Since dirty began

This door

The laws of immigration

  

Those with money have been thieves; those without will be.

 

Those who are kept apart shall be reprimanded for exclusiveness.

Those who assimilate shall be tainted with hypocrisy and self-interest.

Those who do not integrate shall be guilty of disloyalty and self-interest.

Those who are rejected shall be submitted to the cricket test.

Those who suffer abuse shall be responsible for provoking it.

The evidence of victims shall be judged inherently unreliable.

Their spoken testimony shall be outweighed by the false documents of perpetrators.

All people are created equal only in the charters, laws, scriptures and philosophy.

  

We hold these truths to be self-evident.

Black is not white, and never shall be.

Embers are best extinguished by smothering them with paper.

Better our racists than their victims.

Keep down, and we might take someone else first.

No one can prove his innocence.

You can’t win against a marked deck.

Languages and realities

This is not America

‘I’m used to thinking that stories in English are so much richer or more important than stories I hear in my own language.’

Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man

Oppression, subjugation, subordination—no one who experiences these conditions has any difficulty recognizing them. A position of dominance, on the other hand, can be hard to acknowledge. It seems to be normal. Indeed, it is in the interest of the dominant to believe—and to make others believe—that their power, and the privileges it brings, is simply how things are. It is the natural order. It is common sense. You can’t buck the market.

It is a dangerously short step from survival of the fittest to might is right.

English dominates the world today, as Latin once dominated Europe. A language is a system of thought, a way of interpreting reality. Latin became the language of Christianity when it was adopted as a state religion in 380, and it shaped European reality for a thousand years. It is no accident that the Reformation occurred when—and depended upon—the translation of Christian faith into other languages, including English.

As the language first of the British Empire and then of American economic and cultural power, English has become the lens through which the world is projected, particularly now onto the screens of televisions, computers and mobile phones. Native English speakers are a small minority of the world’s population, though many more people have English in varying degrees as a second, third or fourth language. But the native speakers are, in global terms, the powerful people: 58% of them are American.

Those for whom English is a first language naturally imagine that the way it describes the world is true, that it is the norm from which all other linguistic realities are variations. They may be more or less interesting or attractive, but they remain variations: subordinate. And when those whose mother tongue is not English, like Henning Mankell’s Swedish policeman, Kurt Wallander, in the passage above, believe that stories in English are so much richer or more important than stories they hear in their own language, cultural hegemony is complete.

But at least those of us who, by the accident of birth, live within the world’s dominant culture can try to be aware of that, and try to catch something of the realities that exist in other, alternative cultures. They are also true.

It’s just somewhat paradoxical that Mankell’s truth had to be translated into English before I could glimpse it.

Interpretations

Interpretation

‘You cannot understand the migrant if you haven’t heard his story first.’

Gazmend Kapllani

In the course of working on Bread and Salt, I have met 18 artists who have come to Europe from other parts of the world: Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, India and Eastern Asia. They include painters, musicians, and actors, a photographer and a couturier, a silversmith and a poet. They now live in five different countries and speak many European and non-European languages. And their stories as different as that diverse background would suggest. It is those stories that form the heart of the book, which will be published in Utrecht on midsummer’s day.

Telling someone else’s story is full of risks. Getting the facts right is the easy part: what matters is their interpretation. What does an incident mean, to whom and why? So, the final stage of writing has been to ask each person to read my version of his or her life. That in itself is tricky, precisely because it is my version: this is—or at least aspires to be—literature not oral history. So the text has to be what I believe to be true, in the end, though that truth has been shaped in our meetings and conversations.

Happily, everyone has now approved the text. Some have found it unsettling to see themselves through the eyes of another, particularly when the events described were so important in their lives. But they have also spoken of recognition and the value of being heard. A few facts have been corrected; some have added further thoughts or clarifications.

At the same time readers who’ve played no part in the process have read and commented on the text. That has been, if anything, even more searching, as their focus has been on larger questions and particularly my own art, such as it is. Some ideas that have come up that are too profound to influence this book, because I need to think about them further, but they will nourish the continuing evolution of the Regular Marvels series.

For now, the book has moved on, to the design and production stage. It has also gone to the translator who is producing the Dutch version. This is the first Regular Marvel that is being published simultaneously in two languages, so I am also trusting my story to another person to interpret it into another language and culture. Whatever the experience the Dutch readers, it will not be the same as those who read what I wrote, in English. But then each reader creates the text, as the poet Mohan Rana says in Bread and Salt:

‘I believe poetry is not in the words on the paper but within the reader. The reader is the writer of the poem.’

Mohan Rana

Mohan, who lives in England but writes in Hindi, will be giving a lecture on the challenges of interpretation at the University of Oslo this week, with readings of two poems in Hindi, English, German and Norwegian versions. I see the event as an instance of the natural diversity of human culture. But that, of course, is an interpretation.

Making sense II

From 'Life in a Box' by Dragi Nedelchevski
From ‘Life in a Box’ by Dragi Nedelchevski

One way in which we make sense of our experience is by finding patterns in it—connections, coincidences, repetitions. Whether the pattern exists in any objective sense doesn’t matter very much: it becomes part of the story we tell ourselves about our lives. It’s meaningful because we make it so.

