“Let all the elders of the land appear,
Pious observe our hospitable laws,
And Heaven propitiate in the strangers’ cause;
Then joined in council, proper means explore
Safe to transport him to the wished-for shore
(How distant that, imports us not to know,
Nor weigh the labour, but relieve the woe).”
– Odyssey, Book VII
The Odyssey is an epic poetry attributed to the Greek poet, Homer, in the 8th century BC. It is composed of twenty-four books, and follows the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and his journey homeward after the Trojan War. In modern popular culture and literature, the Odyssey and Odysseus are often evoked to represent a great journey and its wanderer. Specific to refugee literature, writers and journalists have used the Odyssey as a framing device for the perilous journeys undertaken by refugees and other displaced people. Anon(ymous)—Naomi Iizuka’s adaptation of the Odyssey—builds upon the Homeric epic to tell a particularly timely story of modern refugee experience, apropos of the current global refugee crisis.
Several themes stand out when considering Anon(ymous) vis-à-vis its blueprint the Odyssey. This post will introduce three central concerns:
- Maritime transport
The most memorable theme from the Odyssey depicts dangerous sea travel, which has gained particular focus in relation to the current refugee discourse. In 2015, the picture of a drowned boy on the beach brought the Syrian refugee crisis to international attention; particularly highlighted was refugees’ often deadly crossing of the Mediterranean Sea on overloaded smuggling boats. This experience of intense sea travel, fuelled by pictures of hundreds of refugees afloat and strained on an inflatable Zodiac boat, recalls memories of another mass migration in the 20th century from Vietnam, following the Fall of Saigon. For decades, the Vietnamese “boat people” has been a familiar portrait of refugees in modern American cultural memory. Traveling across a pernicious sea becomes a motif that penetrates two of the most high profile mass migrations in recent history, connecting the refugee crisis to the tale of the Odyssey, where the hero, too, has wrestled with the sea in search of safety and home.
The quest of “homecoming,” or “nostos” in Greek, then, is another theme that permeates the entirety of the Odyssey. In Greek literature, “nostos” refers to this theme of a hero’s epic journey homeward by sea, overcoming great challenges and obstacles in the process. The theme of nostos resonates with contemporary refugee experience for it highlights the difficulties and great distance a refugee must overcome to find home. While Odysseus sets sail for Ithaca, the protagonist Anon in Anon(ymous) wanders in a foreign land in search of his own home. While Anon could not return to his country of origin due to conflict and violence—much like the millions of refugees fleeing Syria today—he nevertheless is on a journey of “homecoming” or “home-searching/building” throughout Anon(ymous). Some places are too strange, some places are hostile, and some are already occupied; in the end Anon, as with Odysseus, knows when he is not at home. The feeling of homesickness and alienation is what propels him to wander from place to place, looking for somewhere he could truly settle.
Anon, like Odysseus, encounters different people on his journey. Each of these people has been in a given location for longer than Anon, even when they are migrant themselves, and acts as host to the young traveller. Some of them friendly and helpful, while some of them hypocritical, demeaning, or even downright hostile to Anon. This relationship between the host/veteran and the guest/newcomer could be related to the theme of “guest-host friendship” or hospitality in the Odyssey. Known as “xenia” in Greek, the concept of guest-host relation is tied in to every part of Odysseus’ adventure as an important element of Greek culture.
The law of xenia governs the relationship between a host and their guest. The host is to tend to the guest’s physical needs (food, lodging, bath) before asking whom the guest is. The guest on the other hand shall surrender their weapons at the door and not abuse the host’s house or those who live in it during their stay. Zeus governs the law of xenia; violating xenia is an offence against Zeus himself. Once Odysseus returns to Ithaca in the Odyssey, he kills the suitors for pursuing his wife and going after his kingdom during his absence. This slaughter is not only accepted, but predicted in the Odyssey as punishment for the suitors’ transgression and violation of xenia—failing to maintain the right guest-host relationship.
This theme of xenia is pertinent not only in the Odyssey, but also in Anon(ymous), especially with regards to immigrants and refugees in our post-911 world. Before 911, the United States was one of the most generous hosts to many refugees in the world, welcoming almost half the refugees who resettled around the globe according to the 2004 senate hearing before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Boarder Security and Citizenship. The US was also a country of immigrants that prided itself to be the land of freedom and opportunities. However after the trauma of 911, it has become difficult for many Americans to trust that those knocking on their doors would be good guests. In the meantime, many guests could no longer count on their American hosts and future countrymen to be good company.
Every refugee is a story in some sense. They are a physical, flesh-and-blood manifestation of the ways in which people cannot live together and the failure of governance and international relations.
-Refugee Advocate, Arthur Helton
World Relief CEO Stephan Bauman, staffer Matthew Soerens and others argue in Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of Global Refugee Crisis (2016) that because of the perceived risk of national security breach, some have “allowed fear to dominate the refugee conversation.” One of the solutions, according to Bauman and Soerens, is to humanize strangers; drawing from personal stories as well as history, public policy, and psychology, to balance compassion and security and assess the real risks and benefits of refugee resettlement. This project of telling these stories is by no means easy, but neither is it an exclusively modern dilemma.
