Please join us to celebrate The Doll’s Alphabet, published in February 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, on the occasion of a rare visit by Camilla Grudova from Canada, at Burley Fisher Books, 400 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AA, from 7-9pm on 12 September 2017. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend.
THE WHITE REVIEW
— You’ve talked about very specific historical anxieties you’ve inherited from your parents (who are Croatian and Iranian immigrants). They fled fascism and were divested of wealth but raised you to be very rich in culture. What was it like growing up in Newton and how did your family fit in there?
— Well, my parents are both violin teachers, and in a sense, that was how I think my parents related to the culture – as musicians and educators. But I’m in the middle of three siblings and I learned a lot from my big sister, who was my hero growing up – very rebellious and sort of counter-culture. So I did not grow up in mainstream America, I guess. I didn’t play sports, although I wish I did, it probably would have been good for me. I always felt estranged from the place I grew up, but part of something less nationalistic and more human – my family culture, which was primarily art-based.
THE WHITE REVIEW
— It comes to mind because many of your characters – or, McGlue and Johnson and Eileen – are characters that are deeply imprinted by but also alienated from New England and its culture. Is there a connection for you between the sort of openness in your writing about ‘grotesque’ exterior functions of the body and socially unacceptable interior functions of the mind?
— Well, yes, because I think both are things that aren’t openly acceptable in quote-unquote civilised society. At least in the culture that I’ve known, we’re meant to feel like there’s something really wrong with us if we don’t look healthy and beautiful all the time, and if we’re having negative thoughts, then we’re not good people and that has to be corrected. And there are industries that work on both sides of that to make people look young and beautiful all the time and to make people feel right and think right and act right all the time. But you know, other cultures aren’t like that. Like, other cultures embrace things that we might think of as evil, or a power that might scare us, or something transgressive or more mysterious. But I think, at least in America… I mean, we come from Puritans, who were totally psycho and stole the country really violently from a Native culture that was probably pretty violent too. Americans don’t really live in lily-white cookie-cutter societies, but I think the way that Christianity has worked in the government has instilled a sense of God as the authority that spies on you and controls the world, more Big Brother than anything else. Growing up, I didn’t totally understand where the sense of the terrifying authority that was always watching me came from, and it was probably a brainwashed conception of God. You know, like, do the right thing, ’cause you’re gonna get in trouble, and what’s the consequence, you’ll go to hell. I’m not a Christian but that entered me through osmosis and it took 36 years for that concept to dissipate. Actually, I’m still working on that.
THE WHITE REVIEW
— That’s an extensive period of unbrainwashing.
— And the way that that manifested for me was in the ways that it manifests for my characters quite often. Feeling ashamed of having a mortal body, and feeling like, ‘I must be crazy.’ Like, either I’m crazy, or everybody else is crazy, because what the fuck is going on here, you know? Just as simple as walking down the street and seeing someone suffering and begging for help, and people walking by on their cell phones. How are we doing that? How are we so shut off that this is the way that things work? And this is the way it’s worked for thousands of years, I’m sure. It’s not like we’re all benevolent creatures, but we pride ourselves on being good, and, I don’t know, I question that in my work.
THE WHITE REVIEW
— Do you think that people in general are as weird as the people in your stories?
— I think that there are some people who are boring by nature and maybe placid. You know, people vibrate at all different frequencies. I vibrate at a – I would say – a high and neurotic but spiritual frequency, with a lot of anxiety but a lot of passion. And I think my characters do that too, sometimes. I think that there are also some people who were never given the freedom to individuate as children so they didn’t really develop personalities or strategies for coping with the world which would make them interesting. So I don’t blame people for being boring, but I don’t want to write about boring people. Sometimes I attempt to and what I uncover is that they’re boring because they’re really repressed.
Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.
When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.
Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.
Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.
My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?
Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.
Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?
Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?
Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?
Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.
“Berlin is the new capital of the Arab world”, someone joked with me on my last visit to Cairo. They have a point. Over the past five years, we have seen the movement of large numbers of people from the Arab world, often due to war and political oppression. Among the displaced are some of the most talented writers and scholars working in the Arabic language today. Rasha Abbas, a Syrian journalist and short story writer who left Damascus for Beirut in 2012, eventually arrived in Germany in 2014. She said that she seemed to run into people she knew on the street in Berlin more often than she ever did in Damascus.
