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 .
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.