There were ten or so people around the table in the group workspace in the local library near La Chapelle in Paris. Most of the group was from East Africa, many had been in Europe for a matter of months, some for years. Many were under the Dublin III Regulation, waiting to see whether the French state would return them to their first point of entry, which was Italy for the majority of this group.
There were a couple of unaccompanied minors too, who were fast approaching their eighteenth birthday and hadn’t had the chance to get themselves registered for school or college. The others had also failed to find enough daily stability to access more systematic language classes, and so the library was their regular port of call, a place where they could sit down, charge their phone, receive some guidance or a free membership card to use the computers and the internet, perhaps even join the sort of workshop that we and other organizations offer there most afternoons. For all those I’ve met in situations of debilitating legal precarity, the local libraries in the immigrant neighbourhoods of French cities are a haven. As one participant, Abraham T., said about his use of the library, it has been the closest he has come to having a sense of home throughout the long process of having his refugee status recognized.
That’s why we decided to locate some of the work of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression at the Vaclav Havel library between La Chapelle metro and Porte de la Chapelle, in one of the key meeting areas and points of reference for people in forced displacement – known, I’m told, as far as the Horn of Africa and often one of the only ‘landmarks’ that individuals can name in Paris, along with the Eiffel Tower. We’d been developing a translation laboratory project for a couple of years, using different starting points for collective ‘translation’ and cartographic exercises that had resulted in all sorts of texts and text-images montages. But the library context prompted an unexpected shift in direction. Here we were surrounded by books none of which could tell us much about the sort of experiences lived by a vast number of the library’s users. Nor did the library’s books reflect the sort of knowledge and understanding that these users would be able to contribute to other users, whether people living in similar conditions or more sedentary citizens with little means of grasping the material realities and drivers of this destructive precarity. So we decided quite spontaneously that we needed to create a new section in the collection, a shelf where we would store the books we would produce, a ‘fonds’ as they say in French that the library would take into its care, offering it a space and a permanence largely denied the men who were in our workshops.
The suggestion made immediate sense to them. And the project got underway with a long discussion of what it means to put a cover on something, the word ‘couverture’ in French being evocative of a blanket as well as a system of rights that give you access to health-care for example. We also needed a title, not a label as the participants are so used to having to bear. So not ‘Un Dubliné’ or ‘a migrant’, but a title of one’s choice that encapsulates something of what you want your book to offer. One of the group spoke up and suggested the word ‘numimeserian’. I was perplexed. He explained: it means, he said, that you must take care of the little things, or the little people. ‘Il ne faut pas négliger les petites choses’. We tried to pull the word apart to make it fit a grammar we could recognize, but made no headway and our difficulty with it was causing a bit of embarrassment. So we took it up, as it came, and it has since become the title of this growing collection, established under the auspices of the newly founded Editions Quartiers d’Accueil and held by the Bibliothèque Vaclav Havel. The books are all one-off, collectively or individually made. They describe very different things, from conditions in Libya, to the goods on sale in a general store previously run by one of the participants in the town of Mondo in central Chad, or the friendship struck up with the other man assigned to the same low-grade hotel room in a Parisian suburb, with a vivid account of the lifeline this man had been for his younger and less-skilled room-mate who had never had access to book learning before adopting the library as a regular haunt. I’ve no idea what the next titles will be, nor who will author them, but they will find their place within the ‘Numimeserian’ collection and anyone can come and consult them during opening hours near La Chapelle. We think what they have to tell us is worth the trip.
Anna-Louise Milne is Director of Research at the University of London University in Paris. Her work is broadly interested in the interface between languages and urban spaces and she pursues it through academic research and publications, literary writing, and collective translating and writing laboratories with asylum seekers and refugees. For more information on this project and its processes, feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit annalouisemilne.net.