Being dedicated to the topic of “the migrant,” yesterday the various literary programs at the European Literature Day in Spitz revealed a rich collection of valuable insights and reflections on the questions of identity, language, nation, homeland, exile, and the pervasive sense of otherness and alienation that can accompany our shared global interconnectedness. Besides an exchange of ideas and thoughts, it was also a day of celebrating the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the many literary guests, their multiple identities and homelands (lost or found), and the plurality of languages (with an ongoing rhapsody of English, German, and French discussions). In such a transnational context, the writer and the artist can be seen as the quintessential “migrant,” while culture and art as the constant migration of forms and ideas which take shape in various constellations. As Salman Rushdie writes in one of his essays: “Having been borne across the world, we are translated men and women. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.” From this vantage point, national literature—although traditionally and institutionally embedded—is not a useful or viable category anymore since it limits and constrains art. Thus, Europe and the world should stop refuting or exoticizing the migrant experience, the transient or nomadic state of being, the “third space” and “twilight zone” between cultures, and embrace the hybridity which is our everyday experience and which inspires artistic work. To use another fitting Rushdie quote: “Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world.” Otherwise, as A. L. Kennedy warned us in her keynote address, we will witness and suffer the failure of imagination and the gradual disintegration of humane societies. By blindly insisting on ideas of purity and homogenization, and propagating the “splendid isolation” of monoculture and “Fortress Europe” we will help the rise of a spirit of cruelty and the fading of democracy. Yet Kennedy goes on to suggest that these dark times can teach us about the light. Writers, artists should act as the guardians of imagination while producing art that becomes a defense for our shared humanity: if we can imagine the future together then, perhaps, these toxic times will not kill us all.
Amid the celebration of this heightened state of hybridity, I somehow remembered an experience I had not long ago in Budapest. I was supposed to meet a friend at the Calvin metro station and, as I was idly standing at the middle of the platform, a family of Syrian refugees came straight towards me, with the father holding out a piece of paper that said: Keleti – Vienna. He pointed at the writing while making an inquisitive gesture, and all of the family members were looking hopefully at me. I had no idea how they ended up at the Calvin station which was quite far from where they wanted to go, so I started to explain in English the easiest way to get to Keleti railway station. After I saw that they did not understand the English instructions, I tried the same thing with my rudimentary German, but not much luck. Then I drew a map, listing all the stations in between, and tried to imitate the route of the subway with my hand, using big, theatrical gestures. I looked up, and the father—having the same hopeful, anticipating look in his eyes—pointed again inquisitively at the writing: Keleti – Vienna. Implying that I should explain and show once more. But I had to realize that what I considered to be obvious reference points in a city that was entirely foreign to them were actually causing more confusion, and so my signals of communication where not successful. We were deeply underground, where every sign was written in Hungarian, nobody around us could speak their native language, I had to wait for my friend, and Vienna seemed impossibly far away. I could see the disappointment in their eyes, and they could probably see the sad and frustrated helplessness in mine. After their long, tiresome, and dangerous journey, the foreign environment of an unfriendly, unhospitable capital had overwhelmed them, and on top of that I had completely failed them as an interpersonal, transcultural communicator. Finally, I directed them towards the next incoming train, gesturing that they need to get off at the second stop, then change to the red line, and then…
All I can hope now is that they arrived safely to their desired destination. I still feel miserable for failing at such a simple task, and still get angry every time I think about the global and local reasons that forced them into a position of such vulnerability and defenselessness. However, besides grasping the limitation of my linguistic skills, what I took away from this encounter was a renewed understanding of the fundamental, radical inequality involved in present global processes: between those who were aggressively pushed into becoming uprooted, involuntary transcontinental “migrants” (refugees), and the privileged, multilingual, international, cosmopolite, connected, transcultural “migrants” (global intellectuals) who are empowered by their self-declared hybridity, the various forms of self-expression, and several means of travel. This is not to make a value judgment between the two categories which sometimes coincide, but to strive for a conceptual clarity without which we can easily conflate widely different fates, dimensions of existence, set of needs, and possible responses. The word “migrant” has indeed become a loaded term and a compromised concept thanks to the xenophobic discourse of the media: it went from the neutral category of sociological study to signify the constructed external threat for the closed, hysterical mindset. From now on, one has to keep in mind the unpleasant history associated with the usage of the word. Furthermore, it is also easy to get lost within the blurred context of the actual necessity of physical migration and the metaphorical notion of translating individuals and ideas from one cultural setting into the other. Hybridity becomes a possibility and a positive experience only in a privileged position, otherwise migration is determined by a state of vulnerability, defenselessness, and desperation. In order to recognize this, and their privileged position, artists need to be not only the guardians of imagination, but also that of conceptual clarity and social justice.
By Laszlo Szabolcs