by Joseph Anderton
What place does literary fiction have in addressing homelessness? French anthropologist Marc Augé and British-Bangladeshi writer Mahsuda Snaith prompt this question through their respective texts No Fixed Abode (2011) and How to Find Home (2019). Augé’s novellais about a retired tax inspector called Henri Cariou who sleeps in his car on the streets of Paris. With some savings and intent on maintaining hygiene and respectability, Henri calls himself a “top-of-the-range”, “clean-cut” homeless person initially (Augé 14, 34), but is a “living corpse, waking mummy” (54) before long. Snaith’s novel follows Molly and a group of friends who are homeless on their journey from Nottingham to Skegness and back, as an abusive boyfriend from her past closes in. While Molly’s best friend Jules holds on to “neatness” (Snaith 15) as a sign of civilisation, Molly concludes that “we were barely people; just waste products on the sidelines of humanity” (27), sticking together as “we homeless let off chem trails; we follow each other like ants” (223). Both authors imagine characters marginalised from society and immersed in the subcultures of sleeping rough.
The question of literary fiction’s role in relation to homelessness is more pronounced now than in the late twentieth century period, owing to the contemporary research landscape. Twenty-first century approaches to homelessness turn to the voices of personal experience to understand its causes, conditions, and effects. Qualitative sociological research methods such as narrative analysis focus on “the social reality of the narrator” (Etherington 81) and gain insight through people’s interpretations and narrative re-constructions of lived events. These individuals’ reflective stories relate “the social networks in which they participate and the ‘cultures’ they create together” (Somerville 20), as well as forming “part of the wider cultural narrative of homelessness” (Brown et al. 9). Against this valid shift to ‘real’, ‘true’, or ‘life’ stories, literary fiction on homelessness can seem peripheral or even redundant. And yet, the last two decades have also seen a rise in creative writing on the subject, to make more imaginative and empathic connections to people sleeping rough and communicate composite views of homelessness through individual narrators’ stories.
No Fixed Abode: Ethnofiction, Social Facts, and Subjectivity
Augé subtitles No Fixed Abode ‘ethnofiction’, a term which suggests a new genre of writing that attempts to combine the empirical observation of ethnography and the creative narrative perspectives available to fiction. Ethnography is the scientific description of a group and their lifestyle following sustained fieldwork, which, according to sociologist Paul Atkinson, provides uniquely privileged opportunities to enter into and to share the everyday lives of other people. It provides us with the challenge of transforming that social world into texts and other forms of representation that analyse and reconstruct those distinctive lives and actions. (3)
As ‘transform’, ‘representation’, and ‘reconstruct’ indicate, the ethnographer mediates between a culture as practiced and the observations reproduced textually. The prefix ‘ethno-’, as Augé himself identifies elsewhere, “relativises the term which follows it and makes it depend upon ‘ethnicity’ or ‘culture’, which are assumed to have analogous practices to those that we call ‘sciences’” (War of Dreams 118). The implication is that socio-cultural reality is translated through study (-ology), writing (-graphy), and invention (-fiction). Reviewing No Fixed Abode, qualitative researcher Leah Reich claims that ethnofiction at least “has the virtue of making explicit the delicate balance between literature and science that is a feature of all ethnographic research” (n.p.).
However, literary ethnofiction does take the mediation a step further, following the French documentary films of the 1950s in which visual anthropologists such as Jean Rouch experimented with improvised acting. In Augé’s preface to No Fixed Abode, literary ethnofiction is described as a “narrative that evokes a social fact through the subjectivity of a particular individual” (vii). However, since this is neither autobiography nor confession, that fictional individual has to be created ‘from scratch’, or, in other ways, “out of the thousand and one details observed in everyday life” (vii). The introduction of the first-person perspective of an imagined character allows Augé to lay bare the internal effects of external social conditions for “a new category among the poor” (vii): people in work or with income, but without a home. He claims, “he is using the novelist’s mode of exposition to suggest the fleshy totality of emotion, uncertainty or anxiety concealed within the themes he has picked out” (ix). In this way, the turn to voices of personal experience in homelessness research and the genre of ethnofiction ostensibly share the focus on the individual. But the ethnofiction author does not have the same ambition as the novelist. He does not want his readers to identify with or ‘believe in’ his protagonist but, rather, to discover in him something of their times and in that sense – and that sense alone – to recognize themselves or see something of themselves in him. The character round which an ethnofiction is built is, in any event, a witness to his or her times and, in the best of cases, a symbol. (ix)
So, Augé’s concept of ethnofiction resists literary fiction’s powers of affect, empathy, and vicariousness, in the way a reader can identify with or believe in a protagonist. He intends to take observations of a real social group (what Henri calls a “micro-society” (Augé 50)) to imagine a representative character that acts as a lens on or figure of the social times. Readers are encouraged to connect to the character through the situation or context they both broadly share.
Augé’s approach to homelessness appears bound together with his intentions for his ethnofictional form: we should not primarily identify with Henri as an individual without reading him through his social, cultural, and economic totality. As a result, Augé’s ambition accentuates the structural factors of homelessness, such as lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and poverty, rather than personal factors or lived events. Despite his advocacy of an imagined character to humanise the wider social issue of homelessness, including the “rootlessness and the erosion of identity that unfolds with detachment from place” (Leorke n.p.), Augé intends to conjure a person as a product, one that instantiates the impersonal conditions of their production. The inner life of the character should become a reflection of their environment: “in looking at himself that ethnofictional character discovers the world’s madness” (Augé x). This concept of ethnofiction does not address the problem of homelessness in league with recent sociological approaches that depart from the old pathological or structural orthodoxies to treat homelessness as a complex, multidimensional phenomenon requiring personalised intervention.
However, No Fixed Abode is not as impersonal or unrelatable as some sections of Augé’s preface on ethnofiction imply. In fact, as Reich points out, he has “created a romantic, sympathetic character” (n.p.) in Henri and this is, in part, because the social fact of Henri’s homelessness is entangled in the act of reflecting on and writing about it. The diary form attributes to the fictional character the ethnographic translation of empirical information into written text. For example, Henri’s diary entries help him to make sense of his life: “I’d like to regard my life as a story I could get caught up in. If that story is tellable, then there’s a certain logic to it; it isn’t completely mad” (Augé 11). Besides the processing of events and ideas that storytelling affords, Henri’s homelessness yields reflective insights on social psychology, such as on being (or not being) a social actor. “For the first time in my life I resisted the illusion of beginning again” (77), he writes, adding later,
[it’s] difficult to play a role when there are no grounds for that role any more, difficult to stay in your place when you’ve lost that place or to exist in another person’s dwelling when you yourself have no fixed abode, are without hearth or home, are almost nameless. (78)
His rejection of a normative modern lifestyle and realisation of the profound consequences of this are fitting for someone who is not only sleeping rough, but who believed in homelessness as a transgression of settled, materialistic, capitalist societies: “I’ve gone over to the other side now” (18). The social fact that Henri represents is therefore rendered subjectively and distinctly. It comes through the idiosyncrasies of his character and particular attitude to rough sleeping as a kind of liberation and oblivion. This individuation is one of the reasons real first-hand accounts of rough sleeping are so compelling, because they express a dimension of the social fact through the person’s specific conception and narration of lived events, as Augé also recognises: “every life narrative, including the autobiographical one . . . is, primarily a reconstruction” (viii). When form offers a unique reflection of the subject matter, how the stories are told is highly instructive. Unless readers accept that everything about Henri is like clay moulded by external pressures, his account is an expression of himself and his view of society, and not only a window on the values and structures that impinge on him.
How To Find Home: Seeing Through Imagination, Empathy, and Self-Reflexivity
While Augé sees ethnofiction as connecting readers to their own times through an imagined character and recognition of those shared times prompting self-reflection, he downplays the extent to which fiction is a contract to suspend disbelief and be transported into characters and their individuated perception of the external world. Moreover, he arguably underestimates the novel’s integral ethnographic potential, in the way the fictional but believable subjectivity of an individual can account for a culture, society, or community. Snaith’s How To Find Home shows the group dynamics and everyday practicalities for women sleeping rough, the impact of prostitution, substance abuse, complex trauma, social stigma and invisibility, and struggles with self-identity, all through the perspective of a fictional character. Snaith prepared for the book by working with homeless services and sexual exploitation charities, noting: “if I’m writing a book on homeless people and not experiencing it myself, it’s important that I did a lot of research on them because there are voices which I know are being constantly misrepresented” (Das n.p.). But the imaginative and empathic demands of literary fiction make it possible to pursue more than the study and observation of an issue: evoking the position of an individual to create closeness, intimacy, and feeling with the subject to better inhabit the communities and cultures of homelessness.
Identifying with or making believe in characters can bring the different or unfamiliar into the realm of simulated experience. The philosophy scholar Amy Coplan argues persuasively that when a reader empathises with a character, she simulates that character’s experience but at the same time maintains her own separate identity. The self-other differentiation allows the reader to simultaneously simulate the character’s psychological states and experience her own separate psychological states (148).
The duality in this reading experience means that responses to literature do not entail a unified or identical experience with the subject. An inherent distance remains, even if bracketed off, which contributes to some pejorative implications that fiction is unable to surmount. For instance, the sociologist Ruth Lister acknowledges that “the very act of writing about people in poverty – even as subjects and actors – from a position of affluence, is, at one level, an act of objectification of a group that already suffers excessive objectification and scrutiny” (125). Contemporary novels, such as Snaith’s How To Find Home are not exempt from this problem, but by shifting the perspective from third-person observation to first-person narration, they encourage two conscientious forms of ‘seeing through’: adopting the position of an other (as far as possible), but also signalling fiction’s status as representation in moments of translucency. Through narrative perspective and textual self-consciousness, books of literary fiction can “destabilise readers’ preconceptions about ‘faceless’ and ‘invisible’ homeless people” (Korte and Zipp 74), which helps to counter the stereotypes and ignorance that constitute damaging forms of seeing through.
The possibility of accessing a mutual substrate of humanity through imagination is a key idea in How To Find Home. The characters return to the question of ‘what makes us human?’ repeatedly, and from its earliest expression, commonality despite differences is highlighted when Luca corrects the question’s phrasing: “What makes us different from other animals. Humans are animals too” (Snaith 81). Molly thinks about her response later, “The thing that makes us human is SHAME” (267), which involves a kind of double consciousness, to see oneself censoriously, in the way one supposes other people might. Molly then verbalises a modified answer: “Imagination”, because “without it you’d never be able to imagine what it was like to be someone else. And you wouldn’t care so much, would you? You wouldn’t want to help them” (273). Whereas shame is to self-consciously judge oneself while being mindful of society’s possible judgements, imagination is described as a more solicitous alternative, to connect charitably with other people. Molly’s earlier realisation about the distinction between sympathy and empathy informs her appreciation of imagination: “Sympathetic. I used to think that was a good word but Jules said it was an insult. Empathy meant someone felt what you felt, was trying to walk in your shoes. Sympathy meant they were looking down at you from way up high” (193). This is an important distinction in navigating the self-other differentiation when engaging with a character. It tells us that sympathy is a form of recognition that stimulates emotions such as pity, but necessarily maintains distance because it emphasises difference between people’s circumstances. Empathy is an attempt to share feelings, adopt a perspective, and find a common ground. It is revealing that the novel leaves imagination as the uncontested answer to what makes us human, where the word ‘human’ is a synonym for the better parts of our nature: kind, considerate, understanding. Since fiction is a site for imagination, it is a case of the novel singling out the virtues of the novel, in a moment of translucent self-reflection, which is the second form of ‘seeing through’ Snaith employs.
While Molly is not explicitly writing in the way Henri is with his diary, she is reflecting on her experiences and her story is consciously framed as a story. The opening line, “This is a happy story. This is an adventure” (Snaith 1), establishes this awareness of narration and genre. The influence of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also patent, both on Molly’s formative years when she reads the story intently and in thematic parallels like Dorothy’s conviction “[there] is no place like home” (44) and Oz’s confession “I have been making believe” (183). References to this book establish a subtle yet significant intertextual principle: that stories are told and understood through and in relation to other stories. This intertextual layer is not to obliterate the credibility of Snaith’s narrative or completely reverse the evocation of an individual consciousness through words. Rather, it acknowledges that fiction enters into a network with other texts, makes new and modifies existing representations, and that these portrayals are used to comprehend and navigate reality. Snaith takes fiction seriously by exercising its capacity to transport the reader while delicately alluding to its own status as representation with real-world impact.
The language, narratives, and representations used to describe homelessness influence the perception and treatment of people who sleep rough. Snaith explores the potential interference and manipulation in this process when Private Pete is publicly shamed for not accepting and being grateful of shelter. A sign above his chosen spot on the streets reads: “THIS MAN HAS REFUSED TO TAKE AN OFFER OF THREE NIGHTS IN A HOSTEL” (Snaith 131). A female journalist takes an interest in this story, looking for a sound bite, and Jules says on record:
‘What you warning people of? Smelly homeless bastard lives here?’ The woman asked if Jules could say the comment again without swearing. Then again without the ‘smelly, homeless’ bit. Then again without the swearing. They kept on doing takes like this, trying to get a clean version (132).
This memorable incident highlights the media’s role in constructing narratives or images to be optimal for dissemination. By viewing it from behind the scenes, as it were, Snaith draws attention to the mediation in representation to prompt more conscious and critical reading. But crucially, Snaith’s own novel should not escape this critical gaze. The need for vigilance towards sources that can shape public attitudes to homelessness applies to literary fiction, even if the texts turn back on themselves to suggest the importance of careful, self-conscious discourses that can improve how people speak, perceive, and act in regard to homelessness. However, Molly arrives at a more generous interpretation of the Private Pete incident when she notices that it was the journalist’s intervention that made them realise the dehumanising treatment, which reaffirms the importance of giving the benefit of the doubt: “perhaps people did want to listen. Perhaps they wanted to know our stories. Perhaps they wanted to understand” (133). It is apparent that there is a fine line between helping and harming when representing vulnerable and marginalised groups even with good intentions. Snaith’s novel indicates this dilemma to confront its own potential limitations and simultaneously demonstrate its spirit of sensitivity.
Both Augé and Snaith situate their work in the individual consciousness of a fictional character to penetrate the interior thoughts, feelings and expressions of homelessness. The emphasis of seeing through fiction falls in slightly different places for each author though. Augé’s ethnofiction promotes the use of imagination and subjectivity, but salient lines in his preface undermine the captivating quality of fiction in favour of envisioning the external contexts that could produce such a character. Snaith’s novel shows awareness of the responsibility in representation and its impact on the lives of real people undergoing these issues, yet she more consistently invokes the empathic potency in fiction to hold true to the idea that the personal makes homelessness not only more accessible and vivid, but also composed of complex individuals. Each raises the prospect of experiencing psychological and emotional proximity with imagined individuals as an effective means of realising subcultures and engaging deeply with socio-political issues.
 Émile Durkheim described sociology as the scientific study of ‘social facts’ in his seminal book The Rules of Sociological Method (1895). Social facts are “commonly used to designate almost all the phenomena that occur within society” but, in Durkheim’s definition, “consist of manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they exercise control over him” (51-52).
Joseph Anderton, “Imagining Homelessness: Ethnofiction in Marc Augé’s No Fixed Abode and Mahsuda Snaith’s How To Find Home,” Alluvium, Vol.9, No.4 (2021): n.pag. Web 6 September 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.4.04
Dr Joseph Anderton is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Birmingham City University. He is the author of Beckett’s Creatures: Art of Failure after the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2016) and is currently in the early stages of his second book, Writing Homelessness: Rough Sleeping in Contemporary British Literature. Joseph has research interests in modernism and its legacies, dehumanisation and the nonhuman, and has published articles on Beckett, Kafka, Coetzee, and Auster on these topics.
Atkinson, Paul. For Ethnography. London: Sage, 2015.
Augé, Marc. No Fixed Abode. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Seagull, 2018.
—. The War of Dreams: Exercise in Ethno-Fiction. Trans. Liz Heron. London and Sterling: Pluto Press, 1999.
Baum, L. Frank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Brown, Philip, et al. Homelessness, Multiple Exclusion and Everyday Lives. Salford: University of Salford, 2012.
Coplan, Amy. “Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62.2 (2004), 141–152.
Das, Nabanita. “How real life on Leicester’s streets inspired author’s new novel.” Leicester Mercury. 30 June 2019 (accessed 11 May 2021):
Durkheim, Émile. The Rules of Sociological Method. Ed. Steven Lukes, trans. W. D. Halls. New York: The Free Press, 1982.
Etherington, Kim. Becoming A Reflexive Researcher: Using Ourselves In Research. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2004.
Korte, Barbara and George Zipp. Poverty in Contemporary Literature: Themes and Figurations on the British Book Market. Basingstoke: Palgrave Pivot, 2014.
Leorke, Dale. “No Fixed Abode by Marc Auge.” Society and Space, 15 (2014): www.societyandspace.org/articles/no-fixed-abode-by-marc-auge.
Lister, Ruth. Poverty. Cambridge: Blackwell/Polity Press, 2004.
Reich, Leah. “Taking Writing Seriously: Marc Augé’s “No Fixed Abode”’. Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 August 2013 (accessed 11 May 2021): lareviewofbooks.org/article/taking-writing-seriously-marc-auges-no-fixed-abode/.
Somerville, Peter. ‘Understanding Homelessness’, Housing, 30 (2013), 384-415.
Snaith, Mahsuda. How To Find Home. London: Doubleday, 2019.