Mind the Gap: An Outsider’s POV in London

10258360_10152931692343136_6233342448182290090_oNot going to lie, but I’ve been dreading this final blog post. On my flight back home the other day, I kept asking myself, “How do I synthesize my tons of 10479872_10152975583868136_5968144263076816836_oexperiences in London?” How do I choose one way to connect them all? How do I contain this incredible month in such a limited amount of virtual space?

So here comes the part where I try: When I graduated high school, my favorite English teacher advised me (in the wise words of Joseph Campbell) to “follow my bliss.” Her words constantly echoed in my mind when I decided to apply for this program. In London, I can honestly say that I did follow my bliss. This 10296182_10152931756563136_7565774843596359750_oCreative Writing class and my time in London have allowed me the freedom to fully appreciate writing and re-believe in the power of words. Word choice. Word structure. Spoken words. Written words. Your words. My words. Whether in a lyric from The Beatles–“Here comes the sun”– or in a silly writing exercise about a talking squirrel at a summer camp, words have proven time and time again the ability to evoke strong emotions in such a precise descriptive manner. Why merely write about a girl being scared by a bear? In this class, I learned about locating emotion in the body in order to pull the reader in. It’s not enough to just read about it, but people should be able to feel it themselves. I learned about the quality of my verbs being more important than the quantity of fluffy vocabulary that tends to bog the reader down. I even learned how to wholeheartedly despise gerunds…

10460556_10152936930648136_7265081176108486832_o

But most importantly, I learned how to use my unique position as an inspired outsider to make observations about the people around me. The experience of being an outsider forced me to fully immerse myself. Because I’ve now biked through a field of cows in Oxford, I know exactly  how I’d portray the stench of cow manure as I weave my way through steaming piles of excrement on a bike with blood dripping down my elbow. Because I’ve sprinted across the Millennium Bridge in a desperate hurry to make it to a show at Shakespeare’s Globe, I can practically measure the length of the bridge in the amount of my exhausted gasps of air. As an outsider who was also studying the history of London, I realized the significance in “creating scenes.” 10419483_10203405359948873_8913649345484507765_nIn our very first improv exercise, we took turns playing the narrators and the scene setters. In this exercise, I noticed that words don’t have to be meticulously planned in order to matter to the story. A strongly announced, “Look at these hands, Rita” has the tone needed to convey an emotion in such a small amount of space. A girl limping through her backyard to kidnap a dog has enough action to convey character 10380199_10153000822933136_990154411876162548_odevelopment and themes relevant to a story. Every person I met or every story that came out of an awkward cultural exchange in London now fuel my writing in new and creative ways. Every smell, feeling, image conjured up a new story. This month was inspirational. It was full of adventure and never lacking in spontaneity. It made me a better person and a better writer.  I came to London to follow my bliss, and somewhere in this past month, I reached it.

10333763_10152986224798136_15244658737127369_o

Writing London and Running the Town

Of the seventy miles I ran in London, the last six were spent observing a conversation on the top of Primrose Hill.  It started on Sunday afternoon with a red-orange “B” in graffiti.  I found the bright letter written on the curb, under the vibrant heels of my running sneakers.  I didn’t think much of it—just a marker, a place for me to stop each time I finally made it to the top of the hill that day.  By Monday morning there was another red-orange letter.  I stepped on a fresh “E.”  “Be what?” the thought crossed my mind.  More indecipherable graffiti appeared a few feet away from the capital “BE” on Tuesday morning in light blue.  The strangest part of this conversation appeared on Wednesday evening; a set of keys were left on the tarmac a few inches away from the colorful curb.  The keys were there again on Thursday, hanging from the information plaque, and again on Friday sitting on the nearby bench.  The graffiti danced in circles around the changing positions of the keys.

Graffiti covers one of the benches

(From Camden New Journal)

The art was a conversation of movement.  This was also one of the last exercises Professor Nair showed our class.  We observed a conversation from far away, unable to hear what was said.  We only wrote body language.  From the conversation I witnessed on the top of Primrose Hill, from that experience, I could write body language.  I could create what was said.  I could invent an entire story based on this one experience.  These were just six miles, imagine what could come from the remaining sixty-four.

Of the thirty days we were in London, every experience connected to one another.  My six mile story is also connected to the gentrification near Primrose Hill.  (And gentrification was a popular discussion topic throughout our class).  What I observed as an intricate and intriguing graffiti conversation, the Camden New Journal charged as a criminal and vandalizing attack.  The graffiti artists were part of the original community in Primrose Hill.  The upcoming community of Primrose Hill, the gentrification of the neighborhood, sparked another tone, another response to the same centuries-old conversation.  I believe the greatest connected experiences of London came from the people.