Abbas spoke recently at the British Library, where she has a short residency, researching a new project. Using the Library’s collections, she is beginning to write a story that uses tarot cards to link the story of the current refugee crisis with the period lasting three years from 1958 to 1961, in which Egypt and Syria were merged into the United Arab Republic; short extracts of her work were revealed on Saturday. Her talk was part of a two-day summit of Arab literature that featured the work of seventeen other writers from across the Arab world, organized by Shubbak Festival, a biennial festival of Arab culture in London.
Fourteen of the eighteen participants are currently based in Europe or America. The choice of speakers is, of course, somewhat limited by what appears to be official hostility to visa applications in Britain. Of the four writers based in the Arab world, only two got visas to come to the UK; the other two had their work discussed and one sent in a video of her reading. But the dominance of writers now living outside the Arab world also represents a broader trend in contemporary Arabic literature. More and more writers, forced out of their country by war or other hostile conditions for literary creation, are now based in Europe or America – temporarily at least. They write, by and large, in Arabic and for Arabic-speaking audiences. At the festival, readings were given in both English and Arabic. One line in a poem by Mona Kareem, born in Kuwait but forbidden from returning in 2011, spoke of a “life lived half on Skype”. The closest model for this generation of writers in exile might be the so-called “Mahjar poets” of the early twentieth century – a group of Syrian and Lebanese writers, based in America, who made a vital contribution to modern Arabic literature.
Unsurprisingly, one leitmotif of the weekend was what this distance from home meant for the writers. It was even unclear what we should call it. “The Spider makes a home outside itself. It does not call it exile”, went a verse by the Iraqi-America poet Dunya Mikhail. The Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa preferred the Arabic word ghurba, which means any estrangement and separation from your land. Others, such as Ali Badr, the prolific Iraqi novelist, and author of twenty-one books in Arabic, now based in Brussels, were happy with the word “exile”.
This experience of diaspora can be emotionally difficult but also literarily productive. In conversation with Susan Abulhawa, Gillian Slovo said that she had never felt she belonged either in South Africa or England but the one place she did feel at home was in literature. Exile can allow a writer to see their homeland from a different angle. Ali Badr said that the first time he really understood his country was when he was away from it. The inspiration that these writers’ experiences gave them was evident throughout the weekend. Talks on Arabic literature often do not get beyond the predictable gripes that no one ever reads Arabic literature and when they do they are only interested in clichés of headscarves and oppression. These panels, by contrast, were vital, varied and complex.
All our fabrics are intelligent now. We grow them in laboratories. Our fabrics are self-cleaning and self-maintaining and they interact with our bodies to gauge things like size, density and temperature according to the specifics of the conditions in which we find ourselves. Our fabrics – our shoes – are alive. They are sensitive and so we – The Young – are sensitive to them. Appreciative of them. In situations of stress or duress or jeopardy our clothes will modify to protect us. They are fully breathable. They will change colour on request. We can wear any style or pattern that we choose, but mostly we choose to wear plain, loose, non-gendered styles and the colour white because we are The Young and we are Clean and we try not to complicate things too much by engaging The Ego in mundane or insignificant day-to-day decisions. Choice, fashion etc. are the pointless and outmoded preoccupations of The Past. And colour often represents The Ego. The Ego and difference. So we can choose to wear whatever we like, but we always choose to wear white, because it best expresses how calm we are, and how free we are, and how whole we are and how H(A)PPY we are.
I really, really wish it would stop doing that.
And yet even though our fabrics are sentient, and our food is carefully prepared in laboratories where levels of power and water and waste etc. are all minutely controlled – we eschew the old Capitalist Modes of Production and quietly consider them the greatest human evil (please note that I employ this provocative word with a combination of calm and regret and disquiet), The Young still choose to spend time In Nature, at regular intervals, to keep in touch with our dear Mother, Earth. Mother Earth is our sustainer, our source, our root, and we love her. When we touch Mother Earth something fundamental is stimulated within us and we feel an intense sensation of Actuality and Belonging. Because we live in The System it is sometimes easy to forget that at the root of everything is Mother Earth who sustains us. We live in The System but we must look behind it, the way a child in The Past might watch a puppet show and then – once the performance is over – run to the back of the box and lift up the curtain to squint into the darkness at the hunched and mysterious (and no doubt heavily perspiring) figure of the puppeteer.
