Identifying War: Review of Katrina M. Powell’s Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement

Ashley Szanter

Powell, Katrine M. Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

In Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement, Katrina M. Powell examines the rhetorical and historical implications of identity in times of conflict and displacement. A fundamentally academic approach to the status of refugees and displaced persons, Powell’s text takes a global look at constructions of identity when nationalism no longer anchors self-identification. Powell’s text has a tri-fold focus: “I discuss three different types of displacement in three very different geographical locations. I begin with the United States, examining several eminent domain cases and Hurricane Katrina. I then turn to two different transnational cases—the civil war in Sudan, and the tsunami and civil war in Sri Lanka” (3). Because her topic of identity in narrative takes a distinctly global approach, Powell’s text succeeds in debunking traditional myths about the refugee experience and gives a meticulous overview of the social conditions, political (re)actions, and fundamental interiority of identity.

The text’s particular strength is in its organization. Powell has six chapters that each address a particular element of her argument. While having the traditional pairing of introduction and conclusion, the four middle chapters start the reader in an American context and move eastward—first to Sudan and then to Sri Lanka. The two chapters on America make logical sense as their focus is largely on human rights considerations. The second chapter “Reservations, Internments, and a Little Pink House: Linking U.S. Histories of Displacement with Human Rights” emphasizes the American tendency to “Other” those who are not effectively mainstream. Taking a particularly historical stance, Powell looks into the American solution to most problems involving non-Anglo-Saxon peoples: move them somewhere else. From a human rights perspective, Powell outlines how this particular brand of displacement impacts the formation of identity because these individuals, while many are technically American, are removed from this portion of their own identity and publicly “othered” by being rejected by both the government and the general population. The following chapter, “Surviving the (Un)Natural Disaster in New Orleans: Rhetorical Implications of Embracing ‘Refugee,’” Powell brings her focus to more modern considerations of people displaced by something unpreventable: a natural disaster. The impact of Hurricane Katrina on the people of New Orleans brings the spotlight back onto a forgotten population who still struggles to rebuild their lost communities and reclaim the identities intrinsic in constructions of “community.”

The next two chapters bring her discussion of identity and displacement to the global stage. Starting first with the chapter “Buying Refugee Narratives: Sudanese Identity, Civil Unrest, and the Good Refugee,” Powell considers the particular struggles of refugees in a third world context. Sudan, plagued by war and ethnic conflict, provides a particularly striking platform for examinations of identity. Whereas her chapter on New Orleans highlighted the advantages of citizenship in displacement spaces, this chapter instead examines how narratives of identity in these spaces is not only constructed by also consumed by other, often first-world, nations. Powell highlights the amount of existing narratives around Sudanese refugee struggles—highlighting the “interesting collection of auto/biographical memoirs, novels, and documentaries about those aid workers in refugee camps” (98). An important omission from this chapter, which Powell does directly address, is the focus on refugee narratives as fundamentally male. While highlighting the amount of stories surrounding “Lost Boys,” there is no examination of women in this context. Powell explains, “I focus on lost boy narratives here to highlight the gendered constructions of the ‘good’ refugee” (99).

Her penultimate chapter, “‘Barriers and Boundaries:’ Mixed Identities and Multiple Displacements in Sri Lanka,” examines the role of media and scholarly attention on both the civil war and subsequent tsunami that altered the small island nation. Powell’s goal is to show how attention shifted “away from the ongoing resettlement and redevelopment projects that the Sri Lankan government had planned and implemented since its independence in 1948” (131). Powell’s cited sources credit the Sri Lankan government with exacerbating ethnic and socioeconomic tensions within the population through excessive attempts to relocate and resettle their own citizens as well as refugees. A particular consideration of this chapter is how identity develops when an individual’s government prioritizes economic expansion over social boundaries.

It is easy to see that Powell’s text is deeply intellectual and greatly contributes to other rhetorical analyses of identity and displacement. A fairly cutting edge topic on the current political stage, the refugee is often disregarded as a human being in favor of easier, more general categories. Powell’s book opens up conversations of identity when common factors for that (i.e. ethnicity, country of origin, social norms) can no longer be relied upon. For its achievements in these spaces, Powell’s Identity and Power in Narratives of Displacement is a wonderful read for anyone looking to engage in innovative conversations about the historical and rhetorical importance of identity in contexts of displacement.