ImageImage

 

 

 

These include not only those from the liberal arts programs

Image  (and yes, even those in the Gabelli program)Image

 

 

but the people of London, those we met along the way.

 

 

From our experiences, it seemed almost second nature to write what we knew.  Our class discussed at length about “write what you know” and “write what you don’t know.”  For my short story, I originally decided to set my character in Reykjavik, Iceland—a place I knew nothing about.  My character was inspired by someone close to me—someone I knew much about.  Now, my short story has taken on a life of its own.  Knowledge isn’t known and unknown, it is learned and shared by everyone for all of time.        Image

We have shared knowledge with one another, with the people we’ve met, with London itself.  We will always be “in the midst of knowledge.”  This class has taught us to expand our knowledge, to talk to people, to interact with the places around us.  I am grateful for these thirty days, for the experiences we’ve had, for the friends we’ve become, the friends we’ve made, and the unforgettable experiences to come.         

The London Experience

     When it comes to writing good fiction, I think that by far the most important thing one needs is experience. True enough, grammar, structure, knowledge about plot and dialogue and planning a work of fiction are needed to create fiction that will last, but nothing is more vital than experience. Experience is what we pull from. It’s people from our lives that become our characters. It’s themes and conflicts that we ourselves (or those we know), have struggled with that become the foundations of our fiction. It’s experience which allows us to sympathize with others and simply understand things which we otherwise could not have. I have already been viciously attacked by my fellow classmates and professor for once uttering the phrase “Write about what you know,” so I won’t use those exact words this time, but I do still think that in some way we need to either have the actual experience, first hand, of what we’re writing about, or otherwise be able to empathize with people–and both of those routes involve experience.

     This is why London was so important for me. I was exposed to a history that I had not been too knowledgeable about. I saw amazing sites like Blenheim Palace, the Tower of London, and Camden Market which each had their own extraordinarily unique feelings and history. I met people; lots of people, and all with their own quirks. For instance, the blog post we had to write about the person we met featured a guy I dubbed “Big Man,” and who came directly from my own experiences at O’Niell’s the weekend before. I met dozens of people on this trip who could later become characters. For instance, and my fellow students will appreciate this reference, the lesbian bartender I met at the club Archangel who moved to England from Poland to get a job and save enough money to buy her grandma a hearing aid. She, for obvious reasons, would make a great character.

     I should say this, too. I was lucky enough to be in a group of the some of the most interesting, friendly, fun, and genuinely kind people I’ve met in a long time while on this trip. We got along so well, and really learned a lot about each other. I would never have met my fellow classmates if it wasn’t for this trip, but each one of them carries his or her own unique personality. I’m so fortunate to have met all of them, as well as our fantastic friend and Professor, Meera Nair.

     People sometimes say “you can’t make this stuff up,” when talking about something odd that actually happened. The truth is, you can make some stuff up. However, you can’t pull it out of thin air. The best fiction receives its inspiration from what the writer has experienced in some way (no matter how second-hand the experience) or can otherwise relate to. When I was walking around the streets of London, trying to navigate the night bus well past sunrise (long story), I was taking a tour of what could become a setting in some future scene I might write. This, to me, was why London was so important. It was an adventure. It was an experience.

The sacredness of words

If there ever was a temple to words, it is this, it is this, it is this … I am paraphrasing the Iranian poet Amir Khusrau’s inscription in the Shalimer Gardens in Kashmir, but I came away from the British Library feeling grateful that there were still spaces left in the world where the word was still so deified.   And deified it is in so many forms. There’s W.B Yeats rolling his R’s in his reading of Lake Isle of Innisfree, his sonorous tones as important as a church bell. Bend your ear to the headphones again and hear how thin and high (and rather silly) old James Joyce sounds, yet how glibly he pronouces all those impossible, imporabable words in Finnegan’s Wake.  Just hearing their words pronounced, their breath giving the syllables life gave me the shivers.

They were right, those unknown artists and patient monks who painstakingly tooled book covers with silver thread or decorated intricate letters with gold paint. Writing, the act of transferring thought onto paper was a true alchemical act, a magical ritual, so profound that the end result demanded ornament and ceremony so elaborate that men stayed dazzled.

