Migration: ‘Roots transplanted into new soil’

An upcoming interdisciplinary publication, to be launched next Thursday, will aim to deconstruct ingrained stereotypes surrounding the concept of migration

Photography by Tumer Gencturk
Photography by Tumer Gencturk

The publication of the book Undertow: Poetics of Displacement will mark the next phase of the Rima project – a Malta Arts Fund and Valletta 2018-supported initiative which aims to explore the dynamics of migration. Having already presented a film festival and a theatrical performance, Rima seeks to break out of stereotypical representations of migration, by giving migrants from various global regions the space to tell their own stories in as thorough and genuine a way as possible.

As the book’s co-writers Elise Billiard and Virginia Monteforte say in their outro of the book: “We wanted to remind ourselves that migrants are not only African people, but any person settling in a new country.”

The book, which is published by Ede Books and will be launched at Villa Frere, Pieta on 16 June, collates a number of interviews conducted by Billiard and Monteforte, along with selected passages from works by Maltese authors and poets which touch upon the dynamics of migration – both directly and indirectly.

The result is a book that creates a space in which migration ceases to be merely a sensationalist headline or a burden to be erased or eased into oblivion – and instead, it becomes characterised as an emotionally complex aspect of human life that may just be more universal than we might think.

Running the gamut across Europe, Africa, America and Asia, the diverse roster of interviewees forming part of the project also includes a Maltese person who emigrated abroad, and who speaks about how their memory of Malta worked on their consciousness while they tried to make a new life abroad. In this way, the book depicts the lived experience of migration as a near-tangible phenomenon, which plays a key part in a person’s daily perception, but does not wholly define it.

International by definition, the book still takes Malta as its key reference point, and one of its chapters – ‘Impressions of Malta’ – offers up tellingly different perspectives on the island, depending on the speakers’ country of origin: a Bulgarian girl is amused by just how similar Maltese taxis are to their Moroccan counterparts; a Nigerian is warned against entering the ‘prison’ island by fellow Africans as he approaches by boat; a Greek man finds a common ground between the built landscape and the “loud” nature of Maltese people, and his native country.

Edited by Elise Billiard and Virginia Monteforte, Undertow: Poetics of Displacement will be launched on June 16
Edited by Elise Billiard and Virginia Monteforte, Undertow: Poetics of Displacement will be launched on June 16

These initial impressions then yield more profound and affecting insights, as the interviewees tell varied stories of acceptance and rejection, of tension sometimes – thankfully – giving way to a peaceful acceptance of the host country.

The surrounding chapters on either end move away from Malta as a direct reference to focus on what it means to ‘recreate’ one’s homeland abroad, on the dynamics of departure as well as the – sometimes awkward and painful – process of returning to the country of origin… however temporary this stay may be.

“Even after decades spent in immigration, many of us still care for that often invisible and ephemeral umbilical cord connecting us to our place of birth,” one interviewee says.

“The remains from that umbilical cord are now in the fragmented memories of rather sentimental than of ideological significance – the sunlit memories of blossoming buds and of the air filled with the rustle of sticky new leaves, of the spicy smell of spring grass, of the smoky scent of autumn. The memories are now roots transplanted into new soil,” she elaborates.

Objects are also given their due – as signifiers of the past, as talismans of personal memory. In one chapter, the otherwise mundane ephemera like a belt, a Moleskine notebook and a phone card become cues for profound and sometimes painful recollection – the thing about things being that they can travel with you, and thus become a crucial part of the ‘migrating’ experience.

Designed by Zvezdan Reljic and Marta Lombardi, the narratives and essays within the book are bolstered by an intimate selection of photographs and quirky visual collages which map out the inner journeys that make up the book.

Undertow: Poetics of Displacement will be launched at Villa Frere, Pieta on June 16 at 18:30 (entrance from St Luke’s Hospital side). The book will be on sale at the launch, and refreshments will be served. The Rima project is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and the Valletta 2018 Foundation