For the last five years the war in Syria has not only caused the deaths of 470,000 people, created eight million internally displaced citizens, and caused the exodus of another four million to other countries, it has brought the term “refugee crisis” into the global consciousness. But what exactly is a refugee crisis, how do we perceive it, and how can writers help us to see the humanity of the situation?

Four writers, each with their own interests in dislocation and crossing borders – Marlon James, Sunjeev Sahota, Laila Lalami and Maaza Mengiste – attempted to answer these questions in the intimacy of the Nuyorican Cafe last night as part of the Country of Nowhere: the Refugee Crisis panel at the PEN World Voices festival in New York City. Though convivial and communal, the evening also proved a circular one, throughout which the skill of the novelist to highlight an individual story, as well as the imperative to “sit in the discomfort” of other people’s stories became regular touching points.

After each reading a section of their work, which included the Booker-nominated and winning novels by Sahota and James, The Year of the Runaways and A Brief History of Seven Killings respectively, the writers, led by Lalami, began their conversation on the subject of dislocation and the refugee crisis.

On the question of what novelists, in contrast to traditional reportage, can offer in the case of the refugee crisis, James talked about the desire for the media to look at dislocation as “a singular thing”, something that “happens to other people”, which allows for us to ignore not only the details of their situation but what they are running from. “The writer’s place is to move this into a conversation about people,” said Mengiste, after bringing up the reaction from the public to the image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian whose body found washed up on the shore of Bodrum, Turkey.

Though all present agreed that the role of the writer is to insist on the individuality of people’s stories, they also acknowledged that it was difficult to do so in a world that tended to see refugees either as villains or victims. “No one wants to read a story about a man who has a sexual fetish in a refugee camp,” said Mengiste to the laughter of a crowd, of a real novel that a friend who had lived in a refugee camp in Sudan wanted to write. “Fiction can complicate the narrative,” said James, as well as provide a historical context for stories that can get “flattened” in the well-meaning desire to help.

There was some discussion around unpacking the language when talking about the refugee crisis, Sahota noting that in the UK, where he was born, the talk in the media is about being “swamped” with refugees, “as if they were bog people”. There was also much discussion about the interruption that fleeing a state causes to people’s idea of home. “No one wakes up and thinks about going to Germany,” said James, and the idea of what happens when people do settle, as the Sudanese in Minneapolis have done, was also discussed.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening was during the question and answer section when an audience member brought up the question of what happens when people lose faith in writing and art, and take up guns? Clearly discomfited by the question, the writers attempted answer, but the notion of having to sit within the discomfort displayed how difficult it was to actually do.

Perhaps writing can’t inspire everything. But what writing can do is give a sense of humanity to a larger story. Towards the end of the evening, Mengiste told a story about the time she went to Lampedusa, Italy, to write about the refugees landing there. While there she visited a film-maker friend who had taken footage of the refugees arriving ashore as he had taken the same journey across the Mediterranean sea during political unrest in Ethiopia in 2005.

When she came across a newsreel of her friend making it to that same shore, she witnessed her friend’s expression of fatigue and shock upon finally making it. But perhaps what surprised her most was that after two years of being trafficked across the Sahara in a metal container, he was wearing a brand new green shirt. Confused by this, as during his journey he had had his clothes removed and was made to sleep in filth, she asked him how he managed to get that shirt.

A friend had given it to him, he said, because he wanted to be a human being when he stepped on that shore. Later that day Mengiste watched as a boat of refugees landed on the coast of Lampedusa, also dressed in their best clothes, having become aware of the images the media was circulating of these desperate refugees. “And for a brief moment,” she said to the listening quiet of the crowd, “they too were human beings.”