Unknown

It was an ordeal once to physically create a book. Many of the original books were written on vellum, the stretched skin of  goats. The Book of Kells, Ireland’s trasure, was written with the quills of birds on skins taken from 180 goats, the blue pigments that colored the intricate drawings on the pages made by grinding shells. Not just thought and action, or worship, but the very elements of the earth went into these illuminated manuscripts. The monks of England an Ireland and Greece and Turkey and Armenia were not the only ones who toiled anonymously over their desks.  All across the ancient world the word was truly God.images

I thought of a lovely Hindu tradition in the library; it is considered incredibly disrespectful to touch a book with your foot. One is supposed to beg forgiveness of the Goddess of Learning (Saraswati) who resides in every book, by placing the fingers of the right hand on the book and then touching them on one’s forehead. It is a gesture that comes instinctively to most Hindus, the respect ingrained in the collective cultural memory.

Goddess-Saraswati-Hindu Goddess of Learning
Goddess-Saraswati-Hindu Goddess of Learning

 

We’ve come a long way—from The Mahabharata, the Bible, the Kufic Koran, the Gandharan texts, the Haggadah, the Magna Carta, texts so sacred that they were being painstakingly being written on bark, parchment or palm-leaf in rituals that are hard not to characterize as worship . And now that the centuries and their persevering scribes have blown away like so many leaves, here we are in 2014 when a tablet the size of a large man’s palm can hold up to 1,100 books, the content  of a  small library, perhaps in a country that is much poorer than England. Perhaps this ease of use, this ready availability is what makes us respect them less.

i-dont-read-books

 

 

Books Are NOT Dead – The British Library

I made my way through the British Library slowly as I tried to absorb all of the knowledge emanating throughout the exhibit. Creative geniuses filled the IMG_8626room. Innovative thinkers’ works were displayed all over. It was overwhelming, exciting, and magnanimous all at once. And what made the exhibit even more amazing was that it consisted of such a wide variety of work such as: manuscripts by SHAKESPEARE and SYLVIA PLATH, sheet music, handmade bibles, etc. I mean, where else can you view the Magna Carta and unfinished lyrics by George Harrison in the same room?

The exhibit really gave me a perspective of influential icons apart from what I learned about them in school. I saw Da Vinci’s “Ray of Incidence” sketches up close and personal, a topic that I had spent months in my Physics class mastering. It was astonishinIMG_8631g to analyze his perfect lines, the inner workings of his mind as he assembled bits of information together to construct a whole new subject that had never existed before. A model of the petri dish that Alexander Fleming used to discover penicillin was more helpful to me in understanding the process than when I had read about it in my Biology textbook my Freshman year. The objects brought these people to life in my mind, and with them, transcribed the almost fictional history (that I had merely read about) into a more tangible reality.

I spent a huge amount of time at The Beatles’ display with headphones on listening to old-school vinyl recordings of songs like “Help!” and “Yesterday” I even got a kick out of a recording of The Beatles introducing themselves to an audience on the radio. How cool was that? In one ten second clip, I was transported back to a visceral moment in time that I IMG_8630never even realized existed. There was a letter that John Lennon had written to a friend where he seems depressed and writes about “a time when everyone I love hated me.” His vulnerability is so distinct in this highly personal letter. It really struck me that although these people were great accomplishers, they experienced suffering and periods of struggle like the rest of us. Another letter from Isaac Newton captures his nervous breakdown as he writes to someone who he no longer wishes to speak to. These artifacts made these historical and highly valued people feel more accessible and more real to me afterward.

 

The British Library: Fear of Greatness

Hanif Kureishi spoke about his literary archive at the British Library in an article from The Guardian:

“My biggest terror is that it might not be well written or it is naive or daft,” he said. Then there are the people he might upset. “There might be quite a lot of ‘I hate you bitch’ material.”

Of Kureishi’s “40 diaries of personal diaries and notebooks,” we saw one diary entry among Laurence Olivier’s Macbeth Screenplay, Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” and Jane Austen’s writing desk.  Kureishi’s diary entry was one window over from manuscripts of hit songs by the Beatles.  He is surrounded by greatness, yet his greatest fears are poor writing, naiviety, and daftness?

I was not able to capture a picture of the diary entry, but I did write down the information about the display:

Diary of Hanif Kureishi

13 May 1992

The library announced its acquisition of the archive of the novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi in January 2014.  Displayed here is a diary from the collection.  In an entry fro 13 May 1992, Kureishi describes a meeting with Shabbir Akhtar, spokesperson for the Bradford council of mosques in the wake of the controversy following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988).  The entry concludes: “He’s not a template for my character. Tahir [who became Riaz in Kureishi’s 1995 novel The Black Album] will have to have more passion, more resentment, more anger–more political views.  Shabbir is rather benign now.”

