The Hungry Tide: Language and Silence

The Hungry Tide

I just read The Hungry Tide, a novel by Amitav Ghosh, published in 2004. It has taken me a long time to find out about it, as well as its author, but, as they say, better late than never.
Such a well-written, well-researched, good read! But the added reason I bring it here is that it includes, among a number of other topics, the story of a Bengali refugee group, settled on Morichjhanpi island of the Sundarbans, forced to flee by the newly elected government of West Bengal, and the massacre of 1978-79. I have an interest in refugee groups, their experiences, itineraries and development – a refugee group appears in my forthcoming novel, Alexandrias’ 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, as well as the one I am currently working on – and Ghosh’s story describes one such group, in a different part of the world, in a sensitive and engaging manner. In such a manner, in fact, that one might say that the refugees find a home and a voice in Ghosh’s novel. While they flee one way, and then the other, like the ebb and flow of the tide, they are given a presence, a ‘stable’ place in history by Ghosh.
He writes in English, weaving fact and fiction into a wonderfully clear, informed and at the same time enchanting tale.
While the refugee group is an important pivot to the story, the ebb and flow of the tides in the Sundarban islands off the easternmost coast of India, and the ebb and flow of language and silence, are the true stars of the novel. The main characters, an American Indian female researcher, an Indian male translator and an Indian male illiterate fisherman, carry the tidal shifts and currents between language and the areas around it, those places which inhabit the heart and the elemental areas of the psyche shared by all humans. This shared humanity provides the ground for the – unfortunately often undervalued – capacity to communicate with one another. “…Words are just air,” a character says, “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.” (see also my comment:  http://bit.ly/aGNY1P)

Ghosh’s achievement in this novel is to illustrate this ability through the relationships between these three characters and someone who, through his diary, is telling the tale of the refugees, using political, philosophical, and religious themes linked with passages from Rilke. In this novel, history, politics, poetry, biography, religion and myth are brought together in their varying forms of narrative language and yes, narrative silence, to tell a seamless story of incredible beauty.
More than that, however, the novel – through its metaphorical and symbolic richness and its assumption of the perspective of the American Indian scientist and the Indian translator, while contrasting them with the different qualities of the Indian fisherman’s discourse, and its unfortunate reception – reaches further into the colonial and post-colonial waters and invites critical reflection.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially for the outstanding achievement of bringing together so many strands, including the horrific tale of the refugee group, loss, history and a love story with so much humanity and humility.

A Tale of Two Passions

A Tale of  Two Passions

It is often said that life is stranger than fiction. Fair enough, I wouldn’t argue with this. Here I wish to point out two cases where fiction, narrative, or stories influence life. Admittedly, this is not any story, but the story based on the Passion.

Kazantzakis, perhaps best known for having written that other passionate character, Zorba the Greek, published his version of the Passion, Christ Recrucified, in 1948. It is a novel set in a Greek village in Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire. The villagers are given a free hand in the running of their village affairs as long as they keep quiet, and the Agha (the local Ottoman governor), who likes to enjoy life’s little pleasures, happy.

Trouble, and the plot, comes to the village with the sudden arrival of a group of refugees led by their priest – their village was destroyed by the Turks in the fermenting tensions between Greece and the crumbling Empire. The locals don’t want the refugees in their village, but turn a blind eye, initially, to their camping on a barren mountainside just outside the village.

It is Easter Week approaching, and the village elders are preoccupied with allocating the roles of the Passion story to the locals: who will be “Judas,” “Christ,” or “Mary Magdalene?” Once the preparations for the Holy Week are underway, the chosen actors begin to identify with their allocated characters; they become more saintly, with the exception of “Judas” who becomes treacherous. The novel then takes off, with the actors coming in between the newly arrived refugees and their needs for food and shelter, and the resenting and increasingly intolerant locals. It has a terrific climax, wonderful psychological portraits both of individuals and social groups; it is one of my favourite Greek novels.

Well, in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, in the foothills of the Alps, another Passion Play has been performed for centuries. In the year 1633, the village suffering from the plague, struck a deal with God: they would perform the Passion Play every ten years if God, in return, kept them free from the plague. Both sides seem to have kept their bargain – though the villagers did not hold the metaphorical plague of the World War II against God – and the play goes on. This year, 2010, sees the 41st performance.

The village performs the Play wholeheartedly, with villagers living and growing up with the preparations and performances all through their lives. Their aspirations, dreams and competition for the main roles achieve the status of basic needs. However, only those born and bred there, or those who have lived for at least twenty years in the village, are allowed to take part. Over two thousand locals (half the village) are involved in the performances that last the whole summer, from May to October, performing to an audience of over four thousand people daily! The rest are involved in the catering for and accommodating of the thousands of visitors in a small village.

Now the reason I brought these two together here, the novel by Kazantzakis and the performances of the Passion Play in real life Oberammergau, is more than that they share the same basic story; more important than the fact (and my need to brag about it) that I will be going to see the Play this year; more than the influence that Kazantzakis’ novel had on the background to my own novel, Alexandria’s 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree. It is how in both, Kazantzakis’ novel and the village of the Passion Play, a similar psychological phenomenon seems to be taking place. The actors tend to become more like the characters of the Passion story. The villages tend to show similarities with the folk of the original story.

In Oberammergau, one of the locals cast as Virgin Mary, I read, refused to marry afterwards; one of the “Jesuses” kept ‘blessing people’ long after the performance was over. One of the actors playing this year’s “Jesus” is reportedly tempted to defer to the actors who played previously “Jesus” and let them mount the donkey entering Jerusalem. There is also the story of King Ludwig II, making presents of silver spoons to the actors of the performance he attended, with the exception of “Judas,” to whom he gave a tin spoon. As for the village politics, they are reported to be tinged with the sometimes polarizing passions of the original story.

