Category Archives: asylum seekers

ALL THAT IS SOLID MELTS INTO AIR…

All that is solid melts into air

….so Marx famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto(1848). He was describing the experience of modernity. With the collapse of the old institutions and traditions and the ever-increasing and quickly superseded products of the new age, life itself was shot through with contradictions and uncertainties. What to hold on to in such times of rapid change? Marx’s answer involved seizing the means of production in the new age of mechanisation.

We are still in the throes of modernism. Our age is characterised by fast-paced change at every level: global, national, local, inside the office and inside the home. Contradictions and uncertainties abound; we hardly know where we’ll be next week, much less next year. Mechanisation has given way to automation; work is no longer a certainty, the solid presence of friends and family can no longer be relied upon. The only presence we have, the only object we have is the self, or rather ‘myself’, as current speech would have it. (When did the word ‘me’ become obsolete, to be replaced with the more emphatic ‘myself’?). Our own individual self. It’s solid.

Descartes’ I think therefore I am has become in the contemporary age, simply, I am.

But how solid is it really, this self? With the various digital platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on – we are able to tweak the self, promote this bit over that, skim this, shave that, show our best side, our most interesting side, show brains, show beauty, skewthe self several times daily. This self, this individual which is all I can rely on, I am constantly reshaping and remodelling, undermining and usurping, this self that we reach for in our age of flux, this self that could be solid is, in our treatment of it, no more solid than air.

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Millions of Australians of voting age and younger looked forward to a change of government on May 18th, 2019. We were not naïve enough to think that all the wrongs would be righted, but we did expect a more compassionate approach to refugees and asylum seekers, a more proactive approach regarding climate change, a redistribution of public monies to strengthen health and education services, and a greater independence from the US. When the conservatives won another term, the loss I felt, as did many of my friends, was the loss of a better Australia.

I hardly recognise my country any more, this Australia that imprisons innocent refugees on Manus and Nauru for years, that holds on to coal when the rest of the world is giving it up, whose tricky maths has the nation meeting climate change targets, whose efforts to dampen independent and open surveillance through a free press are counter-balanced by covert surveillance into the private lives of its citizens. I hardly recognise my own country and I certainly do not want to embrace it. Following the election, I talked with like-minded citizens in a sort of collective venting of sadness and disappointment, indeed, I seemed unable to talk about anything else for several days. And then I did what so many people do in times of extremis, I reached for books. Solid and enduring books.

I was tempted by Jane Austen. The complete novels would keep me cocooned for several weeks during which time I would accommodate to the situation (like accommodating to chronic pain). That would have been the easy solution. But I needed to understand what had happened, because without understanding it will happen again and again.

So I reached for the work of progressive public intellectuals, writers with a good serving of humanistic values: Timothy Snyder, Zygmunt Bauman, and through Bauman to the Canadian, Henry Giroux, whom I’d not read before. Tony Judt would have made up the foursome but I’d read his last (Thinking the Twentieth Centurywritten in conjunction with Timothy Snyder) and with his death there were no more.

The titles of the books were a promise of better things to this heavy heart:

The Road to Unfreedom. Timothy Snyder.
Liquid Eviland Retrotopia. Zymunt Bauman. (Retrotopiais Bauman’s last book published in 2017, the year of his death.)
Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalismand The Violence of Organized Forgetting. Henry Giroux. (Several of his lectures are on Youtube.)
All that Is Solid Melts into Air. Marshall Berman (from 1982, and still a rich read, particularly for those with a literary bent).

I’m still reading these books, I’m still adding to my understanding of what is going on in Australia and elsewhere. Through these books I feel connected to a mode of being in the world, one in which critical discourse still prevails, the false lures of nostalgia are rebuffed, the destabilising effects of non-stop consumerism are revealed, individualism is shown to be bereft and self-destructive, and the loss of community is deplored.

While there is much more to be found in these books, it is not my intention to provide synopses here, rather I want to emphasize what books have always done. Yes, they provide comfort and confirmation and a community, but as well they illuminate and question and debate, and most particularly, when all seems futile and the forces marshalling against all that you hold dear are simply too great, you can connect with great and generous minds, feel as if you’re not alone AND find answers.

