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Syrian Refugee Storytelling and the ‘Survivor-Witness-Messenger’: Knowledge and Violence in Displacement Narratives



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Doyle, Julia 


Taking an interdisciplinary approach to the study of Syrian refugee narratives (in original oral history interviews, memoirs and news media), the thesis carries out a discourse analysis of a variety of texts to examine how subjectivities and global relations of power are discursively produced and cited. Following Carolyn J. Dean’s ‘survivor-witness’ figure, the thesis proposes the ‘survivor-witness-messenger’ as a role through which to interpret the complex and contesting demands made upon Syrian refugee narrators. This suggestion builds on Dean’s term by emphasising the interlocking relation of movement, survival and the deliverance of testimony in existing discourses around Syrian refugees as well as within their own stories. The thesis is concerned with possible interpretations of the texts which read for citations of this figure, whether through occupying the role, explicitly rejecting it or engaging with it ambivalently, and how such citations produce the narrators as international political subjects. The first half of the thesis focuses on how the narrators discursively produce certain spaces as having a racializing and gendering effect of dehumanisation upon displaced subjects as well as on the contested and complex narrative explorations of the politics of gratitude as a producing a pressure to narrativize suffering for Western audiences. In the second half, the thesis’s argument for the possibility of reading for such discursive engagements with space, gender, race and humanity through the ‘survivor-witness-messenger’ figure turns to the intertextual relations between the texts analysed, other Syrian refugee narratives and wider international discourses on refugees, violence and testimony. From metaphors comparing regime oppression in Syria to scenes of domestic violence to the genres coalescing around narrators based on gender and age, these chapters argue for a recognition of an inter-connected network of international actors involved in the production and commodification of Syrian stories with a multiplicity of implications for the discursive shaping of categories such as refugee, witness and human.





Wilcox, Lauren


refugee studies, Syria, oral history, narrative, discourse analysis, gender studies


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge