“The story is for others, the laughter for myself” – How journalistic storytelling can employ humour in migration narratives

In both fictional or autobiographical/biographical writing, there are certain topics that are difficult to address. Abuse, violence, severe poverty or childhood traumas… They are certainly challenging, but also quite compelling, which explains their popularity in several genres. For instance, the Swedish film Det nya landet (‘The new land’, 2000) is a fantastic example of how migration-related vulnerabilities can be told in a humorous manner by focusing on relations with the locals.

Image: Det Nya Landet (svtplay.se)

It is a very insightful story of a teenage boy and a middle-aged man going underground after losing hope that their asylum applications will be approved. The plot follows their journey, and even though it is very challenging to grasp all the complex feelings of hostility, anger, disappointment, hope, love, and jealousy, the film manages it flawlessly. The successful storytelling in such a film brings to my mind the value of writing traumatic experiences: journalistic storytelling is at least as complicated and also has its own obstacles when it comes to dealing with scarring experiences of the past.

Too narrow a gate, too real to relate

I have been interviewing people on issues related to migration, identity and marginalisation since 2014. The overwhelming burden of sensitive information and the responsibility of presenting these insights in a relatable manner have been a great challenge. Do you remember reading your first literary texts as a child? Empathy back then mostly worked as identifying with the characters, regardless of their position in the plot. Loving the prince meant dreaming of being one, and worshiping the superhero or the rebel meant seeing yourself as reaching goals through powers like theirs.

Empathy in a more grown-up sense came into our lives through young adult readings and gained power not by putting us in someone else’s shoes but by adapting someone’s entire being. Thanks to classics such as Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment or Les Misérables, this new kind of empathy was intriguing and almost addictive for a young reader. However, as someone who read these texts breathlessly, I could still not feel the same commitment that I felt when reading non-fiction books representing similar emotions and vulnerabilities. Despite the literary quality of such texts, somehow knowing that this particular real-life murderer took someone’s life and that they had quite reasonable reasons for doing so was much more difficult to tolerate than reading about Raskolnikov’s reasoning, actions and subsequent anxiety. In other words, it was much more disturbing and unbearable to read about someone’s real-life suffering in a memoir rather than in a novel. Ironically, knowing that there are such evils in our real world, along with the authenticity of the plot, lend such power to the narrative that it is painful to develop empathy for the character or incident: this time, the bare reality of adapting that person’s entire being can be quite painful.

Image: ‘Raskolnikov’, illustration by Mikhail Shemyakin to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1964)

Listening to people’s stories about being bullied or pushed to the edge of society based on ethnicity or class was equally painful – it was even scary to relate to. I remember leaving many interviews with a lump in my throat and a frozen gaze. And the question arose: why do I even have to relate to this? It is a one-page story in a magazine or newspaper, not a novel that people read for pleasure or education. The first answer to that question must be that being drawn into the story is necessary for reaching the best insights. Writers must relate to the traumatic experience they dive into and that is where the second answer to the same question comes in: the oral material must be put into writing so that the story is made relatable for the readers. For them, the story should offer neither the potentially repelling rough facts, nor less authenticity than it actually has. Then how should it be done? After years of struggling with this dilemma, I found my solution on a rooftop in the city Mardin.

Image: The city Mardin (hurriyet.com)

Facing a joke

I was working in Mardin in 2017 as part of the outreach team of an international refugee response NGO. Because of their cultural and linguistic capital, many of my colleagues were Syrians. The outreach team would do the initial assessment and then refer suitable individuals to the case management team. The case workers would conduct comprehensive assessments and create action plans based on each unique case so that some would be sorted within that team and some would be referred elsewhere, to psycho-social support, physical therapy or a child-friendly space, for instance.

Therefore, the whole team of fifty people were involved, due to this structure of the organisation, with the same families’ very difficult
recent past experiences in one way or another. The only easy part for me was that at least I didn’t have to write about them; this would soon change, dramatically and voluntarily.

I belonged to the minority of people who had no recent experience of being a refugee, but I started to note the chats of colleagues’ in the lunch room, in the car or during after-work beers. Contrary to the heart-breaking stories we heard during work hours, this kind of exchange of stories was based on common practices or observations and their sarcastic interpretation. For instance, a colleague who had to sleep in barns and caves during a three day-long walk to Turkey kept referring to those places whenever there was a mess in the common areas at work. She would use a sarcastic tone and make fun of the situation: “I did not walk for three days and sleep in caves with mice to see the same mess at work!”