In the Kazantzakis novel, a similar but more pronounced process seems to be taking place. The main characters of the Play take on the qualities of those they portray. The actor Judas behaves like “Judas,” the local prostitute starts behaving like “Mary Magdalene,” similarly “apostle Peter” and “Christ.” The villagers and the mob equally seem to become caught in a web that almost dictates a necessity of action that follows the Passion. It is as if a need arises for the Play to become embodied and concretely played out in the village of the novel.

It is this unsettling echo between the two depictions I wish to highlight. Even on the side of the spectator, newspaper articles about the Oberammergau Play, inchluding the Spiegel online,  attract our attention by reporting that one of this year’s chosen inhabitants to portray “Jesus” is a psychologist; “Mary Magdalene” a Lufthansa flight attendant. This points to an expectation in ourselves to weld together the roles in the Passion Play with the Oberammergau locals playing them. When they do not fit – after all who would have thought of Christ been played by a psychologist? – a sense of discrepancy, perhaps a sense of the Uncanny arises.

An interesting analogy may be found in the discrepancy between what one wants to say and the way one expresses it through language, which is smaller in one’s native language than in a second/adopted language. While in the first case the metaphor of “bathing in language” is appropriate, in the second – when the gap between what one wishes to say and the way it is said is too wide – the expression “like bathing in a ski-suit” has been used by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. A shift from the latter, uncanny experience to the more comfortable one of having the appropriate linguistic tools (the “bathing suit”) to express oneself is accomplishable through practice. In real-life Oberammergau, the endless rehearsals, revisions and reworking of the text, the advice sought and given, ensure that the fit between the Passion and its performance improves with each passing decade.

Kazantzakis’ novel, of course, has the advantage of setting this theme of the actor, the role and reality on a fictional stage. On this stage, the actors no longer simply perform but rather re-enact – as if the role fitted them like a glove. Better still, as if there were no distance between the narrative of the Play, the specific role, and the self. Or, as if: “World and dream are one,” as a boy in the novel sings to the Agha.

But then perhaps I am making too much of this: after all, one of the Oberammergau inhabitants who played Christ in the year 2000 performance is now, in the year 2010, playing Judas!

Dragonflies

I went for a walk to the Dragonfly Sanctuary in the Lee Valley Park,  near Waltham Abbey, in the outskirts of London. Peaceful and dreamy, idyllic… though a different note entered my mind when I read the information provided about dragonflies: the lower lip technique of the dragonfly nymphs catching their prey, the cannibalism as a way of regulating population…
Reflecting on my experience, I wrote this poem which can be read both as a perfect idyll, with the dragonflies resting within a sssssh soundscape of silence; and as the calm before the next rush of the dragonfly for its prey.

The poem was published in escarp,  a text-message-based review of super-brief literature (www.escarp.org).

Comment on “Suicide Note”

Anuradha Vijayakrishnan’s poem “Suicide Note” was published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

This poem is a suicide note addressed to a number of unusual addressees, leaving the content of the note to the reader’s imagination. It puzzled and haunted me for the last few weeks: its exquisite, lyrical tone, its mysteries and the ways it brings nature alive through its lines.

A Critical analysis by Tammy Ho Laiming and Jarno Jakonen appeared recently in A Cup of Fine Cha. I thoroughly enjoyed reading both, poem and analysis, and kept them with me for weeks, chewing on words, mulling over the subtle allusions.

Tammy Ho Laiming and Jarno Jakonen’s analysis of the poem, as well as the comments, provide a beautiful and multi-faceted context to the poem. There is whole list of addressees in this “Suicide Note”: “frog, cicadas, rain clouds, gardens, worms, grass, deer, curtains, noise, lights, glass trails, heart, hands, ink, bruises, rivers, summers, monsoons and thunderbolts,” which the analysis and the comments fully and thoroughly explore.

I have nothing to add, except one question: Where are the people? Where are the relationships with people? The nature described in the poem is giving, generous – though providing what is usually offered by humans: warmth is offered by glow worms, for instance. And as if to emphasize the point, neighbours and strangers appear only impersonally as in “the shining lights of the neighbours and their last ashen cigarettes.”

So, for me, there is so much loneliness and sadness in the persona pouring out every time nature stands in for the human touch: friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, or even kind strangers. What could be more indicative of sadness, and indeed despair, than the need to use “broken glass trails that will show the way to strangers”?

From this perspective, what if, in a well-encrypted way, we are led to ask: does the poem take the line of praising nature instead of criticizing fatal failings of the human heart?

After Anatolia: Memory and Identity

Memories of home, of childhood, of life events and life losses are human universals. They belong to the scenario beautifully described in the myth of the Garden of Eden, the Fall, and the expulsion from Eden – as well as rendered in the rich, painterly iconography of this story. One might say that this story serves as one of the archetypal scenarios framing our thinking.

With this in mind, how are we to conceive of experiences and memories of losing a home, family, country, culture through war and forced displacement? A pressing question, for there are so many groups in this predicament all over the world now. Arguably, the real losses and trauma suffered by those forcibly and traumatically expelled fracture the symbolizing processes, reducing the facility to employ them in creating meaning in everyday life. As a result, these experiences may acquire a different mental status, require different resources and be put to different uses by our conscious and unconscious minds.

Frequently, memories of such losses remain hidden, out of reach of linguistic elaboration for years – or even generations, as seen in families of holocaust survivors.

Sometimes, memories of the home lost, as well as of the traumatic circumstances of the expulsion, have been used as building blocks to construct or reinforce a sense of identity and community. This is illustrated in Alice James’ perceptive article, Memories of Anatolia: generating Greek refugee identity.”

