It has been half a year since you wrote this, during which time I have not found the words to respond. For once, this is difficult. It does not feel comfortable to write. My fingers skate across the keyboard as normal, but every sentence comes out ugly. There are too many words and not enough coherence to hang them all together. Thoughts are interrupted.
Currently, they are interrupted by this: what would I do if my family had to flee? I am wrapped in my son’s blanket, fresh and warm from the tumble drier, cleaned of last night’s vomit and the stench of a midnight trip to A&E. My son is warm and safe. Outside the sky is turning grey-blue, like the colour of a war ship. A rose-tinted light — the sun’s last breath before it sets — flickers across the top of the building opposite mine.
All of this is impossible when, a few hundred miles away, thousands of people live in squalid conditions on the edge of France: refugees, migrants and asylum seekers (I hate those categories, with their implied distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor) who have travelled across at least one continent, hoping to come to the UK. All of this is impossible when, today, the French government plans to tear down some of the dwellings and all of the communal spaces constructed by the residents of the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais. Residents will be forced to live in industrial containers. The industrial containers look like prisons. They do not have enough beds to house all of the people currently living on site.
“We, the united people of the Jungle, Calais, respectfully decline the demands of the French government with regards to reducing the size of the Jungle. We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes.” (Statement from community leaders at the Jungle camp in Calais, January 2016.)
There is a character in one of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels who cannot speak, because he has seen something unspeakable. He is a survivor of the Holocaust. When I was younger we used to have a joke that the first person to mention the Holocaust, Hitler or Fascism in an argument must automatically lose: these abhorrent atrocities have no place in our comfortable existence; we shouldn’t use them to pad out some wooly thinking or extend a metaphor. But we were not rendered mute by the power of these events; instead, we knew that our language, our experience, our imaginations could not extend to the edges of their possibility.
“We have decided to remain where we are and will peacefully resist the government’s plans to destroy our homes.”
I have never had to peacefully resist a government’s plans to destroy my home. The actions of the French government to bulldoze the Jungle settlements and displace its residents are also the actions, by proxy, of my government: the British government, a collection of upper-middle class men and women, their privilege dripping through their pale skin, their private-school networks and their casual sense of entitlement; a privilege that cannot extend to the edges of the lives of the people in the Jungle in Calais; a privilege which makes it possible to pretend that it’s something to do with foreign greed (benefit tourism) or incompetence (European border controls) that encourages people to come to Britain, and nothing to do with the boot-prints of the UK’s colonial and post-colonial interventions leaving trails around the world.
I am the granddaughter of Jewish refugees. I pass now as an upper-middle class British woman, my privilege dripping through my pale skin, my private-school networks and my casual sense of entitlement. I re-use words as a way of throwing breadcrumbs at the impossibility of this state of affairs.
All of this.
Two generations ago it was my grandmother who paid traffickers to be smuggled across a continent. Her danger does not touch my life. I have no right to claim it. I am warm and safe and my son has just been given the all clear by an African doctor with strongly accented English and bloodshot eyes rubbed a hundred times during the night shift at the Pediatric A&E.
All of this.
The actions of the British government are also, by proxy, the actions of me, in whose security they claim to justify their desires. The actions of my government (me) are abandoning my grandmother (me) and everyone like her (me).
All of this.
I want to screw my eyes shut against the so called ‘refugee crisis’ (when European politicians use this term they are talking about the crisis of European security, not the humanitarian crisis of people fleeing war, poverty and despair) because it lies so far beyond the limits of my understanding. I experience its violence displaced through social media. This displaced violence is a picture of a drowned Syrian boy on my Facebook feed, next to a picture of a friend’s new baby, and someone’s expensive meal. The violence is performed for me in corporate spaces that I curate in a small and proscribed way, and which represent both my public image and the touchstone for my private thoughts throughout the day.
All of this is impossible.
Life is performed. When it is represented, endlessly, in rolling news coverage and the luminous twitch of social media it becomes both the performance of the performance and the distortion of its memory. Something else. Other. Something other.
I don’t want to screw my eyes shut. I want to write. Not because I believe that my writing will make a difference but because art is a way of imagining things that are impossible to understand. I wept reading that Jonathan Safran Foer novel. I wept for the suffering of the Holocaust, a cloud of collective memory I had never been able to think about before, without disappearing into a fog of protective disbelief.
I am not making any great claims for our small project. Something Other. I am simply using this conversation to write through life. If I don’t try to write about important things, then I don’t write at all. If we can’t argue for the revolution, then let’s not hold a dance party.
Artistic performance has the same relation to lived experience as poetry does to a Facebook status update: it is a self conscious manipulation of a technology of the everyday. Writing poetically in relation to artistic performance is, then, a self-conscious manipulation of the performance, its subject matter and its never-ending half lives in the memories and imaginations of the people who join the conversation. And it contains the challenge of translating lived experience into the logic of the written word. This translation is an act full of loss and potential. It bares the bones of both the felt and the thought. It cracks open the compromises we have to make in order to communicate. It suggests other interpretations that touch the limits of the real, like the last breath of the sun leaving its rose-tinted mark on the remains of the day, whispering about tomorrow.