Guest Post, Terese Svoboda: In Dreams Begin Responsibility

I hover in a helicopter over a beach where my two grown sons race to catch the spy-worthy ladder I’m dangling. Once they climb up (how do those spies do it, hand-over-hand, with a fierce wind at the rungs?), my husband seals the cockpit from the poison that’s building up below, I gun the motor to leave–but to where? We hover, using up valuable fuel. Out to sea where smoke billows over the Atlantic? Up or down the nuclear-blasted north or south?

My dream brain knows we can’t flee West. After 9/11, my father bought a truck that fit seven, certain he could drive to New York and quickly return us to the family homestead in Nebraska, sure bombs would reflect in his taillights all the way. Never mind that the SAC airbase in Omaha was where Bush hid until he was forced to make an appearance, that the cornfields of home lie a mere 300 miles away from the missiles – he would rescue us. Now my brother has commandeered my father’s truck, along with the deed to his house—and dumped him into assisted living. Home no longer exists.

I dream my homelessness, I hover and know that the helicopter fuel will run out, joining the realities of travel with the impeccable dream-logic of anxiety. I’ve had experience: the post-nuclear world of the fifties was filled with such dreams. My father – like most – never explained why he didn’t invest in a bomb shelter like the neighbors, was heedless of the rising inflection of the inquiring helpless child, busy ducking and covering at school. Well, we only ducked and covered once, were expected to remember forever (we did) not to look at the fireball. Oh, Orpheus! If we were attacked by night, were we supposed to run back the twelve blocks to school to hide under our desks? I imagined running in the dark, the school gone, I dreamt it.

Imagination is crucial to terror, and night causes the imagination to consolidate our rational daytime fears with our nighttime, the terror billowing out of control, forest-fire-wild, all light and shifting dark. Dawn sweeps the pre-verbal visions away, and holds terror at bay, no longer baying. The sun shines and the plants grow and those post-war children uncurl from their balls that they instinctively imagine protect them, never mind the desks. “In dreams begin responsibilities” according to Delmore Schwartz, whose book from the Fifties and Sixties chronicled disappointment with the American dream, reminding readers that they had to labor hard not to be pulled under by its false economic promise, its faux egalitarianism.

Nothing bad happened on American soil for two hundred and twenty-five years except 9/11, nothing compared to the rest of the world. Our complacency makes violence elsewhere hard to imagine, we have only the little sparks of fear that light up our brains after any one of the thousands of mass shootings in the last five years, nearly all of them committed by Americans. But such complacency is also the result of partial blindness and deliberate amnesia. We’ve had at-home bombings throughout our history, anarchists planted 44 bombs that brought on the Palmer Raids and the first Red Scare 100 years ago, George Metesky set off dozens of bombs throughout NYC between 1940 to 1957 (he also slit open seats in movie theaters to hide explosive devices), Ted Kaczynski planted 16 bombs nationwide, fatally injuring three as recently as 1995. Our worst insurrection was also home-made: the Civil War killing 630,000 citizens, but mention should also be made of the 1921 bombing by Oklahomans of black Wall Street in Tulsa that left 10,000 people homeless and 300 dead. Are terrorists terrorists if they’re your fellow Americans, part of the family, as it were?

While I was teaching for the Summer Literary Seminars in Lamu, Kenya, my husband went on a trip up the coast to interview a man who had been imprisoned for two years by the Mossad. Suspected of working for Al-Qaeda because his sister married one of the most important operatives on the continent, he pled innocence. “He was just my sister’s boyfriend,” he said. “It’s true, at the wedding his family didn’t come but they were so far away. He played soccer with everybody else. Even my sister didn’t know.”

A terrorist can be in bed with you, dreaming, night after night.

My brother threatened to bring a gun to a meeting about the family farm. He believed (believes) in the right to bear arms wherever he wants. Does that make him a bully or a freedom fighter? It’s hard for me to understand how someone in my own family could redefine democracy so radically. Taking the benign concept of the family and delivering a gunman is a little like turning a plane into a weapon.  Of course the surrealists believed that whatever can be imagined becomes real. The most potent threat is the threat: the imagining of terror. The current administration is adept at promulgating imagined terror, posturing with North Korea, actually dropping bombs on Syria, political moves that create enormous stress, the opposite of what a government is supposed to provide.

Writers have a responsibility to use their imagination during times of stress. We need to imagine our survival and spread word of that imaginative act to others. I’ve always argued that novice writers have seen enough media violence to imagine any variation themselves, but when they need to imbue those scenes with emotion, they have to go to method-acting, and remember when their brother chased them around with a baseball bat, when their father’s hand was raised to hit them, or when the family dog turned, and magnify that response to fit the scene. Thank god, we survived it.

Writers also need to read and translate from countries that have lived through drone attacks and American terror to understand what they have gone through, to imagine whether that cost is worth our feelings of security. The proposed wall along our border also raises this question. What is the illusion of security worth? Fiction writers traffic in illusion, which is not alt-facts but seeks to establish the truth through accurate portrayal of emotion. Readers understand that. The domestic novel of an unhappy marriage can be a distraction, a method for relieving oneself of terror, but the story about a totalitarian brother making one’s father suffer is perhaps more apt.  The bluster of bullies is possible because they have never lost or never had the ability to imagine losing, they feel assured of their win because they can’t imagine otherwise. To imagine winning, we need to write out our fears with an urgency that makes them impossible to ignore, to make them real enough to act on. We can’t depend on twittering birds and daylight to trigger our survival instincts.

