Barbed Wire Fever started with an idea for a book. I was going to write my father’s story, the story he kept trying to tell. One of the ironies, I tell people now, is that when my father actually recited his story, many of the people who knew him well – especially his family – wanted him to stop. I heard the story over and over for as long as I could remember. He repeated it as if from a script. I was inured to the brutality of it early on, already knew all the surprising turns, was ashamed of his bad luck.
But what, I wondered, was the real story? What did he leave out? Could all of the things he described – confinement to concentration camps and internment camps in three different countries, an involuntary journey around the world – have happened as he said they did? He was an unreliable narrator of everyday events, fibbed about whether he’d paid the electric bill, stammered unlikely explanations for his domestic failures.
Right around the time that my father was unable to answer questions about his story, right around the time that dementia scrambled his sense of time and place, I wanted to know what he never told. And as I began to research his story, as I began to discover things he’d never revealed, I wondered about the audience for his story – the acquaintances who listened to his recitation and had the same responses to it every time. What did they want from him? And did their expectations have an impact on the story? Did he change, adapt, and revise his story for his audience?
Barbed Wire Fever is about researching my father’s story, discovering parts of it I never knew. But it is also about looking at the environment in which he, and other refugees, tell their stories.
What do non-refugees expect of refugees? What do refugees feel that they can tell? I couldn’t explore my father’s story without exploring these questions too.
And, as I was thinking about how to tell, how to examine my father’s story, the balance of the world changed. The greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War began.
I was used to hearing from people who -- when they got an inkling of my family’s refugee past – expressed a lot of sympathy, outrage, reassurance that they would have done the right thing back then. What were those people doing now? I wondered. Were they sticking up for present day refugees?
Barbed Wire Fever is an attempt to explore all these questions. It’s a work-in-progress, an exploration open to people who want to explore these questions too.
I’ll be posting information about the research I’m doing, posting work by contemporary refugees, holding writing workshops, having discussions at festivals and online. There’s also an Instagram account where I’ll be posting images related to my research – sometimes archival, sometimes images of relevant sites.
Keep in touch. Send questions. Send observations (it’s okay to have more of an observation than a question in this context).
Barbed Wire Fever is about how we find refuge, and provide refuge, in this world.