James studied the construction of the refugee identity of the Greeks of Anatolia who fled Mikra Asia, the western part of Anatolia in 1922. Up to that time, more than a million, perhaps a million and a half of Christian Ottoman Greeks had lived there, in Greek settlements going back millennia. However, after a disastrous series of wars in the Balkans and between Ottoman Turkey and Greece in particular which resulted in the catastrophic defeat of the Greeks, the surviving Christians of Anatolia were forced to flee from their homes. Many perished. Most of the survivors fled to Greece where they settled – though a significant number went to other countries and even other continents.

For those who settled in Greece, the country became their new home, even if they spoke little or no Greek. They encountered acts of kindness and generosity as well as negligence, and animosity. As a result, many of those who had survived the war and persecution in Anatolia, died. James refers to a League of Nations source that quotes mortality rates among the new arrivals reaching 45% at one point. Survivors grouped together and developed ways of coping with the losses they had suffered and the difficulties they encountered in their new country.

Concentrating on the refugees of Chios, the largest island closest to Smyrna, James quotes a refugee describing their situation, “like the leaves from the trees when the wind takes them away and they blow right and left without knowing where they are going.”

James notes that “The refugees were no longer attached to their land, and only by producing a group identity could they feel grounded.” This identity was produced through processes that helped translate the experiences and generate a distinct identity as Mikrasiates; all these processes helped recall and often show concretely the difference between the earlier wealth of the life in Anatolia that was lost, and the deprivation that followed the expulsion and refugeedom.

Efforts concentrated on continuing or preserving traditions and customs. Chief amongst these were those associated with the Greek Christian-Orthodox religion, which had been a pillar of their identity under the Ottoman rule. Christian Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on ritual and custom (such as celebrating Saints’ days, associated with the name days of those sharing Saint’s name), provided a continuity between the past, present and future generations.

Referring to Hirschon’s study of a refugee community in the Kokkinia district of Athens, near Piraeus, James points out the importance of memory for identity formation. Museums and collections or archives of memorabilia, photographs, and film were used by the Greeks from Anatolia to generate an image of themselves in Greece, as a distinct group, the Mikrasiates. By holding on to personal and cultural belongings and heritage, such as the Byzantine heritage, photographs, song, music and other memory devices, the story of the refugees’ lives, traditions as well as their loss is not forgotten, but incorporated in the process of identity formation, and bestowed upon future generations.

Beyond the communities studied by James and Hirschon, it would be interesting to think about how identity formation works in situations in which such uses of memory are discouraged, or non-existent: for example, the situation of those Greeks who fled, in the aftermath of the Civil War, to communist countries vis-à-vis those who managed to stay behind; the situation of the Muslims of Crete who went to nation-building Turkey after the treaty of Lausanne as compared to those Muslims who stayed on in Northern Greece, and others. It would also be of interest to think about other factors and processes involved in generating refugee identity, and their interaction with memory.

Please feel free to add your comments, impressions, views on these themes in the comments box below.

PS Some of these themes of loss, strategies of survival, and the vicissitudes of identity formation, I touch upon in my forthcoming novel “Alexandrias 40: Under the Lemon Tree.”

On “Where were you last night?”

In this beautiful and haunting poem, Tammy Ho offers interesting answers to this question. The poem is part of a project in which she writes poems on demand. She asks that those interested email her something about themselves – an incident, a piece of information, a photograph – and she will then write a poem dedicated to them, inspired by the material they sent.

The poem “Where were you last night?” was written for a photographer friend; his photograph of a pair of bedroom slippers with the words “Her bedroom sippers,” used for inspiration.

The poet rose to the occasion, a difficult one, since it does not simply involve writing in response to a photograph, but a picture by a photographer and friend. How close is the friendship, one wants to ask, how much information is one not privy to, why bedroom slippers, what is the artist’s intention? And yet, on reading the poem, these questions lose their urgency, as we enter, or rather are led into, a world we feel we know, which however appears magical at the same time. From a book launch, to fairy tales, to Moscow, to Chelsea, to hotels and linguistic stops, we are taken round the world and back into the poet’s arms.

There are so many things I like about this poem that to single out one thing would do injustice to the rest. Nevertheless, I will pick out a theme which resonates particularly strongly with me.

The first stanza gives a clue that serves as an entry point. The narrator might be asking herself the question “Where were you …?” The book launch she attended was a boring event, too many writers’ egos, neat piles of books and lots of wine on an empty stomach! But we know you can’t judge a book by its cover. This leads the narrator to crack open the book pile, and the stories, fairy tales, metaphors, characters come tumbling out in the subsequent stanzas. The writer is never bored, or alone… and the reader is certainly entertained and amused, but also puzzled.

At the same time, a sense of longing and loneliness comes across in the poem. “Where were you last night?” might also be a question asked of the “you” in the poem – as if the narrator wished the “you” had been with her. The repeated question suggests feeling excluded, or left; and all that within the context of closer intimacy claimed by the words in the photograph “Her bedroom slippers.” In asking the “where were you” question, the narrator implies “you” could have been with her, “at home,” in her own arms, with her wearing “her bedroom slippers.” Perhaps, the fact that “you” were not is just as well, as one might imagine that, had that “you” been at home with her, the poem might not have been written!

In this sense, for me, this poem also explores the source(s) of creativity: is the feeling of a lack, of longing and of loss an essential ingredient of creative work? What other ingredients are there? And why is inspiration and creative effort so often experienced as capricious, and fragile, needing to be nursed and safeguarded? There is a powerful hint in the poem at our anxieties about the fragility of the creative process: one snowflake and we can be blinded for ever… There is a display of poetic force in this poem which transcends and transforms the longing into a poetic journey well worth embarking on.

