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Features Q&A and Interviews Published 2 December 2016

Xavier de Sousa: “Migrants… were not part of the conversation.”

Maddy Costa talks to Xavier de Sousa about migration, being a host and his new show POST at the Ovalhouse.
Maddy Costa
Xavier de Sousa, performer of POST.

Xavier de Sousa, performer of POST.

The table at the heart of Xavier de Sousa’s POST is sturdy, wooden, the kind of thing you’d find in a grandmother’s kitchen. It is the setting for a thoughtful study of what is meant by home, not just at a personal level, but a national level. So it seemed right, if we were to talk about it, to do so sat at my own sturdy wooden kitchen table, sharing a pomegranate and comparing experiences our experiences of the conversation around migration and nationality.

X: There’s something [performance artist and academic] Johanna Linsley posted on Facebook about the show: ‘I’m thinking that there might be a performance genre called “critical hospitality” and this is a really good example of it.’

M: That’s interesting.

X: I’m really glad she said that, because I think she got it: it’s playing with the idea of a host, and investigating what that might mean as an analogy to a hosting country. That was a big part of it. Hosting is such an important thing in Portugal and I wanted to use elements of Portuguese characteristics, or things that allude to potential national identity and use them as tools rather than as ‘here’s what we do in Portugal’.

M: I never made that analogy to the host country, and it’s really obvious now that you’ve said it. Can we talk about the ways in which Britain has changed as a host country since I came and saw the work-in-progress of POST in November last year? And how it’s affected the way you think about being a host in the show as well?

X: There’s this duality of a whole media conversation going on around you and then the people that I know and deal with and work with and socialise with, it’s so not that, it’s completely the opposite of what is portrayed as a country. There’s a juxtaposition of things that don’t really match. It made me really question what is that national identity, and how does it reinforce certain privileges in people, and also it’s sort of a system of control, of people and thinking and political discourse – because really it’s just a mass of land, why should being born here give us an more privileges than someone born in France?

But at the same time I’m also aware that I have the privilege of travel that allowed me to see that and a lot of people haven’t. In terms of the show it began in an interrogation of all of these questions and how might that affect my position in this country, and Europe really, and then went on to be something else, that was an interrogation of what is the state of things at the moment, and how can we address that in a way that is as unhierarchical as possible, because then you have a breadth of representation – because I think that’s what’s missing from this conversation. There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation about how we are as a people, or what defines this country, but it’s been so biased, it’s been so one-sided. It felt very much during this process that we were talked about a lot – we, as in migrants, and there are four million of us in this country, from the EU specifically – but we were not part of the conversation, we were never asked to be sat at the table and have a fair conversation. Whenever we were asked about things it was also always from one side. I felt what was needed was to approach that from within the show itself, and bring people in to the show from different walks of life, different types of experience of migration, so that barrier is semi-broken. It’s not going to change the but at least it will provoke a conversation from within the piece rather than me spouting for an hour, ‘This is what migration is.’

M: Do you find that conversation space difficult?

X: At the table? Extremely. Because as a host I have to make sure that those three people feel comfortable enough and welcome enough on stage to forget the fact that there is an audience looking in, and also that they’ve arrived at a point of privilege on stage, that all of a sudden they’re also represented on stage, and have a voice on stage. That has been quite hard to navigate – not hard, but it’s always a game, because there are a specific set of rules, a specific set of questions, a specific narrative that the conversation needs to take, and you always have to negotiate with who you have on the table, so some of the questions that I’ve prepared won’t work. And also how you get into those questions requires sensitivity to who is on the table, to make sure that those people feel comfortable enough. There was something at happened at the work-in-progress stage last year: a man came to the table who really wanted to talk. It was lovely but it made the other two people less up for talking. So it’s finding a balance between allowing people to feel represented and have that space and voice to share quite tough stories, but also managing that – which sounds counter to what we’re trying to do on the stage.

I have an idea for a future piece that won’t happen in a theatre space, and most of the work will be the conversation. A bit like Lois Weaver’s Long Table discussions, not that, but with food and people coming in and out, and without the pre-stuff from me. We were so close to deleting the material from me at the beginning of Post. But actually, after conversations with people, it’s important for me to bring a lot of baggage, so people feel like they have already shared a lot of personal stories. And I don’t go: Portugal is amazing. I go: Portugal is amazing, but there’s a lot of rotten stuff beneath it, just like in England, in Belgium, in France. So let’s talk about it.

M: It’s interesting thinking about the dinner table as a platform. Especially in relation to the discourse of resistance to racism, where lots of people are saying “we” need to talk to people who are espousing right-wing views, and people of colour are saying: no, you as white liberals need to talk to that auntie you brush off when she says something racist, or that cousin you ignore. This conversation needs to happen at an individual level and the dinner table is probably where that will happen.

