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(Re)constructing the Past/Reading the Present

Rethinking the Figure of the Refugee in Caryl Phillips’s A Distant Shore

Reconcevoir la figure du réfugié dans A Distant Shore de Caryl Phillips
Bhawana Jain


Le réfugié a été traditionnellement perçu comme un archétype du déplacement et de la marginalisation, et de ce que Julia Kristeva nomme « l’abject ». Cet article démontre que le roman de Caryl Phillips A Distant Shore déconstruit ces notions et montre la possibilité d’une reconstruction de la figure du réfugié en utilisant le concept de « convivialité » de Paul Gilroy. Il démontre également comment Phillips trouve un équilibre entre les discours d’exclusion et d’oppression contre le réfugié et la possibilité d’une convivialité multiculturelle, symbolisée par la reconnaissance mutuelle entre les différents personnages dans ce roman.

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1Caren Kaplan argues that the term ‘refugee’ is marginalized and under-researched in literary studies. For her, while ‘exile’ is ‘a romantic figure that can be readily identified and positioned in an aestheticized world of creativity and loss’, the ‘refugee’ as a critical trope signifies a ‘faceless political construct outside the sphere of literature and aesthetics.’ (Kaplan 120) However, writers such as Caryl Phillips assert that ‘it is impossible to resist the claims of the migrant, the asylum seeker, or the refugee’ (Phillips 2002, 5) and that there is a moral obligation ‘to accept the dignity which informs the limited participation of the migrant, the asylum seeker, or the refugee.’ (Phillips 2002, 6) In his seventh novel A Distant Shore, Phillips offers an alternative way of re-conceptualizing the figure of the refugee by ascribing him an agency and an individual voice.

  • 1 Michael Bamberg and Molly Andrews (2004) describe counter-narrative as a narrative resistant and su (...)

2The protagonist Solomon in the novel is an African ‘refugee’ who escapes civil war in his unnamed country to eventually settle down in the fictional town of Weston in England. Petra Tournay-Theodotou (300) asserts that the refugee Solomon is often perceived as a menace in the novel. This paper challenges this assertion and argues that in the midst of a pervading racism, fueled by the crisis of multiculturalism and resistance to ‘otherness’, a dialectical but nonetheless vital ‘convivial culture’ is delineated in A Distant Shore, thus deconstructing the representation of the ‘refugee’ figure as a kind of liminal ‘abject’ other. According to Julia Kristeva (1982), the abject or the ‘intolerable’ is the one who is simultaneously excluded and included in the territorial boundaries of the nation-state and so continues to threaten the fixed limits between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Hence, the abject other ‘does not stand opposed to the subject, at a distance, definable. The abject is other than the subject but is only just the other side of the border.’ (Young 144) The refugee and the asylum seeker, therefore, become the ‘abject’ other, who problematises the notion of borders. Kristeva’s notion of the abject also throws light on the delineation of the refugee as an archetype of passivity, displacement and marginalisation. This paper challenges these stereotypes and re-positions the figure of the refugee in the postmodern ‘discourse of resilience’ (Ager 18) by giving him an agency. The paper also asserts that Phillips uses counter-narratives1 throughout the novel to sensitively balance the exclusion experienced by Solomon and a vision of him as an active participant in the construction of ‘convivial’ spaces.

3Nowicka and Vertovec (341) point out that, etymologically, conviviality comes from combining the Latin prefix ‘con’, meaning ‘together’ with the verb ‘vivere’, which means ‘to live.’ Paul Gilroy draws on this meaning to conceptualize the term ‘conviviality’ in his book After Empire as ‘the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life.’ (Gilroy 2004, xi) On the one hand, this concept suggests the possibility of a conscious experience of unruly, spontaneous and everyday intercultural communication in local spaces. Furthermore, Noble states that these ‘convivial’ encounters could be extended, beyond incidental exchanges, to frequent conversations based on emotional investment. On the other hand, Gilroy contends that conviviality has always been proximate to its negation. He insists that ‘recognizing conviviality should not signify the absence of racism.’ (Gilroy 2006, 40) That is to say, the conviviality also entails the ideas of imperial melancholia and ‘camp mentality’ which is constituted by the ideas of purity and absolutism based on ‘race, nation, and ethnic difference’ (Gilroy 2000, 83), and unchaning identities. These everyday events of racism are not only characterized by the simple dichotomies opposing black and white, and ex-colonizer and ex-colonized, but also by conflicts between long established residents and newcomers leading to new forms of social exclusion. This article analyses how A Distant Shore takes a ‘convivial turn’ by highlighting the development of an unlikely bonding between different characters in the novel. It also elucidates how the ‘convivial turn’ in the novel problematises the hierarchical relations between host and guest, tolerator and tolerated, and the familiar and the alien to depict the unpredictable dynamics of everyday interactions based on the incorporation of cultural differences.