The character’s name, “Tahir” is Arabic for “virtuous, pure, chaste.”  I also found that the character’s name “Karim” is Arabic for “generous, noble.”  Despite the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Kureishi’s characters stem from such honorable meanings.  So again, why such great fears of poor writing, naiviety, and daftness?  Well, even Sir Isaac Newton shared some of Kureishi’s fears.  We saw a handwritten letter Newton wrote to John Locke around 1693 during his mental breakdown.

 

Life in London

I don’t know when it first hit me. I think it was when I saw Bayswater on the tube map and realized it was where Moses from Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners lived. It definitely hit me when we walked beneath the building old enough that Shakespeare got plays approved there hundreds of years before it was called the Jerusalem Tavern and Charles Dickens went there to think. It has hit me at other times when I’ve been sitting in various London pubs, looking around at the faces of new friends in a new city, and thinking this is where Jean Rhys was when she wrote the words of Good Morning, Midnight. “That expression you get in your eyes when you are very tired and everything is like a dream and you are starting to know what things are like underneath what people say they are…”

IMG_0745

“It” is just the realization that I’m spending one month writing in a city marked by literary giants. I’m walking down streets now whose names were previously just words in a Virginia Woolf novel. I’m seeing protest posters that reflect the content of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. I’m watching Shakespeare in the Globe Theatre. “It” means I get to experience the same city and the same connection with British history that shaped the famous literary works I’ve read before.

IMG_0800

In our creative writing class we have discussed in depth how to turn life – the people we know, the places we’ve been, and the experiences we’ve had – into the characters, setting, and plot of our writing. Of course we should not just “write what we know.” But the thing that strikes me over and over again in England is that the more stories you know, the more you realize how intertwined they are. For instance, when I took a day trip to the Salisbury Cathedral, we drove through the Cotswolds and I had our previous trip as a reference point to understand the agricultural and economic history that dates back to the Middle Ages in that area. I understood what “tow paths” were because now I’ve actually been on a canal boat in London. The neo-Palladian style of architecture made sense to me because of the tour of the Chiswick House. I got to see one copy of the Magna Carta in Salisbury and then I got to see another copy of the Magna Carta at the British Library – a year ago I saw a copy of the Magna Carta in Washington DC, and each time it means more to me as a document. When I was at the Roman Baths, I felt connected to the Roman history in England because I saw Titus Andronicus on stage in London. When I saw Opus No 7 at the Barbican Theatre it meant more because theater has so much history in London and it’s still thriving as a politicized art form today. When I stood on the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, one foot in the East and one in the West, I thought how metaphorically poignant it is to see cultures colliding. My experience in London has been full of similar realizations: seeing the museum exhibits on trade with colonized nations in Africa and Asia and the Caribbean, then reading and thinking about the previously colonized races of people who have immigrated to London, then seeing them walk next to me down the street with British accents.

???????????????????????????????

Before I came to London, I thought of it as proper, royal, bleak, and boring. But being here has offered me an interaction with a history marked by Roman emperors and bloody battles, colonization and revolution, World Wars and intense political activism, literature and theater and music that has defined art in the Western world. London is full of counter culture and “outsiders”, but I’ve come to see them less as “outsiders” now. The longer I am here, the more I see how connected every story is. The colonizer is nothing without the colonized. The man is nothing without the woman. The conservative is nothing without the revolutionary. The “outsider” plays an inside role in the story of this country. And maybe it is easier to see it here because I myself am an outsider, stepping briefly into a nation that isn’t mine and viewing its history from a distant and summarized perspective. It’s remarkable nevertheless how deeply and historically all these stories are tangled together.

???????????????????????????????

I know I mentioned this in a blog post comment last week, but I feel strongly that this interconnectedness of stories is not just historical but personal. Another false assumption I previously made about my time in London was that it would be relatively solitary. I expected to spend a lot of time exploring alone and I didn’t think I would build meaningful friendships with new people in just four weeks. Instead I have grown close to all eight of my friends in the liberal arts program here, and as I’ve had the privilege of learning their stories, I realize how connected many of our stories are. At this weird and transitional point in my life, I feel like this experience has opened me up to the idea that my story is not self-contained. It does not only exist among my limited experiences or relationships, but rather stretches to encompass the experiences I’ve empathized with and the relationships of people who came before me. Even if I only ever “write what I know,” this trip has broadened my sense of knowledge and story so much that I wouldn’t run out of material.

