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Narrative Rhythmanalysis: the art and politics of listening to women’s narratives of forced displacement

By Maria Tamboukou

This paper draws on my Leverhulme funded project, Revisiting the Nomadic Subject, where I have explored the use of ‘the nomadic subject’ in feminist theory and politics. The main research question that I have raised is whether nomadism has become a concept politically loaded and irreparably infected with the unbearable heaviness of those who are not able to move and cross borders and boundaries—the dark side of the moon of privileged mobility. Taking up the salience of stories not only in recounting experiences, but also in forming an experiential basis for changing the subject and its world, I have interviewed 22 migrant and refugee women in Athens and Lesvos, Greece, about their experiences of being on the move. 

The research was conducted in Athens and Lesvos, Greece during the academic year 2018-2019. My participants were recruited through a number of NGOs and civic organizations working with migrant and refugee women and the main motivation for my participants was that they wanted their story to be heard and circulated among other women. Since this was a narrative research project, I only asked my participants two questions: a) tell me the story of how you travelled to Greece and b) how do you imagine your life in 5-10 years’ time. Out of the 22 stories, which were all recorded with the consent of the participants, 6 were conducted in Farsi, 5 in English, 4 in Arabic, 3 in French, 2 in Greek and 2 in Pashto. The Arabic, Farsi and Pashto interviews, 12 in total, were conducted with the presence of an interpreter. 

Asking women to narrate stories of traumatic and life changing experiences across borders and languages has been one of the major challenges of this research. Following tracks and traces of Arendt’s political philosophy, I have encouraged my participants to tell stories about their decision to leave, as well as about their experiences of travelling without feeling obliged to limit themselves within discourses of victimization and vulnerability. In this light I have asked them to recount their lives in the light of ‘who they are’, as unique and unrepeatable human beings, and not as ‘what they are’ —objectified ‘refugees’, ‘victims’, ‘stateless subjects’. These stories have created a rich archive of uprooted women’s experiences and have brought forward a wide range of new ideas, including the art of listening, which is the theme of this paper. Listening has indeed emerged as a crucial theme in this research, despite its neglected importance in politics, as well as in the theory and praxis of social movements in general and feminism in particular. Turning my attention to listening practices, I have particularly focused on the materiality of listening, the force of corporeal voices, the rhythms of embodied listening and their effects on understanding and making connections within the web of human relations.

Migrant and refugee women’s corporeal voices were at the heart of how I have made connections with their stories of travelling, even when they were recounting their stories in languages that I could not understand. The sonics of women’s stories thus gave rise to unexpected affinities, brought up the notion of ‘narrative rhythmanalysis’ as an analytical mode and shifted my interest and attention from orality to aurality. This turn also gave me the insight of transcribing these stories in two textual modes: as prose and as free verses. Outside these experimental modes of transcription, women’s voices keep on turning and returning—reminders of the impossibility of their textual transformation. Most importantly these voices boldly express migrant and refugee women’s will ‘not to tell a story’. Such ‘unruly’ narrative performances have opened up a new analytical pathway in my research: quite simply, consider the effects of decolonial thinking in unsettling processes of knowledge production within critical feminist theories.

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