4Gilroy’s ‘conviviality’ differs from Derrida’s concept of hospitality as ‘conviviality’ endorses the idea of an inclusion of the strangers within the host community, while Derrida’s conceptions of hospitality render the ‘other others’ (Derrida 135) as strangers. While Derrida asserts the binary divide between host (controlling, power) and guest (controlled), conviviality breaks away from divisions between insider and outsider. Moreover, the dynamics of hospitality are based on the idea of reciprocal duty and responsibility, while the conviviality is free from any rules and promotes reciprocal exchanges and proximate intimacies. This essay highlights the advantages of rethinking the figure of the refugee in the light of ‘conviviality’.

5The novel revolves around two protagonists: Gabriel/Solomon is an African refugee in England who changes his name and identity from Gabriel to Solomon in order to escape his tumultuous past. Gabriel/Solomon, therefore, becomes a signifier of dislocation. The other central character, Dorothy, is an old white woman who has lived a life of degradation (199), sacrifice (212) and abandonment (235), and therefore she feels alienated in her own country: ‘My heart remains a desert, but I tried … This is not my home.’ (312) Both Solomon and Dorothy are haunted by past traumas and both are victims of their preconceived notions of England. In figurative terms, both are refugees from their past lives as they are inextricably bound to it. This article also demonstrates how Phillips’s novel advocates the possibility of multicultural conviviality in the midst of the discourses of trauma and exclusion associated with the figure of the refugee.

6The first part of this paper illustrates how the novel’s varied settings evoke hostility towards the ‘outsider’ and the refugee. The next part focuses on the complexities of a refugee life i.e. ‘the resettlement phase’ that mark Solomon as the ‘other’ and how this phase exemplifies new forms of social exclusion, ethnic separation and victimhood. The last section depicts how Gabriel/Solomon’s spontaneous and transient encounters with Dorothy and other characters posits the potential breaking down of ethnic boundaries as redemptive on both individual and national levels, opening up a possibility of social exchange and locating hope in the culture of conviviality. In this way, Phillips expresses a faith in the capacity of the individual to transcend problematic exclusionary modes of thinking by forging reciprocity, tolerance and openness, across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender and class.

Hostile and Alien Settings

7The different spatial constructions of the novel, on the one hand, serve as metaphors for the hope for a life filled with opportunities, and on the other hand for an ironic alienated self.

