Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Clamouring for Legal Protection


Natasha Saunders
Lecturer in International Relations and International Political Theory, University of St Andrews


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Natasha Saunders (@NEGSaunders). Natasha is a Lecturer in International Relations and International Political Theory at the University of St Andrews (UK). Her work has examined the history of ‘the refugee problem’, the activism of irregularised migrants, and she is currently working on the ethics of border controls in a digital age.

Review of Clamouring for Legal Protection: What the Great Books Teach Us About People Fleeing from Persecution by Robert F. Barsky (Bloomsbury 2022).

Clamouring for legal protectionWhat do Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the poetry of Lord Byron, Kafka’s The Trial, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath all have in common? Besides being considered among the ‘Greats’ of literature, these works, and many more, Robert Barsky argues, have a great deal to offer in increasing understanding of the challenges faced by people forced to flee their homes and journey in search of protection, dignity, and security.

Situated within what is broadly known as the ‘law-and-literature’ movement, in which a humanistic education is pursued alongside the study of law and where “issues of power, self-representation, translation, gender and social justice can be explored with reference to tools that exceed purely legal approaches” (vii), Barsky’s book is not about border control or the criminalisation of migration per se. But it does deal directly with the multitude of barriers faced by migrants in seeking sanctuary, dignity and security, and draws thoughtful attention in particular to the epistemic and linguistic barriers operative in the legal world of asylum seeking, and does so in a creative, thought-provoking, and original way.

Barsky takes the reader on a tour of an almost dizzying array of great works of literature, weaving throughout our literary travels key concepts and practices of international migration and refugee law. Barsky adeptly draws out how the experiences of literary characters we may have known since childhood can help us understand the challenges faced by migrants today, and how the experiences of those migrants can put a new gloss on tales we think we already know so well. What emerges is a rich tapestry of characters and ideas: from soldiers, angels, slaves, prophets, wealthy businessmen, impoverished agricultural workers, scientists and their ‘monsters’, to climate change, people smuggling, Refugee Status Determination processes, non-refoulement, detention, integration, and borders in their various manifestations. We meet characters who engage the help of guides and intermediaries on their migratory journeys as a way to understand such diverse, but intertwined, phenomena as smuggling and trafficking, the role of gatekeepers and border guards, and the various epistemic, linguistic, legal and physical barriers faced by those seeking sanctuary. We see how climate induced chaos and migration inspired canonical works of literature – such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and we are invited to reflect on the experiences and challenges of economic migrants in an era of climate change – through, among others, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Most surprising, and challenging, is Barsky’s engagement with works of literature not explicitly about migratory journeys, or displacement. The great value of such an approach is that the book is able to tap into a broader array of stories, characters, and experiences, and reveal connections and insights that are less immediately obvious than those one might find in works of literature more explicitly about migration or displacement. As such, drawing out how, for example, we can understand the trials and tribulations of Frankenstein’s monster as he tries to find somewhere to belong amidst a harsh, cold and chaotic world, as an allegory for similar trials and tribulations faced by migrants framed as ‘monsters’ (or, at least, as ‘foreigners’), has the potential to reach a much wider audience. However, some of these examinations are more successful than others. On the more successful side, for example, we see through readings of Kafka’s The Trial, and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure how not having access to good information, or helpful gatekeepers, can critically short circuit a successful asylum claim and leave forced migrants vulnerable to detention, deportation and refoulement. Barsky also shows how we can understand and reflect upon populist responses to migrants – as threats, potential terrorists, and ‘monsters’ – through the story of Dracula. Arguably less successful are treatments of the change in Ebenezer Scrooge’s character as a result of his night ‘journeys’ guided by the ghosts of Christmas’ Past, Present and Future in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; Percy Shelley’s poem Mont Blanc and Lord Byron’s inspiration in geological debates of the early 1800s, and their ability to illuminate issues of climate induced displacement. These treatments read as more of a stretch and seem less relevant to the issues at the heart of the book.

But why, you might ask, turn to works of literature to facilitate this understanding at all? Surely there is no shortage of refugee testimonies and narratives to which we can turn? Isn’t it better to hear directly from forced migrants themselves? Barsky doesn’t disagree, and he recognises the value – not just to those training in immigration and human rights law – of migrants’ own narratives. But such narratives are most likely to appear on the radar of, and appeal to, those who may already be empathetic to the challenges they face. To see value in turning to ‘Great Works of Literature’ for insight is not to diminish the insights to be gained from elsewhere. It is, rather, to recognise something that literature can add, rather than substitute for, and the ability of literature to reach broader audiences than those already interested in migration. The preface and introductory chapters are well worth reading on their own for Barsky’s discussions of the role of literature, and issues/debates around ‘canons’ and ‘canonisation’ in literature. On a purely practical note, turning to literature for insight is not as farfetched as it may seem. Indeed, as Barsky highlights, one often comes across references to works of literature in legal judgements, including on asylum cases. But beyond the legal profession, we turn to literature to escape our own realities. If, as we do so, we “can participate vicariously in the efforts made by main characters [that we know, and, perhaps, love] to overcome challenges encountered en route” we can develop “insight that can help us to situate current practices relating to forced migration” (12).

In reading Barsky’s book I have indeed found myself reflecting anew on stories and characters I thought I knew so well, and have found a new reason to re-engage with literature.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

N. Saunders. (2022) Book Review: Clamouring for Legal Protection. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/09/book-review-clamouring-legal-protection. Accessed on: 21/05/2024


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