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Countering xenophobia through story-telling

Story-telling and communal art are powerful tools in the fight against xenophobia. In the age of the echo chamber we need to learn to listen again.

Alisdare Hickson/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Vanessa Kisuule, a Bristol-based word artist, was invited to speak at the Global Forum for Migration and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh in December 2016. openDemocracy caught up with Vanessa to discuss her inspiration and background, as well as the power of art to combat rising anti-migrant sentiment. Read her thoughts and hear her poems below.

Cameron Thibos (oD): You've given me the basic sketch that you are British-born and Ugandan by descent. But what brought you into this whole field of spoken word art and to talk about things like migration, integration, and identity issues?

Vanessa Kisuule: I was in Uganda just before I went to university. I stayed with my family, and one of my cousins who lives out in Canada and I were bonding over the fact that we were second generation kids, raised in western countries and that we were going back to this country of ‘origin’ or ‘roots’ and not quite feeling this sense of being at home that you are supposed to feel.

It's quite a unique situation to be in, in terms of that clash of identity and history and heritage, so we bonded over that. At some point he told me, "You know, back home, I go to a lot of these poetry nights" and I was like "What's that? I've never heard of anything like that". And he said: "It's like this spoken word slam thing" and he was explaining that to me. I thought, oh, I don't know, it sounds quite pretentious. I don't know if I like the sound of that. Then he showed me some YouTube clips of Def Jam poetry, which has long since discontinued. I remember thinking, wow, this is amazing. I watched loads of it, just binged it on YouTube, but I didn't think this was my career path.

Then I came home, and had a few months to kill before university started. I'd written a little poem and went to an open mic in London to see what that was like. And that was it, really, I got the bug from there. I'd always written, I always loved creative writing, but poetry and performing had nothing to do with it – it was mostly short stories that I wrote. So the concept of going up and reading a poem about me, or my life, or my opinion was kind of revelatory actually.

Cameron: Some of your work speaks to the themes of the Global Forum for Migration and Development – where you were commissioned to speak – identities, migrant integration, being an immigrant, etc. Are these simply some of the themes in your work, or are they a particular focus for you?

What tends to happen with under-represented voices is that we co-opt their voices and we tell their stories for them.

Vanessa: I try to avoid being didactic and I try to avoid sitting down and thinking, “Ok, in this poem, I am going to write about this issue”. I invariably end up having to write in that manner because I get commissioned to write about feminism or immigration. But, I think sometimes when you have that going through your head too much, that can drown out the nuance of the story and the nuance of the situation, particularly if you are passionate about something. And the way you want your audience, your reader, or listener to see it, that starts to swallow everything up.

As much as I can, I like to present the humanness as much as possible, and leave the audience to make up their own mind. Obviously, I know that my opinion and my lens is always going to be there. You can't ever completely detach yourself like that as a writer. The issues that I address are never more important than the stories or the people in my poems. So if migration is there, or identity is there, it's never to make an overarching point. If anything, I like it when people end up reflecting on their own situations, or their own lives.

Cameron: So we live in a post-Brexit referendum Britain, xenophobia is palpable, and Europe is going through what some call a migration crisis and others a reception crisis. Where do you see potential for migrants to gain a platform to counter this xenophobia? How do you see the arts, migration, and integration meshing together?

Vanessa: That's a big question and a very good question. In schools at the moment, there's this programme that is being enforced by our wonderful government of instilling British values. It contains things like retaining our heritage, maintaining tolerance. All of these things seem very flimsy, and I think its just about imprinting this idea of British-ness in kids’ heads from a very young age. It is indoctrination, in my opinion. That is happening and we are having these kids coming in, I imagine, bewildered, traumatised, and trying to make sense of this new environment they are in. It's going to be very interesting how we integrate this with this new spike in patriotism and nationalism.

I am hoping that we really do find space to let people tell their stories in their own way. Because what tends to happen with underrepresented voices is that we co-opt their voices and we tell their stories for them. We think we are doing people a service by doing that, but really we are projecting our own ideas and presumptions and giving ourselves a saviour narrative that is really about us and isn’t very helpful.