8Solomon’s life unfolds in the provincial setting of Weston which Di Maio calls a ‘metonym for England’. Di Maio also states that its community is ‘symbolic of the nation’ (Di Maio 257). Similarly, Petra Tournay-Theodotou insists that the town of Weston provides ‘miniature spatial allegories of the nation at large.’ (Tournay-Theodotou 296) As a consequence, we can perceive Solomon as a symbol of the immigrant population and Dorothy as a dislocated British woman who settles down in Weston in the hope of finding solace and an opportunity to start life afresh. Phillips uses realism in the opening chapter to describe Weston as a grotesque and bleak place with its dull bungalows, a canal of ‘murky strip of stagnant water’ (6) and its skeletal barges. ‘Doors were propped wide open, presumably because of the heat, but I didn’t get the impression that the open doors were indicative of friendliness.’ Dorothy’s affect-laden first-person narration uses the metaphor of the open doors to elucidate the contrast between hospitality and hostility. The reader of the novel gets the impression that Weston’s residents nurture anti-immigrant sentiments and they are not ready to strike up friendships with the newcomers in this town. Dorothy’s narration continues to re-affirm that newcomers are perceived as intruders and stared at as if they bore ‘the mark of Cain.’ (6) Condemned to the margins of the alienating setting, the outsider is constantly de-territorialized. Through the use of the above-mentioned simile, Phillips intimates that Weston is becoming a place of alterity where the outsiders are identified as evil, hostile, menacing and therefore, denied dignity and recognition. Giroy’s idea of ‘camp mentality’ is of use here to understand how the imperial legacy takes the form of new racist hierarchies in Weston. The narrative of invasion used here also complicates the position of the refugee and his sense of belonging in this hostile setting. Furthermore, this town is said to be twinned with a ‘German town bombed flat by the RAF, and [a] French village [that] used to be full of Jews who were all rounded up and sent to the camps’ (Phillips 4). The motif of the deep historical violence haunting the present conveys a looming violence and stresses the fact that Weston is not a space of acceptance and refuge, but of distrust and alienation. Realism and Dorothy’s emotions are juxtaposed in this description. Commenting on these lines, Bonnici says that Dorothy’s narrative is of unbelonging as she ‘embodies the dislocation of a person who is in her own home without feeling at home’ (Bonnici 287), as she tries to adjust to the unfamiliar space of Weston. Besides, the author deliberately delineates Dorothy as an outsider suffering from a mental ailment, making her negative description of Weston dubious and flawed. This compelling but unreliable narration shows Weston as an opaque space open to multiple interpretations. This technique also diverts attention towards other aspects such as intercultural communication, as it develops between Dorothy and Solomon when both transcend their respective positions as ‘resident’ and ‘stranger’. Both these characters use their convivial capabilities to question the limits imposed by closed communities, and to construct a bridge across the fixed boundaries of race and ethnicity, bringing joy and reciprocal enrichment as we will see in the third section of this article.

9In the opening of the novel, Dorothy exclaims: ‘England has changed. These days, it’s difficult to tell who’s from around here and who’s not. Who belongs and who’s a stranger. It’s disturbing. It doesn’t feel right.’ (3) Complicating the notion of insider and outsider, the first-person narrative refers to Dorothy’s ambiguous position as a homeless and a stranger everywhere. Critic John McLeod claims that this opening statement suggests that racism and xenophobia directed against the ‘outsiders’ is not a new phenomenon, and that ‘actually not a lot has changed in England.’ (McLeod 10) The dynamics of this local geography is such that it produces both connections through proximity and extreme disconnection through non-acceptance. Even though, for Dorothy, the stillness of Weston is supposed to be a refuge and an escape from her traumatic past, it offers no safety or haven but rather intensifies Dorothy’s crisis and feeling of claustrophobia. She is continuously riddled with conflicting experiences of association and exclusion as she proclaims, ‘we’re the newcomers, or posh so-and-sos, as I heard a vulgar woman in the post office call us.’ (5) In spite of being a white woman, she is objectified as the ‘other’ and put together with Solomon in the group of ‘newcomers’ or ‘outsiders’ as the lexeme ‘we’ suggests. The ‘camp mentality’ of Weston’s residents is emphasized here to show the construction of imaginary borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Both Dorothy and Solomon come together due to their common ambiguous state of belonging nowhere and of being uninvited everywhere. As we will see later in the essay, it is due to their shared sense of trauma and loneliness in the midst of anti-migrant waves in Weston, that both are able to create an uneven, but nonetheless vital convivial multiculture through their unlikely friendship and empathic communication.

10If Weston is constructed as an alienating space for newcomers and refugees, the sea shore on which Gabriel is washed when reaching England is equally depicted in a menacing way. Gabriel’s escape to England was inspired by his idyllic image of it as a benevolent and caring nation: ‘But you must try and reach England. They are friendly and will give you food and shelter [...].’ (118) In a stark contrast, when Gabriel/ Solomon’s attempts to reach England’s coastline under the cover of darkness with his two fellow illegal immigrants, he is shocked by the discrepancy between his expectations and the reality:

[t]he ship is approaching a coastline that looks like a long, thin black shadow decorated with speckles of white light, and Gabriel blinks repeatedly, for the sea water is burning his eyes. He can see that Bright is gesturing wildly to him, but there is no sign of the other man. Bright now clings on to the metal chain with just one hand, and with the other hand he is pointing to the black water. ‘Jump!’ (136)

11The gloomy image of the shoreline is depicted as a surreal place of menacing shadows where a few ‘speckles’ of light emerge. Solomon and his co-asylum seeker Bright have risked their lives to enter England undetected through the English Channel. But contrary to their expectations of being offered a refuge, they are forced to plunge into hostile ‘black water’, when trying to gain entry into this gloomy space. The image of the ‘black water’ and Solomon’s journey echoe the harrowing experience of the Middle Passage of the slaves across the Atlantic, one that has often been perceived as a space of social death. Besides highlighting transcultural continuities between the Middle Passage and asylum-seekers crossing the English Channel, the novel also acknowledges the spirit of resistance and the agency of asylum seekers’.

