I have read another of the recent Goldsmiths Shorts, the rather elegantly presented yellow (gold?) pamphlets put out by London’s [arguably] trendiest university. This one feels perhaps even more Goldsmithy (for me in a good way, for many people probably not1) than Dizz Tate’s Nowhere to go but back again, which I read a couple of months ago. This second text from the series – though literarily strong – maintains the same issues that grated [me] with Tate’s pamphlet: the problems with spacing and the eyewateringly pompous description of the pamphlet series remain. I must now accept that, as pretty as these pamphlets are and as impressive as their content is, in terms of the production there is something a tad off. I will try to not mention these issues again when I come to read the rest of the series, unless the hyper-serious description feels even more inappropriate given the context of the other two texts, or if the spacing causes problems with comprehension, as it does not do here.
Sad Farsi Love Poem by Abi Andrews is a gentle, relevant, book about the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe. Set within the Jungle in Calais – which was destroyed in October 2016 – it dramatises a situation that is no longer exactly the same, but one that has barely changed for the better.
Andrews sits the piece within the first person perspective of a young woman who is working as an English teacher in the library in the Jungle, and Sad Farsi Love Poem is addressed to a second person “you”, a young male Iranian refugee who is on the liminal gap between childhood and adulthood. The whole piece is self-consciously about edgelands, liminality, and about the power of place, about the disruption to lives and futures caused by war and famine and persecution, and how the pursuit of a safer life is one that has huge risks attached.
The narrator does not think of herself as an adult, does not think of herself as an educator: it is a voice of someone who has also just passed out of the liminality at the end of youth and into adulthood. This draws attention to the cultural difference this evidences, i.e. that we, in certain strata of British culture, reach that cusp – particularly for those of us who live coddled, humanitiesy, middle class lives (I AM LIKE THIS) – sometimes over a decade later than people in other parts of the world. The addressee of the text has, as have all the refugee characters here, experienced far more of far more intensity than the volunteers in the Jungle. Andrews’ text focuses hard on the ambiguity of the volunteer, that “European saviour complex’, but thankfully she does this from the perspective of someone whose intentions are good. (It is only a matter of time before we get a picaresque of corrupt humanitarians in the wake of 2018’s Oxfam scandals.) Andrew’s narrator sees and references other volunteers who sleep in the Jungle, make friends in the Jungle, smoke hash in the Jungle and try to pretend that they are truly living the same horrors as the refugees in the Jungle. The narrator understands the falsity of this. The distancing is more profound than a reductivist “if you call your dad he could stop it all”, more a simple, tragic: “when you want to, you can go home“.
The text alludes to (but doesn’t explore in-depth) the reasons that lead people to volunteer in places like this, but said silence feels intentionally loud: *what* people are running away from doesn’t matter, *that* they are running away does. Being in the Jungle both gives a perspective on the paucity of problems we face in Western Europe, but also allows an individual to falsify a sense of comradeship with people whose problems are undeniably huge. The impulse towards charity can result in good, but for people to choose to help others rather than themselves is always a decision, and not always the right one.
I have considered going to Calais or Greece to volunteer many times over the last couple of years, and maybe it is something I will do once I have some English-teaching experience and may be able to be useful. However, I know that the times I have most wanted to be in kinda dangerous places have been when I have been most unhappy. And I know that the times I have dedicated myself hardest to helping others there has been a great personal cost: my serious mental health crisis last Summer (which would have led to my death had I not – thankfully – lacked the self-esteem to trust my own instincts) was absolutely a result of my failure to listen to myself and my needs for a very long time. I used to run away from my problems, I used to block myself off from the world with intoxication and travel and very heavy workloads, and trying to be something, someone, that other people needed. I erased myself, in many ways, I made my existence feel illegitimate, like I didn’t matter, and I sometimes find myself slipping towards that even now, when things are going much much better for me in all parts of my life. I would like to help others, but I know I must restrain myself from doing that until I have helped myself. I have lived a largely transient life for about a year now, and it’s time for me to settle, at least for a bit.
To go back to the literature in hand, sorry, Sad Farsi Love Poem is a beautiful piece of prose about both literal and geographic translation, about fantasy meeting reality (the migrants’ and the volunteers’ fantasises are both as likely to fall apart) and about the search for a place in the world, which is most likely to be something we find by looking into ourselves, not by looking into others.
Definitely worth a read. Buy it direct here.
1. Perhaps I’m a tad oversensitive to hipsterist language activism after reading Kill All Normies, which – somewhat surprisingly – lays a lot of blame re the rise of the alt-right on the liberal left’s intolerance of the language of intolerance, but even wishywashy liberal me raised an eyebrow at the use here of the idiom “drives me crazy” with the word “crazy” replaced with “mentally ill”. Although this may have been intended as a device to remove language that trivialises mental illness, what it actually does is bring to mind the triviality of said idiom in a moment that’s seeking to explain the huge risks to psychological wellbeing that the “Paris Syndrome” of the end of a refugee’s journey causes. So yeh, the intention is commendable, but the execution does a half job of removing stigma – the metaphor of driving and exterior intentional causation remains, but the language of the end of the phrase is far more sympathetic. Also, I don’t believe anyone has ever said “it drives me mentally ill”. This was basically my one criticism of the text, which is why it’s in a footnote because it’s a snarky thing to point out. And yes, I am more than qualified – for once – to talk on this use of stigmatising language because I have been in (and occasionally out) of treatment for mental illness for over a decade lol. ↩