Make Them Visible: Oxfam Ireland on Culture Night

New work by Belinda McKeon, Gerald Dawe and Jan Carson: a sneak preview of Oxfam Books’ photo exhibition and evening of readings highlighting the lives of displaced people and refugees

 

On Culture Night, Friday, September 18th, at 6.30pm, Oxfam Books will host Make Them Visible, a photo exhibition and evening of readings that aims to highlight the lives of displaced people and refugees from Central African Republic, South Sudan and Syria.

This is part of a campaign called EUsavesLIVES with Oxfam and the European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO).

Given a single image from one of the three countries, 15 Irish authors imagined life as the person(s) pictured and responded with a piece of fiction, a poem or a personal reflection.

The written pieces, poem or prose, are purely fictional, imagined by the authors in response to the image provided to them by Oxfam Ireland. They do not depict the real life, experiences or opinions of the person(s) pictured. In some cases, the author responded with a personal, non-fiction response. In these instances, the piece reflects the experiences and opinions of the author alone and not the person(s) pictured.

Belinda McKeon, Gavin Corbett, Bethany Dawson, Gerald Dawe and Rita Ann Higgins will read from 6.30pm-7.30pm and Kate Kerrigan, Ella Griffin, Helena Mulkerns and Helen Falconer from 7.35pm-8.30pm). The exhibition will then remain open until 10.30pm with music from Nighthawks.

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Acacia
by Belinda McKeon

Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Robert Frost, from ‘Birches’

We were growing. That was our purpose: to grow and to flourish. We asked nothing of anyone; we were in our place, had found ourselves in our place, and it was our place, and together we grew there, and we did what the seasons asked of us. Spring asked that we give forth, and we did, although it was hard because we were always thirsty, always hungry, but we found ways, and we bloomed. We gave forth parts of ourselves: new, younger versions of ourselves, brighter versions of ourselves, and in the place where we stood, we stood strong, and we stood proud and we stood beautiful – some of us taller and more beautiful than others, it’s true, but these things are subjective, and anyway, we were too busy to think much about whether we were beautiful; we were busy giving life, keeping life going in all its complications, in all its needs, in all its shouts of growing and changing. Children running around us; children – and the children, now, the children were the ones who were beautiful – clambering up into our arms. Sitting there: the perch of them; the contentment of them, safe and solid where we held them, high enough to look out at the world.

Summer, then, and again we were thirsty, and there were days when we were weary, when the air seemed more dust than it seemed breath, but we could take the dust, and we could make breath out of it. Breath for those who shared our place with us; the place that was us and that was ours. And in autumn came our harvest, and we worked at that, we gave everything to make that happen, to come up with the stuff of life, the sap of life, the sap that makes life happen. Winter tested us, but we were strong. We did not need our ornaments. Spring was coming. Spring was glinting in the sky.

Spring did not come.

They cut us down.

They stripped us, and sliced us away from each other; they sliced us within ourselves, within our cores, our secret cores. They ripped us apart. They went at us, and we were taken from each other, taken from the place which was the only place that we had known, the place where we had gotten life and were giving it.

They cut us down, and they cut us apart, and cut apart from ourselves and from each other like this, we are not ourselves anymore, we are only these brittle shells. We do what they have put us here to do; we have no choice.

Because now we are fences.

Oh – did you think that we were people? Did you listen to us, feeling for us, imagining our pain and our sorrow and our splintering, and thinking, how terrible? How sad?

Oh, no. Do not think of us. Think of them. If you can imagine our pain so fully – if you can see what we have had done to us, how we have been mown down, scattered, torn – well, then, how clearly you must see the people whose lives we now corral. How instant and deep, surely, your connection to them – after all, they are what you are. They need what you need, fear what you fear – the details are different, very different, but the shapes are the same; they breathe like you, and think like you, and love like you, and when they sleep – if they sleep, because they do not all sleep here, we see them stare at the night until the dawn comes, we see them keep watch on the horizon as though it is a living, dangerous thing - when they sleep, they dream the same way that you dream. You know them, although you have not met them; they are some of the people with whom you share your one, short span. So of course they must matter to you. Of course you must look at them, gathered here within our arms – within our stretched and hammered arms – and see, not a swarm and not a forest, but rather one face, and another face, and another, and another, and another; one life, and another life, and another, and another, and another –

Each of them extraordinary, each of them an entire, extraordinary world –

And yet you write your poems about our branches, about our buds. Do you not see one another? Metaphor – is that how you turn from one another, how one of you pretends that the other is not so utterly in view?

Look, here is a woman. We don’t know her name, we don’t know her story, and we will not insult her by guessing these things; by substituting for these things things we have invented, things we are pleased to look at, laid out in our pretty, poignant words. What do we know of her?

