Under the Big Tree

Blog Post

November 24, 2023

Some time ago, I was approached by innovative Leeds university linguistics professor, Dr Maggie Kubniyova, to join in conversations she was curating with an international team of academics, artists and many others – called ETHER .

Three of my ink and gouache drawings on the ground at the University of Leeds, photo by Mark Epstein

Maggie got in touch initially, because she’d come across my 2017 collection Velkom to Inklandt, and used it as a resource with her linguistics students, as a way for them to encounter and enjoy the Chelinchiss of foreigness and incomprehension in their own work around Lenkvitch.

When I was invited to be part of the ETHER provocations seminars around ‘encountering the other’, which began online during the pandemic, I submitted a video about my live story collecting and drawing. I was part of several day long events in which different practitioners – musicians, researchers, theatre makers etc, shared ideas on making work that really connects people.

ETHER is a form of activism that questions hierarchical learning, art and engagement, and makes us all equal in the process of listening and being listened to. The ideas are cooperative, and perhaps aim to help with a more epic task of empathy beyond identity.

This playful publication is the result of a multi faceted collaboration – initiated by Dr Maggie Kubanyiova of the University of Leeds.

Maggie wrote to me again, about a research project of her own, conducted by her in her native Slovakia, around how language is wielded in a small but fairly typical village in which two communities co exist, bisected by a river. The main settlement is mainstream Slovak, and across the river live a community of Roma people.

One of my ink drawings created as metaphor for two communities divided by a river

Discrimination is endemic, the Romani language is suppressed, the schools are in the Slovak part of the town and only Slovak is used or taught on the curriculum.

The researcher is here, from England!

Maggie’s fieldwork involved listening to the children and adults in the main primary school and looking at the expectations and trajectories around the education system there. She approached me with the material she’d collected, to see if by using paint and poetry in response to her fieldwork and findings, a change in methodology could arise, in which there could be connection and fun, rather than another layer of othering. Could paint and poetry make one ‘us’ out of the people we find ourselves to be, either side of a river?

My poem River, translation into Romani by Anna Koptová

The village itself, out in the middle of rural central Europe, is surrounded by abundant nature: forest, mountain, meadow. Naturally, none of the surrounding landscape is bothered about the identity of the citizens swinging about or splashing in the water. One of the poems I wrote is a kind of duet for these two communities – I also wrote in the voice of the river, and the mainly locked and swish – school library.

The poem Duet, on the left in English, on the right in Romani, translation by Anna Koptová.

After a few very interesting sessions, listening, talking and wondering with Maggie – and taking on the playful stories and chatter of the children in the recordings, I wrote some poems and painted and drew and shared my various responses.

School, a poem I wrote based on the language wielded by the group of children in the study, translation into Romani by Anna Koptová
A painting featuring elements of the children’s chatter: including St Nikolas, the devil, biscuits and ‘the big tree’.

Maggie then worked with a distinguished Romani scholar and translator, Anna Koptová to translate my poems into Romani and create a format for them that the children of the village could enjoy and play games with.

An enterprising artist-designer who makes books with communities, Sarah-Jane Mason, has devised a playful book and set of cards in English and Romani – and these will be used by educators, community groups and children in Slovakia – and perhaps elsewhere, giving some extra pride to those learners who grow up in, or want to learn, the Romani language.

A book and educational resource, designed by Sarah-Jane Mason and published by Next Generation Publications
The irony of an inaccessible school library

One of my delights in this project was guessing that the exceptionally helpful man in a phone shop advising me and my learning disabled son was Roma. If it wasn’t for this project I would never have asked him. I wrote a prose poem based on this story, here it is – and in the lower photo, as it appears in the publication.

A double sided card from the publication: Under the Big Tree – Šuńiben Kamibnaha

I was honoured to present this work at a talk with Maggie in Leeds in the summer, and think further with a diverse and passionate audience about the many ways in which language can be – and is – used as a tool both of connection and hostility. This work is as powerful and relevant as any in pursuit of peace – and finding a path towards dialogue and communality without giving up on the many joys to be found in difference.

Dr Maggie Kubanyiova and myself at the presentation of our collaboration based on her research, University of Leeds, 2023, photo by Mark Epstein.

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