12In ironical counterpoint to the title of the novel, A Distant Shore, the diverse settings in the novel foreshadow the failure of the host-country to provide a safe haven for ‘asylum-seeker’ Solomon. The hostile setting thus foregrounds the refugee’s complex sense of be(long)ing in the host-country and his constant sense of homelessness. These troubled and diverse settings also inform the refugee’s identity and mobility as we will see in the next section.

Refugee Crisis

13The novel is divided into five parts that alternate the first-person and third-person narratives of Dorothy, Gabriel, and Gabriel-as-Solomon. While the first, third and fifth parts are narrated and focused on Dorothy, the second and fourth parts focus on Gabriel/Solomon. The author uses the indirect exposition technique to gradually disclose Dorothy’s and Solomon’s trauma through dreams, memories and flashbacks, rather than through a direct and linear narration of their stories. Alessandra Di Maio admires this choice of a narrative technique ‘following the loop of (Dorothy’s) deranged mind’ and ‘Solomon’s fragmented narrative’ (Di Maio 256) for the depiction of these displaced subjects. The fragmented form of the novel also implies internal fractures in the lives of the two characters. Dorothy narrates her past, her flights into fantasy, and her cautious attempts at establising a friendship with Solomon without violating her privacy. Similarly, Solomon’s characterization is just as distinct and specific. He speaks less, he likes to work with precision and his tone is overly polite. The author deliberately hides the information about Solomon’s country of origin or the time period during which the events unfold so as to make his refugee experience generic. Moreover, his refugee experience is structured around paradoxes—accomodation/rejection, belonging/not belonging—that lay bare the trauma associated with the refugee and asylum-seeker status:

The asylum seekers, in particular, have migration forced upon them. It doesn’t involve chains, it doesn’t involve manacles, it doesn’t involve physically brutal labor, but the psychological trauma can fester for years. These are not economic migrants who have bought a ticket. Europe is full of people who are psychologically scarred, having cut the umbilical cord with their countries and their languages, as viciously and as traumatically as people did in the past with slavery. (Caryl Phillips interview with Pulitano 378)

14The asylum seeker’s psychic wounds continue to fester as a result of the forced migration, echoing new forms of slave narratives. The trauma of forced displacement complexifies the refugee figure. Hence, it becomes a signifier of perennial dislocation, rootlessness and loss. Linking memory with trauma, Geoffrey Hartman states:

The knowledge of trauma is composed of two contradictory elements. One is the traumatic event, registered rather than experienced … The other is a kind of memory of the event, in the form of a perpetual troping of it by the bypassed or severely split (dissociated) psyche. (Hartman 537)

15Trauma involves disjunction, a sense of belatedness, and a compulsive return of the memories of the original event, as Cathy Caruth also underlines: ‘the confrontation with an event that, in its un-expectedness or horror […] continually returns, in its exactness, at a later time.’ (Caruth 153) The lingering presence of the horrendous memories exposes the subject to the sudden violent intrusion of the past trauma in dreams.

16The novel A Distant Shore explores the complexity of the workings of memory and trauma through unfolding Gabriel/ Solomon’s story. Solomon’s life goes on in the shadow his past casts over his present. In a striking contrast to the deadening stillness of the present in Weston, the violence associated with Solomon’s past emerges in the form of hauting dreams. Solomon summarises his suffering and pain as follows:

I would wake from my slumber shaking with consternation […] it appeared that my dreams were permanently cursed. (279)

I remembered my father and my sisters being shot like animals. My dreams contained my history. Night and day I tried not to think of these things any more. I tried not to think of these people anymore. I wanted to set these people free so that they might become people in another man’s story. [...] I was a coward who had trained himself to forget. (297)

17The author uses Solomon’s dreams as a metaphor to expose his past trauma, and the way he is both a victim and a perpetrator of violence. By developing coping mechanisms, Solomon painstakingly tries to forget and suppress his past. His invisible private self counteracts his public position as a refugee—a position he actively connives in, and that aligns with his duplicity about his African past as only a victim. By elaborating on this inner conflict, the novel also highlights the problematic issue of authenticity, in a post-factual world where the subjective, expressive narrativizing of identity is often given far more credence and positive valuation than inner conflicts and truths.

