Their Wished-For Shore: Storytelling and Shared Themes in the Odyssey and Anon(ymous)

“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
  • Homecoming
  • Hospitality.

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.

Works Cited

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. 

Movie: Swallowtail (1996)

Swallowtail, or Swallowtail Butterfly, is a 1996 movie directed by Shunji Iwai, about a group of immigrants in an alternative future Japan. In this fictional future, Japanese yen has become the most powerful currency in the world. People from around all over the globe flock to Tokyo to work for Japanese yen; Tokyo City is hence nicknamed Yen Town [en to]. However, Japanese citizens despise the immigrants, calling them Yentowns [en tou], meaning Yen Thieves. Swallowtail, as the opening narration indicates, is about the story of a group of Yentowns in Yen Town.


Swallowtail as a fantasy constructs a believable world in which the setting and events seem likely to actually happen, giving the film an allegorical quality. As an allegory, Swallowtail also alludes to the real-life conditions of immigrants and refugees in general, not only those in Japan but in other parts of the world as well.

The movie’s English title comes from the swallowtail butterfly imagery recurring in the film, symbolizing the struggle of immigrants’ lives and dreams.

The butterfly motif appears in many world myths and art as well, including Anon(ymous). The following are some butterfly-related myths and lore from different cultures around the world.

Miao: Butterfly Mother


A Miao rendering of Butterfly Mother (source)

Butterfly Mother is a collection of epic songs of the Miao people of southwest China.

According to Miao mythology, Butterfly Mother is the ancestor of all Miao people. She was born from an ancient maple tree and liked to eat fish. She ate fish from a pond and gave birth to twelve eggs after making love to the foam/bubbles in the pond. The twelve eggs later hatched into twelve legendary creatures, including the first Miao. The maple tree is an important symbol in Miao culture, as is the “tree pattern” that decorated their clothing.

These patterns are supposed to represent the maple tree from which Butterfly Mother was born (images taken from x x).

Butterfly as a symbol of love, sacrifice, beauty, and (re)birth.

  • China

A statue of the Butterfly Lovers in Italy, gifted by Chinese People’s Government of Ningbo Municipality (source).

Chinese tragic legend the Butterfly Lovers aka Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (7th-8th century) tells the story of two star-crossed lovers whose spirits turn into a pair of butterflies. Liang Shanbo was a talented yet poor student, while Zhu Yingtai was the daughter of a wealthy family. Zhu Yingtai disguised herself as a man to go to school, where she met and fell in love with Liang. Zhu’s family however disapproved of their relationship, and she ended up marrying another man while Liang died of illness. On the day of the wedding, Zhu Yingtai visited Liang’s grave. Suddenly, the ground opened, and Zhu seized the opportunity and leaped into her true love’s grave. The two joined in death and their spirits turned into a pair of colorful butterflies and flew away together.

  • Ancient Greece

There is also a similar theme in Greek mythology, in the story of Cupid and Psyche. Cupid was ordered to make Psyche fall in love with a monster. But instead he was attracted by Psyche’s beauty and accidentally pricked himself with his own arrow and fell in love with Psyche. Cupid disguised himself as a giant serpent and ordered Psyche to be married to him. He treated her well but he only met her in the dark and made her promise to never look at his face. Psyche broke the promise and, feeling betrayed, Cupid ran away. Psyche then went through several trails and labors to win back Cupid’s love. In art, Psyche is often portrayed with butterfly wings, or has butterflies around/above her. (See paintings of William Adolphe Bouguereau.)

  • Central America

Murals of a Butterfly Bird God were also found in Teotihuacan, Mexico, interpreted to be portraying the rebirth and transformation of the deity after descending and reemerging from the Underworld (Zoltán Paulinyi 2014).

Butterfly in Modern Literature and Performance Art

More recently, Madame Butterfly (the 1898 American short story, and the 1904 opera adaptation of the short story, which inspired the 1988 play by David Henry Hwang, M. Butterfly), the butterfly also becomes a symbol and metaphor for Orientalism.

The original Madame Butterfly depicts an Asian woman as the submissive lover sacrificing herself to the white man, analogizing her to the vulnerable, beautiful yet short-lived butterfly. However, later adaptations rebel against this stereotype and reclaim the narrative of Madame Butterfly as a critique of Orientalism and colonialism, ie. M. Butterfly (1988), Joss and Gold (2002).


Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly (source)

In Anon(ymous), the imagery of the butterfly is also connected to longing, wonder, and melancholic memories of refugees.