X: Originally the idea was to represent that, almost like Christmas dinner where you have to sit down with your whole family. There was something that happened in a final run-through, the staff of Ovalhouse took part, and one of them just went: no, I’m very proud to be British. And I thought, thank god he said that! It brings a really good point in: I’m not not proud to be Portuguese, I’m super proud to be Portuguese, I think we’ve got amazing things, but the conversation has to be beyond that. And allowing for that pride to have its space is also really important – especially in a space that seems not to allow that to come through.

M: As someone born here, but to immigrant parents, I’ve always struggled with that idea of pride to be from somewhere: I’ve never been from Cyprus, but I’m not from Britain either. The only place I’ve ever felt proud to be from is London.

X: But that’s not really Britain.

M: Exactly! I found it really weird visiting Cyprus the first few times, because there was this expectation I would feel a deep connection with it. But why would this place mean any more to me than France does?

X: That’s what I struggle with: you were born in Portugal so you are Portuguese. I love Portugal, I lived there until I was 18, my friends and family are there. But I don’t really feel Portuguese any more. What this thing means is quite strange. And I do question it, why we keep reinforcing these things.
I was listening to the Radio 4 Reith lectures, they’re so good, in the one on nationhood he deconstructs the whole thing as a reinforcement of privilege. What he argues for is that, in a few generations’ time, there will be no need for borders or national identities because the idea of a country will start to disappear, because of multiculturalism, because of globalisation. Globalisation as trade is a force for evil, it’s McDonalds – but the advances of globalisation have opened up the idea of interaction, and that’s what the future is. Hopefully! He also suggests that what we’re seeing at the moment, the rise of nationalism and national thinking, is the last hoo-hah of a very old group of people who have held power for a long time saying, ‘This is our way of doing things.’

M: How do your family feel about you having come here?

X: They want me back! But they get why I’m away, because they’re all migrants as well – well, they’re part of The Returned [that is, the generations of people born with Portuguese identity but in colonial lands such as Angola, evicted when these lands became independent], which I talk about in the show, and is a very very very grey area in our history. In Portugal we do not even touch it. I was talking to a Portuguese journalist a couple of weeks ago who said my generation is the first to actually talk about The Returned, and the Age of Discoveries as a colonialist time.

I was having a chat with my family over the summer about all this, and their experiences, and my dad felt I didn’t understand, that those times were very different. And my mum felt that everything was taken away from her – she had grew up quite wealthy but had to leave Angola when she was 16. But my grandmother on my mum’s side, she’s 80 years old, she lived in Angola until she was 40 and had been to Portugal just once, but she had a deep sense that she was Portuguese, because that was what was ingrained in you. The colonies were run by Portugal and that was the identity, Angola was the place. I asked her was that home for you and she said: of course! When the Angola civil war started she got kicked out and lost everything and had to start from scratch. Both sides of my family see that as a tough period of time, quite bitter, but my grandmother – I’m so proud! – says: it was really hard, but looking back I can see that it was needed.

M: Did they feel welcomed when they came back?

X: Not at all. The dialogue was, ‘you’re coming to take our things – go back to the fucking colonies’, you know? It was exactly the same thing that we talk about today in relation to refugees. And these were supposed to be ‘our’ people – but the language was exactly the same thing. When this whole language started here I remember talking to my family about it, and they said: we went through the same thing, you have to just plough through.

I also asked them, if you could go back, would you? My mum and both my grandmothers said yes. But my dad said: no, I’m Portuguese. He’s always had a sense of where his family come from, where his roots come from.

M: I’m super resistant to that. I think it’s a resistance to patriarchy basically! Because I know how that’s used as currency: the further back you can trace your lineage, the more status you have.

X: Yes. But at the same time it’s not balanced with what your lineage actually amounts to. There is this brilliant study: someone went to a school and did DNA tests on the students, and some of the students who were quite difficult, claiming to be from England, the heritage of their DNA was traced to India, to Nigeria, to Brazil. It was the first time that they realised, oh, we’re actually from a much broader background; there’s no such thing as British, that’s a construct.

M: It’s such a new idea for me, dissolving borders. You grow up with the idea of borders as real and almost tangible, and they’re not!

X: Well Britain is different because it’s an island: you have the water. Whereas if you travel continental Europe you can just go through from country to country. And that’s a real privilege. My generation was the first generation that as we were growing up, I think the Portuguese border opened up around the same time as the internet arrived, and the idea of borders got completely dismantled. It was a really pivotal time for me of learning how the world works and how people interact with each other – and made me really despise borders. I get that this is also a point of privilege, within the context of the whole world, but should that be a privilege? A border doesn’t make any sense to me: yes they are there to retain cultures, but they also suppress other possibilities of inter-cultural communication.

POST is on at the Ovalhouse until 3rd December 2016. Click here for more details. 

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.