Research - Prof. dr. E. Helena Houvenaghel

Refugee Writing - Hybridity

Spanish Women Refugees' Transit in France (1930s-1940s)

In line with her previous research, Houvenaghel started from the viewpoint that the refugee-author often roots his/her writing in a ‘middle-ground’ situated in between the country of origin and the country of resettlement. She showed in earlier studies that the middle-ground is, for many refugee authors, the true home of their work.

Houvenaghel related the concept of ‘middle-ground’ to the transit country and to the phase of refugee transit, in between the country of origin and the country of resettlement. She reflected on the existing studies on refugee transit and found that they foregrounded today’s refugee transit, while refugee transit experiences from the past were largely neglected in the debate.

Houvenaghel focused on 20th century refugee transit and was granted the project Spanish Women Refugees’ Transit in France (1939-1945) by three cultural Institutes (Institut Français Amsterdam, Instituto Cervantes Utrecht, and Instituto Cervantes Toulouse) and by Utrecht University’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry. The research student C. Vásquez Caicedo Rainero participated in this project.

In the framework of this project, Houvenaghel presented in 2019 a series of studies on refugee women’s life-writings on transit in France in the 1930s and 1940s. The first of these series was discussed at the University of Paris Nanterre in an international conference on 20th century refugee literature. This study, entitled “Reframing in transit by refugee women”, juxtaposed female agency in the transit phase in France (1936-1945). The study showed that the strong interaction between the collective and individual level of these refugee women’s agency is a real levering tool towards overcoming the difficulties of the transit phase.

The second article of this series was presented at the University of Avignon. Under the title “Towards the centre of a Spanish woman refugee in France: Maria Casarès following Teresa of Avila”, the study compared the life-writing by the successful theatre actress Maria Casarès, a woman refugee in France in the 1930s and 40s, with the emblematic historical life-writing by the Spanish mystic Santa Teresa of Ávila (16th century). Houvenaghel highlighted similarities between both life-writings and argued that both these life-writings represent the search for the pure self as a search towards the centre of an interior castle.

Houvenaghel organized an event that combined an international conference, an exhibition, and film screening on Spanish Refugee Women’s Transit in France in the 1930s and 1940s at Instituto Cervantes Utrecht, with the support of Instituto Cervantes Toulouse, Institut Français Amsterdam and the Institute for Cultural Inquiry of Utrecht University. For more information on this conference, the cultural event, and the publication of its results in a Special Issue, see Fenix. In this conference, Houvenaghel contributed by offering a comparative perspective on women refugees’ transit in France. She juxtaposed the novels on transit by the Spanish refugee Victoria Kent and the German refugee Anna Seghers in the article: “Refugee Women’s Transit in France (1933-1945): a transnational perspective”

The next article of the series was presented at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Houvenaghel explored the collective register of the letters by Spanish refugee Rosa Chacel from a transgenerational perspective in her study: "The youth of the 1920s in the mirror of the new generation: the correspondence Chacel-Moix".