In The Past our ancestors forgot to love (and love is a strong word, a dangerous word, a word The Young are discouraged from using if any other word will suffice) Mother Earth. They created Gods in their own image and worshipped these images instead of Mother Earth. They told themselves that the creator of the universe had chosen them and made them rulers over all things – all the plants and the animals, all Mother Earth’s many riches and resources. Soon they invented their demi-gods of Growth and Progress. They forgot that Mother Earth sustained them freely. They were arrogant and self-serving. Their philosophies were both physically and intellectually flawed. They worshipped the number. They became an unsustainable parasite on Mother Earth. They stole from Mother Earth. They abused her and all her many glories. Their ignorance and vanity were insupportable. They forgot how to feel gratitude. They forgot how to see, how to empathise, how to reason.
Yes. Oh yes. That is who we once were. The Young must never, ever allow themselves to ignore what has brought them here. The Young must never, ever forget the debt that they owe to Mother Earth. Insofar as it is helpful and fruitful, The Young must feel a measure of shame and embarrassment (even consternation, even disgruntlement, even astonishment) at the chaos and destruction their own race has unleashed against Mother Earth. Shame. Embarrassment. Sharp words. Dangerous words. And, as such, it is only appropriate that The Young should embrace them for a moment – a brief moment – then push them away and move on. It is a lesson. It is why we live by The Graph. We cannot be self-serving. We cannot be individual. We are one consciousness fractured into a multitude of forms. We cleave to what is good and, still more importantly, what is feasible. Our survival is dependent upon our unity. We must be dispassionate. The System is our unity. The System is our dispassion.
But The System is not our God.
We are our own Gods.
In March 2017, Mathias Enard was awarded the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding for Kompass, the German edition of Compass, published by Hanser Berlin. Previous winners include Péter Nádas, Svetlana Alexievich, Eric Hobsbawm, Claudio Magris, Pankaj Mishra and Mircea Cărtărescu. Charlotte Mandell, Enard’s English translator, translated his acceptance speech, reproduced below:
First of all, I would like to extend my thanks, my immense gratitude, to everyone. Contrary to what some people might at first think, an author does not write books. He writes texts, at best. Between the text I wrote and the book you have in your hands there are quite a few people: a French publisher, first of all, Actes Sud; then German translators, Sabine Müller and Holger Fock; then a German editor, Delf Schmidt, and a publishing house, Hanser Berlin, and its director, Karsten Kredel: a book is the work of a team, and that’s what differentiates it from a text. A book is an author, plus a publisher, plus editors — a chain of exchanges and shared contributions. Contributions that extend the text, and that clarify its meaning in a given context: heartfelt thanks to the Jury, which saw a European book in this Compass. Thank you, Dr. Dakhli, for the moving speech — my emotion upon hearing it is added to the emotion of finding myself on the Gewandhaus stage, which, for a writer, is rare enough to explain the tremor in my voice. Thank you.
It seems that political commentators lately have forgotten who Europe was. Europa. Forgotten the meaning of Europe. Europa was a Lebanese princess kidnapped on a beach near Saïda by a God from the North — Zeus — who desired her. The princess Europa, daughter of Agenor, never set foot on our lands; Europa spent her days in the Mediterranean, between Phoenicia and Crete. Europa is an illegal immigrant, a foreigner, the spoils of war. The story of Europa is a story of the Mediterranean, of desire and conquest. This metaphor and the story of Europa is rich in teachings for us. We bear her name. Europa is desirable. Europa is eastern. Europa is subjected to the domination of those from the North, who possess her by ruse. The colonizer Zeus appears masked, disguised as a bull, as power, as beauty. Sarpedon, Europa’s son, would go on to fight on the side of the Trojans, on the side of the Orient. His lifeless body would be carried off by Apollo, away from the battle, to be entrusted to the twins Hypnos and Thanatos, Sleep and Death. Unfortunately we too often forget these stories, we forget that the Mediterranean, the Eastern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean, saw the birth of the princess Europa. That the Mediterranean space, the cultural and linguistic space formed by its shores, has been an extremely vital and important part of our history, and that by shutting itself up in its Northern part, by forging an exclusive identity for itself as if it were draping itself in a cloak of pretension, Europe has condemned itself to a form of solitude. A fortress despite itself.
In Compass, I tried to shed a little more light on the Oriental side of the history of the European arts, literature and music mainly. For instance, in 1820, when Stendhal wrote his discourse On Love, he cites liberally not just The Thousand and One Nights but also Ibn Abi Hajala and his Diwan Al-Sababa, from which he excerpts a little story that, later on, Heinrich Heine would read in Stendhal’s piece and from which he would draw his poem “Der Asra” — a poem that would be, and this is still just one example, translated into Bosnian around 1900, set to music and sung in Sarajevo in a magnificent sevalinka, thus closing the circle of a long poetic transmission. Or, another example, Louis Aragon, the great French poet who carried the story forward of the Arabic poet gone mad from love, Qais ibn Al-Mulawah, who was called Majnun Layla, the one mad about Layla. Aragon pictures himself in Grenada desperately in love, burning with an absolute love, just like his model, to the point that he composed, in French, some magnificent Arabic verses. Cervantes himself, the great, unique Cervantes, inventor of the novel, claimed that the story of Don Quixote was actually the work of an Arab from La Mancha, Cide Hamete Benengeli, thereby in one stroke giving an Arabic ancestor to the entire European tradition of the novel. One could cite such examples ad infinitum, like so many little streams irrigating and spreading throughout all of Europe: the part of Princess Europa, the Sidon part — the other in the self.
Today some people seek exactly the opposite — to find or rediscover a mythical purity inside which they can shut themselves up, like an oyster. Today the ravages of war are destroying the princess Europa’s shores — Syria is in flames. We have abandoned Syria to destruction and suffering, just as we did before to Lebanon and Bosnia. Europeans are often sad spectators. But they cannot forget that this “Europe” whose name they have appropriated was in the beginning a construction of peace — as in the European Union — and that peace requires courage and conviction. Do we never learn anything from massacres? Ever? Do we draw no consequences from this destroyed country, from these hundreds of thousands dead, from these millions of refugees? Can we guarantee peace only to an area of land so small it includes neither the Ukraine, nor Turkey, nor the Sudan, nor Mali? Do we know how to achieve security only through domination and imperialism?
I wrote Compass under the sign of hope, relying on the axiom of hope. The principle of hope. What kind of hope can be contrasted with the somber hope of a man putting an end to his life and killing his fellow humans in exchange for the promise of paradise? What kind of hope can we place in the scale faced with the divine infinite? It would seem that democratic hope or economic aspiration no longer function for the world’s outsiders, the excluded ones, who look at globalization from below, the way you watch an airplane go by — for them the plane passes through the clouds of conspiracy. They see the planet as an immense plot from which they try vainly to extricate themselves, a generalized conspiracy of which they are the victims and from which only violent death can rescue them. And even beyond this self-destructive illusion, this blindness in the Self, this feeling of abandonment faced with the chaos of the world can be found everywhere, in Germany, France, Russia, Turkey. Everywhere, verbal violence against the Other and difference is becoming an illusory refuge against the movement of the world. A morbid refuge, a refuge that tends toward the violence of isolation. What can hope offer against this? What possible remedy, what suggestions? A hope that is perhaps modest, that of knowledge, of an erotics (like a poetics) of knowledge: the propagation of the desire for knowledge, the sharing of this desire. Curiosity as motivating force of the world, curiosity, knowledge, art, and literature as constituents of a shared world. Nothing is fixed in our identities, we are only ramblers on this planet. And if nothing is fixed, if everything is moving and undetermined, then we are constantly constructing ourselves; we are continually transformed by the other, by that other whom we in turn transform in a fertile aporia. Hominem unius libri timeo, I fear a man of one book, said Thomas Aquinas or Augustine of Hippo (who was, let’s not forget, Algerian); I fear a man of one book because he could be ignorant, the child of a single reading. I fear a man of one book because he might know that book so well he would be difficult to contradict… To that man of one book let us oppose the countless number of languages, the infinity of stories. To fixed identity let us oppose the energy of knowing. To the immobility of hatred let us oppose the infinite hope of the sun of knowledge.