18The trauma and uncertainty of his refugee condition is further exacerbated when Gabriel/Solomon finds himself continuously challenged by racial prejudice. This is captured in his silent testimony regarding his experience in Britain: from being arrested and charged with sexual offenses, being exposed to brutality in prison, being dependent on a prejudiced lawyer, meeting fraudulent countrymen on the street, to receiving racial hatred letters with threats and razor blades (299). All these details individualize Solomon’s refugee experience in Britain to depict how he is subjected to exclusion and violence in his host-nation. He is forced to live in a sort of liminal space and is denied belonging in his host nation. His testimonies, therefore, not only capture the reality of exploitation and trauma, but they also contradict the ‘discourse of vulnerability’ (Ager 18) that claims a moral and humanitarian responsibility towards the ‘other’—the refugees and asylum-seekers. Solomon is never fully able to fit in British society:

My only real regret was the lack of anybody from my own country with whom I might talk. My language was drying up in my mouth, and sometimes, when nobody was around, I would place my language on my tongue and speak some words so that I could be sure that I was still in possession of it. (253)

19The loss of his native language implies the loss of his former identity and the loosening of his organic ties with his home-country. It also symbolizes how the host nation is transforming him both deliberately and unwittingly. He is regarded as a mere liminal abject ‘other’ who is doubly marginalized not only in the host nation, but also in his own ethnic or diasporic group leading to his further estrangement. But when the omniscient narrator delves deep in the thoughts of Solomon, one finds that to him Dorothy is equally alienated: ‘it would appear that not only are these people, all strangers to one another, but they seem determined to make sure that this situation will remain unchanged.’ (163) The earlier reference to Dorothy’s dismantling narrative about the impossibility of finding a refuge in Weston, a micro-cosm of England, is reactivated by Solomon’s narrative.

Conviviality and Intercultural Interactions

20Conviviality implies spontaneous and transient forms of togetherness between strangers in contrast to more formal modalities of togetherness relying on structured communities and institutions. Paul Gilroy also underlines the strangers’ willingness to engage in unfamiliar patterns of communication and affective bonding that ensure conviviality. Non-verbal communication as well as silence plays a significant role in the convivial encounters which pervade the novel.

21In spite of being condemned to a position of ‘alterity’, Solomon tries to establish intercultural connections with Denise, Dorothy and Mike outside the hegemonic ideologies and structures of race, class, ethnicity, locale and other forms of social stratification and cultural identification. Both Dorothy and Solomon are outsiders in Weston. This nurtures in them a willingness to engage in unfamiliar patterns of social communication that is crucial for the construction of a convivial culture. However, Rebecca Sodergren notes that ‘A Distant Shore is largely built around the lack of a relationship between the two main characters.’ (Sodergren 6) Yet, Sodergreen’s analysis also insists on the fact that even if Weston’s social and spatial construct imposes limitations on their ‘relational freedom’ (Blatterer 62), that is ‘the freedom that friends have to construct the relationship free from cultural prescription’, the fragile bond of friendship between Dorothy and Solomon has meaning far beyond its capacity to bridge difference and distance. Their repeated and sustained encounters transgress the constraints imposed on them by their specific cultural and ethnic ties. Even if transient, these encounters gain significance and allow them to negotiate cultural differences in contrast to the stifling and alienating atmosphere of Weston. Their frequent car trips together produce an iterative form of interaction that gradually establishes a routine practice offering them the company that they were looking for in this strange town. Wise and Velayutham point out that the conviviality goes beyond social interactions across differences as it also ‘captures something more embodied, habitual, sensuous and affective that carries over beyond the moment.’ (Wise and Velayutham 425) During these interactions, they greet each other and exchange some information about themselves. Dorothy’s monologue illustrates how both are carefully attentive towards the other during these encounters. Dorothy is drawn towards trivial details such as how Solomon ‘behaves about everything […]. Everything is done with such a precision.’ (14) She gradually begins to respect his quiet dignity. She also appreciates the way Solomon combs his hair, with a ‘sharp razor parting’ or how he keeps his car clean, washed and maintained. The motif of silence is used here as Dorothy understands Solomon’s silent car washing as an ‘attempt to erase a past that he no longer wishes to be reminded of. She looks at him and she understands.’ (268) The recurrent use of the verb ‘understand’ demonstrates the profound connection that exists between the two. Trust is gradually established between them, as is evident from Dorothy’s feelings towards Solomon throughout the novel:

I look at him and understand that he is only speaking to me because he wishes to help. (33)

He’s in control and I feel safe with him. (41)

Yes…He was a friend of mine. (48)

I try again and tell them that Solomon treated me with respect… I just wanted to be happy, I say, and I could tell that Solomon was a man who could have made me happy. (65)

I had a feeling that Solomon understood me. (312)

22The recurrent use of lexemes such as ‘safe’, ‘support’ and ‘respect’ during these encounters symbolise an affective bonding, shared concerns and a sense of appreciation towards each other. This motif of security runs through the novel as a counter-narrative to the bleak settings and the descriptions of everyday racism, placing hope in individual pursuits to create extra-ordinary friendships in ordinary situations. Tournay Theodotou has rightly argued that the courteous and polite way in which Solomon and Dorothy interact seems ‘to compensate for their estrangement from their surroundings’ and it ‘provides them with a sense of dignity and self-esteem’ (Tournay-Theodotou 299) in the difficult, ambivalent and bounded culture disapproving cross cultural negotiations. Their friendship captures ‘effectively at ease relations of coexistence and accommodation’ (Weis 2014) and gives the novel its ‘convivial turn’.

23At the same time, Solomon finds Dorothy to be an epitome of his notion of Englishness, one who is ‘respectable’ (266) and maintains her ‘dignity’ (293). He appreciates Dorothy for keeping her confidence at all times. Apart from their common loneliness, they are also connected by ‘their shared inability to deal with painful memories.’ (Tournay-Theodotou 298) Both have experienced trauma, yet neither of them is willing to talk about it. Conviviality allows them to maintain their desired distance and reserve because it is free from any prescriptions and rules. Hence, it contains possibilities for new and spontaneous ways to engage with the others without any obligation of divulging personal secrets and truths. This favourable setting can also eventually enable the strangers to speak out their painful memories by building on common trust and faith. Similarly in the novel, Solomon eventually thinks of breaking his silence and articulating his experiences of trauma in front of Dorothy, after he has tried to scrupulously police or suppress his past to meet the expectations of those surrounding him. The space of conviviality extends beyond the street into Dorothy’s home. As Solomon dresses to go to Dorothy’s home, he muses that he has found in her:

[…] a respectable woman. This is a woman to whom I might tell my story. If I do not share my story, then I have only this one year to my life. I am a one-year old man who walks with heavy steps. I am a man burdened with a hidden history. I look in the mirror and straighten my shirt collar and then I adjust my tie. I leave my bungalow and walk across the neatly trimmed grass towards her house. I knock on her door. (300)

24By referring to himself as a ‘one-year-old man’, Solomon insists on his legal status as a refugee in England. Solomon identifies his refugee-hood as a site of re-naissance. The narrative rupture, here, between his present and his past also foregrounds Solomon’s sense of displacement and his refugee experience. By divulging his secret to Dorothy, Solomon/Gabriel tries to come to terms with his trauma. For every testimony, there has to be a listener; as Dori Laub states, ‘testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude.’ (Laub 70) Dorothy’s friendship enables Solomon’s trauma to become testimonial. She becomes a listener as well as an agent to redeem Solomon from his trauma. Conviviality here, even if temporary, is successfully enacted, practised and maintained beyond the ordinary local spaces and every-day encounters in the home space. However, before their friendship matures, Solomon is brutally attacked by local skinheads and killed, and Dorothy slips away into madness remembering his only friend Solomon.

