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