Rachel Cohen, professor of practice in the arts in the Program in Creative Writing in the Department of English Language and Literature, is cofounder of the Migration Stories Project. Its publications include Migration Stories: A Community Anthology (2017) and a series of five chapbooks (2019).

When Rachel DeWoskin and I started the Migration Stories Project in 2016, we were concerned about the way public figures were referring to immigrants in a pejorative way. We wanted to shift the emphasis away from a label for a group of people and toward the process. Migration is such a deep part of human experience. It’s part of everybody’s story, every family’s story.

This winter I’m teaching a class called Migration Essays for the first time. Some of my students are creative writing majors who have personal or family stories to tell. Others want to write broader historical narratives. Some are studying history or political theory and want to learn to write in a more open way for a wide audience.

The course is a part of a new cluster of study between English and Creative Writing. We’re working with two people in English: Sarah Johnson, who studies archives, narrative forms, and the transatlantic slave trade, and Josephine McDonagh, who studies migration and British literature. In Creative Writing, Rachel DeWoskin taught Historical Fiction / Migration Stories in the fall, and some of her students are taking my course. There’s also a Migration Poetics working group. There’s really a lot happening, not just in English and Creative Writing, but all over the University.

I’m a product of migration, but I haven’t written about it much. My grandparents and mother came from Europe after World War II, so my mother was born abroad and wasn’t an American citizen for a long time. Different parts of my family came from Ireland, Poland, and Ukraine. I have one cousin from the part of the family that remained in Warsaw and ended up in the concentration camps during World War II. She survived and came here. I did some oral history work with her and wrote a short piece that was in Poetry magazine.

Writing about migration can offer solace, but that’s not its only, or even main, purpose—it’s more about bearing witness. For example, one of the Migration Stories chapbooks grew out of an oral history project with a man named José who was a survivor of the Guatemalan civil war. He’s a wonderful storyteller but not a writer. I was able to link him up with Felipe Bomeny [AB’19], a History and Creative Writing major from a Latin American background, who was familiar with a lot of specifics of the language and history. They met for months, and the student wrote this beautiful piece, Leaving Xelajú. It was important to José [who preferred not to use his last name in the chapbook] because there were people in the story who had died, and he felt he owed them a record of their existence.

Some of the best work that’s happening right now nationally in literature is paying attention to migration. I want the University of Chicago to be part of that, for human reasons, but also for literary reasons.

Philip V. Bohlman, the Ludwig Rosenberger Distinguished Service Professor in Jewish History in the Department of Music, has published numerous books and articles on migration. During Autumn Quarter, he taught the course Music and the Global Migration Crisis for the first time.

I come from a generation of humanists and social scientists that was very interested in immigration and ethnicity. My book The Land Where Two Streams Flow  [University of Illinois Press, 1989] is a study of Israel as a place formed by migration and multiple identities. Those are the two streams of the title. Migration challenges your ethnic identity; sometimes it creates ethnic identity.

In the 1990s, there was increasing academic interest in migration and mobility. Mobility studies, which began around this time, is connected more with Marxist studies and studies of labor. There was also a shift in the studies of cultures in which mobility and migration were historically part of their identity—Jewish history, which I study, and what used to be called Gypsy studies. This began to take a radically new form: not so much studying the treasure of Roma culture and music, but looking at the way the Roma continue to be oppressed and forced to move.

The students in Music and the Global Migration Crisis produced some wonderful papers. There was a paper on a particular genre of music and prayer that unifies the Rohingya. A paper on sound across the Korean demilitarized zone. A study on Japanese indentured laborers in Hawaii and their repertory of music about the migration experience.

This spring I’m teaching a course, which I’ve taught before, on the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a highly political event that began in 1956, partly as a response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Questions of migration come up a great deal—for example, whether Algerians or Francophone Africans perform for France, whether Roma are performing. Last year, when it took place in Israel, there was a lack of Palestinian representation, which was very controversial.

In addition to my teaching and academic work, I serve as artistic director of the New Budapest Orpheum Society, ensemble in residence for the Division of the Humanities. Our second CD, Jewish Cabaret in Exile  (2009), focused on different repertories that formed around ideas of exile. Our current project, which we’ll record this year, is on the question of return and migration. Since the worldwide migration crisis, these themes have become intensified in our work.

In some fields of music scholarship, there’s sometimes the attitude that the music of migration isn’t important. This is not a music that’s being played at Symphony Center or in the big festivals. But there’s a refugee opera company in Germany  now, for example. I think the most commonly misunderstood aspect of migration is that it’s not our concern, that it doesn’t belong in our world: Why can’t I just listen to the Beethoven piano sonatas? Why do I have to listen to this stuff when it makes me uncomfortable? There’s nothing wrong with music of great beauty making you uncomfortable.

Photo Creds: 
Photo by Timothy Schmalz