Eleanor Ross Taylor

Disappearing Act, Eleanor Ross Taylor’s poem can be read in The Guardian by clicking http://bit.ly/c98Rhi

It is a brilliant self-reflective poem, based on experiencing the human body as a thinking as well as a feeling person.

Winner of the 2010 Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly award, she made the news at a time when she was almost forgotten.  Poetry magazine editor Christian Wiman, commented on her “sober and clear-eyed serenity,”  and her strong reserve. “We live in a time when poetic styles seem to become more antic and frantic by the day, and Taylor’s voice has been muted from the start,” The Guardian reported.  Others, commenting on her award, made strong references to her age.

Her poetry, though, speaks for her talent and originality; her making us see the world anew – in this case, our own body.

Hope in a Changing Climate

Two lakes inside old volcano, Africa. on Twitpic

Creative Climate is a media and research project about climate and the environment run jointly by the OU and the BBC.

The Creative Climate website is full of interesting information from experts around the world: videos and articles to take your breath away – though not literally! On the contrary, there is a lot of hope in the contributions.

The documentary Hope in a Changing Climate drawing on success stories from China, Ethiopia and Rwanda, demonstrates how barren and decimated land that was thought to be beyond redemption could be brought back to life by local residents. Planting trees and selected vegetation in patterns that encourage the soil to retain water, they managed to transform within five years the arid plateaus to lush, fertile and life-sustaining land. The film of the work carried out by the locals in the Loess  Plateau in China, is both beautiful and inspiring.

Restoration of the environment is possible; the process of decimation is not irreversible. As if proof were needed that it is a matter of belief, determination, and dissemination of knowledge… all to do with the climate of opinion influencing the climate!

For lack of pictures of these areas to show what has been achieved, I include the photograph of Two Lakes in a Volcano taken from space and tweeted live from the international Space Station by Soichi Noguchi http://twitpic.com/1exv5i Thank you Soichi Noguchi for this gem of a picture! It also attests to what can be achieved through co-operation, ingenuity and determination.

Circumnavigation: Searching for home?

Iris Law’s poem Circumnavigation

chosen to be included in the 2009 Best of the Net Anthology is a beautiful poem. Read it here:

http://www.asiancha.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=367&Itemid=176

It works on many levels, as Tammy Ho’s critical analysis, and the responses to it (including mine) demonstrate.

http://finecha.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/a-cup-of-fine-tea-iris-law/#comments

The level that hooked me was the one hinting at the hunger for home and the wish to return to it.  Real or imagined, a literal home or a metaphorical one, the womb or country of origin, it is always there, calling. Going round the world, we carry that hunger, that need, hear the siren’s call, knowing at the same time, the impossibility of returning…

Iris Law speaks of the pain of this recognition, the moment “the spear hit home.”

Kavafis knew this problem and wrote about it in his Ithaca.

Odysseus had to find out for himself. Tellingly, he set out again, soon after he returned home.

Looking and Seeing

The Observer’s John Vidal, in his article ‘How food and water are driving a 21st century African land-grab,’ 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/food-water-africa-land-grab

wrote about what is now often referred to as ‘the 21st century new colonialism.’ Bigger/richer countries, companies, pension funds, individuals and others acquire or lease land in Africa cheaply on which they grow food and export it back to their home markets.

In Ethiopia, for instance, farm land twice the size of the UK is being used to grow food, flowers, as well as crops for biofuels. At the same time, millions of Ethiopians threatened by hunger and malnutrition, displaced, are not even being told of the existence of the farms or the plans to extend them. There is a similar situation in over 20 other African countries, and more and more projects are given the go-ahead, profiting the richer countries, companies and individuals at the expense of the indigenous population and local farmers.

Lorenzo Cotula, of the International Institute for Environment and Development, in his ‘Deals can be good news when not made behind closed doors,’

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/07/africa-land-grab-food-water

argues that this need not be the only outcome. Rather, some of the development can be good news for the people involved, if there is proper consultation and negotiation of terms that are mutually advantageous. This is a good point – and something to aim towards. At present, unfortunately, not enough support is forthcoming for those affected, neither from their governments nor from abroad, that would enable them to become involved in such negotiations.

Turning a blind eye to the practice of using poorer countries as farms for the richer ones, while their people are starving, is becoming an urgent, practical as well as moral concern. And the implications and consequences of this practice are snowballing. Survival International is campaigning for the tribes of the Omo Valley, in south-west Ethiopia,

http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/omovalley/novoice#main

where a massive hydroelectric Dam is being built which will end the Omo River’s natural flood cycle. The tribes along its banks cultivate the fertile silt it leaves behind. Their fragile livelihoods are threatened as their farming is dependent on the river and its floods. However, these tribes have high illiteracy levels and lack the resources and infrastructure needed to employ the legal teams to negotiate terms on their behalf. Their government has so far ignored their plight.

If we don’t ‘see,’ who will?

http://www.stopgibe3.org

On the Omo Valley: Survival International is working jointly with International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, Counterbalance and Campaign for the Reform of the World Bank on the Omo Valley.

Survival International has a number of articles on these issues and various options available for those wishing to help with their campaigns.

www.survival-international.org

What is Creative Climate?

Photo: Constantina Pierides

Creative Climate is an online diary project set up jointly by the OU and the BBC to chart the ways in which people see and respond to environmental change over the next decade. Through the diary, people from all over the world, will be able to share their views on the changing environment, as well as their ideas on how to meet the coming challenges. In this sense, the Creative Climate diary, will become “a huge living archive of our experiences and ideas in one of the most important decades in human history.”