When you come to a new country, it's hostile and you may not speak in English or your English might be very poor, so how do you get a sense of self or the bravery to go "Everyone listen to me". You might need someone to say “let's listen”, but its not for other people to paraphrase your story and tell everyone else.

This happens across the board; it happens in arts, in journalism: people speaking for the unrepresented. We need to find a way to facilitate people who want to speak or who feel able to speak. I'll give you an example. Bristol Refugee Rights have an organisation called VOICE, which is asylum seekers and refugees going into areas that are more rural and less progressive and just speaking about their experiences. This is very powerful because they are speaking and telling their story and its not being co-opted by middlemen or by the media.

We need to facilitate as many different story-telling sessions as possible.

People are so much more likely to engage with one single person standing in front of them, a human being just like them. That's a really beautiful, potent example of how powerful one person telling their story can be. But, the difficulty with that is that people in the position of being an asylum seeker or a refugee are in danger of being exposed or deported. They might not be able to be as vocal in their experience. They may be here under circumstances that make it hard for them to be out here in the open.

So it's hard. We need to hear their stories, but we also need to be aware of their safety, mental well being, and their need to have their identity protected. So it's a complicated one and I don't have all the answers for sure. But from what I've observed, it seems to me that we need to – wherever we can – facilitate as many different story-telling sessions as possible, where we can just sit and listen to each other.

Cameron: You’re much more clued into the Bristol arts scene than I am, but from the posters on the wall there seem to be a lot of art projects going on to try to increase empathy for new arrivals. In other words, how much do you think this is already happening?

Vanessa: This is the great thing about what we could very tentatively call "street art", more so than a piece of refugee theatre – where even the term theatre has this elitism and classism around it that is hard to shake. For the most part, theatre was a middle or higher-class activity. But a piece of graffiti that all walks of life walk through everyday, that is a really powerful thing.

Graffiti is a very powerful example of how communal art can create a general sentiment in a city as a whole.

You get this a lot in Bristol and in cities like Berlin as well: graffiti murals in support of refugees. If you pass by them every day, they’re seeping into your subconscious whether you realise it or not. That creates this background sentiment, where the city has this sentiment that we are wearing quite literally on our walls. That's why I love Berlin, and it history of street art as a form of political resistance and a storytelling of refusing to be silent.

I feel like graffiti is a very powerful example of how communal art, or street art – art for everyone – can create a general sentiment in a city as a whole. If you pass by it every day, it's a constant reminder of where we've been and where we are now. It gives you that context as to what has made this city into what it is. I think that's more powerful than all manner of museum exhibits or radio 4 shows. All these things only appeal to a certain demographic. Universality is really powerful and important.

Cameron: We need more truly public art.

Vanessa: Absolutely. And that to me is something that can and should be funded. It's part of a much bigger tapestry of things that need to be happening, but I don't think that you can deny the power of that one element. I think it could seem very frivolous to push for it, especially in times of economic austerity. But I would argue that we probably need that boost now more than ever. We need the color, we need the light relief, we need the expression. We need that sense of release of it all.

Cameron: What was the focus of the poems you presented at the Global Forum for Migration and Development?

Vanessa: Language is very powerful. Trump has used rhetorics to get in people's heads, all leaders have used rhetorics to that. When I use language that is persuasive, emotive, and manipulative to get to people, it could be used for good, but it could also be used to massage my ego or to control people.

As much I use language that is compelling and puts pictures in your mind, I don't want to feed into this culture of shoving opinions down people's throats or feed into this reactionary opinion machine. And if I do express a strong opinion, I always preface it by "This is my very strong opinion and you have every right to disregard it, argue with it, give me a reason why I might have a different perspective on it if I had experienced this".

I really don't want to be putting my opinions on pedestals anymore. The poems that I performed at the Global Forum for Migration and Development were just stories told with as much honesty and fallibility as I could give them. I think that's a really powerful thing, vulnerability and fallibility.


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