Is there any book, written by someone else, that you wish you’d written?
No, my mind refuses to work that way. Can’t separate writer and written. I love and admire Virginia Woolf, but that doesn’t mean I want to be her, as I’d have to be to have written To the Lighthouse.
What will your field look like twenty-five years from now?
My field? What is my field, I wonder. My favourite field is the one below the barn at the old ranch in California. I hope in twenty-five years it looks just the way it does now, all wild oats and chicory and foxtail and voles and jackrabbits and quail.
Which of your contemporaries will be read 100 years from now?
I can happily claim José Saramago as my contemporary, and do so, and hope he will be read as long as novels are.
What author or book do you think is most underrated? And why?
I don’t know which leads a long list. Let’s say Grace Paley for the author and H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn for the book. Why are they underrated? Well, one was a Leftist woman and the other was an intransigent Westerner, to start with.
What author or book do you think is most overrated? And why?
At the moment, Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. If only she’d stopped with the first volume.
If you could be a writer in any time and place, when and where would it be?
Here and now will do very nicely, thank you.
If you could make a change to anything you’ve written over the years, what would it be?
In The Dispossessed, I would mention the communal pickle barrels at street corners in the big towns, restocked by whoever in the community has made or kept more pickles than they need. I knew about the free pickles all along, but never could fit them into the book.
Which is your least favourite fictional character?
Do you mean which one do I think is most unbelievable, or which one do I loathe most? I guess God in the Book of Job would qualify for both.
I sat motionless at my desk, breathing shallowly, my fingers resting on my laptop’s keyboard. He knocked again, waited, knocked a little louder, waited. Under the apartment door, his feet cast shadows on the dark green linoleum. I didn’t make a sound. Finally, he went on his way, footsteps receding. After a minute, the hall lights, which were on a timer, clicked out, and there was only darkness under the door.
The phone had rung a few times the previous day, and I hadn’t answered. I knew who was calling. It was the same man who had just knocked: not a stalker or a creep, actually, but the Swiss composer who lived across the hall, an affable, fortyish guy with a mop of dark curls. I’d met him in the elevator earlier in the week. According to Google, he composed operas—not just any operas: underwater operas. (In related news, it turns out there are underwater operas. The world is a marvelous place!)
I had no friends in Paris and no reason to turn my nose up at someone who might or might not have been part humpback whale, but friendship, at the time, wasn’t something I was after. In fact, when faced with a friendly overture, I was capable only of evasive maneuvers. I was alone, you see, which for me isn’t a moment-to-moment condition, easily changed, but a way of being. Solitude is a well I fall (or jump) into from time to time and don’t try to climb out of. I sit down there and enjoy the quiet.
This was the end of January 2012. I had been in Paris for almost a month, with two more to go. The Swiss composer and I were both residents at the Cité Internationale des Arts, a complex of 270 live/work studio apartments for artists in the trendy 4th arrondissement neighborhood of the Marais. Most of the apartments, or ateliers, were underwritten by arts organizations or universities or entire nations that also chose the residents, though a small number were managed by the Cité directly. Mine belonged to Stanford University, where I’d spent the previous two years on a writing fellowship, but the plaques on the other doors along my hallway mostly identified chilly European countries not known for garrulous people: Norway, Finland, Austria, Switzerland. Being the standout hermit in such company was, I think, something of an achievement.
STEPHANIE NEWMAN: What impact do you think the Trump administration has had in emboldening Orbán and influencing Hungary’s direction overall?
ANDREA PETŐ: As I see US politics from here, there’s much more resistance through the judiciary and the media than there is in Hungary. Our illiberal state is a new form of governance, not a backlash. Nothing will go back to the way it used to be. Because of independent media in the United States, there hasn’t been the same kind of takeover as in Hungary.
