Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention focuses on the physicality of detention centers in Canada and how they impact the lives of the people held there. The book started life as a part of Chak’s master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Toronto, and broadly consists of three sections: the outside appearance and location of the detention centers, life inside the detention centers, and an interview with an immigrant activist. There is also an epilogue by activist and writer Syed Hussan which is composed of images, a narrative, and definitions for various key terms in the conversation, such as “displacement” and “institutional racism/sexism,” which are defined from an activist’s perspective. Along with statistics and cited sources, Chak presents the issues in visually compelling ways that illuminate the concept and process of detention, causing the reader to interrogate boundaries and borders, and forcing the reader to confront unjust practices that seek to fade into the background of everyday life.

In Undocumented we learn that in Canada, undocumented immigrants can be held indefinitely without charge or trial, with some individuals waiting up to seven years in detention. The idea of spending even a fraction of that time imprisoned without trial is abstract and difficult to conceive of for most readers. Chak uses an architectural perspective as well as her experience as an activist and the experiences of those she has worked with to make these concepts concrete.

The book opens with landscapes, as if you were walking a version of Google Maps Street View rendered in black and white outlines. The lines that make up the streets stretch and curve to connect to an upside down mirrored landscape, though not the same one. The effect is so disorienting that it takes quite some time to realize that the panels on the page depict a continuation of the same scene. The unnecessary gutters act as imposed, irrational borders that prevent the eyes from recognizing the page as a single scene. Without Chak’s notes, you would never know that each of these banal scenes contains a detention center. There are no public statistics on how many detainees are being held in nearly half of the ten detention centers listed. Chak effectively demonstrates that these issues are closer than we might think to our everyday lives. The somewhat shaky hand-drawn lines of these landscapes stand in sharp contrast to the drawings in the following section, creating a hard division between natural and unnatural, free flowing and restricted.

In the next section, Chak provides the experience of walking through a detention center with room by room of precise line drawings. No color or substance fills these pages; we are constantly monitored by security cameras, not able to see where we’re going beyond the next door. This tour is captioned by snippets of an interview with an architect who designed a detention center, who is more concerned about a job well done than the implications of that job. The anonymous architect insists, “Look, they come to me because they know I can turn X to Y in the shortest time possible. That’s the architect’s job.” In response, Chak interrogates the complacency of architects in designing these dehumanizing spaces, asking the reader “How does architecture inflict violence on human bodies and minds, onto our physical environment?” She is not content to let architects absolve themselves of guilt and consequence.

Deportation is violence. Detention is violence. Both are dehumanizing and inhumane. Neither are solutions; they do not address the problem, they only inspire fear. In her introduction, Chak notes that her portrayal of detention is incomplete, and an ongoing project. She does not claim to be able to fit the entire scope of the issue within the book. However, her approach is unique, innovative, and effective in order to communicate the issues at hand and the dehumanizing practices that are currently taking place across the country. The first person perspective, clean lines, and relatively straightforward visuals make it remarkably easy for readers to insert themselves into the narrative. Statistics are balanced with the experiences of real people, creating a much more effective approach than if Chak was to present a fictionalized narrative. This book is an incredibly necessary read, and a call for all citizens to question detention practices in their own countries, and to demand not better detention centers, but a fundamental shift in the way undocumented immigrants are treated.

Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention
By Tings Chak
ISBN: 9780994050762
Ad Astra Comix, 2017

  • Maria Aghazarian

    Past Reviewer

    Maria Aghazarian is a librarian at Swarthmore College and the Lower Merion library system, in the stretch of southeastern Pennsylvania otherwise known as the “greater Philadelphia area.” Her love of graphic novels started with manga in middle school, but exploded after graduating college when she learned that superheroes aren’t the be-all and end-all of comics. She aims to support small and independent presses, and manufacturers of sturdy bookcases.

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