We know that she touches a fence. We know that she lets one hand rest on one length of it, that with the other hand she holds on to a higher stretch, gently, lightly, the way a person might hold on – navigating by it – to a candle or a lamp. As though some light might shine out ahead there, in front of her, into the distance that we cannot see but within which you live, and move, and breathe the abundant air.

Abundant: like a forest, like a tree.

Like nothing. She is herself. They are themselves. See them. See how they are beside you; see how you travel together – your one, short span.

We were trees. Now we are only fences.

Take us down.

Belinda McKeon’s latest novel is Tender. On Thursday, September 17th, at 8pm, at Hodges Figgis, Dawson Street, Dublin, editor Belinda McKeon and Eilís Ni Dhúibhne will speak at the launch by Tramp Press of A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance – a short story collection exploring the many ways in which it is possible to feel far from home, by award-winning international short story writers.

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Home Again
by Gerald Dawe

My name is Abbé, Abbot in your mother tongue.

Here I stay in a camp for displaced persons.

No home from home; no exile’s progress, no

comforting myth to cling to but a camp for shelter

with heat and running water and the dream

of return to where everything for me began –

shadows of evening, the first light at dawn,

children’s voices at play with nothing to fear.

I keep myself ready as you can see,

waiting with pen to sign on the dotted line

before I can get home again, finally.

Poet and critic Gerald Dawe lectures in English at Trinity College Dublin. His next book, Of War and War’s Alarms, is published next month by Cork University Press.

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‘One in One Hundred Thousand’
by Jan Carson

Seven is a good sharp number. It is quite easy to imagine seven items or, for that matter, seven people standing next to each other in a line. The first person might enjoy chess and the next have a twin brother, identical, but with brown eyes instead of blue. The last of the seven could be awfully good with her hands, carving small items, such as spoons and letter openers, out of wood. She may also laugh like clean water in a cup.

With seven people you will remember the slim details: the dots and stops of intonation, the way a hand is rested inside a second hand like a kind of shell, how a scarf is worn, high or loose across the shoulder. You will notice the particular way each person’s face lifts when they speak the name of a dear friend. The faces will be anchors, catching every time you encounter a chessboard, or a wooden spoon resting on a kitchen counter.

Time is also divisible by seven; this has little to do with days in the week. It is simply easier to slice a day, a month or hour into smaller increments. For example, a single evening can bear the weight of seven separate conversations, each one rich as Christmas. You will remember each of these conversations and carry, from this one to the next, a sentence or small thought like a kind of souvenir.

It is possible for seven people to catch on you and never let go. You will not feel the pinch of them. You were made to carry people and seven is a very manageable number. The same holds true for ten, thirteen and most numbers, up to and including, twenty. After this the thought of people will begin to blur, like words read through greaseproof paper or sand.

One hundred thousand is a number with no fine detail. It is a kind of blunt instrument and desperately hard to unpick. When seeing one hundred thousand items or, for that matter, people you will automatically let your eye fall loose. You will look down the side of them in the same way you both watch and do not watch terrible things on television. There is no place for the mind to focus with a number as large as one hundred thousand. One million and two million are similar. A billion is like trying to say eternity with a full mouth.

There are one hundred thousand people living in Mingkaman camp for displaced people in Awerial, South Sudan. Originally these people came from other places; places where they were one in seven, or twelve or some, more precious number. They were once women or teachers, doctors, artists or fathers, people known for the way they could dance or pitch a song like a straight arrow. Here, they are just people. They are one hundred thousand people. It is hard for any of them to say, “this is me and that is you,” for they are learning that other people cannot tell the difference.

If you have the time or the inclination you can say each of their names aloud, one after the other, like a roll call or a shopping list: Anita, Akong, Mohammed, Okot, Alimah, Grace. You can look at photos of each displaced person as you struggle to pronounce their Sudanese names, noting a red scarf here, a blue sweater there, a child with eyes like your own child’s, laughing. This will feel like a kind of prayer: supplication, or perhaps more honestly, confession. The speaking out of all these names will cost you approximately 763 minutes. This is 12.7 hours, or just over half a day.

Afterwards, you will struggle to remember even ten of the hundred thousand names you have just spoken aloud. You will not be able to hold a single face against its proper name. You will feel then as if you have stolen something from each of these people; a vital thing, like a tooth or a firstborn child. You will feel terrible. You must not feel terrible. No one person can carry a number as large as one hundred thousand, though some are given little choice.

Jan Carson is the author of Malcolm Orange Disappears

Oxfam Ireland

EUsavesLIVES

Culture Night

Make Them Visible

Oxfam Books

For more on Oxfam Ireland’s works, click here

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