by Eleanor Paynter, PhD student in the Department of Comparative Studies
For migrants crossing the Mediterranean and arriving to the southern regions of Sicily, Calabria, or Puglia, entering Italian space is, importantly, also both symbolic and legal entry into the European Union. I’m interested in how this arrival is, for many, not the end of a journey, but the beginning of a kind of limbo. How do migrants describe their experiences arriving to and waiting in Italy, for aid, visas, and the right to independent movement? How do these experiences intersect with or recall colonial history and the limited public awareness of that history? How do experiences of limbo influence migrants’ ideas about where they hope to settle, or about Europe more generally?
This summer I spent time in Central Italy exploring these questions through oral history interviews with recently arrived migrants who are at various stages of the processes of applying for asylum or other humanitarian visas. In fortuitous connection with this project, and thanks to a graduate student grant from the Global Mobility Project, I was also able to participate in the Summer Seminar “Memory, Visuality, Mobility,” held at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence and organized by oral historians Mary Marshall Clark and Luisa Passerini.
The seminar drew on work by both scholars. Mary Marshall Clark directs the Columbia University Oral History Master of Arts Program and the Rule of Law Oral History Project (see below). Luisa Passerini is the Principal Investigator of the project Bodies Across Borders: Oral and Visual Memory in Europe and Beyond (BABE), housed in the Department of History and Civilization at the EUI. The methodological approaches of BABE include interviewing migrants in Italy and the Netherlands. The seminar was organized around BABE’s multiple themes and methods, which sparked reflection and discussion on methodologies, in particular on incorporating visual tools into interviews and analysis, as well as on thinking about the context of a project in terms of archives. Our collective discussions of archives included scholarly work as well as visual and written narratives, movement, and sound. For BABE and for my own project, studying migration to Europe necessarily involves revisiting cultural archives, exploring and prompting understandings of the present as shaped by colonial histories. Approaching archives as changing, visual, living and lived constellations expands the possibilities of this kind of work.
Moving forward, my work on transit and limbo in migration has certainly been shaped by these experiences. The seminar’s focus on visuality addressed aspects of interviews and interpretation, from the visual aspects of language, to video art representing border crossing. In the oral history interviews I conducted after the seminar was over, I was more attuned to visuality. In walking interviews, for example, I paid attention both to the geographical itinerary, and to how the conversation between myself and an interviewee engaged the visual cues of our surroundings. A focus on on visuality and an attentiveness to the dissonant archives in which we work seem to me crucial for understanding experiences of limbo. I’ll close this reflection by sharing a few of the pieces and resources I found to be especially thought-provoking:
- Anna Stoler’s book Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination, for its reimagining of the colonial archive in terms which acknowledge its continued role in shaping lives today.
- Rule of Law Oral History Project, directed by Mary Marshall Clark, for its use of oral history to investigate “the state of human and civil rights in the post-9/11 world,” including through interviews with former Guantanamo Bay detainees.
- Asmat: Names in Memory of All the Victims of the Sea, by Dagmawi Yimer, as a stunning example of visual responses to the peril of Mediterranean sea crossing.
Note: Thanks to the Global Mobility Group for the opportunity to carry out this summer study. Funding for this project was also provided by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies, as well as through an OSU Global Gateway Grant.