Belonging

I usually don’t start with quotes, but this time I will:

‘Does an American belong more in America than elsewhere when most of us came from elsewhere? How to account for the violence of founding a country on someone else’s land? How can any model of American belonging function unproblematically on top of such a heritage? But then wasn’t every country in the world formed out of conflict over who owned the land? All of human history is a story of migrations and conquests. All of us are exiles, but some of us are more aware of it than others.’

This is from Lauren Elkin’s book-length essay, Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London.

Given the current prominence of replacement theory and its proponents among the extreme right in Western countries, especially America, I do wonder about the role of belonging, or this false sense of belonging, in this twisted ideology.

The New York Times recently published their study of 1,150 episodes of Tucker Carlson Tonight. Among the many disturbing findings was Carlson’s version of replacement theory, where ‘they‘ want to replace ‘you’ with ‘third world immigrants,’ who are more ‘obedient voters.’ The ‘they’ is the powerful ‘ruling class’ of left-wing so-called liberals, and the ‘you’ is supposed to be his audience, who are perhaps best defined when Carlson points out ‘They call you a racist.’ The reference to ‘immigrant’ suggests that they do not belong in America. Belonging also slinks into Carlson’s diatribes with comments such as ‘They care more about foreigners than their own people.’ Carlson’s idealised American belongs to a grouping of people. Which group of people is never specified. If Carlson tried to specify and delineate this group, he would run into the problem that Elkin writes about.

All of this reminds me that race is a sociocultural concept. But this idea is nothing new, I remember reading an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly some nine years ago – which shows the powerful impression it left on me, as opposed to any superb memory on my part. The article was entitled ‘What We Mean When We Say “Race Is a Social Construct.”’ After quoting the historian Nell Irvin Painter who said, ‘Race is an idea, not a fact,’ Coates concludes ‘Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some… guys with big guns looking for a reason.’ Nine years on, this could still help explain the latest hate-related mass shooting in America in a literal sense and figuratively the likes of Tucker Carlson.

The moral of all of this brings me back to where I started, with a quote from Lauren Elkin: ‘Beware roots. Beware purity. Beware fixity. Beware the creeping feeling that you belong. Embrace flow, impurity, fusion.’  

A Cross-Party Spirit for the Pro-Europe Movement

As party politics in Britain is being reshaped – maybe to the point of extinction – I find myself increasingly involved in cross-party events. This week it was a town hall style gathering billed as a ‘Brexit Listening Tour’ in Peterborough and led by Lord Adonis, a Labour Peer. The attendees for the most part didn’t identify themselves as belonging to or supporting one party or another. Those who did label themselves came from Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens and Conservative parties. Naturally, no one from UKIP, but I suspect they’re not in ‘listening’ mode these days.

From the timing of the applauses, along with the comments and questions, this was clearly an event for those who want the UK to remain in the EU. If you’ve been following my blogs, you know that this is not the first time I’ve been to such an event.  Adonis

I came away from the evening invigorated and inspired to get back to the type of face-to-face activism that I do when I’m back here in Ely. I also came away with a few points worth sharing.

First of all, perhaps the time has come for Brexiters and Remainers to unite against our government for running the simplistic in/out referendum in the first place. It’s easy to accuse the Brexiters of lacking knowledge as there was no mandate in the referendum explaining how we would leave, along with the assumptions (and lies) that made people believe that leaving the EU would make Britain better off. Even though those who voted remain obviously had some sense of what it would be like to stay in, there were still many things about how the EU works that Remainers- and I include myself in this- simply didn’t know. Had we known more about the customs union, the various immigration policies across EU member states, or the problems now facing Ireland and Gibraltar, our arguments would have been different.

Secondly, let’s not forget that Brexit is a symptom of the problems the UK has been unsuccessfully dealing with for the past few decades. Problems like unemployment, housing and a weakening health care system.  Perhaps this point is just another angle on looking at how the pro-leave vote was really a protest vote against life in Britain. Labour, the Greens and the Lib-Dems could easily unite on tackling these problems along with undoing the mess that has become Brexit.

A final point is more a turn of phrase than a point. It’s an answer to the tabloid press and The Daily Telegraph which continue to publish stories about the NHS being drained by immigrates and their children needing medical services. One of the attendees at this cross-party event said ‘You’re more likely to be treated by an immigrant than you are to see them in the waiting room.’  Well said.

Immigration Novels

I recently read Akhil Sharma’s Family Life about an Indian family who move to America only to find themselves dealing with tragedy – a son who becomes an invalid. It’s a beautifully written novel that manages to make misery entertaining. As much of this entertainment comes from the young narrator acclimatising to an alien culture, it’s had me thinking about other immigration literature.

Over the years, I’ve read countless books, fiction and non-fiction, about people who move from one country to another. Some stories are about the journey and the personal transformation that takes place when one lives in a different culture, while others pick up on the characters already living in their new country but being identified as immigrants. Before doing what every modern writer does – browsing a subject online – I considered my own list of favourite immigration novels. The firsts to come to mind were My Antonia by Willa Cather about a Czech community settling in Nebraska and Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee about Koreans in California. I confess that the Lee book might be particularly memorable as I read it when I was living in South Korea, experiencing the flip-side. Also on my personal list are Jhumpa Lahiti’s The Lowland, Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban, Andrea Levy’s Small Island and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars.28286-2013-edbl-chang-rae-lee-613x463

When I searched online for immigration literature I found books from my list alongside some unlikely choices – Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (I guess it’s immigration though within one country) and Nabokov’s Lolita (Humbert being the immigrant, though hardly the point in my opinion). Another book that appeared on one list was Husseini’s The Kite Runner, which I struggle to see immigrant fiction. So much of it takes place in Afghanistan and it doesn’t stick in my mind as a story about culture clash or transformation.

I’m sure I’ve left books out, and I am aware of the tendency of such lists, including my own, to be about people moving to countries like America and Britain. Immigration literature could include westerners moving to other lands – that’s another blog, as is immigration poetry.