For a sustainable future, we will need all the creativity, determination, will-power and strength we can master – and as many perspectives as there are. I will be reading the entries and following the diaries.

http://www.open2.net/creativeclimate/about.html

Szirtes defends Poetry

George Szirtes defends poetry: Poetry conjures the presence of things, their physicality… it is experienced through the body as much as the mind. “…but the chief use of poetry to sense the presence of the toad in language, without which sense nothing happens, without which the language enterprise is all imaginary gardens in which only ghosts can live.” Read it by clicking here: George Szirtes blog Then, go find that toad, say, by reading one of his poems: “Say

Song of the Aegean

I wrote this poem thinking of the Aegean, the stories attached to it, from the Trojan war, to Odysseus’ crisscrossing the sea to return to Ithaca, to the sponge divers risking their lives to earn a living…


This poem appeared in Poetry Monthly, issue 150, October 2008. (This was the last edition of the magazine; afterwards, it came back as the online journal Poetry Monthly International)

Song of the Aegean

Sea, azure, shoal, white sails,
Pines, sponges, diving tales

Winds, caique, bitter waves,
Oars, wreckage, soulful prayer

Odyssey, memory, dolphin leaps,
Marble, Kalymnos, Ariadne sings.

Arshile Gorky, great painter (and Armenian refugee)

In this touring exhibition, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, the Tate (10 February – 3 May 2010) celebrates the extraordinary work of Arshile Gorky and traces the development of his unique creative achievement. It firmly positions him amongst the greatest 20th-century American painters. Room after room, his astounding development is shown through his paintings. The interested viewer is given ample guidance through the exhibition catalogue’s well-written essays, to explore and see for herself the painter’s progress, as well as link it imaginatively to his life as a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

From his repainting of a 1912 photograph of himself and his mother, to the obsessional scraping of layers of paint in his canvasses, the viewer is provided with material to reflect upon not only the work of a genius, but also on the effects of trauma and the possible survival mechanisms at work. Best of all, Gorky’s paintings of himself with his mother serve as a pointer, a witness to the horrifying experiences and provide a background to that history and relationship.

For this blog – which focuses on cultural and historical factors impacting on themes of identity expressed in the visual arts, literature and society – the relevance of Gorky being an Armenian refugee from the Ottoman Empire, his life experiences and their influence on his subsequent development and work is self-evident. Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, in the surroundings of lake Van in the Armenian part of the Empire, he was said to be first traumatised by the emigration of his father to America; then by the persecution and expulsion suffered by the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman empire rebuilding its identity as the Turkish nation. Gorky, together with his family, was forced on an eight day ‘death march’ during which many perished, suffered extremes of danger and famine and indeed lost his mother to starvation. He travelled via Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Athens some time in 1920 on his way to America.

Upon arrival, he took a new name: Arshile, as his first name, possibly from the Russian version of the Greek hero Achilles; and Gorky, from the great Russian writer, whose nephew he claimed to be. The question why Gorky changed his name, is one of the most discussed in the first newspaper reviews of the Tate exhibition, and has been prominent in the writings about him.

In The Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston mentions the version of Gorky’s nephew, Karlen Mooradian (the same one who forged the letters from Gorky to his sister). He believed that Gorky was so overwhelmed by the weight of Armenian culture, history and language (passed on to him by his mother) that he felt he would never be able to live up to it. Changing his name, Mooradian is purported to have suggested, meant that Gorky could rid himself of this heavy burden.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston herself does not sound convinced that this is the main reason. Emphasizing the traumatic aspect of the wiping out of a whole community and subsequently this genocide being denied, she wonders whether the excessive trauma of this experience may have led Gorky to deny his true identity.

Whatever the reason – and several alternatives have been suggested and explored in the exhibition catalogue – there have been several charges levelled at Gorky and his art that are implicitly linked to his name change: imposture, mimicry, derivative, copying. William Feaver’s recent contribution in The Guardian is replete with references to boasting, or “an art of deception and concealment.” However, Michael R. Taylor in his article “Rethinking Arshile Gorky” (see exhibition catalogue) points out that what the critics saw as efforts by Gorky to copy the masters (Cézanne, Picasso and others) were misconstrued. These charges “fail[…] to grasp the radical nature of his self-imposed discipleship to these artists … Rather, Gorky emerges in this exhibition … as a quintessential self-taught artist in the interwar years whose steadfast allegiance to other artists’ visions was a means of self-creation” (p. 27).

Perhaps this is the point to remind ourselves how common it has become to write or paint under ‘pen names,’ ‘nom de guerre,’ or ‘nom de plume’. Would that mean that in relation to Gorky, different standards have been applied regarding his changing his name and not speaking about his own origins and trauma? If so, it would be interesting to consider why this might be the case.

However, there is a different point to consider. Without wishing to belittle the impact of the Armenian genocide or other explanations of Gorky assuming a new name, it may be useful to refer to the substantial amount of thinking and research carried out on the effects of colonial, imperial and post-colonial subjects. This work describes a clear pattern in the behaviour of those who aim to start a new life in another country, whether as refugees from war, persecution, hardship or for other reasons. In modern English literature, for instance, Indian and Pakistani authors, fleeing the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistan declarations of independence, have described the experience of such upheavals. Writing in English, these authors provide a culturally rich and imaginative perspective on displacement, exile, losses suffered and ways of coping/surviving them. They also explore, through their characters, a number of survival mechanisms being adopted in the new countries. Change of name, or slightly shortened/modified/Anglicized versions, as a sort of baptism, are among them.

Gorky’s change of name, his refusal to speak about the family trauma, may well be seen as expression of survival mechanisms which served him well in his work and life. The fact that he faced apocalyptic losses in his forties – lost paintings and books due to a fire in his studio; rectal cancer; wife’s affair with friend and supporter; subsequent abandonment by his wife, who took their children with her; breaking his neck in a car accident – meant that he was faced once again with a repetition of the original trauma he had suffered. Losing the life he had struggled so hard to build in America, Gorky may have lost the survival structures and the life energy that had propelled him forward to his becoming a new man, and a great artist.

