"Storytelling is an act of profound hospitality. It always has been; story is an ancient form of generosity, an ancient form that will tell us everything we need to know about the contemporary world. Story has always been a welcoming-in, is always one way or another a hospitable meeting of the needs of others, and a porous artform where sympathy and empathy are only the beginning of things. The individual selves we all are meet and transform into something open and communal. […] We will tell it like it is, and we will work towards the better imagined." (Ali Smith)

 

ARENA was spawned by the so-called European refugee-crisis in 2015 and the often one-sided accounts of forced migration that have been shaping the dominant refugee discourse ever since. Its aim is to seek ways of augmenting new informed ways of seeing involuntary migration and to do so in collaboration with refugees. To this end, a teaching initiative has been developed that brings together students of English and refugees over a period of four months during which they put into narrative form their exchanges on forced displacement. The resultant journals are gathered in ARENA (Archive of Refugee Encounter Narratives) and shall eventually be housed in DAM (Dokumentationsarchiv Migration Tirol) and thus made accessible to an international readership.

Begun as a pilot study in the summer term of 2017, the project first ensued in the publication of a collection of students’ writings titled Refugee Narratives—Fluchtgeschichten. To date (December 2021), the initiative has involved over fifty refugees in Innsbruck, and as many working with students at the Universities of Liège and Bochum, respectively. The outcomes of their collaborations have been yielding invaluable insights into the potentialities of transcultural narration. They document how narrative agency is restored to refugees in the event of their encounters with non-refugees genuinely interested in their stories and how the trust developing in their dialogues with the students may facilitate a truth-telling very different from the narrations routinely coerced during the asylum adjudication process.  As can be observed, it is in the discursive free space constituted in and through the encounters of students and refugees that the negotiation of forced migration, so often a  reaction to public asylum and immigration debates, can acquire a markedly proactive momentum and allow the interlocutors to move well beyond contesting popular notions of forced displacement towards a "better imagined" as envisaged by Ali Smith.

What precisely constitutes this "better imagined" and how one might utilise it in current scholarly endeavours to rethink migration in light of the specific challenges posed by large-scale movements of people under threat is a key concern of detailed studies now underway of the texts collected in ARENA.

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