Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘politics’

The second writer on the panel for BIBLIOTOPIA was Gazmend Kapllani, with his three novels A Short Border Handbook, Je m’appelle Europe (My name is Europe), and Le Dernier Page (The Last Page). Kapllani was born in and grew up in Albania, and then immigrated to Greece where he lived for something like twenty years. He writes, for now, in Greek. He currently lives and teaches in the US, however, and will probably be published directly in English at some point.

All three of his novels deal with immigration – the first, A Short Border Handbook, is told through the eyes of a migrant escaping Albania for Greece, and the difficulties of that journey. It also includes a kind of manual – the handbook in the title – for the illegal immigrant experience. It is funny at times, but the humor is sharp and pointed, as it should be, for a book describing the absurd cruelty of the modern migrant experience. It is also a poetic book, looking philosophically at the relationship between language and identity, between language and memory.

I think the tone of that book can be picked up from one of it’s opening lines:

My difficult relationship with borders goes back a very long way, back to my childhood, because whether or not you end up with border syndrome is largely a matter of luck: it depends where you’re born.

I was born in Albania.

The quote of the title of the post is also from A Short Border Handbook.

In one of his panels, Kapllani asked why there wasn’t a museum of immigration in Europe. Europe has museums for the smallest, most specific things, museums for the great wars, and yet nothing for immigration – arguably the longest “event” in Europe’s history. That last bit is my own paraphrasing, as his question and the point he was making really struck me.

In Je m’appelle Europe, an Albanian immigrant falls in love with a Greek woman name Europe. I loved the symbolic meaning of the premise of this book—that two people meet, an immigrant and a native, simply because a woman named Europe loses the key to her home. Their relationship is fraught with questions of the effect of language—occupying a new language, inhabiting a mother tongue—on relationships. Of the power dynamics of language – and these endless distinctions of migrant and immigrant and native as fixed entities that end up shredding our notions of a shared humanity.

Je suis convaincu qu’une langue n’a pas de frontière. A y regarder de près, dire « ma » langue représente un abus de langage. On peut dire « mon » portefeuille, « ma » voiture, « mon » parti politique, « mon » champ. Mais on ne peut s’approprier une langue. On peut la cultiver, la transmettre et accomplir de grandes choses grâce à elle. Mais une langue n’appartient à personne.

(I believe that a language doesn’t have a border. Considered carefully, to say “my” language is really an abuse of language. You can say “my” wallet, “my” car, “my” political party, “my” field. But you cannot appropriate a language for yourself. You can cultivate it, transmit it, you can accomplish great things because of it. But a language doesn’t belong to anyone.)

Je m’appelle Europe has two neat tricks in it as well. First, it is set in a near-future – where Europe, the country, has been transformed. Having the narrator look back, retrospectively on his love affair with Europe and his early life in Albania, but from the context of this new strange place, was really interesting – the juxtapositions, the sneaky predictions. Also, book is threaded with immigrant narratives, with chapters that rest alongside the main story, documenting the experiences of others as they have moved or fled their homes, as they have tried to establish lives in their new homes.

And finally, in Le Dernier Page (The Last Page), the reader follows a man named Melsi, an Albanian who has spent his life in Greece, a writer, who must return to Albania to bury his father who has passed away unexpectedly in China. This book goes backward, however, to the previous generation, to the story of Melsi’s parents and their own European migration experience. It’s the story of Albania in many ways, and its transformation and historical relationship to Italy and to Greece.

All of Kapllani’s books deal with the world of writing, of translation, migration, historical connections, and political oppression. As someone who has been and continues to exist within this wave of movement (in a different way, obviously) – from Japan to the US, raised by an immigrant father, and now to Europe, as an immigrant myself, but a “welcome” one, for now anyway – and as a translator who is deeply interested in how language affects memory, how language shapes and controls identity, watching my own daughter grow up bilingual, with a deep love of several other languages that she uses with relative ease, these three books were a fantastic study for me, posing questions and settling over many of my own preoccupations. I look forward to Kapllani’s future work.

The Gulag Archipelago is rather depressing reading – even if Solzhenitsyn lets loose with a dry sense of humor from time to time. But from today’s reading a few paragraphs stand out. This is from Chapter 4, “The Bluecaps” (which is about torture and interrogation), in which he muses on the idea of an evildoer. He makes it literary, which I found entertaining (that’s a joke) and instructive:

We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the great world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate.

But no; that’s not the way it is! To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble—and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. […]

Thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago?

There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the Petrograd Cheka, headed by Uritsky, and the Odessa Cheka, headed by Deich, did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many there were. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and therefore assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?

That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.

Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist at all until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed. No matter how intense a yellow light you shine on a lithium sample, it will not emit electrons. But as soon as a weak bluish light begins to glow, it does emit them. (The threshold of the photoelectric effect has been crossed.) You can cool oxygen to 100 degrees below zero centigrade and exert as much pressure as you want; it does not yield, but remains a gas. But as soon as minus 183 degrees is reached, it liquefies and begins to flow.

Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.