Sleeping at night has become a problem for me. Dreaming is always the goal, reorganizing those brain bits so they work faster, unconscious enlightenment, rest. Waking from the dream, having imagined the worst, panting in the dark, I recognize that even my personal psychic safety has been withdrawn. I can’t go back to sleep anymore than I can go back home. Home is imagined: I’m awake and I have to make home again and again. Ask any refugee.

Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: When Refuge becomes Refugee

In a stupor of grief and dreadRefugees in tents
Have we not fingered the foulest wounds
And let them unhealed by our hands?

“Why Is This Age Worse…?”
–1919 Anna Akhmatova (trans. Stanley Kunitz)

It seems a long time since the picture of a drowned 3-year old Aylan went viral in September 2015. Much was made of the dangling “Velcro straps on his sneakers”, that Aylan was dressed like any child going to a playground in a red T-shirt and blue knee-length shorts – the Turkish guard who picked up the tiny body looked away as he carried the child. How hard it would be to look. And he must have looked when he first picked up the drowned boy. It seems a long time because there have been so many bodies since, and so many of them children. There have been meetings and discussions in various parliaments in Austria, Denmark, Hungary, Germany, and of course Brussels, and some horrid policies have passed through them like Denmark’s law (passed in January) in which the government is now allowed to seize assets of “asylum seekers on arrival in the country and confiscate any non-essential items worth more than 10,000 kroner (£1,000) that have no sentimental value to their owner.” One wonders who decides on what is or isn’t “non-essential” or of “sentimental value”. Similar laws are now in place in Switzerland and southern Germany.

Young refugeesTo be a refugee means the refuge of what once provided the rituals of stability, like home and shelter, no longer exist, that larger threats than those of the risks of being a refugee are being fled. “I don’t want to touch that one” says a friend, “too heavy”, “too complicated” – what will happen if we let ourselves touch the bodies being washed up like the Turkish guard who lifted the dead Aylan from the sand, if we help the luckier to dry land? They will touch us too, the pain and mess of these displaced lives will be real and, especially, there will be names and faces connected to their tragedies. I am about to say something to a friend and warn her that it is unpleasant, and she says, “are you sure you want to tell me” and really means “I’m not sure I want to know” because once told, she cannot, as she tells me “unknow it”; phrases like “the immigrant crisis”, “the Greek debt crisis” desensitize, the particulars are conflated, the faces and names lost. It is more efficient that way, apparently, when dealing with numbers (think of pyramid schemes of debt, think how all the added 0s of the billions lent, and the billions now owed in the Greek financial crisis that are not being addressed in “real terms”; i.e. the IMF – imagine even the IMF – is calling it unsustainable, that the debt cannot be paid back when the economy itself is being cannibalized though there are very real people starving on the streets and homeless as a result); so the question is what are we, or what is “Europe” trying to be efficient about. History has given us some very dark examples of the efficiencies of regimes wishing to keep themselves untouched by groups considered threats to an idea of citizenry and/or belonging. Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life theorizes the biopolitics of “The Camp as Paradigm” in a chapter that addresses the separation between “humanitarianism and politics” as “the extreme phrase of the separation of the rights of man and the rights of the citizen.” I want to say what Clarice Lispector says in The Passion According to G.H. that “till yesterday” there was a way of “fitting into a system.” That now that system is broken and the privileged do not want to “use an unprotected heart.” Perhaps Europe has lost its heart.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, says “the distinction between protection and the right to a better life has got blurred” having been part of a renegade contingency of Central European and West Balkan countries, including Hungary, to react to the immigrant crisis by being among the first countries to close its borders to refugees (and so removing themselves from the Schengen agreement of an open border system – that founding European Union dream that promised the free flow of populations). To Angela Merkel’s credit who, initially anyway, sought a joint EU solution for the crisis, responded that “When someone starts to define limitations [to immigration], others have to suffer. That is not my Europe.”

drawing of houseAs we entered the port for an activity session with some of the refugee children, we all noticed that there were twice as many tents as there had had a week ago; before the borders closed a lot of the volunteer work involved giving activity kits and baby carriers to mothers on their way north. Once they closed hundreds, and in the case of Idomeni, thousands were now stuck (read Phoebe Ramsay’s updates “On the Ground” on her Facebook page). Tents were everywhere, on any open space of pavement or grass, “Welcome to Europe” Alicia said. “Look at this….” Yes, look at this. Look at the woman using cardboard to sweep away the banana peel, cigarette stubs, and used tea bags from the space around her tent. Look at the children quietly returning crayons after doing their drawings, giving their drawings of houses and homes to those of us who sat with them, look at the boy who shows me there’s a hole in one of the sheets at the shelter and would like to know if there are any sheets not torn that he could have. Listen to the teacher from Aleppo who asks if we could bring some white board markers for the lessons she’s giving in the shelter, look at the fact that the toilets are overrun, that someone has thrown out a doll that looks perfectly fine, look at the boy who is downloading music on his phone, tell me where the border might be between them and us, or you and I?