See:

http://www.tate.org.uk/tateetc/issue18/mygorky.htm

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/7190303/Arshile-Gorky-A-Retrospective-at-Tate-Modern-review.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/feb/06/arshile-gorky-painting-william-feaver

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article7019487.ece

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/visual_arts/article6977836.ece?token=null&offset=12&page=2

Video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide.

http://channel.tate.org.uk/media/26093514001

Michael R. Taylor (ed) Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009)

Nouritza Matossian, Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (London: Chatto and Windus, 1998)

Black Angel – A Life of Arshile Gorky, video

Interesting video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide. http://channel.tate.org.uk/media/26093514001

Please feel free to add your comments, impressions, views about the film in the comments box below.

For more Reading Room Blog entries click here http://www.stellapierides.com/blog

How do languages die out? And why?

How do languages die out?The last member of a tribe that survived for over 65,000 years has died, taking a unique language with her. Bo had been one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Andaman Islands when the British colonised the islands. Initially the islands were used as penal colonies to accommodate survivors of the Indian War of Independence. The tribes were moved, forced to occupy a different, smaller island and subjected to so-called ‘civilising’ policies. Several were forced to live in the ‘Andaman Home.’ Interestingly, though not surprisingly, out of 150 Bo babies born in the Home, none survived beyond the age of 2. Food for thought. Read the article:

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article7015540.ece

Or this one in The Guardian:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/04/ancient-language-extinct-speaker-dies

Which diseases do languages die of? Colonisation, present and past, ‘civilising,’ paternalistic policies may be the most virulent and aggressive ones. How many people speak the indigenous languages of the American natives? How many languages are threatened by blind prejudice?

How many great poems, stories were lost when the Bo language became extinct ? How much knowledge about history, ancient perspectives, animals, plants was lost, we will never know. In our arrogance, we are comfortable in the belief that our knowledge is the best, that we know better – and thus lose our connection with our roots, history and common humanity.

From another perspective, globalisation, time, culture, technologies are great equalisers, disseminators of information to the great Social Darwinian battlefield of humanity. The stronger language, community, culture wins. In an article in The New York Times, this process is seen at work in China:

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/18/world/asia/18manchu.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1

On the other hand, many languages have also been saved. The Hebrew language was actively revived as a spoken, everyday language in the late nineteenth century, when Classical Hebrew and its later developments, together with other spoken Hebrew became the Modern Hebrew used today. Latin was saved from extinction through its use in the Holy See (but not the Vatican City State), apart from being preserved in classical education. Barely recognisable variations of Ancient Greek might (!) still be spoken by small pockets of descendents of Alexander the Great’s army in remote parts of Asia; Doric Greek is often uncovered in dialects spoken in the Peloponnese and other Western areas of present-day Greece. Welsh (in the United Kingdom), Maori (in New Zealand), and other languages came back from the brink.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8311000/8311069.stm

Though the work of digital archives is commendable in preserving dying and/or dead languages in digital museums, such as “Open Language Archives Community” (OLAC) – it is, sadly, helpless in keeping them alive out there in the world.

Luckily, there are are other means of helping: http://www.survivalinternational.org/news/5509 and
http://www.survivalinternational.org/weareone

Carry a Poem

Responding to the “Carry a Poem”, Edinburgh’s city of literature reading campaign 

question: “How do you carry yours?” I sent in the piece below. I also enjoyed reading
other people’s poem stories. Have a look, you might find something to your heart’s
liking: http://carryapoem.com/category/stories/

Blue NightSTELLA’S STORY: BLUE NIGHT Thursday, 28 January 2010
I have different poems to suit different occasions. Poems,
fragments, even lines of poems I keep in my books, notice-board, notebook, iPod,
in my heart and head. And I keep renewing them, thanks to the wonderful output of our poets.
Last Christmas, I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’;
last year, for rainy days, I carried Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’; the last few years,
Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’, hearing their ‘harsh and exciting’ cries as a wake
up call to the world. For decades, I pondered over Giorgos Seferis’ ‘In the Manner of G.S.’. So many others… Whenever I need reminding of my place in nature, in the order of things, whenever my expectations become too great, I reach for Sean O’Brien’s
‘Blue Night’. Downloaded from the Guardian, it lights up my computer screen. Therefore. Therefore, I become small, or tall. I draw strength and inspiration. Thank you Sean O’Brien. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/jan/14/tseliotprizeforpoetry.awardsandprizes1
from Blue Night by Sean O’Brien Therefore. Therefore. Do not be weak. They have no time for pity or belief,

Who are the real Greeks? in The Guardian

Reading Room Blog

Reading Room Blog

To suggest something for my Reading Room Blog, please email me and I will try my best to follow it up. Otherwise, pick an entry, sit back, and read!

Matina Stevis, in The Guardian, asks: Who are the real Greeks? Sparking a thought provoking debate, she discusses the proposed legislation offering citizenship to the children of immigrants:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/jan/20/greece-citizenship-immigrants-debate

I copy below my comment on Matina’s article from the Guardian website:

20 Jan 2010, 9:14PM

Greece is not an island. Unlike the UK, it is a country at the crossroads of the East with the West, at the intersection of three continents. It has a long history of wars of occupation and independence; of expansion, contraction, populations mixing, fleeing, persecution and exchange. In such an environment, the question ‘Who are the real Greeks?’ becomes either irrelevant or plays into the hands of those who try to manipulate history and race.

