Part of my reluctance to write on citizenship is that as a poet, a worker in delicate, would-be-truthful language, I am wary of pronouncements on current affairs. Questions of citizenship are best left to people who handle data well and accurately – experts in politics or law, rights and borders; those who deal in facts, not feelings. Poetry’s stuff is the everyday; the texture of lived experience; the simple mechanics and music of words. If I generalised from what happened to me personally, wouldn’t I be part of the problem? Now, however, actual hurt has been done to me. When ‘citizens of everywhere’ are dismissed and derided, my entire world is attacked. My childhood is wiped out.
Let me explore a little of what I mean. But, before that: what was it like for you after the ‘Brexit’ referendum? Did you feel exhausted? Afraid to leave your room? Did you read the faces of your neighbours when you did go out? Did you see them reading your face? Did you mistrust your reading of their reading (if they were reading at all)? Did they look extra kind and upset by the sight of you and apologetically make space in supermarket aisles? Did you report them to the police for cursing you at your front door? Did you have impulses to kiss or punch strangers on the bus? Did you start recalling words in languages your family had carefully lost? Did you forget words, demented pauses dotting your conversation? Did you start going through your possessions, sorting and discarding; checking visa rules for other countries; dreaming of dead, unknown great-grandmothers who had been unpersoned, killed or disappeared? Were you shouted at by your doctor’s receptionist? Were you shaken in your sense of ‘home’?
This happened to me, and to many of my friends. So it was not enough to pay taxes. Not enough to love your fellow-creatures, Marmite, football, or the rain. I discussed, with a Polish-Scottish friend, the possibility of a kind of trans-generational post-traumatic stress disorder. We settle here; but the ghosts of history, the oppressions, migrations, escapes, re-rootings, re-routings, betrayals and unlikely solidarities that occurred and do recur in our warring species, pop out and jangle us.
We have made our homes here. And these four nations of the still-United Kingdom partake of the nature of islands. People fetch up on islands. In Trinidad as a baby, I bounced in a hand-me-down baby bouncer from the Australians across the road. As a child, I was driven down Dundonald and Benares streets; danced in the essentially West African carnival. By my French-Catholic-convent teens, I had appreciated William Dunbar’s Scots poetry, learnt to sneeze in Irish, talk Castilian, cook Chinese. I took this for granted, as Trinidadian – and Nowherian.
‘Nowherian’ is a peculiar term. It can have a bad meaning, as in: someone without loyalty or identity. It can have a good meaning, as in: someone who loves travel, new things, challenges; the wisdom, pain, change, and enjoyment they bring.
Without ‘nowherians’, humanity would be nowhere. We are the ones who would have relished tasting unusual fruit for safety when the tribe’s regular foods were scarce. We would have trialled communications via sign systems or traders’ pidgins, crossing natural boundaries or facing out invaders to create something liveable out of ever-changing contact zones. We would have left behind dry rivers to seek other water sources. Nowherians roll up a rug and walk with it until we can unroll it and give thanks in and for the place we sleep. We are your renewers.
When I see a coastline, hilltop, hedgerow, market, corner shop, or museum, I feel traces of people in movement; who have borrowed songs and exchanged lullabies; camp followers, stowaways, replacement sailors, extra ‘wives’; the unrecorded of history, doing what we do: following necessity, randomness, or our hearts. There is no locality, however small, that I have visited, without sensing repeated and renewed strands of otherness as an intrinsic part of the domesticity; possibly of the DNA.
My love is literature. So, the first time a crack appeared in my sense of Britishness as compatible with everywhereness was when an Englishman asked me how I supposed Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the Moor in Othello, because how many of them would have seen anyone like that?
I had no desire to reproach or teach him about our shared islands’ long-refreshed diversity. So what if Romans at the Antonine Wall in Scotland had a taste for North African cooking, or Vikings had picked up ‘blue’ people on the way? What if Holyrood’s account books feature Moorish lassies, and their maidservants, from the 1500s? Who cares today that England’s first coffee house reputedly was opened in Oxford in 1651 by a Levantine Jew? I did not argue, or cite examples, because I was confident that ‘we’ had long been here. Not people of colour. ‘We’: people with a disposition, or destiny, to be in transit; to have difference as part of our ordinariness, alive in the ethics and the imagination of how we make homes. How could he not know? How was his vision so stuck?
It is frankly stupid for the British Empire to have stripped populations of their languages, imposed British overseas citizen or subject status (which we in the colonies had before independence), and created an administrative and educational system which enshrined British values in over a quarter of the globe, yet not expect formerly colonized peoples to keep coming ‘home’. Not because of brainwashing. Because of a common language. Common elements in the culture. Tea and stiff-upper-lippery.
Let’s stop for a couple of quotations from Thomas Macaulay’s ‘Minute Upon Indian Education’, to show how advocacy influenced policy. He bears repeating, though you may know him. ‘English is better worth knowing than Sanscrit or Arabic […] We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, —a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ This was in 1835. 1835 seems near to me; an ancestral date, ten years before the first Indians were shipped as indentured labourers to Trinidad. Hence my family’s otherwise geographically unlikely mix of Bengal-Uttar Pradesh-Rajasthan-Afghanistan. I owe my existence to imperial everywhereness.
For millions worldwide, the alien English graft became natural. We are also you. But you, alas, are not us. That would require reciprocity. You would want to learn the Shakespeares and Wordsworths of the civilizations whose descendants are arriving as survivors. You would need to look at Cornwall and see Phoenicia; to look at the Scottish Borders and see Septimius Severus, Rome and Libya; to look at Bristol and see Caribbean sugar; to honour the Dutch as in, and of, Norwich; mourn the Jews as in, and of, York; know your streets and palaces as built with borrowings and plunder; read your history, and count up as British values the adulteries, rapes, and love affairs in your never-isolate blood.
Citizens of Everywhere is a project by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool. @CitizensofWhere #CitizensofEverywhere