Book Review : Migrant City by Les Back & Shamser Sinha written with Charlynne Bryan, Vlad Baraku and Mardouche Yemba


Migrant City is, at heart, a book of stories written and illustrated with young migrants about their relation to the city they live in, and expertly rooted in contemporary scholarly and political debates. The combined authorial team of participants and researchers enables a ‘sociable method’ that skillfully and critically explores the journeys migrants make and their lives in the city; evokes their roles in the making of places they inhabit and the imprints past dwelling places make on them; and juxtaposes the speeded-up time of global neoliberalism with the dead time of waiting for papers, for status, for life to begin again.

Migrant City offers a fascinating and sustained conversation with John Berger and Jean Mohr’s 1970s classic book, A Seventh Man, about temporary migration from rural southern Europe to work in northern European industries. Both books offer compelling analyses of the interweaving of migrant subjectivities with the workings of contemporary capitalism and state surveillance. Yet the spatial and temporal contexts are entirely different. Migrant City is concerned with ‘multi-vectored’ long-term migration to one specific city, London, at a time, following the 2008 financial crisis, when almost one in two residents of that city were foreign born. The book makes clear just how much the lifeworlds of migrants have changed over the intervening forty years, drawing attention to the continuing relevance of British colonial history, and young migrants’ non-linear global routes and connections. Migrant City nails the contradictory ways in which, in the current decade, digital communications both enable real time audio and visual presence, yet also serve to emphasize absence and reinforce its pain.

One of the book’s many important contributions is to extend the concept and practice of collaboration, making explicit the ways in which the two researchers and thirty young migrant participants involved walked alongside each other as co-creators of the book’s images, words and ideas. Building on mutually transformative research relationships, ethnography and repeated interactions over a period of more than ten years, the book directly challenges both the taken for granted methods of extractive social science and the standard questions and tropes of migration studies. It offers new, hopeful, political possibilities through a re-framing of migration debates, insisting simultaneously on historicizing and re-scaling individual migration stories so that they can be better understood both by academics and wider publics as connected to past and present international political economy, colonialism and military interventions. This is consistent with the book’s overall theme of divided connectedness, and the holding in tension of ongoing racisms with the possibilities offered by banal forms of conviviality in the city.

Ben Rogaly is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sussex.

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