A few days after writing the last post—about André Arends’ film, Nightwalking—I met the photographer Dragi Nedelchevski at the opening of his exhibition Life in a Box, in Sarajevo. Dragi lives in Tetovo (Macedonia) and has a number of exhibitions and awards to his credit. Life in a Box is his most personal work yet, in which he documents the life of his own family, and particularly that of his son Mane, who has cerebral paralysis. It is a beautiful and moving work of contemporary photography.

It seemed very fitting to encounter Dragi’s work so soon after Nightwalking. The conversations prompted by both have been very rewarding. The film’s focus is on individuals, separate from the context of their lives: it is concerned with existential rather than social questions.

Dragi Nedelchevski’s photo-essay is like the other side of the coin, where Mane’s experience is framed by those who love and care for him. Seen in succession, they created an intimate dialogue for me—obviously unintended but not less meaningful for that. So I’ve added a link to the Life in a Box website, for anyone who has enjoyed Nightwalking.

Dragi Nedelchevski

Making sense

Nightwalking 1I got an email from a Dutch friend, partly in response to my post about waiting for feedback. Margreet wrote about Winter Fires and how reading it had made her feel happy and optimistic about the future, but also about her reflections on what matters in life. Her partner works with people who have sensory disabilities—people who cannot hear or see and therefore whose experience of the world is shaped by other senses: touch, taste, balance, proprioception and others we may as yet not recognize or understand.

One of their friends who lives this experience recently spent the day with them at home, while she was reading Winter Fires, and she wrote about the thoughts and feelings she had about it.

But the reason for writing about that here is that Margreet sent me a link to this film, in which their friend also appears, and which I think deserves to be seen much, much more widely than the 340 views it has on You Tube. It’s called Nightwalking and I won’t say anything about it except to invite you to watch it: it will take less than 15 minutes.

This is what art does, at its best: open us to experiences, feelings and ideas we could not otherwise have and so help us develop our understanding of our own existence, within the limits of our capacities. Art does not teach: it enables us to learn. We all need to make sense, every one of us.

So many questions come out of this film—about the nature of humanity, about dignity and consent, about what we understand is happening, about value, meaning and purpose, about art. Watching people making sense, I think about how I myself make sense. No answers here, but as good a way to spend 15 minutes as I know.

Fingers crossed

QuestionsYesterday I sent the draft text of Bread and Salt to the artists whose experiences of coming to Europe form its living heart. It’s always a scary moment. My meetings with people over the last 18 months have been memorable and moving. Doing justice to the stories that I have been trusted with is one of the great challenges of this process. Doing that in an artistically and intellectually coherent form, with the right kind of rigour and tested subjectivity, is the core of what each Regular Marvel aims for.

Now, there are a few days in which to wait for people’s responses. One person has already replied, commenting on the strangeness of reading one’s own stories recounted by another. Somebody else asks why I haven’t included something that I’d written and already put on the site and which they liked. But mostly, I’m just waiting to hear.

It’s an essential discipline, with two contrasting tests. The first is whether the people who are most concerned by what I have written recognize themselves and are content with the result. It is always possible, at this stage for people to tell me that I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted what they’ve said; they can opt out altogether if they wish.

The second test is the readers who have no connection with this process—half a dozen people I have trusted to look at the draft as if they pad picked it up in a library or found it online. They have to advise me on whether the book works as a book, whether it is capable of reaching out to a reader with no knowledge or existing interest in its subject.

Fingers crossed.

Intercultural dialogue as a framing device for democracy

In 2009 and 2010, I worked with the Platform for Intercultural Europe on a series of meetings, exchanges and conversations around the concept of intercultural dialogue. This work built on my past thinking about these issues and in turn took it into new areas of reflection. One result of that is Bread and Salt, which is now approaching completion: it will be published in June.

Bread and Salt is  concerned with the experiences of artists who have  come to live in Europe from other parts of the world. It is an essay of and about individual stories, not a theoretical or sociological analysis. But it rests on past thinking and writing, including my work with the Platform. I will therefore add some of that past writing to this site as part of the wider context for the new project; (the talk, Three European Myths about Diversity is another of those elements.)

This paper was written for the Platform for Intercultural Europe’s Forum meeting in Brussels in June 2010. It considers the lack of consensus about what is meant by intercultural dialogue, arguing that this lack of consensus is both inevitable and unproblematic, since intercultural dialogue provides a framing device that those involved understand at the time and use to enable safer discussions about controversial issues. In this context, the association with culture—the systems people use to make sense of their experience—is helpful since the tensions evident in European society are not only produced by observable change but by perceptions and interpretations of change. People’s values, beliefs and feelings are central to their experiences and their conduct.

The paper concludes that real intercultural dialogue is much more than the everyday interaction between people or even the cultural exchanges now often promoted: it is a conscious, demanding and focused process that both requires and develops democratic capacities. It concludes by suggesting some principles that might guide future practice exchanges in intercultural dialogue.

Download: Framing Conversations: Intercultural dialogue as a democratic process (PDF)