And you can share your emerging understandings with others who will have their own emerging understandings. These are dynamicconversations, productive and often surprising conversations, through which it is possible to shape some changes. And these changes, unlike so many changes that impact on contemporary life in the 21stcentury, are under our control. Our Control. For all the current emphasis on individualism, we are at the whim of fads and fashions, we are caught in a social life that is non-stop busy yet leaves us empty at the end of the day. Through the solitary act of reading one can become, once more, an active participant in one’s own life, a life connected with other people.

Often I find myself recalling the last line of Tennyson’s Ulysses: to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. The words give me strength, the words are a timely refrain in the strains and perplexities of today’s world. The words are solid.

 

Starting All over Again (2). The Genesis of Invented Lives.

There’s a residue left when a novel is finished. You rarely recognise it at the time; only later, when the next novel is nearing completion do you see a connection with the one that preceded it.

While writing The Memory Trap I was vitally interested in monuments, in particular, how voluble they were about political and social currents. Following the break up of the Soviet Union, there was an avalanche of falling statues and monuments throughout central and Eastern Europe – as if the communist years could be so easily shattered. And, more recently, there’s been a rise of new monuments exemplifying a revised perspective and understanding of the Soviet years, including a number of monuments erected to the victims of communism.

The Prague Monument to the Victims of Communisms (Photo by Serje Jones.)

 

 

 

 

 

The Memory Trap was finished and in production when I found myself reaching for books focussed on Putin and contemporary Russia. Apart from the usual Russian novels (Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Pasternak, etc) and the poets (Pushkin, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva) I’d read nothing about Russia. I did not bother to analyse this new direction in my reading: a novel was finished, I needed to fill up again, I know it to be a hapahazard business. I quickly realised that to understand Russia today required a knowledge of the Soviet years; and to understand the revolution and the years that followed required knowledge of Russia under the Czars. So back I went. My reading petered out around 1880.

I read the stunningly informative and always engaging Orlando Figes. (They are all good but The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia is unique, compelling and unforgettable.) I reread Nabokov novels and autobiographical works, and I read biographies of both him and his wife, Vera. I read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s autobiographies Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned, both extraordinary documents of Stalin’s terror and beyond. I read Russian fiction and Russian poetry, I read one book after another. After a while I realised all this Russian reading must be taking me somewhere. Familiar with the need to fill up again when a novel is finished, and well-acquainted with the uncertainty that accompanies the writing of a novel, I was not too concerned to understand where these Russian books might be taking me.

At the same time as I was immersed in Russia of the past 140 years, the media was full of the Australian Government’s policy towards asylum seekers. Turn back the boats. No one who arrives illegally by boat will ever be permitted to settle in Australia. Politicians actually boasted of the success of the policy. Either they did not stop to think how cruel and brutal it was, or they did think about it and simply didn’t care. Desperate displaced people were seeking asylum, seeking safety with us, and we were treating them like criminals. As for the queues politicians and their supporters kept referring to, when your very life is being threatened, queues don’t matter. Queues won’t save you. Queues won’t protect you against rape, against mutilation, against rampaging soldiers intent on killing you and your family.

It seemed self-evident to me that no one would willingly choose exile. No one would willingly separate from one’s culture, land, language, friends and family, unless one’s very life was threatened. Why were we demonising these people? The politicians were whipping up hatred, and much of the press was following suit. Where, I wondered was our compassion, where our understanding? And why this fear of difference? Aboriginal Australians are the only indigenous Australians, the rest of us are immigrants. We were welcomed and yet now we refuse to welcome those seeking our help.

I was reading about Russia and the Soviet Union and I was thinking about exile and I knew that from 1979 to the break-up of the USSR, many Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate – to Israel, to the US, to Canada and to Australia. And so the character of Galina Kogan started to form. Born in Leningrad in 1961, Galina travels to Australia alone in the mid-1980s.

It occurred to me there might be advantages to setting a novel in the recent past. A little bit of distance not only eliminates any of the bias directed at current political and social circumstances, it also provides a clearer view of these circumstances. Reading about the recent past almost automatically prompts a comparison with today.