IMG_1597

British Library

     “Da Vinci’s hand wrote that,” I said to myself. “His hand literally put that ink on that paper which I am now looking at.” I said similar things in regards to Handel, Dickens, and even T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), though he had written with a type-writer. In the British Library, it’s all there–not only under one roof, but in the same room. It’s impossible to be in that gallery, surrounded by the actual writing of people you’ve heard about your whole life, and not be in awe.

     At first I thought it was odd that all categories or writing be put into the same gallery. Why does literature not get one exhibit and history another? Or religious texts? However, I think what actually made the gallery so impressive and awe-inspiring is the fact that there was just one room (with the exception of the Magna Carta, which rightfully was set aside in an alcove). Without sounding too much like Hanna’s last post, I think that it created an incredible feeling of togetherness. History, speaking in terms of timelines, felt like it did not matter anymore; everything from the earliest copy of Beowulf to Hannif Kureishi’s manuscripts were on display at the same time in the same place. Not only did this shatter the timeline, but it shattered the categories that these works could be put in. Humanity was exposed in the history sections, history in the literature sections, and even emotion in the science sections (who would have thought!). Oliver Cromwell, known for ruthlessness, expressed a rare feeling of shame and misgiving over the thousands of irish people who were killed by his command in a letter to a peer. Sir Isaac Newton was shown going a little mad, disowning his friend (John Locke), in a personal letter.

     I could see and feel that all of this worked together. Categories have little meaning, when you think about it. Who knows what piece of art was subconsciously or consciously influencing any given political figure at any given time, and who knows what piece of art was created through inspiration found in another. Everything displayed in that gallery, really, had the potential to have a lot to do with everything else. Through it’s arrangement, the gallery transcended dates and eras and created a more universal, human experience. It was not “look how far we’ve come,” but “look at what we’ve been creating. Look at what we’ve been doing.”

The British Library

For so much of my life, I didn’t understand how essential history is to literature. I kind of looked at all art in the same way – dance, music, writing, theater, painting, etc. – as something that should be an abstract expression of life, that could just be aesthetically interesting, that could elicit emotion or a new perspective but didn’t need to invoke “history”. But in the last four or five years I really came to understand how much art draws on either historical events or current political climates to drive its narrative – and how much history can be shaped by art. We saw that with the rock and roll tour for sure: how the rage of a generation was not only captured in the music, but propelled forward by the music. History ignited art and art fueled politics.

The whimsical feeling I had in the British Library resonated with that overarching idea. There is a sense of magic in looking at manuscripts and paintings that are not only historical relics, but shaped the way art developed. Looking at the choreographic manuscript for Nijinsky’s “L’après-midi d’un faune” actually brought tears to my eyes (not ashamed) because it is a physicalization of a turning point in the ballet world… nothing was ever the same after Nijinsky. I grew up reading his autobiography and watching videos of him dancing with Rudolph Nureyev. To see the actual notation a foot in front of my face was to feel the historical weight of that ballet and the political significance of Nijinsky’s life. 

Similarly, I felt almost breathless looking at a page of Revelations from a THIRD CENTURY Bible or marveling at a ninth century copy of the Torah, a fourteenth century copy of the Qur’an. It isn’t just paper, it’s further evidence that as long as humans have been around we’ve been seeking connection with the divine, a way to form creed and community and put it all on paper. It seems to me that in those moments history becomes art. When I was standing at Stonehenge, I thought that I had never seen something so beautiful from so many angles… it feels like art, even though it wasn’t created to be art.

We were asked to look at the Shakespeare documents in the library and I think those are perfect examples of a place where history and art are inseparable. So many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on monarchs and political conflict. They are history plays, but they are undoubtedly part of history too. Hundreds of years later, writers like Hanif Kureishi are doing the same thing. His writings are based on a history of immigration and an experience of living between two ancient worlds (India and Britain). At the same time, his writings are shaping the portrayal of Indians in Britain today.

Sorry if I’m talking in circles, but it feels very circular to me. Art is undeniably political and therefore draws on history. But there is something artistic about history, and that’s where I can’t put my finger on it. It’s just this mystical quality… a feeling of awe when you stand in a room with pieces of paper that changed the world as long as eighteen centuries ago. It feels like art to me.

