Alluvium Editorial 8.3: Contemporary Representations of Homelessness

Special Issue: Contemporary Representations of Homelessness

Editors: Julia Ditter, Liam Harrison and Martin Goodhead

From theorizations of transcendent homelessness to contemporary narratives of displacement in the wake of war and famine, the valences of homelessness have concerned scholars and writers, from artistic, intellectual, and existential perspectives, throughout the long present.

The different forms of homelessness allow us to reflect upon it as a distinct type of vulnerability and condition through which survival or acting are judged, artistically, critically and politically. It varies from symbolic destitution and stark material deprivation to traversing the boundaries between homelessness and the homely. Different cultural representations of homelessness can affectively challenge us, providing various engagements with precarious lives and living conditions; these speak to the broader capabilities of storytelling and amplifying marginalised voices. The trauma of homelessness experienced as an ‘Event’ potentially brings to light  longer-standing erosions of psychic and material settlements, the imaginary, symbolic and real, of a nascent political consciousness as well as testament to suffering.

A multitude of questions arise from the title of the December issue of Alluvium. These include: How can we understand literary homelessness, often inadequately understood as a form of literary wanderlust pursued in voluntary exile, in relation to the actual and lived experiences of homeless people and writers? What language does literature provide to talk about homelessness, and what broader concepts of liberty, historical being and praxis as such potentially arise?  What is it to be ill at ease, in terms of suffering and liberation, language, racial symbolization, class – and how can literary texts and their interpretations do justice to this unhomeliness? Do literary representations capture the political interregnum – from government policies and policing strategies, to ethical journalism and charges of media voyeurism? And, finally, how can approaches to literary representations of the homeless complement and challenge social science approaches with regards to ‘social facts’ and ethico-political responsiveness? 

This issue of the journal confronts the ethical and aesthetic challenges of representing homelessness across its various forms in contemporary literature and culture. The series of articles examine rootlessness,  marginalization and counterpower in various media, and across fluctuating borders – exploring issues from symbolic destitution and material deprivation to traversing those transient states between homelessness and homed. 

Central to this issue, as with Judith Butler’s work, are contemporary modes of citizenship – namely, who is granted the rights of citizenship, and who is denied them. The refugee crisis and now the Covid-19 pandemic have accentuated social inequalities across societies. The repeated mantra of “stay home and stay safe” speaks to an economically inoculated and privileged sector of society, who can easily procure the means of both safety and a home. At the same time, the pandemic has exposed ego-ideal fantasies of immortality and resilience in the face of empirical evidence.  From markets to interpersonal communication engines, complex systems of mediation which colonize and abstract new territories of the self are nevertheless felt as uncanny, unpredictable and liable to outbreaks of contagion. Otherness associated with health precarity and biopolitics is therefore brought into focus, approached through discourses of abjection and hybridity in philosophy from Julia Kristeva and Donna Haraway respectively, through to sociological work on gender respectability and revolting subjectivities (Tyler 2013) in the wake of austerity. The pandemic has made thinking through the crisis of homelessness in all its senses an even more pressing and pertinent concern.  

Image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash under a CC BY licence. [Picture shows a person wrapped in a white blanket lying on brick steps in front of a black door with graffiti on it, surrounded by garbage bags]

The articles contained here engage with cultural representation of vulnerability, social austerity, material-ideological structures, state welfare, rootlessness, refugeehood, and practices around neoliberal capitalism. The critical depth of this scholarship allows us to consider homelessness as a pervasive mode of social insecurity, as Joseph Anderton does in his article on ‘The Post-Millennial Rise of British Homelessness Literature’. Anderton draws on Judith Butler’s definition of ‘precarity’, which she describes as “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks […] becoming differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death”.  Anderton’s article takes on these considerations by mapping the rise in homelessness narratives across twenty-first century British literature, shedding light on how those subjected to homelessness can tell their stories, but also “[bring] readers into potently intimate and mindful entanglements with precarious lives and living conditions through the craft of storytelling and interpersonal powers of fiction”. 

Anindita Shome examines fiction’s powers and failures to represent the experiences of young refugees, and the real and symbolic states of homelessness they confront, by considering their depiction in Moshin Hamid’s Exit West (2017) and Atia Abawi’s A Land of Permanent Goodbyes (2018). Shome reconsiders the definitions of homelessness and homelands through the refugee crisis, troubling simple dichotomies of homed and homeless, detailing the dual sense of being torn from one’s homeland and feeling displaced in an unhospitable host nation. As Abawi writes in his novel, these young refugees are “[d]oomed never to be a part of their new world and forever ripped from their old”. 

Image by Dan Burton on Unsplash under a CC BY licence. [Photograph showing a homeless woman sitting under scaffolding on an otherwise empty pedestrian’s walk]

Ben Screech turns to Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home (2008) to engage with the troubling aspects of stilted and oppressive homeplaces, alongside the nomadic and rootless sense of homelessness in the American popular imagination. Screech explores how Home interrogates ‘the ideals of small American communities, whilst commenting on the uneven relationship between the individual and society that exists at the heart of the American experience’. While being rootless has connotations of those quintessential American fantasies of liberty and freedom, this rolling stone lifestyle also bestows the status of perennial outsider, of a kind of marginalised existence, albeit one often propelled by its own self-aggrandising inflections of ‘never returning home’.

Anjum Khan’s article “Disabled and Deprived: Reading Refugee Narratives in the Light of Disability” deals with the question of disability and the refugee in reference to Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow (2017) and Sylvia Whitman’s The Milk of Birds (2013).  In The Cambridge Companion to Disability Studies (2017), Stuart Murray and Claire Barker claim that disability is everywhere in literature, writing that: “whether in the bodies that populate countless narratives containing physical disability, or in the mental difference that informs so much detail about character and psychology, disability features in literary production as a constant presence”. Similarly to Shome, Khan focuses on experiences of homelessness in relation to the living conditions of refugees and their displacement from home. Khan’s article considers the phenomenology and politics of Australian refugee internment camps and Darfur refugee zones within literature through the lens of the subjects they produce and which navigate them: it poses questions around the construction of a biopolitics relating to states of being either overlooked or pathologized. The article serves as an introduction to literature of displacement in addition to the production, and survival, of physical and neurological impairments or states of trauma as social symptoms and modes of resistance that are metonymic and metaphorical. Their reading opens up how both texts bodies are intertwined with neurostates: the loss of memory is figured as a loss of home and praxis, with trauma-induced absences made to mimic the social amnesia of alienation from (a) home and (b) past practices that make up a ‘home from home’, whilst living in a state of nomadic transition. Readable against this are signs of nomadic resistance. Subjectivities – potential and dictated by world structures – evade not only the suffering subject’s immediate gaze but that of their interlocutors. 

Image by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash under a CC BY licence. [Photograph of a pair of untied brown boots on a cobblestone path]

Meanwhile, in “Where childhood ceases: media representations of the homeless street children of Mumbai, India”, co-authors Srishti and Tavleen Singh confront dreamwork and ideological dissonance in the framing of Indian homelessness within cinematic texts. Using a six part Critical Media Literacy Framework (CMLF)  around film content, context and spectatorial positions, with readings additionally informed by Althusserian screen theory and Mark Fisher’s (2009) application of Žižekian notions around the imaginary, their essay offers a preliminary examination of spectatorial positions with regards to narratives of  aspiration and desert under a neoliberal rubric. The contemporary films under examination, Salaam Bombay! (1998), Chillar Party (2011), and Stanley ka Dabba (2011), are read as variously adopting and complicating ideological suppositions encoded into screen positions; characters are framed in terms of their close relationship to homelessness, and as parts of a broader working-class homelessness integrated within the social hierarchy – class once again acts as a constitutive exception (after Slavoj Žižek).

The articles here constitute only a small selection of the research being done on homelessness in relation to literature, but they make a significant contribution to expanding the understanding of contemporary literature and cultural texts beyond the Western Anglosphere, as well as reading homelessness through the continuing issues of class and minority exclusions.  We hope that they will precipitate enquiries not only into the representation of suffering with regards to dispossession, but into the subjectivity of the traditionally “homeless” – including their power and agency – and the ongoing homelessness engendered by precarity.  We also look forward to the conversations that follow from this issue and the Issues ahead in 2021/22, overseen by the Managing Editors and directed by Alluvium’s array of new Guest Editors. 


Julia Ditter, Liam Harrison, Martin Goodhead “Alluvium Editorial 8.3: Contemporary Representations of Homelessness” Alluvium, Volume 8, No 3. (2020). n:pag. Web 7 December 2020. DOI:

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Twitter: @julia_ditter

Website: Julia_Ditter

Julia Ditter (Managing Editor)

Julia Ditter is a PhD candidate at Northumbria University, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and holds an MA in British and North American Cultural Studies from the University of Freiburg. Her dissertation focuses on Scottish literary responses to borders and environmental discourses from 1800 to the present day. She is co-founder and editor of Arcadiana and co-organiser of the EASCLE Webinar series. Since 2020, she is an elected member of the board of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies. Her research interests include British, Irish and Scottish literatures, television studies, cultural studies, border studies, animal studies, mobility studies and ecocriticism.

Liam Harrison (Managing Editor)

Liam Harrison is a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, researching late styles and the legacies of modernism in twenty-first century literature. He has previously worked in book distribution at Gill Books in Dublin. He is an elected member of the board of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies. 

Martin Goodhead (Managing Editor) 

Martin is an English Literature Phd at Keele University: his research details with contemporary representations of British working-class subjectivity within post-2008 fiction with reference to hauntology and emergent political imaginaries along with existent practices. He previously completed an MA in English at Keele, graduating in 2018/19 with a thesis on Williamsian working-class Residual and Emergent practices in reference to Mark Fisher’s Hauntology within the novels of Martin Amis, Lisa Blower and Anthony Cartwright.

Martin has worked as a Peer Review Liaison and Editor for the Keele HUMSS journal Under Construction@Keele , before taking over as Editor-in-Chief in June 2019. He previously co-edited Alluvium Journal’s ‘The Global Contemporary: Ecologies of Gender and Class within the Combined and Uneven Anthropocene’ June 2019 issue. Martin is an elected member of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies Executive Committee (2020-22). He also serves on Keele’s Humanities and Social Science Work in Progress Research Seminar Group, an active member of Keele’s Geopoetics collective Dawdlers, Postgraduate Rep for Keele’s Postgraduate Community and Student Rep on Keele’s HUMSS Postgraduate Research Committee. He co-organized the 2018 and 2019 HUMSS Postgraduate Conferences at Keele, and lead- organized November 2018’s ‘Placing Class within the Contemporary’ interdisciplinary Conference at Keele.

Works Cited

Barker, Clare, and Stuart Murray. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and Disability (Cambridge Companions to Literature). Cambridge University Press, 2017. 

Butler, Judith. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? Reprint, Verso, 2010. 

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009. 

Mitchell, David, and Sharon Snyder. Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Corporealities: Discourses Of Disability). University of Michigan Press, 2001. 

Upstone, Sara. Spatial Politics In The Postcolonial Novel. Routledge, 2009. 

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