It has become a thing, that every now and then I get outed.
It is always of course to do with my accent. I really hated it to start with. It was a sharp “Where are you from?”
But what has become interesting for me now, in those moments, is less that I am being outed and more that they are not sure where and how to place me. In their excitement at outing me, most inquisitors are quick to say- “Spanish!” “No, Portuguese!” “No, too pale for Portuguese!” “French?”
No comment. I used to answer, because not to answer felt like not entering into a conversation about it and not to enter into a conversation about it felt like shame, or hiding, or simply avoiding debate. And I am not usually one to avoid debate.
I woke up on 19th April 2018 to the news that a Polish man in Hull was beaten nearly to death. He was overheard speaking his language and was followed by a gang of white men and beaten with timber planks with nails sticking through. The image in my mind is sickening. The reality of it- a lot worse. Is it on the news? No, it’s not. On the news is the even more shocking treatment of the Windrush generation, the very excellent and brutally honest documentary on the murder of Stephen Lawrence, and a government implementing tighter immigration laws. And this is a government operating in buildings and travelling on roads built on slavery and riches from the colonies. Go figure!
As a white woman I pass all the time. I wear mostly uninspiring clothes which you can find at the January sales, so generally speaking I am uninteresting to the eye and that is my privilege.
The eye. And the ear.
Needless to say, this being “outed” peaked in the first three months since the Brexit vote and has kept momentum since. This “othering”, this looking and listening for the thing that is not of Britain began to be excused. By society and by the media.
So, I began to be increasingly interested in visible and invisible difference, in othering and belonging and ultimately identity. As I walked the streets, I walked with my eyes wide open: noticing, listening and seeing. Identity is the thing that I have been probing since my early days of durational body-based live art – washing my body with wine and garlic as I desperately looked for ways to embody further my Bulgarian, and more specifically my Thracian, ethnicity and heritage.
Who are we and what are the histories we carry?
My performance partner Alister and I began to chat about all this, which we did for about a year. Not unusual for our process. Then we plunged ourselves into developing our ideas inside a mega glorious theatre space.
We spent days playing with the dramaturgy of light and scenography around identity, getting quite obsessed with the identity of curtains. After some time exploring ideas around the performance of identity, the domestic and the public, it became increasingly obvious that reading a billion books on the subject wouldn’t cover it. Although we are building a library of books on the subject by contemporary writers to which you are all welcome. Just book a trip to our living room to enjoy a sun-dappled sofa on which to read. The pile in front of the television currently contains:
-Poems for a World Gone to Sh*t, Quercus Poetry
-Belonging: The story of the Jews 1492-1900, Simon Schama
-Brit(ish), Afua Hirsch
-Border, Kapka Kassabova
-Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
-Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova
-Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, Alona Pardo
-Marriage as a Fine Art, Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers
-The History of White People, Nellie Irwin Painter
-Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge
-The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, Peter Frankopan
-Know Your Place, The Working Class (ed. Nathan Connolly)
-Attrib. and Other Stories, Eley Williams
-Speak Gigantular, Irenosen Okojie
-How Democracies Die: What History Reveals About Our Future, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
-Age of Anger: A History of the Present, Pankaj Mishra
-A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, Siri Hustvedt
I found myself in a conversation with a programmer, talking about these themes, and about possibly commissioning a work. It was going very well when all of the sudden she turned around and simply said “But you are not diverse enough, do you know what I mean?”
My whole body exploded! My body left the meeting but my mind was busy in a conversation. Bingo, I thought – this idea definitely has legs! A conversation which is nuanced and complex and open and difficult. A conversation which is not defined by how to fit into a funder’s agenda, a conversation which isn’t about drawing more lines and boundaries, a conversation which isn’t about us and them and a conversation which isn’t patronising but a conversation that is about mixing, about walking the same streets, about many grey areas, a conversation with no excuses.
Because there is no excuse for beating a man to near death for speaking his mother tongue.
What we really wanted to do was to have dialogues with other creative makers whose work deals with these issues directly or indirectly and whose work and thinking we found stimulating, challenging and enriching.
We spent February and March of this year in a number of towns and cities across the UK holding day long conversations on otherness, belonging and identity.
We met people. People who were
… at peace with making no more art
… resisting failure
… celebrating success
… filled with anger
… regretting the choices of their youth
… depressed by it all
… certain it can be better
… resisting assimilation
… making art because it’s how they think
… aware of their privilege
… aware of their oppression
… kind and generous and open
… working with the voices, skins, bodies, histories that they were given
The people we spoke with come from a variety of experiences: of bodies, sexualities, ethnicities, nationalities, artforms. They live and work in different places, under different conditions. Some are alone, some have partners, or families. No two were alike. There was beauty in the differences.
With each of them, we shared a meal. We love food. Much of our day, especially when in rehearsals, is structured around fueling the body which in turns fuels the mind. I am notoriously difficult when hungry so in thinking about each day, we took time to think- when and what we might eat. Sharing food and eating together is an act which is universally human, and culturally specific. There’s not just the food, but the rules of eating: expectations, manners. When do you know someone well enough to nab a taste of what’s on their plate? The meal gives us the chance to focus on the present, and not on the inheritance of our varied cultures; to consider how we are today in this space. The meal is a chance to reset before we face up to those.
We’ve been on, we are on a journey which feels like we could move forwards in making the piece we want to make. I’ve been on a journey, revisiting people I knew better years ago, meeting many after a decade or more and discovering new people. We’ve driven, taken trains and walked. We got over-excited and repainted our front hall.
I have began to see the ‘outing’ as a way of having that dialogue I used to be afraid of. Because it’s hard to keep calm and carry on when the undertone of the inquisitor is so harsh and sharp and presumes an authority to receive an answer to a posed question which in fact is none of your business.
So, when asked “Where are you from?” I say “Thrace”. Usually, the inquisitor has no comment, or the occasional “Is that in Lancashire?” And then we can begin: begin to give a detailed sense of where that is, what it’s like, what are the many ethnicities living next to each other, the languages and dialects varying from village to village, what are the seasons like. And then I would say- I have lived here longer than there and through my coming of age and into my adulthood.
A desperate need to place. And a desperate need for a dialogue.
Two Destination Language are holding a day long event on otherness, belonging and identity, in the form of a prolonged meal working together with Leo Burtin on 3rd May at Lancaster Arts 11am-4pm. A meal serving food prepared by Leo in conversation with Two Destination Language and ten artists as well as contributions from Sheila Ghelani, Kate Marsh, Pauline Mayers, Lena Simic. To book a seat at the table here before 1st May. Bursaries for artists and students are available.