Are Memoirists Psychological Refugees? by Sophia Kouidou-Giles

Memoir writers can be an assembly of refugees that keep away from what they want to avoid recalling, until they tackle it, like alcoholics in AA meetings, until they trust themselves to explore, research, seek truths and receive the gift of resolution. The challenges they face come from provoking the past, digging into stories about conflict with family, lovers, strangers, friends, and issues like sickness, and addiction. The storytellers may not have addressed the story in depth but it has occupied them, and as it matures in their awareness, they energetically engage to sort it.  The writer’s prior resistance melts away and the memoirist powers through their own defenses and dives into the adventure armed with the pen. It is a laborious journey that will tell a known story in the unique voice of the author that has until now been a psychological refuge of their past.

A refugee is defined as one who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality, and cannot or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.[1]” We are known by other names: immigrants, refugees, émigrés, and asylum seekers. We have relocated and acted out of compulsion for self-preservation, a powerful force, a driving human need ever since mankind inhabited this earth. History has recorded many groups that have moved en masse because of wars, conquests, political and religious atrocities, injustice, and discrimination, in order to seek a better future.  Consider the Mexican people who cross the dry, treacherous sands of the Arizona desert to reach the USA. Many abandon their homeland, determined to leave behind poverty, family, friends and foes, undergoing the indignities of crossing barren and dangerous territories under the scorching, relentless sun in their search.

The landscape of a typical psychological refugee includes disparate lands, a birth language often followed by another, acquired later, ethnic sounds and rhythms that agree and disagree, national anthems that claim and split their loyalties, different cuisines, friends, and family that may never meet each other. But is it only the bilingual writers that have crossed borders? It is not so different for those who move across a country, though languages may be the same, who seek to untangle a certain Gordian knot of their lives at the end of this journey.

Being a psychological refugee implies singling out the core question, defining the starting point of the story, moving, and as the manuscript arcs, finally settling old accounts in the dénouement.  The protagonist and the characters are in conflict, in flight from something. They may be victims, they may be observers and they certainly stay in action, weaving the strands of a plot that leads to release and resolution. Like asylum seekers, they look for a safe space. It could be an environment that supports their pursuit.

An asylum seeker has experienced persecution, has crossed borders to seek sanctuary and breathe fresh air. Refugees and asylum seekers differ only in where they are located when they make a request for protection: home or abroad.[2] The author in transition seeks the green and shady oasis of relief during their journey that allows thoughts to unfold, research to take place and answers to reach them. Safety sanctuaries are built and coveted, holding the old and the new worlds in the creative minds, sometimes in harmony and other times in dissonance. Living in camps offers temporary safety mixed in with the anxious wait for an answer from the powers that be. Will it be hospitality or extradition?

A clinician would look to assess ongoing stressors that may present ambiguous or traumatic loss of loved ones and separation from the old culture and supports, on top of the host environment that may foster discrimination and marginalization. In this assessment, it is important to highlight the living conditions and the socio-ecological supportive factors. Apply these concepts to the ecology of family and the empathetic reader gets a 360-degree view of their plight.

Not exactly an unaccompanied minor myself, as I had turned 18, I came to the US from Greece with a purpose and a plan. I left my natal home to come to the USA for college. Yet I was a psychological refugee, an asylum seeker in the sense that I crossed borders to seek sanctuary and create the space where I felt safe to reveal emotions, drill down researching what I did not know and analyze the past. In my memoir, Επιστροφή Στη Θεσσαλονίκη/The Return, soon to be released in English, I write about leaving my native land, a voluntary displacement,  which implies potential estrangement  from family by moving abroad; I cannot claim that I was aware of what led me to this action at the time, because of my young age, but I can see it in retrospect. An only child of divorced parents, I had gone decades without understanding the circumstances of my parents’ parting and its impact on me. The memoir I wrote centers on an old unanswered question: Why did my father instead of my mother have custody of me?

This relocation was a leap of considerable distance—a separation, my emancipation, and an adventure. But was this flight from a broken childhood (and from a society structured to support patriarchy) an escape, or was it a journey to seek opportunities and new beginnings? Flight can be such an uplifting enterprise. It raises hope and opens new horizons. Flight can also be running away, an escape from misery that pulls one down into further depths of hopelessness and isolation. For me, this was an opening, a time when a dream was fulfilled, when the gods were nodding with a smile. My wings had carried me into the first page of a new chapter. It was my time to show what I was made of and receive what this world had to offer me.

This is the plight of bicultural people who have experienced two countries, two cultures, two languages. This phenomenon accounts for what is considered ordinary population mobility and impacts one in 100 persons, according to United Nations statistics.[3]The leap is equally breathtaking and dramatic for those who move physical or psychological distances that gain permission to search and opportunities for new insights and truths to surface.

Many refugees are resilient in dealing with the trauma while others require long healing interventions, affecting their personal, emotional and behavioral development. My view is that writing a memoir that requires the author to travel again through that landscape, the difficult times and the sweet spots of our lives, holds healing properties. It is the process of building a new interior bridge, a clearer path to the future by releasing the past.

Memoirists have stories to tell that happen before and after the trauma; this represents landscapes they start at and are transported to. We may all qualify for the psychological refugee status, bicultural or not.  This toil of the mind is a journey of discovery, insights, evolution and ends with a better understanding of the self and the past. As Anais Nin wrote, “The secret of joy is the mastery of pain.” 


[1] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Convention/ Protocol: https://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html)  

[2] ( United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Asylum-seekers https://www.unhcr.org/asylum-seekers.html)

[3] ( United Nations Refugee Agency. Global trends report: world at war. Geneva: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2016)

Sophia Kouidou-Giles

Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA. Her work has appeared in Voices, Persimmon Tree, Assay, The Raven’s Perch and The Time Collection. Her poetry chapbook is Transitions and Passages. Her memoir, Επιστροφή Στη Θεσσαλονίκη, published in Greece, is forthcoming by She Writes Press, entitled The Return.

About the contributor

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1 COMMENT

  1. So very interesting, Clare, Sophia. I am just in the process of exploring my ‘voluntary displacement’. Not just living between two cultures, but three or four. It’s been a long life. I am looking forward to being able to read your memoir. As a poet, I am trying to dive back into what brought me here (I live in Peru) through poetry.

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