25A series of other spontaneous encounters and incidental exchanges also illustrate the composite meaning of conviviality in the novel. In addition to Solomon’s friendship with Dorothy, the novel charts Solomon’s various attempts to build a connection with the other characters in the novel. Denise is a young girl who is subjected to regular torture at the hands of her father and is in need of refuge. When Gabriel encounters her in a derelict house after arriving in England, he is initially suspicious of Denise, as ‘[i]t is difficult to tell if this girl is typical of all English girls, but […] he still does not trust her’ (185). Yet his initial anger is dissipated when he sees in her a vulnerable and a victimized teenager:

Gabriel puts his hand on her bare arm.
‘Please. You are safe here. This is your safe place […]’
Denise puts her head on Gabriel’s shoulder and he can feel her body rising and falling as she continues to sob. He hears a soft pop as her lips separate, and he prepares to listen to her. But whatever it was the girl was going to say, she decides to stifle it inside. Gabriel understands that this house, this house that he and Bright have stumbled across is, for this girl, a place of safety. (187–88)

26As opposed to the masculine and racialised body of the asylum seeker which is often conceived as morally deviant (Fassin 3), the scene deconstructs the binary image of the refugee as a vulnerable victim or a threatening criminal, to reconfigure Solomon as the benefactor who tries to comfort Denise. The motif of silence communicates Denise’s unspoken experiences of trauma, her suffering and her need of comfort to Solomon. Even though temporary, conviviality also resides in this effort to recognize and understand the suffering of others, and thereby in the capacity to establish points of communication through mute gestures. This scene also exemplifies how bonds of reciprocity and support, even if temporary, can be established on the grounds of shared experiences of suffering in this complex social world. The house space is reiterated as a potent metaphor of intercultural encounters in which imaginative acts of listening to one another, enable the encounter with the unknown ‘other’ and permit empathic interest and communication.

27A refugee is traditionally perceived as a burden and an abject ‘other’. But Solomon’s encounter with Mike deconstructs these stereotypes. Mike, whose parents have given Solomon shelter in their house, explains to him the current immigrant problem in England:

I’m an old traditionalist, Solomon. I want fish and chips, not curry and chips. I’m not prejudiced, but we’ll soon be living in a foreign country unless somebody puts an end to all this immigration. […] It’s everywhere. You see, you’re in a different situation, Solomon. You’re escaping oppression and that’s different […] I mean, you’re working. You’re no scrounger. (258)

28On the one hand, Mike’s utterance is a metonym of the populist viewpoint in contemporary Britain, which claims that the immigrants are the cause of Britain’s misery. On the other hand, it defies the ‘discourses of vulnerability’ and re-positions Solomon within the ‘discourse of resilience’ which stresses the function of refugees as active participants in the economic system of the host nation. Rejecting the stereotypes, Mike appreciates Solomon for his work as a handyman and a watchman, and his contribution to the host society. He recognizes his talent and therefore considers him deserving and not dependent. His statement opens the door to multicultural conviviality by rendering the prejudice and stereotypes associated with the ‘other’ or the refugee figure as insignificant. Mike and Solomon’s friendship permits reciprocal enrichments and mutual benefits to both, while simultaneously questioning social hierarchies and dichotomies.

29To conclude, one sees that even though Weston’s social and spatial economy imposes limitations on ‘relational freedom’ and hinders intercultural relationships, the sustained encounters between the different characters in the novels—encounters that are free from prescription and rigid rules—give way to conviviality which outlines ‘the evasive, multicultural future prefigured everywhere in the ordinary experiences of contact, cooperation, and conflict across the supposedly impermeable boundaries of race, culture, identity and ethnicity.’ (Gilroy 2005, xii) Thus, this novel takes a ‘convivial turn’ in order to reconstruct a hopeful alternative to failing multiculturalism.

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1 Michael Bamberg and Molly Andrews (2004) describe counter-narrative as a narrative resistant and subversive to dominant narratives. They say, ‘One way of orienting to telling a counter-narrative is to briefly orient to the dominant cultural storyline and then to resist it.’ (178) Similarly, Christine A. Stanley describes it as follows: ‘Counter-narratives do not agree with and are critical of the master narrative. They often arise out of individual or group experiences that do not fit the master narratives. Counter-narratives act to deconstruct the master narratives, and they offer alternatives to the dominant […]. They provide, for example, multiple and conflicting models of understanding social and cultural identities. They also challenge the dominant White and often predominantly male culture that is held to be normative’ (14).

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Bhawana Jain, « Rethinking the Figure of the Refugee in Caryl Phillips’s A Distant Shore »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Bhawana Jain

Bhawana Jain is currently teaching at Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. Her research focuses on contemporary migration and postcolonial literature. She has a particular interest in issues pertaining to diaspora, trauma and cross-cultural encounters. Her articles have been published in several books and Journals. She has previously taught at the University of Delhi.

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