Stay tuned for more related information on Anon(ymous), and stories of migration.

The Refugee Project, an interactive map

There are many resources online today that explain and help visualize the global refugee crisis. One of which is the Refugee Project, an interactive map that tracks the movements of migration since globally 1975, using UNHCR data.

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 4.57.12 PM

Screenshot a.

The map also includes historical backgrounds to major migrations, from 1975 Vietnam to the Syrian refugee crisis today. The project provides good materials to understand the world’s most vivid memories of mass migration after World War II, including the Vietnamese refugee crisis, following the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

After the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the United Sates became the top destination for South Vietnamese refugees fleeing the communist regime. The US evacuated over 125,000 Vietnamese military personnels and professionals affiliated with the US military at the end of the Vietnam War.

Not all refugees from Vietnam had access to official channels, however.

Over the next few years, a second wave of refugees followed, best known as the “boat people.”  Most of these refugees fled from rural areas, and included many ethnic Chinese fleeing persecution in communist Vietnam (Rkasnuam and Batalova 2014). People boarded makeshift wooden boats and fishing vessels, sailing toward nearby “first-asylum” countries−−Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, where the refugees waited to be resettled.

These Vietnamese migrants significantly impacted American immigration policy, shaping it to resemble today’s legal landscape. Prior to the Vietnamese refugee crisis, the United States defined “refugee” only in terms of geography (from the Middle East) and/or political regime (from communist countries), with an annual limit of 17,400 conditional entrants. The volume and urgent need of postwar Vietnamese refugees exposed the inadequacy and limitations of American refugee policy. At the UN Geneva Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1979, the US agreed to be a country of resettlement for Vietnamese refugees.

Finally, in 1980, the US government revised its definition of “refugee” according to the 1951 UN Convention: “[refugee] someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (Campi 2006).

Screen Shot 2017-06-25 at 4.59.43 PM

Screenshot b.

The series of wars that would engulf Vietnam for two generations began as an underground resistance to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina during the Second World War. After 1945, this resistance was transformed into a popular uprising against the restored French colonial authorities. It took its final form as a massive proxy war between the Soviet and American client states of North and South Vietnam, respectively. When the Americans withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975 they abandoned most of their allies, who were persecuted as collaborators by the unified Communist regime. Millions were interned in “reeducation” gulags where hundreds of thousands died. Ethnic minorities such as the Hmong and Montagnards, who had supported the Americans, were targeted. Since the adjoining countries of Laos and Cambodia had also fallen under Communist control, escape by land was nearly impossible. Most of the “class enemies” who evaded arrest or summary execution took to the seas. In flimsy, often improvised vessels, a few thousand refugees made desperate attempts to reach Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong or even Australia.

—The Refugee Project, “1975 ❘ Viet Nam
Saigon falls to Communist Forces”

Today, Vietnamese immigrants make up the sixth largest immigrant group in the United States, the majority of them children of refugees. In 1982, ninety percent of Vietnamese green card recipients were refugees. In 2012, the majority of them (96%) did so through family ties (Rkasnuam and Batalova 2014).

Screen Shot 2017-06-29 at 1.01.26 AM

Screenshot c.

Last year, UNHCR documented 329,331 refugees originating from Vietnam. Two hundred and sixty-four of them resettled in the US (screenshot c).

The Refugee Project illustrates these movements with interactive analysis, mapping the journeys of migration and resettlement through simple, easily understood visuals. It is a handy resource and a good place to start exploring the stories of refugees in the 20th-21st century.

The Refugee Crisis, an Overview

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 21 million people were displaced around the world and in need of asylum in 2000 (UHNCR 2000). The number reached 65.3 million last year; on average, every minute, 24 people were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution (Edwards 2016). According to UN refugee agency’s estimation, about 20 million live in detention center and refugee camps around the world (UNHCR 2017, McKenzie and Swails 2015). The majority of the displaced people came from Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million), and South Sudan (1.4 million) (UNHCR 2017).

The common perception is that the refugee crisis is mainly a Middle Eastern problem. However, there is a silent crisis that received far less media attention in Africa, where more than 3 million refugees and 12.5 million people were displaced due to poverty, famine, and repression (Momodu 2015). In Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, the dictatorship is so severe it is considered to have one of the worse human rights conditions in the world; Nigeria is ravaged by Boko Haram militants, while in Niger poverty and disastrous floods forced people into internal displacement or migration (Goldenberg 2014; Kingsley 2016; Morlin-Yron 2017).