Homelessness in Britian

“Vicky has never been behind with the rent or had a complaint against her – she was asked to leave because she is on housing benefit…

“I was bit shocked,” she says. “I kind of thought that if you’ve treated the property well and you’ve paid your rent, I couldn’t see what the problem would be. I think I deserve better.”

Her landlord thinks it makes straightforward economic sense. Fergus Wilson owns 1,000 properties in the South East and decided to evict 200 tenants who were on housing benefit, because he thought they were at greater risk of defaulting.

“We are in business to make money. We are not a charity. If we went to the other extreme of having 100% people on benefits then we would go pop because of the default rate,” he says.

“We’ve had a moral responsibility for a number of years, but it’s just reached such a point that we cannot continue.”

Vicky found another place to rent, but says it has been a brutal experience. “It just feels so unfair that in this day and age the rug can be pulled out from your feet like this,” she says.

Low-income families are being hit by a combination of factors: cuts to welfare payments, rising rents and a shortage of social housing. And some are just falling through the gap.”

More here:

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0483md8/panorama-britains-homeless-families

and here: Homelessness in Britain

 

I started thinking about all your posts and comments about Notting Hill when i saw bits of  this program yesterday on TV.  Most of you wrote and thought about gentrification, landlordism and the impact of history in hobbling populations and this link seemed pertinent to all the issues we’ve been talking about.

Plot Exercise: Ara and Noah

One early morning, when Ara Haver was fifteen, she decided to wander down by the docks.  It was unusually warm for autumn, but Ara didn’t mind.  She needed the sun.  The fishermen were just about ready to cast off when an older boy on a boat looked in her direction.  She barely saw his glance through his sandy hair.

“You want to come?” he smiled.

“I hate fish,” Ara coldly replied.

“You’re from Iceland, everyone here loves fish, hop on,” he reached for her hand.

“What if I’m not from Reykjavik?” Ara retorted.

“What if this is just a dream?” the strange boy remarked, his arm still within grasp.

Reluctantly, Ara jumped.  The fishy smell reminded her of gruel.  “Noah Kesten, by the way,” the older boy finally said, “And your name is?”

“Ara,” she held her nose.  The boat smelled like her childhood fear of failure.  She hoped that the sea might smell more like success.  Noah talked with confidence, despite the mop of hair on his head.  Ara needed confidence, more than she needed sun.  By the time they were away from the mainland, Noah caught one twelve foot net full of flopping seafood while Ara learned to sharpen spears.  She was on spear number eight when Noah began cooking a freshly caught salmon.

She observed him turning the creature over on the roast.  Then, in disgust, she watched him turn the crunchy fish over in his mouth, until the lump went down his throat the wrong way.  He fisted his gut upward with no success.  A silver ring and a plastic straw appeared in front of Ara.  She felt like she was dreaming.  She wasn’t sure if it was magic or she just happened to see more clearly.  She took spear number eight and somehow knew to make a small incision near Noah’s chest cavity.  As the salmon bone shot up, Ara used the silver ring as a barrier for Noah’s pale skin and inserted the straw.  Ara didn’t wake up.  This wasn’t a dream.  Noah started breathing and Ara realized she wanted to be a doctor.

Plot Exercise: Squirrels and Bears and Summer Camp

It was the middle of a sweltering hot July morning. As Liz trudged across camp to the run-down dance studio near the lake, the sun beat down on her stinging her arms and legs. Her summer job as a camp choreographer in the Poconos was more trouble than the minimum wage salary was worth. Day after day, the annoying campers ran into the studio, stomping and shrieking. And day after day, Liz stumbled back to her bunk with a massive migraine. These kids were nuts! Finally, she decided that enough was enough!

Liz burst through the studio, letting the creaky wooden door swing shut behind her. It rattled on its hinge as it closed, separating her from the rowdy eleven year olds. She started to trudge towards the main office when a giant Grizzly bear crept out from behind the abandoned arts and crafts cabin, startling her!

Liz looked up and clamped her hands over her face. She turned to warn the campers but tripped and collapsed onto the ground right in front of the studio. Liz slowly turned and heard a scraping sound as she shifted some gravel with the side of her head. She felt grimy. Stretching, she saw the bear show its yellow pointy teeth. It looked at her straight on and beat the air with its huge black paw. “Holy shit! Not the campers!” Liz gasped. The bear edged closer to where she lay. The ground shook every time it shifted its weight onto another hind leg. Liz felt a drop of sweat roll down the back of her neck, and a feverish chill shot down her spine. Her hands were clammy, and she was frozen with terror. “I have to make it leave,” she thought. “One… Two… Three,” she silently counted. She once read that it was imperative to not move during a close encounter with a bear. “Four,” she continued. The bear was intently staring at her as it crawled forward. Why wasn’t he turning away yet? “Five,” she thought in a frenzy. It was all she could do to stay calm. The bear stopped, and all was silent for a moment. Liz trembled and prayed. “Please, God. Don’t let me die in this hell hole!” she passionately pleaded. The beast was right in front of her. His black beady eyes watched her, poising himself for the attack.