On the other hand, there is this transnational network of politicians and public intellectuals who are meeting and strategizing. The World Congress of Families is an American fundamentalist Christian organization, and, along with the International Organization for the Family, they’ll be meeting here in Budapest from May 25–28, 2017. They support banning abortion and promoting the family as a heteronormative unit. Last year, the conference was in the Caucuses, in Georgia, and there were lots of Russian delegates there. In 2015, the conference was in Salt Lake City, Utah. Of course, there is this very strange alliance between the fundamentalist Christians and Russian intellectuals, and now the honorary leader of this latest four-day conference is our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The organizer is the state secretary for Hungary’s Ministry of Human Capital, which covers social affairs, education, and culture. So, the state secretary responsible for family affairs will be the keynote speaker at this extremely controversial “World Congress of Families.”
In one of your pieces for openDemocracy, you mention the government’s promotion of a more traditional family structure. Is this related?
Yes, but this “traditional family structure” is not as traditional as you might imagine. The illiberal state has a very different family policy from Christian conservatives. Our government has the rhetoric of promoting all families, but not the practice. I wrote this article about the Polypore state with Weronika Grzebalska [a PhD researcher at Graduate School for Social Research, Polish Academy of Sciences] comparing women’s politics in Poland and Hungary. The Polypore state is working with securitization, familialism, and constructing alternative NGOs that mirror existing institutions. The conservative values are only fig leaves. Behind them aren’t values, but power: economic, social, and symbolic power.
That said, if you look at the policies in Hungary, you can’t really see any government attempt to change existing reproductive rights. Abortion today is more or less freely available. Free abortion was introduced by a decree in Hungary in January 1945, after the massive rapes committed by Red Army soldiers, and it was constantly regulated by decrees until 1990, when the constitution needed a higher-level legal framework. In our System of National Cooperation (name of the document replacing the constitution), life must be protected from conception. But the government wouldn’t dare renegotiate how these values will be regulated — with good reason. The number of abortions is decreasing, even though health insurance does not cover pills. Polls are actually showing that more than 70 percent of Hungarian women want to protect the right to an abortion. At the moment, I think what we have is an acceptable compromise, as far as the practice is concerned, for all parties involved.
Another parallel between the United States and Hungary is the rising rate of xenophobia. What was the feminist response to the immigration crisis in 2015, as Syrian refugees crossed into Hungary through Serbia?
This was a transformative moment for everybody, especially for us here in this academic ivory tower. It was important for us that CEU opened its doors to the refugees. The faculty, staff, and students were collecting donations in shifts. In a sense, the non-response and ignorance of the state created space for various civil organizations to flourish. It was also interesting to interact with the Hungarian women who converted to Islam because they had married somebody practicing the religion. They have a very powerful association here in Hungary, and they were the driving force behind this kind of civic initiative, because they spoke the language and, being veiled, had more trust from the women refugees. These Hungarian women had two or three cell phones, and they’d be driving from one place to another to coordinate their humanitarian action. This also proved that the stereotype of the passive Islamic religious woman, who stays home taking care of the kids, is unsustainable. They were out there with their children, organizing and active. The migration crisis changed their position.
How specific is neck to a woods?
Sleep-sick, the vehicle I operate’s full
of ears that fail to be pricked by the query
so I field it myself, “one for the road” in that
it keeps it under us because it keeps me awake
to the dark of what’s technically morning,
pierced by First Birdsong Award-winning
bird’s song. We’re trucking scrapple,
a regional meat for meat’s sake
and since back North you can’t get it,
quick since the further you take it
the less edible it gets.
No one’s a local at the tollbooth
because nobody’s from where we are,
but the robot’s there always,
taking a job and I’m asking
what can’t be trash
to a bin that says “Trash Only.”
Mirror I saw on the sidewalk,
I know this one,
“not trash, not free, $50 bucks”
it said in magic marker,
throwing up a plot of clouds slick
with the surface but empty of threat.
How much a 2-liter drained of ginger ale is worth
depends on which jurisdiction you redeem it in.
Listen—a border welcomes us to brittle glass,
meaningful chiefly in the units we use
to get away from it.
Wherever we’re going is home,
where I’m at my worst for loving distance.
Like a landmark, I steer by the loose-leaf
a Bambi Academy kid crayoned a big rose
and “no smoking” onto I found
stuck to an inner tube in winter
as it rolled free down Mermaid Ave,
navigating by values I can’t know.