History helps us understand, though by no means justify or excuse, the state of a country and its people. Today, history is alive in Greece, and knowledge of the country’s past – the four hundred year Ottoman occupation, the Balkan wars, two World Wars, the war with Turkey and the resulting ‘Catastrophe’ of 1922, the treaty of Lausanne, the Civil War, the Junta –  helps us trace the roots of the divisions in modern Greek society. Unfortunately, large chunks of this history are kept in different places because they are being disputed, not accepted as true by the still warring parties in this country, as well as Greece’s neighbours. A quick read through the responses to this blog will illustrate the diversity of histories, ethnic woes and, really, the whole problem.

The Greek fault line may nowadays be seen in the reactions of some Greeks to foreign workers; in a feature shown on Greek TV some time ago, one could see footage of Greek migrants to America in the early twentieth century and the negative reactions to them by Americans that paralleled Greeks’ reactions to Albanian immigrants. The schism is also expressed in Greece’s policies towards some neighbouring countries  and now in the opposition of Greeks, thankfully not a majority, to the legislative proposal to allow citizenship to children born to immigrants.

Let us hope that those interested in Greece will feel encouraged by Matina’s article to trace the threads of this regrettable reaction to Greece’s history and the countless conflicts and migrations that made it a country and constructed its identity, and its fears of losing its recognizable format. At the same time, let us applaud the Greeks who, by proposing and supporting this progressive law, demonstrate their affinity with ideas of shared humanity and acceptance of the other.

2 Writers, many years later:

Reading Room Blog

Two writers writing about the refugees:

Renee Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

Hirschon draws on her research as an anthropologist in one of the refugee areas of Piraeus, Kokkinia, in 1972. Living within the refugee community, Hirschon was able to observe people’s customs and traditions, listen to their stories, and witness their lives. The fact that they referred to themselves as refugees and they were addressed as such in 1972, fifty years from the 1922 catastrophic events in Asia Minor, becomes the pivot of the book, and underpins the facts she discusses.

Hirschon was able to follow the grievances, alienation, marginalisation and suffering of this group of people living in Piraeus, and their attempts to cope with their situation by forging a separate identity within the Greek nation. While later years brought prosperity and the option to move out of the area, large numbers decided to stay in overcrowded properties for economic, socio-political, and to some degree, psychological reasons. Hirschon’s work focuses on a moment in time in the lives of this group of Mikrasiates, which tells a story of their continuing need for an identity and a way of coming to terms with their situation.

From the iconostasi (icon corner/alcove) to the proxenio (the procedure of arranging the marriage), to the dowry, to the seeming contradiction of religious practice with left-wing commitment, and to the surprising ratio of chairs per head, the book presents and explores a society both alive and struggling to maintain its identity. Hirschon relates a woman refugee saying that while the catastrophic events in Asia Minor and their consequences were traumatic experiences to the older generation, they are heard only as fairy tales by their offspring.

This book paints an alive picture of the people and the society it describes.

————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma’ in History and Memory, Bloomington: 2008, 20:2

Gülfem Kaatcilar Iren, a woman from Smyrna/Izmir, born in 1915, talks to Leyla Neyzi about her experiences of war, and the destruction of Smyrna and Manisa in  particular, events central to the history of Greece and Turkey. These events are referred to in Greece as the Smyrna ‘disaster’, while in Turkey as the ‘liberation’ of Izmir. This paper provides a unique account of the co-existence of two contradictory discourses framing the identity of the witness interviewed, as well as a wonderful illustration of shared humanity between people on the opposite sides of the political divide of the Aegean.

In a sensitive manner and with an ability to hold conflicting approaches in balance, Neyzi identifies two separate discourses in this narrative: a nationalist discourse which rationalises the events in Izmir and the ‘silence’ that followed them, and a discourse based on personal experience, which empathizes with those who lost the war and were forced to emigrate to another country (in this case, Greece) for safety.

Neyzi explores the coexistence and intersection between the two discourses while placing them within the wider socio-political context of the discussion about identity and history in modern-day Turkey.

Girl

Girl

I wrote this poem in response to the painting titled Woman by Robert Campin. The painting can be found in the National Gallery, London. Here is the link: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/robert-campin-a-woman

My poem, Girl, can be found in the print Journal Off the Coast, International/Translation Issue, Spring 2009.

Girl

after ‘Woman’ by Robert Campin, 1378-1444, National Gallery

She rarely smiles. A thick, white veil
frames her face, stops her innocence
from straying too far;
remembering the world outside.

Here she lives, here she is
and here she stays: four walls,
bench, Bible, rosary, Cross,
pair of clogs, glass, pebble,
compass, chair, table.

She would be lost, but
for her little pleasure:
a bowl of coconut ice
refectory Sister leaves
on her windowsill.

'Girl,' in Off the Coast

Of Love and Fish

IMG_0762.jpgIt might be true to say that Lakis, the seventeen year old new arrival to Athens, was born with an innate distrust of women. That, or it was his mother who influenced him. Without indulging in cheap psychology, let us give the idea a try. His history provides more than enough evidence. Lakis often goes over it, again and again. Do not be deceived by his job, and its meagre demands on his intellect. Crying daily “Sardines. Lovely sardines!” at the fish market may be simple enough, but it is what hides behind it that informs his character.

The weak muscle of his eye was the first thing his mother disliked. Born of a good family, her father a sea captain, she had always lusted after his men. She admired strong muscles in every form. She fell pregnant by one of them. Her father beat her with a chair and then locked her in a room overlooking the sea.

“He is an old-fashioned, hard-headed Greek,” her mother told her. “What can we do? You should have kept your skirts down, my girl.”