 Liz panicked and let out a bloodcurdling scream. Then, the bear growled ferociously and whipped at the air twice. Liz twisted and managed to scramble a few inches to the side. “I’m going to die. I’m going to DIE!” she repeated constantly and louder each time. All of a sudden, a twitchy little red squirrel appeared next to her. It held a silver whistle in its two tiny paws. The squirrel handed the whistle to Liz and said, “Quick, this will protect you!” in a small squeaky voice. Liz blinked a few times, completely at a loss for words. Was there really a talking squirrel in front of her? Had she lost her mind? Liz had no time to analyze the trippy situation at hand. She yanked the whistle and blew into it repeatedly. The bear abruptly stopped and covered its ears. Still in a dizzy panic, she kept whistling. The bear turned around and took a step. “It’s working,” she thought still in a daze. A few more whistles. The bear was gone.

The campers who had been watching the whole time from the windows ran out to meet her. Liz stood up, dusting the dirt off of her. She pocketed the whistle and took several deep breaths to steady herself. The head camp counselor, Rick, sprinted over to check on them. “I was on my way to let you off your shift,” he wheezed struggling to catch his breath. “That was amazing, girl!” he announced. Liz thanked him and felt her knees buckle. Some of the campers anxiously screamed, but Rick caught her. He helped her sit back down. “Just rest, Liz, “ he said. “The medics are on their way, and the patrol will be here any minute. The bear jumped into the lake and swam in the opposite direction. You’re safe now. And you’ve saved all of your campers. Well done! I’m promoting you to a full time camp manager,” he announced. The campers cheered in unison. Liz wildly laughed and then began to cry. Rick hugged her, reassuring her again that the camp was safe now. As the tears streamed down her face, Liz thought, “How will I ever quit now?”

Notting Hill: Black History Walk

Our tour guide, Tony, began with an explanation about the ways in which our Western culture is grounded in African tradition, art, and resources. For example, the obelisks which are revered as great monuments in countries such as France, England, and the United States are copies of the 3,500 year old Egyptian design. The sugar in Western foods like pastries and the beans we use for coffee have historically been imported from colonized nations all over the world, including Africa and the Caribbean (where African slaves tended these crops).

While globalization has led to a sharing of cultures which is not always a bad thing; this history is marked by colonization, enslavement, ravaging of other people’s resources, and poverty. It is absolutely essential that we not only recognize this oppression, but recognize that it is still affecting the economies of previously colonized nations and the lives of immigrant populations and their descendants today. There are endless reparations to be made.

I was very happy to hear Tony talk about this history, because it is not something we are culturally conscious of. Haiti is close to my heart and its history is one ravaged by this oppression: colonized by the French, filled with enslaved Africans who exported sugar and coffee, successful in a slave revolution which earned Haiti its independence, but treated with so much racism that Western nations refused to trade with Haiti and it was plummeted into poverty. Later on in the tour he discussed resources we are still taking from previously colonized nations: cocoa and gold from Ghana and Ivory Coast, asphalt from Trinidad, tea from Kenya, etc. These nations are rich with natural resources but made poor by Western oppression.

???????????????????????????????T

The attitude of superiority toward races of colonized nations was translated directly to immigrant populations which became racial minorities in London. This racism was overt in many places, the classroom being one of them. Even until the 1980s, public schools had ESN classes (“Educationally Subnormal” classes) specifically for students with accents or darker than white complexions. These students’ names were replaced with racial slurs by their teachers and many struggled simply because they were mistreated and degraded in the classroom. Many communities of racial minorities organized their own “Saturday Schools” to combat the poor education their children received at public school.

The racism did not stop with institutions. From the 1970s all the way up until the 1990s, racial slurs were painted on the doorways of black families’ homes and feces was slid through their mail slots. Even today this is not discussed in Britain’s schools. Because there were not laws that segregated races (like the Jim Crow laws did in the US) and because there was not a sanctioned Civil Rights Movement, Britain’s textbooks pretend segregation and violent racism did not exist. But the movement against racism was a powerful one, rooted in organizations like the Black Power group who met to organize squat houses, take a stand against police brutality, fight for better education and housing. These meetings were attended by people like Marvin Gaye, Angela Davis, Diana Ross, Muhammad Ali, Bob Marley, and even Malcolm X.