Similar jokes were an inseparable part of daily life, so I realised that some people refuse to see themselves as victims, no matter how terrible the things they experienced. They decided to adjust their memory and its echo to their present perception, although they had experienced extreme situations as the consequences of war and forced migration. As if to be seen as ‘a victim’ or ‘unusual’ is based on willpower only, and not on actual destiny! Soon, the realisation of such a possibility of self-positioning in migration narratives encouraged me to search for humorous stories. The idea of talking to informants through comic incidents seemed not only to provide me with a solid lead as a research-based writer; this lead could also offer fresh and relatable insights to readers. The harsh situation of a vulnerable and exposed self during forced migration is not easy to place oneself in, and general audiences mostly engage with a migrant storyworld projected in national or international media – a storyworld in which migrants are powerless, victimised and demanding. In this way, refugees and migrants become people who experienced unspeakable things and their stories are not relatable for anyone who does not share that experience.

After moving on with this idea and starting to conduct the first batch of interviews in 2017, I found even more advantages of this approach, in addition to the main point of making migration narrative less epic and more relatable. I realised that humour can lift the heavy mood of the room during an interview by comforting both sides in different ways. It was refreshing for me as an interviewer discussing big traumatic events during migration, because I could acknowledge what happened but focus on some other incidents. This could create the ultimate indirect angle for me, but it could also provide the space and opportunity for both parties to grasp or ignore dramatic experiences. I could note that especially that, by the end of interviews or when the informants read the final pieces, the humour-based migration narrative was also refreshing for informants. After having written several columns with the same focus, I received similar reactions: informants tell the specific comic story with a lot of mostly sad digressions and actually really enjoy sharing that once-upon-a-time challenging experience. They find comfort and joy in telling an overall complicated and sad situation from a funny angle. In addition, when it is all over and the story is published there is another relief, this time in being able to reach out to others, who otherwise would not know about this reality.

New times, old story

For instance, an informant told a story from his childhood, knowing that the town he grew up in was demolished. Remembering the Kobane of the early 1990s made him nostalgic, of course, but it did not stop him from laughing at the childish essence of the anecdote around which I built my story. He grew up in a village near Turkey’s border with Syria and enjoyed being outside with other kids on long summer days. He told me the ache of being a teenage boy and how he and his friends did not know what to do with their sexual impulses as they grew older in that isolated town. Until one of the boys figured out that the soldiers on the border, which was the source of fear for all of their lives, had something that interested them very much: porn. He narrated how the village boys collected money and invested in a monthly magazine, how they tricked the soldier into selling them and how they shared the magazine for years. Tens of childish fights to share the pages, or finding that cooperation didn’t work or some other issue… He said, “We were just kids”, and added how he could see their vacant home, visible even today, from the Turkish side of the border.

As my column developed, I started to include migration stories not only from the Syrian-Turkish sphere, but also from other nationalities and countries. Ciwan (who is a PhD engineer in Berlin) shared the story of how English-speaking Turkish men in his circles lie about their nationality while dating. He told several stories of him or his friends lying about who they are, covering for each other, putting themselves in difficult positions by mistake or on purpose, and laughing about it afterwards.  They lie about where they live with the intention of hiding the name of migrant-populated districts, or they lie about where they come from with the intention of tackling long-experienced racism and discrimination when the truth is exposed.

Image: The column with Birgitte’s story (February 2021, otdergi.com)

The other month, Birgitte (a university teacher in Istanbul) told me the story of how she was being objectified and found herself in similar situations over and over. Even though she was quite established with very close local friends, dating men resulted in a lot of questions about marriage and the migration regulations of Denmark. However, the focus of her story was about something else: how her local friends guided her through social norms and avoiding harassment thanks to a self-made map of safe streets to walk after midnight. Unfortunately, once she did not follow the map, which resulted in an assault. Her local friends were terribly upset when hearing about it the day after – so upset that she had to comfort them through a re-enactment of the incident in the real-life location, which ended with many laughs and loving hugs.

Old ache, new narrative

What these stories have in common is the organic interplay of friendship, foreign lands, identity, external threats, safe spaces and defence mechanisms as demonstrated in humorous narratives. Despite the fact that these types of stories are more difficult to spot, they are truly fulfilling for a journalist to track, comparatively smooth for informants to share, and hopefully more easily relatable for the audience.

A humorous angle on migration narratives may sound harsh. But as I have tried to show here, it offers the opportunity for people who experienced the trauma of being a refugee to tell others their story and still laugh at its absurd aspects – a kind of self-healing laughter. At the same time, looking at sad memories with a new set of eyes can help create a storyworld in which the audience can empathize with the storyteller.

Alev Karaduman

is a research-based writer and cultural consultant from Istanbul who works mostly within the area of diverse communities and identity issues.
She is currently based in Malmö and writes a column (in Turkish - https://otdergi.com) about humourist human situations related to migration.