‘What it feels like to be an other’: imaginations of displacement in contemporary speculative fiction

  • Eva Menger


This essay explores how contemporary speculative fiction can offer new ways of imagining the refugee experience. Looking at Omar El Akkad’s American War (2017) and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (2017), it argues that the cognitive estrangement effect, or the way in which each text encourages the reader to distance themselves from reality, can help the reader build a bridge between the world of the refugee and that of the reader. Central to the discussion will be the genre’s use of the term novum, with reference to concepts of time and space. Not only do these elements contribute to achieving cognitive estrangement, they also have a fundamental role to play in the lives of refugees. Drawing a parallel between the novum as speculative fiction’s most important trope and the role of the real novum in refugee lives shows how the genre reflects the disruptive changes brought about by the displacement of refugee populations. In addition, the flexible use of time in each text has proven to be a useful tool for helping the reader imagine how being a refugee impacts on one’s sense of time and, subsequently, one’s agency—an element which will be explored through an analysis of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus, as well as insights from David Hoy’s reading of Martin Heidegger’s prioritisation of the future. As speculative fiction’s main task is to imagine alternative realities, a third central element of the discussion will be ways in which the genre utilises space. Ultimately, it is argued that refugee narratives do not have to be strictly realist, as fantastical elements help readers to transcend the personal imagination— and sometimes that is what is needed to envisage the unthinkable.

Keywords: Speculative fiction, Science fiction, Refugee experience, Novum, Time, Space

How to Cite:

Menger, E., (2019) “‘What it feels like to be an other’: imaginations of displacement in contemporary speculative fiction”, Studies in Arts and Humanities 4(2), 79-95. doi:

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Published on
30 Jan 2019
Peer Reviewed