Refugee Tales

Decentring the Author: Refugee Tales and Collaborative Life Narrative as Activism




Refugee Tales, collaborative storytelling, authorship, celebrity activism


This article focuses on collaborative life-storytelling as a tool of socio-political literary activism in the context of the Refugee Tales project. It argues that Refugee Tales is unique: on the one hand, it capitalizes on the cultural authority and ‘attention capital’ (Van Krieken) of well-known writers who offer a scathing critique of the UK asylum system; on the other hand, the project deconstructs this authority through collaboratively-authored life narrative, polyphony, and diversity. Adding value as a marketable name, public face, and articulate voice, the celebrity author nevertheless experiences a decentring, as the focus shifts towards more dialectic and inclusive negotiations of authorship. In this process, the myth of the white, male author genius is dismantled and replaced by an emphasis on the collaborative and the collective. What takes centre stage instead is the powerful process of storytelling as an act of remembrance, recording, and bearing witness, emerging as a collective endeavour through exchange, repetition, and circulation within the public sphere. This storytelling project thus has the potential to disrupt, and ultimately change, dominant discourses around migration, displacement, and asylum. Furthermore, Refugee Tales problematizes the ideology of individualism that underlies the cult of the genius author, autobiographical narrative, and celebrity construction.

Author Biography

Sandra Mayer, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Sandra Mayer is a literary and cultural historian at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities and Cultural Heritage (Austrian Academy of Sciences). Her research focuses on life writing, authorship and celebrity, transnational encounters and reception processes, and digital editing. She is the author of Oscar Wilde in Vienna (2018) and has (co-)edited books and special issues on ‘Literary Celebrity and Politics’ (2016), ‘The Author in the Popular Imagination’ (2018), Life Writing and Celebrity (2019), ‘Life Writing and the Transnational’ (2022), and Authorship, Activism and Celebrity: Art and Action in Global Literature (2023). She is co-editor of the Auden Musulin Papers, a scholarly digital edition of letters and literary papers by W. H. Auden in the estate of Stella Musulin ( In her current book project, she explores the intersections of literary celebrity and political activism in and through autobiographical narrative from the nineteenth century up to the present.





Refugee Tales