While the flows and sources of migration change during different periods of time, the majority of the refugees today are from the Middle East and Africa. People are trying to reach Europe and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) host communities–Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan–through the treacherous paths across the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean. But the struggle does not end after people manage the dangerous border-crossing.

People could stay up to years in refugee camps and detention centers under poor living conditions until they could be resettled in a host country—if they get resettled at all. In any given moment, there are millions of displaced people strained in refugee camps. Each of them would spend an average of 12 years in a camp (McClelland 2014, source to be verified). Over half of these refugees are children, who are at risk of violence, abuse, trafficking, or military recruitment as child soldiers. While education is also considered an universal human right (Article 25), half of the refugee children will not have access to primary education, and only twenty percent of them attend secondary school. Not to mention the poor conditions in which refugees, children and adults alike, would have to live in.

Outside of the Middle East and Africa, the Norwegian Refugee Council documented that over 4 million people were displaced by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2014 (Romtveit 2014); in 2016, more than 24 million people were displaced by disasters worldwide (NRC and IDMC 2017).

Overall, mass displacement is a global issue that is not likely to ameliorate any time soon. The condition of involuntary displacement compels that people will be crossing country lines regardless of assistance. Official regulations only stand to make the process more chaotic or orderly. Responsible and competent systems are in high demand to streamline and resettle displaced people into new host countries—a global solution for a global issue.

Giles Duley, “I can only tell you what my eyes see” published in London this week

Filmed March 2012 at TEDxObserver

Photographer Giles Duley launches his new book I can only tell you what my eyes see in London this week. The book includes images from Duley’s 2015-2016 travel, documenting the refugee crisis across the Middle East and Europe.

February 2011, Giles Duley stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan and became a triple amputee as a result of the severe injuries. In the 2012 TED Talk “When a Reporter Becomes the Story”, he spoke of his experience as a photojournalist, and a casualty of war:

…I realized [after the accident] I never set out to Congo, to Angola, to Bangladesh to take photographs. I went to those places because I wanted to make some kind of change, and photography happened to be my tool.

Last year, Duley returned to TED to talk about the power of stories.

His camera was drawn to the most vulnerable, single mothers, people with disabilities, and the elderly. He highlighted particularly the story of a Syrian woman named Khalood, who was shot in the spine in her own garden while growing vegetables. She was since paralyzed from the neck down, and her husband became her full-time caregiver as they moved to Lebanon and received informal settlement in the Beqaa Valley (eastern Lebanon, about 60 miles from Damascus).

Duley met Khalood in 2014. When he returned to Lebanon in 2016, he was shocked to find her family still in the same makeshift tent in the Beqaa Valley: “I thought of all the people I’ve met two years before, she was the most vulnerable and the most in need. I couldn’t believe that she could be living in the same tent” (2016).

Over the next few days, Duley said he had never worked so hard as a photographer, to tell Khalood’s story. It was his mission to tell people’s stories through photography, to make some kind of change.

We are facing a global crisis. The refugee crisis affects all of us. It is a global crisis that needs a global solution. I believe we are at a crossroad in how we choose to treat and deal with the refugee crisis. I also think it’s a moment in the history of our humanity in how we deal with it. […]

I am a storyteller, but stories have no power if people do not listen to them. So I want to thank you all to listen to these stories today. Together, we have made those stories concrete. But it’s now time to take action from that strong base that we have built. Because we must take action, and now is the time to act. I honestly believe, all together, we can make a difference.

–Giles Duley 2016

I can only tell you what my eyes see is a collection of these stories. All the book’s profits are donated to UNHCR-The UN Refugee Agency. Visit the UNHCR news here, and see more of Giles Duley’s works here. His personal project Legacy of War is “A five-year photographic project exploring the long-term effects of conflict globally.”

World Refugee Day 2017

cred hirehelper

Photography: Hireahelper

June 20 is World Refugee Day.

Here are 6 stories about resettlement in San Diego by KPBS.

Since the Syrian war displacing millions of people from their homes, 10,000 refugees has resettled in the U.S. in 2016. San Diego welcomed 788 refugees, mostly in City Heights and El Cajon.

San Diego has been a hub for migrants looking to build a new life for a variety of reasons. From Vietnam refugees in 1975 to Syrian refugees arriving today, KPBS documented the stories of vibrant individuals making home in San Diego.

Video highlights: