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Amplifying their voices: writing about migrants’ biographies

Amplifying their voices: writing about migrants’ biographies

Isabelle Cockel
University of Portsmouth

When migrants appear in academic works concerning power, poverty, or exclusion, interviewees are often presented as marginalised, disadvantaged, voiceless, or faceless people in the lowest socio-economic strata. They are often conceptualised as subaltern and their subalternity is at the core of the research surrounding them. In our academic activities of data collection and delineation, we study their ‘lived experiences’ in order to extract elements out of these experiences to verify, modify, or create abstract theories transcending what they live through.                

In the obvious power relation between an academic who writes about them and the interviewee who is  written about, the former often claims to take on the mission of giving the latter the voice they deserve. Such statements obscure the fact that our scholarly debate and careers are built on this power relation. Significant or mundane events in their lives are often considerably processed by our theorisation or contextualisation. Without them sharing their pain with us, as well as their  sorrow  and joy, or  pride and achievement, we would not be able to produce any literature (blogs, podcasts, conference papers, journal articles, or books), or give any  classroom lectures. However, only a small amount of our interview transcripts can be quoted in full in our scholarly works. If we do ‘give them a voice’ or ‘draw a human face’ of their subalternity, it is we who decide what they will say and what they will look like in our academic works, which are often out of their reach.

Throughout this writing project, we recognised this profound challenge, especially after the past three years of Covid-19. Was there anything we could do to present those people whose life course intersected ours not only because of our profession but also out of humanity? Was it possible to introduce them  purely based on who they are, without processing, extraction, or theorisation? One cannot be so naïve to deny the power relation between us and them, nor did we imagine that we could devote all our time and energy to document  their lives without also publishing academic works since that is our profession. Acknowledging our structural advantages and constraints, could we do both without feeling disillusioned?

This ‘biography writing’ project is a result of our reflection upon this structural constraint. In the various locations we visited,  we met our interviewees and studied their migration journeys before and during the pandemic. Some of them have maintained long-term relationships with us since  our initial meeting. In a sense, our research and publications are  the result of the decisions they made along their migration journeys. Those we met during the pandemic further pushed us not only to reflect, but also to act upon our keen awareness of or even anxieties about this power relation. Thus, we hope that our relationships with our interviewees will not be reduced to  an extract in our publications but as a privilege we encountered. Either in person or online, we listened to and recorded the migrants’ motivations, decisions, misfortunes, or successes in ways understood and verbalised by them.

Although all the protagonists, migrants and non-migrants, in this collection are, in one way or another, away from ‘home’;  they can be grouped into several categories. Most of them are domestic workers whose employment required them to reside in their employer’s home. There are also well-educated workers who became deskilled in their destination countries. Some of them are migrant wives who adopted a foreign country as their home. A couple of the protagonists are adult children who grew up in such transnational families. There are also those whose profession saw them working in a location where migrants are present in order to offer them support. As all the interviews were semi-structured, we prepared questions beforehand in order to ensure that their stories would be presented as coherently as possible. We spoke in Chinese or English and transcribed the interviews into Chinese, English, Vietnamese or Indonesian so that our interviewees would know how we recorded their lives. To make them accessible to the public, we also edited the transcripts after they were translated into English. We respected our interviewees’ decision to be known either by their own name or by a pseudonym  they approved.  

In  their entirety, these written records are their migration biographies. While they represent only a small and simplified version of their biographies due to the time constraints , these biographies of domestic workers demonstrate the vices of the brokering industry. Although not all the workers in this collection challenged the industry, their subscription to its operation and their fight against it makes the inhumanity of the industry an everyday sociality. The deskilled workers’ struggles speak volumes about the gap between aspiration and reality, an experience not uncommon to modern workers in the capitalist economy, where talent and certificates do not necessarily lead to employment or a satisfactory and sufficient salary. Migrant wives and their children rose to the challenges  against otherness, when the former’s experiences in overcoming their difficulties in marriage or employment instantiated their charismatic leadership. Those non-migrant professional workers who supported  migrant workers and spouses provided a critical interface and bridge connecting them and us, the ignorant public.

There are also some whom we have not yet included in this collection, such as the members of Indonesian fishermen’s organisations  met in Taiwan. They  include FKPIT (Forum Komunikasi Pelaut Indonesia di Taiwan – Indonesian Seafarers Forum in Taiwan) in Nanfangao Port on the east coast, and FOSPI (Forum Silaturahmi Pelaut Indonesia – Indonesian Seafarers Gathering Forum) on the southern coast, in Donggang Port, as well as in Post Kampoa in Yanpu Port. At their mosques and their improvised shelter-cum-common room, it is more than a humbling experience to learn about their associations, membership, religious activities, community services, financial management, security patrols, dispute settlement, mutual support, and collective actions, such as giving fishermen access to WiFi when they are at the seas. They helped those who were out of jobs, injured or the families of those who have lost their lives. These are in addition to individual members’ organisational capabilities, negotiation skills, artistic talent, and exemplary leadership. Most impressively, they are determined not only to secure monetary gains, which are not  under their control, but also to rise beyond their experiences as strangers to overcome their socio-political and cultural differences and difficulties.

In this writing project, we as the recorders have only a marginal role to play. We know the interviewees can speak for themselves, but they do not have access to a wider audience. This blog is a place where we can amplify their voices and deliver them to a global audience.


Isabelle Cockel is Senior Lecturer in East Asian and International Development Studies at the School of Area Studies, History, Politics and Literature of the University of Portsmouth. Her research focuses on labour and marriage migration in East Asia. Her recent research interests are the Cold War in East Asia, specifically the use of women’s voices for propaganda broadcasting.

Acknowledgement: we would like to thank the North American Taiwanese Professors’ Association for their generous support for our writing project.

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