Brexit feels personal. In my late teens I lived in Madrid, the solar plexus of the body of main-land Spain. I spend my life returning to it, now, an always-returning. I fly, or am driven, or take the long train through France, and then I shoulder through whatever set of automatic doors and glass walls keeps me from the familiar and welcoming air, and I breathe deep and feel at home. It is easy for me to do this, three, four times a year, because I am European, because I don’t need to have a visa, because I can march through the EU queue and feel not that I am being allowed into someone else’s country, but that I belong – this is an arrogance.
I read, sometime last year, a collection of writers’ responses to the news that Britain – or, at least, bits of it, as Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain part of Europe – was planning to wrench itself away from the mainland and retreat, sulking, isolated and horribly damaged, to behind the moat of the Channel. I have been roundly mocked by Spanish friends, on my last few visits to Madrid, as a reluctant representative of my foolish country of birth. ¡Qué tontos los ingleses! What fools the English are … Fair enough. No argument. I’m a paid-up Remoaner, moaning for Britain. Moaning for Europe, más bien. My heart aches a little to read Javier Marías’s plaintive musing on the thought of Britain slamming petulantly out of the room: ‘One thing I do know is that the rest of the continent would feel orphaned, amputated, empty …’
For this column I originally wanted to write about European books, of course. Perhaps Federico García Lorca’s Impresiones y paisajes, his passionate and gloomily sublime journey through Spain as a young man, the age I was when I was falling in love with that same country; or else his poems, steeped in moonlight and olive-salt, and see whether between us we could warm the blood. Or I could write about Elena Ferrante’s Italy. Or the collection of funny, weird short stories I read last week, Fox Season by Polish writer Agnieszka Dale. Or Emmanuel Carrère’s France as he writes it in The Kingdom, or the first few staggeringly good chapters, translated from the Dutch and soon publishing in Britain, of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s The Discomfort of the Evening. I could talk about the brilliant Bulgarian writers I met when I was there for a poetry conference, or the Lithuanian books my boyfriend told me about after he was there for a literary festival last month.
But those who voted to leave did not do so because they didn’t find anything of worth in the cultures and literatures of Europe. No, they tolerate fine the food they loudly and belligerently mispronounce to long-suffering waiters, the books translated into English they would never have tried to read in the original; they soak up the brighter sun and the warmer beaches and the bluer water; they borrow the old towns and the sometimes wider, more dramatic landscapes; they are fine with the people comfortably similar to their white selves. Their vote was not about civilized Europe, our almost mutually intelligible Romance and Germanic tongues, but about what else was beginning to find a welcome within Europe’s borders.
Elena Ferrante: ‘What perhaps should be feared most is the fury of frightened people.’
Those who say it was not about immigration are kidding themselves.
‘Can anyone teach me / how to make a homeland?’ asks Amineh Abou Kerech, the teenage poet, writing, with difficulty, across two languages. Her ‘Lament for Syria’ I read last year, upon it winning the Betjeman Prize for Poetry. An interview with Amineh records her hope that in her family’s new life in England ‘everything will be good’, and that they will live in peace. By every account, by all the data reported, the shadow of hate is looming over that peace. This means a teenager must write a homeland into existence through poetry.
I can’t imagine this homelessness. My outrage at being stripped of my European ‘home’ is deep and painful and real, but extraordinarily privileged. I read the work of women writing against the regimes at their back, the jaws and sharp teeth of war, rape, displacement, poverty, who have learned new tongues and new ways of living in order to survive.
Maram al-Masri is Amineh’s countrywoman, a European adoptee living in Paris.‘They say poetry is a weapon,’ Maram says, ‘but I don’t think so. Why should poems be weapons? If they are, they simply take us back to the war. Poetry should be an anti- weapon, a means of abating the weapons.’
With strong, cut-glass words these women write, often through translation, whether that translation occurs on the page or before it reaches it. The words have a blazing, lucid power.
We exiles are sick
with an incurable disease:
Loving a country
put to death.
– Maram al-Masri, ‘We exiles’, in Liberty Walks Naked
Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf’s The Sea-Migrations, translated by Clare Pollard, grapples with homeland (hers, Somalia) and displacement (hers; she has been in the UK for two decades) in fluid, alliterative poems, incantatory, their energy bunched and released down their long, rattling lines. Asha’s homeland is over owing with gold and fruit, ‘The ostrich and antelope / basking in beauty / along with the gazelle’ (‘Our Land’), but
Sea-migration disables my people, I want
to drive it back
Look at the hordes of women, all the
young who drown,
disappearing onto ships, dissolving on the
all those deprived of life’s basics, adrift
outside their country …
– ‘The Sea-Migrations’
This loss, this squandering of beauty and culture as the result of conflict, is present also in ‘Mother Africa’, a lament for Eritrea by Ribka Sibhatu (who lives now in Rome):
O dying land,
that for decades
has met the elders,
the elders who keep
the ancestral treasures.
When will dawn break
There are too many of these writers for me to mention here. From Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Kosovo, Pakistan, Eritrea, displaced and desperate people are arriving in Europe, people made homeless in ways so profound we, here, can hardly comprehend it. Their presence here, where it should have engendered empathy and fellow-feeling, has instead infuriated the ignorant and the frightened into an act of folly, misery and isolationism.
The only weapon against callousness is understanding, is empathy, and it’s easily come by. Read the work of refugee writers, coming to the doors of Europe in search of stability, and perhaps, with a little hope, we will be able to join our labour to the work of creating a homeland. In the meantime, I’m frightened of a lot of things I see happening, not only here in Britain with its tonterías, but in a Europe listing to the right, a struggling America, and the war and corruption threatening peace further afield.We can turn Ferrante’s observation either way, can’t we: perhaps those pushing Brexit through in the face of its absurdity should begin to fear the fury of a different group of frightened people.
Read the work of writers from these countries, and try to appreciate how you would write your own homeland into existence. A stanza from Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf:
You are kin, you are blood brothers
Each house knows their neighbours,
who comes and goes.
Only death should part you,
you mustn’t flee.
Remain and, though divided, try to make
a mutual peace.
Amineh Abou Kerech, ‘Lament for Syria’ [access betjemanpoetryprize.co.uk/2017-winner]
Emmanuel Carrère, The Kingdom (Allen Lane, 2017)
Agnieszka Dale, Fox Season (Jantar, 2017)
Federico García Lorca, Impresiones y paisajes (1918)
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, The Discomfort of the Evening (Faber, forthcoming)
Maram al-Masri, Liberty Walks Naked [Elle va nue la liberté] (Éditions Bruno Doucey, 2013) [translations at anmly.org/ap25/ translation/h%C3%A9l%C3%A8ne-cardona- translating-maram-al-masri]
Asha Lul Mohamud Yusuf, The Sea-Migrations [Tahriib] (Bloodaxe/PTC, 2017)
Ribka Sibhatu, ‘Mother Africa’ [access poetrytranslation.org/poets/ribka-sibhatu]