About the Project

Barbed Wire Fever is a creative exploration of the following questions: What does it mean to be a refugee and what does it mean to provide refuge? Do refugees feel their identity hinges on the fact that they were forced to flee their homelands? Do people who aren’t refugees romanticise the stories of refugees from the past? And if so, how do they respond to stories of present day refugees?

Barbed Wire Fever explores these questions by involving refugees and non-refugees in writing workshops, online discussions, and discussions at events and festivals.

It is also a literal exploration of one refugee’s journey during the Second World War and includes interviews and archival research in Germany (his homeland), England (where he was an asylum seeker), the Isle of Man (where he was interned as an enemy alien), Australia (where he was initially also interned but later found his vocation as an assistant with the Australian Army’s Malaria Research Unit.

Flash prose and longer stories also explore these topics and will be posted here as well as in online and print magazines. Posts on Instagram and Medium will document the research and conversations as they progress. Refugees and non-refugees are involved in the work-in-progress through writing workshops, talks, and discussions on social media.

The term “barbed wire fever” was used in the early Twentieth Century to describe the psychological effects of internment, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. I chose it for this project because it also describes the iconography of the Second World War.

Ultimately, the project will result in what Olga Tokarczuk calls a "constellation novel" of prose that orbits a common theme.


Why It Started

I was going to write a book about my father, about his life as a refugee. Both my parents had to flee Nazi Germany, but my father was more visible as a refugee than my mother. He was older than my mother when he came to America, had a strong accent when he spoke English and whenever anybody asked him about his history, he would try to relate the whole story – explain to them how he’d managed to find refuge in England shortly before the Second World War began, then lost that refuge once England was at war. He’d tell strangers how he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ by the British government because he was a German national, and – to their astonishment – explain that he ended up in Australia because he and many other refugees were sent to an internment camp in the Outback. And then, ultimately, he would reward his listeners with the story of his release and post war migration to America.

My father’s identity, when I was growing up, seemed to primarily be: refugee. His history of fleeing, like a tower above a city, overshadowed everything else.

What was my father hoping to get when he conveyed that story? And what did his listeners want when they asked him to tell them more? Was he reduced to becoming the protagonist in a redemption story for their edification? Were his listeners hoping to prove how humane they would have been if they’d been present during the events my father described?  

I felt as if I couldn’t write about my father’s story as a refugee without writing about how non-refugees regard refugees, and then how refugees in turn experience this as they live their day-to-day lives.

Barbed Wire Fever is a way of doing that, of piecing together the bigger picture along with refugees and non-refugees, community and arts organisations, literary and history projects.

Barbed Wire Fever is supported by an Arts Council England Project Grant.