Migrant Literature or Migration Literature – and Why Does It Matter?

Charlotte Kessler | 15 May 2017

The twentieth and twenty-first century have been widely accepted as an unprecedented age of migration; according to Stephen Castles et. al. in The Age of Migration (2013), their global scope makes them distinct from previous centuries (6). The twentieth century in particular been moulded by events such as the two World Wars, various civil wars, and immense progress in transportation and communication. This is not to say that migration has not shaped much of human history before the twentieth century; however, international migration and its political influences characterise the current era and many contemporary literary works have thematised such migration experiences. In the past few decades, ‘migrant literature’ has been used as an umbrella term for the works of migrant writers. However, contemporary comparatists like Søren Frank, Rebecca Walkowitz, Sandra Vlasta, and Roy Sommer have shifted from using the term ‘migrant literature’ to ‘migration literature‘ in order to describe literary works addressing migration, and for good reason.

Migrate 1

Waterfowl Geese Migrate

The term ‘migrant literature‘ is extremely limited in its outreach. Not only does it imply that every writer with a migration background automatically addresses migration in his or her work, but it also suggests that non-migrant, and even second-generation migrant writers are unable to do so.

In contrast, ‘migration literature’ is an inclusive term that embraces all literature written in our age of migration, addresses migration thematically and, in some cases, stylistically. The move to ‘migration literature’, according to Frank, is “a move away from authorial biography as the decisive parameter, emphasizing instead intratextual features such as content and form as well as extratextual forces such as social processes” (3). Frank suggests here that migration literature can be used as a sociological source and Vlasta agrees by saying that migration literature helps its readers to understand the migration phenomenon (5).

This, however, does not yet satisfyingly distinguish between ‘migrant literature’ and ‘migration literature’. Frank continues to argue that non-migrant writers are just as capable of expressing migration experiences and is broader in his definition of what ‘migration literature’ seeks to achieve: “through its form the migration novel specifically sets out to express the content of our experiences of interculturalism and gloablization and to resolve the problems posed by the same experiences” (7). Migrants, as well as second-generation migrants and non-migrants, can address multiculturalism, globalisation, and their effects in works without their personal migration history being relevant. ‘Migration literature’ is not limited to a particular kind of migration but open to present migration in any form it can take. Although migration literature is defined very broadly, its purpose distinguishes it from other kinds of literature. It follows a clear agenda, namely to present and analyse the challenges we face in the age of migration, which migrant literature would not necessarily do.

Sandra Vlasta argues that migration literature can be considered a genre as it features consistent themes and motifs even in different languages and literary traditions. In accordance with Vlasta, these are: identity and identity connected to belonging; depictions of the new ‘homeland’ and comparisons to the old; generational differences within families; old and new traditions; and alternative histories of the nation (51). I would also add intercultural friendships and relationships to this list as a common theme. ‘Migration literature’ is, of course, not bound or limited to these. These themes and motifs are a mere guide to identifying the genre as such.

[The critical works on migration and migration literature mentioned in this article]

Lastly, ‘migration literature’ as a genre, according to Walkowitz, encourages ‘literary studies to examine the global writing of books, in addition to their classification, design, publications, translation, anthologizing, and reception across multiple geographies’ (528). She stresses that ‘migration literature’ cannot be read and analysed in one literary tradition only. The genre of ‘migration literature’, even more so than ‘migrant literature’, does not conform to the literary organisation into national literatures but rather opens up the possibility of writing and reading outside the nation. Walkowitz states that “Anglophone works of immigrant fiction are not always produced in an Anglophone country; some immigrant fictions produced in an Anglophone country are not originally Anglophone; and some do not exist in any one language at all” (529). This shows how ‘migration literature’ as a genre can challenge established national literary systems. It provides a space for ‘misfit’ works of literature that are not easily put into one single box.

About Charlotte

Literatures, cultures, languages, theatre and art will never cease to fascinate me. Specifically, I am interested in the theory of cosmopolitanism in regard to literature and will focus my dissertation on the global outlook of contemporary literature. I am currently pursuing a MSc in Comparative Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

Article edited by Bradley Copper and Margaret Graton.

Works cited:

Castles, Stephen, et. al. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 5th ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Basingstoke.

Frank, Søren. Migration and Literature: Günter Grass, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, and Jan Kjærstad. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. New York.

Sommer, Roy. Fictions of Migration: ein Beitrag zur Theorie und Gattungstypologie des zeitgenössischen interkulturellen Romans in Großbritannien. WVT, 2001. Trier.

Vlasta, Sandra. Contemporary Migration Literature in German and English: A Comparative Study. Brill, 2015. Leiden.

Walkowitz, Rebecca, ed. Immigrant Fictions. University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Wisconsin.


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