???????????????????????????????

This is an example of a house which would have been divided into rooms rented to immigrants. Landlords continued to diminish the spaces they would rent to racial minorities (even saying that they could only rent one bed) but jacked the prices each time. When immigrants tried to buy their own properties and rent out to other racial minorities at more reasonable prices, they were told they couldn’t get loans from the banks – so they organized their own banking system.

It wasn’t just the school system, the housing system, or the banking system that discriminated against people of color. Even the Church of England was disgustingly racist. It went as far as to enslave people in the Caribbean so it could use the profits to pay white missionaries who traveled to Africa in an effort to convert “heathens.” This represents every kind of oppression… racial, economic, cultural, and religious. While public apologies have since been made, there have been no economic reparations of any kind.

???????????????????????????????

This small orange building was the center of resistance against all this racism. Baron Bacon, a former RAF member, organized protesters who met in this space. Abused by white people who would go “n*gger/coon/paki hunting,” they fought back. Today, these violent exchanges are referred to as the Notting Hill Riots despite the fact that they existed as an act of self-defense.

 

We live today in a deluded culture which many people assume is “post-racial.” There is no such thing. Acts of racism can be internalized (on a subconscious level that may manifest itself in microaggressions toward a minority), personally mediated (on a conscious level that may manifest itself in outright prejudice and discrimination), or institutionalized (on a systematic level that may manifest itself by ignoring the history of racism that is still affecting minorities today). All three of these levels can be seen in The Buddha of Suburbia. Karim experiences internalized racism from people who befriend him only to exoticize or objectify him. He experiences personally mediated racism from people who refer to him with racial slurs and physically assault him out of racist hatred. And he experiences institutionalized racism at school and in the work place. It was especially poignant to experience a walk through the history of racism in England having read about a character whose life was so defined by it.

Black History Walk: Neighborhoods & Communities

One aspect of our Black History walk through the Portobello Road area that struck me was when our tour guide, Tony, discussed the living conditions of Black people in London at the time. As I glanced around at the beautiful multicolored English homes, it was difficult IMG_8257for me to process the idea that residences in this area once had tenants crammed into small overcrowded rooms for exorbitant prices. “Imagine that this was your house that you bought for a couple thousand pounds,” Tony said pointing over to me. He went on to portray what my life would be as a homeowner at the time. In the 60s and 70s when huge waves of immigrants were coming into the city of London, I would have found it increasingly profitable to be a landowner. When prices increased drastically in those times, the best choice would have been to increase rents and force more people into these apartments.

Being that racism and discrimination were emphasized towards Black individuals IMG_8251coming into the city, culturally distinct communities were created indirectly. Black immigrants (who mostly came from the Caribbean) were turned down by English landlords and were essentially forced into lower income neighborhoods. Tony explained that due to racist sentiments, white residences in those areas immediately sold their houses to find more homogenous neighborhoods. This movement, in turn, allowed blaIMG_8241ck families to spread news of these houses for sale to other black families. There wasn’t much of a market and prices had skyrocketed, so these opportunities were rarely turned down. Families would let friends stay with them for a price (or in exchange for helping with renovations). Therefore, these neighborhoods soon consisted of predominantly Caribbean natives. They brought their food and culture with them into these areas, creating businesses that reflected the needs of these Caribbean immigrants.

It’s interesting how, today, London still has unbelievably high costs of living. The IMG_8212neighborhood surrounding Portobello Road is no longer predominantly black or a target for lower income families, but it has become this mecca of gorgeous large houses. The old worn-down houses have been destroyed, and new pristine ones have replaced them. Passing by a local real estate office, we noticed that the neighborhood has undergone a lot of gentrification. Black individuals who have now grown up in these neighborhoods and had witnessed the whole process do take steps to preserve the culture of these towns with plaques, meeting groups, IMG_8258documentaries, and even the Black History walk that we took part in. To them, they are struggling against a society that has begun to forget their struggle from back then. They constantly work towards keeping the history of this neighborhood relevant in today’s society.

So I guess the questions that I’m left with (even after our large discussion from today’s class) are: Is gentrification a necessary step in urban revitalization? AND Is there a “right” way to bring in new residences to avoid having gentrification be a negative trend?IMG_8217