friday Faculty Forum will be held on Nov. 5 at 2 p.m. in Evans Building Room 417.


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