It was in thinking about the 1980s that I created my married couple, Sylvie and Leonard Morrow, both born in the 1930s and married in the 1950s. Two people who experience exile – nothing to do with moving country, but exile from their own true selves. And their son, Andrew, an intensely shy young man, in exile from the social community that others inhabit with such ease. And so I started to write a novel that in a very deliberate sense, democratised the experience of exile.

The novel grew, the drafts mounted up. It was very late in the process when I realised the novel was also exploring the notion of self-invention. I came of age at a time when Erving Goffman and R.D. Laing were required reading. Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Laing’s Self and Others are still on my bookshelves, while the ‘Looking glass self’ theory of the sociologist Cooley, is etched into my memory. All the characters in Invented Lives shape their personas according to the particular environment in which they find themselves. This is what we used to do prior to the digital age and social media. And back in those days you would receive immediate feedback from others in the environment through facial expressions, gestures and/or utterances, and make adjustments accordingly.

I knew very little of this at the beginning of writing Invented Lives. But that’s the magic of fiction. And now that Invented Lives is finished, I am filling up again with books about death. I wonder where that will take me.

 

EMPATHY 1.

In her book, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, Alison Landsberg explores a new type of memory she calls prosthetic memory. This memory refers to the appropriation of past experience through experiential museum installations, film and other media by people who do not have a personal connection to the events being portrayed.

Through the work of Toni Morrison, for example, people who are not African-Americans can take on a ‘deeply felt memory’ of slavery and the African-American experience. Through films such as the miniseries ‘Holocaust’ or ‘The Piano Player’ or ‘Sophie’s Choice’ people with no connection with the Holocaust can incorporate memories of this experience into their overall intellectual and subjective worlds. Through the numerous books, films and documentaries about the Gallipoli campaign, young people identify with the soldiers in the trenches to an extent that renders many of them to painful tears. ‘Through the technologies of mass culture, it becomes possible for…memories to be acquired by anyone, regardless of skin colour, ethnic background, or biology. Prosthetic memories are transportable and therefore challenge more traditional forms of memory that are premised on claims of authenticity, ‘heritage’, and ownership.’

Such ‘mass-mediated memories’ are reliant on an imaginative and empathic reader/viewer.

The success of any work of fiction requires the engagement of a similar sensibility. A reader is drawn into the world of a novel, into the lives and environments and historical circumstances of the characters being depicted. The reader enters the novelistic world and treats it as if real. It is for this reason that when a reader reaches the end of a compelling novel s/he doesn’t want it to finish, or s/he wants it to finish it differently, or s/he hopes that these same characters will appear in the author’s next novel. Readers care about characters in fiction, they are concerned with what happens to them.

The so-called ‘non-fiction novel’ such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood relies on the same sensibility. Capote could have written a straightforward documentary account of the murder of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their two youngest children by two ex-convicts on parole. But by writing it in a novelistic form he engaged a far greater degree of reader empathy.

The ability to empathise with ‘the other’, with people outside our own time, our own culture and our own experience is common to us all. Adults demonstrate it through their response to fiction and films, children reveal it in their wonderful ability to play ‘make-believe’. Why then is it so difficult to employ the same quality when it comes to people in the real contemporary world? Why is it that desperate people driven to leave the country of their birth and the language in which they are at home, are more likely to inspire fear, disparagement, even hatred, rather than understanding and empathy.

All of us have the cognitive tools to understand the plight of asylum seekers, indeed to understand all ‘foreigners’ who seek a homeland in Australia, but many choose instead to demonise these people as ‘other’, as ‘different’, as ‘threatening’. These exiles, these homeless people are condemned as undermining the Australian way of life; of taking our jobs; of polluting the essential Australian character.

The crucial question is: why this response?

Is it greed? That we are not willing to share the freedom and opportunity that most of us enjoy in this country.

Is it fear? That we are so insecure in our nationhood that a small number of broken, desperate, homeless people are a threat?

Or is it simply that there’s been insufficient public discussion, discussion untainted by popularist bias, political opportunism and/or media power? That these people seeking asylum are treated so badly because not enough honest thought and time has been given to aspects of the Australian culture that we might be reluctant to own.

Australians have been quick to criticise racism in South Africa and the United States, and religious intolerance in Ireland and the Middle East, but what about discrimination here in our own country? We have the ability to understand what drives people into exile but we choose to close our minds.