I am deeply saddened and angered – furious, I’m furious – by the world’s recent political events. I believe I filled my Twitter timeline with enough obscenities to get me through November 9th as the votes rolled in and the reactions occurred. I broke my “books only” Twitter rule that day and I will continue to break it unapologetically.

This experience has sent me directly back to Nadine Gordimer. If you’ve been reading this website for any amount of time, and especially back when I began it ten years ago, you’ll know that I’ve read and written about each of Gordimer’s fifteen novels. I did not examine then what sparked my interest in Gordimer’s work. I just loved her project – but now I think I understand why I felt such an urgency to read and re-read her work.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, which is not known for its racial diversity – but I had the unique experience of attending elementary school in a majority black neighborhood. I was one of two white children in my 1st and 2nd grade classrooms. This was in Seattle, WA. When my family moved to Oregon, we lived in NE Portland, and I attended middle school and high school in schools which were fifty percent African-American. I’m so thankful that my parents never considered sending my sister and me to private schools. I’m so thankful for my urban, vibrant, sometimes rowdy public school education and the diversity of kids I grew up and learned alongside.

I experienced racial tensions, yes, but from the privileged white side of things, aware that there were things I did not understand and also, less consciously, that I did not need to understand. Fights in the halls. Students killed in shootings (One each year at my high school.) Racial divisions between student groups. My father is a retired Lutheran pastor, and his church when I was growing up sat at the edge of a black neighborhood and it worked with youth at-risk of joining the city’s gangs. He received death threats for performing gay marriages, and my sister and I were taught to walk outside on “condition yellow” after that. But many good things, too. He worked to develop a weekly evening jazz service with neighborhood musicians that was wildly successful and brought so many different cultures together, and it was really urban-style ministry with open doors and loads of inclusive programming. There is no perfect way to educate your children about issues of racial and social injustice and I’m sure my parents were as flawed as the next person in their approach sometimes, but I’m lucky my parents were committed to try. And although I have a lot of criticism for religion and am no longer a part of any church, I also see the good that open-minded communities of any motivation, faith or otherwise, can bring.

There is more to this story and it’s long and takes me to where I’ve ended up — living in Switzerland, and now holding Swiss nationality. What is interesting to me is thinking about the ways in which I remain connected to America. Like many emigrants, I have a complicated relationship with my country of origin (add to this the fact that I was born in Japan), but where I have remained passionately connected to the country is in the ongoing story of its racial issues. And I know this comes from growing up in the context I’ve just explained.

This is a long way of getting to why I am drawn to Gordimer’s work. She was white (I wrote “is” and am very sad to have had to correct that) and privileged, and yet her 60-year body of work is a deeply sincere engagement with what those two terms meant in the context of apartheid South Africa and its aftermath. She is an absolute inspiration to me, and not just from a technical craft perspective. There is no replacing the joy and responsibility of reading the works of writers of color as they create their art in response to their lived experiences, but alongside this, I find comfort in knowing that white writers can investigate these issues and make art from an honest position within their privileged experience. Gordimer provides a road map of sorts—and even if it isn’t the same country or the same time period, maps are endlessly fascinating in what they reveal.

I am genuinely curious if there is an equivalent white American writer – writing about race issues as honestly and as openly as Gordimer did, for such a long time and from the particular position that Gordimer takes? I can’t think of one, but there must be and maybe my brain is just mushy from all the awfulness of the last two days.

Because of recent events, I am drawn to re-read her first novel, The Lying Days, which was published in 1953. The South African National Party came to power in 1948 and first strengthened the racial segregation that already existed in the country, and then institutionalized it into apartheid. The last third of The Lying Days takes place in 1950, and I’d like to excerpt a passage, a long reflection by the novel’s narrator Helen who is grappling to understand what the new political system means. It is a little long but I find it frightfully prescient:

Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. We wanted a quick shock, over and done with, but what we were going to get was something much slower, surer, and more terrible: an apparent sameness in the conduct of our lives, long periods when there was nothing more to hurt us than hard words in Parliament and talk of the Republic which we had laughed at for years; and, recurrently, a mounting number of weary battles—apartheid in the public transport and buildings, the ban on mixed marriages, the Suppression of Communism bill, the language ordinance separating Afrikaans and English-speaking children in schools, the removal of coloured voters from the common electoral roll and the setting aside of the Supreme Court judgment that made this act illegal—passionately debated in Parliament with the United Party and Labour Party forming the Opposition, inevitably lost to the Government before the first protest was spoken.

When the impact on individual, personal lives is not immediate and actual, political change does not affect the real happiness or unhappiness of people’s lives, though they may protest that it does. If the change of government throws you into a concentration camp, then your preoccupation with politics will equal that you might normally have had with your wife’s fidelity or your own health. But if your job is the same, your freedom of movement is the same, the outward appearance of your surroundings is the same, the heaviness lies only upon the extension of yourself which belongs to the world of abstract ideas, which, although it influences them through practical expression of moral convictions, loses, again and again, to the overwhelming tug of the warm and instinctual….

… it was only very slowly, as the months and then the years went by, that the moral climate of guilt and fear and oppression chilled through to the bone, almost as if the real climate of the elements had changed, the sun had turned away from South Africa, bringing about actual personality changes that affected even the most intimate conduct of their lives.