If I were being asked (not that I have ever) of books I have read more than five times, I could name these three: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. I remember reading the first two at the same time in 2004, which resulted in very interesting dreams where the two different settings of the stories overlapped — one set in the 1968 Prague Spring, and another set in 1940’s Western Ukraine — but otherwise revolves around a few similarities: there’s a tale of returning to the home that was no longer how it was after the war, there are some sort of tug-and-war relationships going on between some couples, there are dogs in both stories, and that within war and atrocities and existential dread, people find ways to go on with their lives and make sense of them through art and literature — somewhat like a framework to guide them through — whatever’s left of them. I read both of them back when I was too young and didn’t quite have the access and the language to understand a lot of themes in both books (e.g something like this) yet I kept rereading them. So there must be something, as I embarked on rereading Kundera’s Lightness this week.
There was a paragraph in the book which caught my interest. Sabina, a Czech photographer fled the aftermath of the Prague Spring, found herself in Geneva. She soon began a love affair with a Swiss professor, Franz. In this section, Franz spoke of how enamoured he, a European, was with Sabina’s country — a notion that Sabina did not share (emphasis mine):
Whenever she told him about herself and her friends from home, Franz heard the words ‘prison’, ‘persecution’, ‘enemy tanks’, ’emigration’, ‘banned books’, ‘banned exhibitions’, and he felt a curious mixture of envy and nostalgia.
Sabina protested. She said that conflict, drama, and tragedy didn’t mean a thing; there was nothing inherently valuable in them, nothing deserving of respect or admiration. What was truly enviable was Franz’s work and the fact that he had the peace and quiet to devote himself to it.
The words ‘prison’, ‘persecution’, ‘enemy tanks’, ’emigration’, ‘banned books’, ‘banned exhibitions’ were ugly, without the slightest trace of romance. The only word that evoked in her a sweet nostalgic memory of her homeland was the word ‘cemetery’.
Franz, an academia, in this case, has done a classic mistake of being an academia: as he fails to acknowledge his privilege, he sets on to romanticise the struggles of others (or their subjects of fieldwork or data) purely for the sake of academic attainment, totally disregarding the voices of those who actually lived those struggles — who might not be ready to relive those memories all over again.
Perhaps if they had stayed together longer, Sabina and Franz would have begun to understand the words they used. Gradually, timorously, their vocabularies would have come together, like bashful lovers, and the music of one would have begun to intersect with the music of the others. But it was too late now.
I think this is something I have also learned in my progress of doctoral research. My area is especially contentious — social movements and protests — and coming from a country which protests were often nonviolent and mild, to say at least, it was easy to get caught in the romanticisation of the acts of dissent around the world as people fight for their demands — Hong Kong, Iraq, Egypt, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Sudan, etc. — which had been ignored for the longest time before, to be heard.
Maybe there’s one thing to remember if you are writing for a subject you do not have personal lived experience of: What could we do to write for them, instead of over them?
Related: A thread on criticism towards the Extinction Rebellion movement for disregarding the voices of structurally oppressed activists and communities when it comes to combating climate denialism.