Out she pressed her tongue, in defiance. But there was no defying the will of her father. “I will show him, I will,” she repeated day and night, greeting her teeth, biting the insides of her cheeks. “I will show him.” And when her “muscle” man did not show up, when she heard he had sailed to Africa, the saying changed to, “I will show them!” Which she did. She “showed” everyone, including her son Lakis, of the weak eye muscle, by depriving them of her presence. By hiding away in her head.

The boy was starved of love. His mother was bent on revenge, his grandmother on mourning her absent captain of a husband. The boy played on his own and spoke to himself. All day, every day, in that lonely room, on top of the sad house overlooking the sea, overlooking the abode of his father. Sometimes he drew lines on the wooden floorboards. With his little finger. Invisible lines, like the lines ships draw on the surface of the sea. Sometimes he hummed songs he never heard in reality, rubbing with his index finger his favourite nail on the window frame. Sometimes he looked out of the window, like his own mother had looked at the sea, when she was longing for love herself and lost her mind to revenge. A ship passed every now and then. Clouds passed often. Boats passed every day. Boats with solitary men, escaping their pregnant wives. He tried to see if one of them was his father. But no one looked up at his window. No one seemed to look for him. Some boats were laden with catch. Fish that shone and trembled. Lakis felt sorry for the fish. Each one outside the water it loved. Each one like him, lonely, frightened, not knowing where it would end up. His grandmother, who never knew the names of fish, told him they were sardines. She brought him the food that someone from downstairs cooked. She stayed with him for a few minutes, by the window, looking out to sea.

“You have the best view, you lucky one!” she told him. “What do I need a view of the sea. My husband sees it in his travels all day.” His mother never came. Not once after she was allowed out of that room. She scoured the four corners of their house, she haunted its creaky staircases, its corridors, speaking to the walls and their ceilings. But she never spoke to Lakis or anybody else.

When it was time for him to go to school, he simply did not go. He did not know anything about schools. How was he to know? Nobody told him. Nobody saw him. Nobody knew of him. Except a few close family members and they pretended not to know. They turned a blind eye to his existence, because it meant shame. So he grew up on his own, unschooled. With the sea, the silence and the sad, dying fish for company. Until, just around ten, he ran away.

It was so simple. He could have done it years ago had he known how simple it was! He just did not let his grandmother go out and lock the door behind her. He pushed past her and ran and ran till he could no longer breath. There he stopped and stood. He looked around him. It was a big opening of the sea with many boats standing still. Men were sitting on the ground, like he sat in his room, mending their nets. He went and sat next to one of them. The quietest one, the one sitting furthest apart from the others. Neither of them spoke. Much later, the man turned to him:

“You are a quiet boy. What is your name?”

“Lakis.” And that was the beginning of the love story that kept the boy alive. He answered the questions well enough for Kyrios Nikos, a refugee himself, to understand the tragedy of the situation.

“My name is Nikos,” he said and shook hands with the boy. “You can stay with me.”

Lakis stayed with Kyrios Nikos for a few years, helping with the fishing and the mending. Helping with the loneliness and the desolation of an uprooted life. It was during those years that he learnt about the world.

“Another capital, Kyrie Niko? How many capitals has the world got?”

“Many, Laki mou. Many. The world is a big place.”

“How do you remember them all?”

“I remember the important ones. Smyrni, the Paris of Anatolia.”

However, despite the best intentions, Kyrios Nikos was not that good a teacher for Laki. The problem was he kept mixing metaphors with facts.

“So, was Smyrni a capital? Your Smyrni?” Lakis tried to clarify things in his mind.

“Yes!” Kyrios Nikos exclaimed. “The capital of my heart!”

Eventually, Kyrios Nikos, with the extra pair of hands that Lakis provided, managed to get enough savings together for both of them to travel to the undisputed capital of hearts and Greece, Athens. There, they opened shop, or stall – it is a matter of perspective – and sold their wares. How proud Lakis was of their achievement. “Sardines, lovely Sardines!” he could shout for days, if it had not been for the limitations of his throat.

“Boss?” he had started calling Kyrios Nikos. “Boss? Another coffee? Water, Boss?”

Kyrios Nikos adored him. The son he never had. The family he had missed out on having. This is why he kept asking the boy about his lodgings at Alexandrias 40.

“They treat you well, my son? The women respect you? They lower their eyes?” he asked Laki a few days after he started lodging there. Worried that his boy would be mistreated once again. Kyrios Nikos had lost trust himself in the world, especially in its women, who seemed to respect money more than they respected a soul. “We are both refugees, my son. You from your family, I from the greed of Greeks and Turks. We have to support one another. At least your  landlords are refugees themselves, they know all about pain.”

“They treat me well, Boss. I don’t need anything.” Kyrios Nikos, unable to run a shop and pay an employee at the same time, not to mention paying the refugee mafia that plagues the market, sleeps in the shop. Which means he sleeps rough. But he does not mind. After all these years he is used to it. In addition, he has made some very good friends there. Poor, but honest and hard-working, and above all with hearts like his. Big.

So when it comes to questions of love, of trust, of loyalty, Lakis turns to Kyrios Nikos. He has not met his mother since he left home, anyway. He has only a confused sense of her presence, a craving for love fused with violent repulsion. Poor Lakis. Hard as he may try, he cannot see her in his mind’ eye, he cannot feel her on his skin. “Mother,” he tries speaking to her, at night, in his small room, his candle flickering from his rocking on the floor. “Mother,” he says louder. She never answers him. He never gives up.

Is it mistrust he suffers from? Is it withheld love? And if so, is it his mother’s or his father’s withholding? or is it him born mistrustful, his squinting eye not letting him get hold of the depth of the complexity of this world? We may never find out. Though we do know he has known love and, by now, he knows fish too.

A version of this story was published in Spiked, issue 15. It is an extract from the novel Alexandrias 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree.

Literature, Art, Culture, Society, and lots of Haiku