The Odyssey in the ancient time is also riddled with fraught relationships between kingdoms, which lead to displacement of people and ever-so delicate dynamic of refugees and their hosts. Homer portrays several models of relationship between foreigners and natives in the twenty-four-book epic. The hosts Odysseus encounters could be loosely rated on a scale from the most aggressive Cyclops to the most compassionate Phaeacians. Between them are many more ambivalent characters that seduce (Calypso), corrupt (the Cicones), humiliate (the Circe), or simply seek to assimilate Odysseus and his crew (the lotus-eaters). Anon(ymous)’s characters often model after these memorable mythical figures. Mr. Zyclo, for example, recalls the tale of the Cyclops in the Odyssey, and acts as the most violently hostile villain to the protagonist in Anon(ymous). While Homer’s Phaeacian princess Nausicaa becomes Nasreen, daughter of the blind restaurant owner Ali (an adaptation of king Alcinous of Phaeacia).
Ulysses and Nausicca (1888) by Jean Veber
Odysseus’ interaction with the Phaeacians brings to mind many aspects of the current refugee dilemma. Odysseus, as a foreign male down on his luck, had to convince Nausicaa that he was not only harmless but a moral man. Odysseus explained to Alcinous and Arete the reason Nausicaa did not reveal to them immediately his presence: “[…] fear and reverence did my steps detain, / Lest rash suspicion might alarm thy mind: / Man’s of a jealous and mistaken kind” (Book VII). Odysseus understood that people were quick to anger and distrust of strangers, and he must tread carefully on foreign land. Conversely, Arete the queen is cautious of the stranger her daughter brought home: “Tell, then, whence art thou? Whence, that princely air? And robes like these, so recent and fair?” (Book VII). Odysseus, who claimed to be a wanderer lost at sea, dressed in fine clothes made by palace maids, had alerted Arete. She might be suspicious of his stories, or suspicious of his relationship to Nausicaa who gave Odysseus the clothes. The questioning triggered Odysseus to make calculative presentation of his stories, aimed to ease the Phaeacians’ minds.
Despite the fictional nature of the Odyssey, Odysseus’ concern and wariness speak to an experience shared by today’s refugees seeking asylum, similar to Anon’s hesitation and guardedness when questioned about his identity and background. Journalist Patrick Kingsley in his book The New Odyssey (2016) documents the anxiety of Syrian refugee Hashem al-Souki after attending his interview with the Swedish immigration office: “Is there something wrong? Did his interviewer not believe him?” (Kingsley 310). Hashem and his family’s future hinged on Swedish immigration authorities sympathizing with his experience and plead. And his fear of his interview answers not being accepted or believed was more than hypothetical.
Kelly Oliver in Carceral Humanitarianism: Logic of Refugee Detention (2017) points out the numerous challenges refugees face while attempting to tell their stories, officially or in personal capacity. According to UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) convention, an asylum seeker must have “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” (14). This prerequisite of fear is problematic when combined with the current asylum-granting system, especially during the interview process. Many asylum seekers are traumatized by experience of violence and conflict (hence the “well-founded fear”) which may lead to hesitation, inconsistent testimony, agitation, and even the inability to testify during immigration interviews. Meanwhile, “the [UNHCR interview] guidelines also insist that interviewers verify the truth of the testimony and resolve inconsistencies through confrontational techniques.” However the guidelines on how to provide sensitive techniques to obtain information from traumatized asylum seekers are not always, if rarely, followed in the case of refugee women fleeing sexual violence, who are “least likely to be ‘heard’ and believed” (Oliver 31).
Oliver notes the paradox of fear and believability being the prerequisites of asylum, while the presence of fear often aversely affects an asylum seeker’s chance of being believed: “how does she testify to fear in a way that is convincing?” “what does it mean to prove trauma” “how much trauma is enough to justify asylum, and how does a person convince administrators and interviewers that his trauma is real?”
Storytelling is often a vexed art, and the stake is particularly high in the case of refugee stories. Both Odysseus and Anon, across centuries and cultures, struggle with the telling of their stories. The challenge and responsibility we confront as theatre practitioners is likewise related to this endeavor of (re)presentation. Iizuka’s Anon(ymous) reimagines the Odyssey in contemporary context, perhaps to attempt what Bauman and Soerens aspire: to tell and listen to human stories of refugees and their experience with compassion. Understand that the tales are each made of flesh and blood, about humanity’s failures of maintaining relationship, and our chance of redeeming that connection. In the spirit of xenia, of homecoming, to overcome the pernicious sea and, as Alcinous promises, focus on not the labor, but the relief of suffering, to find a safe path for many wanderers to the much wished-for shore.
Bauman, Stephan. Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis. Chicago: Moody, 2016. Print.
Homer. The Odyssey (AmazonClassics Edition).
Kingsley, Patrick. The New Odyssey: The Story of Europe’s Refugee Crisis. London: Guardian Faber, 2016. Print.
Oliver, Kelly. Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2017. Print.
UNHCR. Convention and Protocol Related to the Status of Refugees.