Sylvia Arthur is a narrative nonfiction writer from the U.K. She has written for Clutch magazine, The Guardian, the BBC and News Africa magazine. She is currently working on a book of interconnected essays called African and Other Curse Words.
Fem: In the reading you gave for your upcoming work African, & Other Curse Words, you talk about your experience as a black woman from the U.K. living in Brussels. You say, “If I said I was British, they would say I was African. If I said I was African, they would question why I spoke English, why I spoke it with an English accent, and why I spoke it so fluently.” Can you talk a little bit about that feeling of not really belonging to any of the categories people had for you?
Sylvia Arthur: It’s not so much about not belonging as not being accepted. I think they’re two interrelated but slightly different things. I belong to all of those categories, but people wanted to pigeonhole me into one, reducing me to something they could easily understand rather than trying to comprehend the complexity of who I am. But belonging has as much to do with the internal as the external. I know what I am, who I am, and where I belong, yet it’s so frustrating to tell the truth and be consistently interrogated, which is when you start doubting yourself and what you know to be true. It’s not only frustrating, it’s disorientating, infuriating, and nauseating. It’s like emotional waterboarding. I am Black British, or British Ghanaian, or Ghanaian British. I see no contradiction in that, but the Europeans I encountered just wouldn’t, or couldn’t, accept that.
The writer, Taiye Selasie talks about being multi-local when it comes to identity and that’s something I can relate to. I feel very much a Londoner as opposed to English or even British. I feel local in multiple locations. Ironically, though, it’s this kind of thinking that’s part of the problem when it comes to the European project and the attempt, half-hearted though it is, to create a single European identity, which really means conforming to a Western European identity rather than creating a new pan-European identity with multiple influences. I belong wherever I decide to belong, but whether or not I’m accepted there, or feel welcome, has a definite impact on one’s sense of belonging. It’s this space between belonging and acceptance, between the internal and the external that I try to explore and excavate in my writing.
F: You speak a lot in your recent work about the way words such as “African” or “Mexican”—which originally just referred to someone’s nationality—have become insults, like when a boy at school called you “African” as a slur. What do you think is the best way forward with these words? Do we reclaim them, or do we need new words?
SA: We need to reclaim them. We need to preserve the integrity of the language in our everyday discourse, in the media, in political debate, and in literature and the arts. We need to liberate language and ourselves by asserting our right to be called by our names. Nobody should be ashamed to say that they are what they are, especially not because the terms have been hijacked for political ends.
An example of this reclaiming is the use of the ‘N’ word. Whether or not I personally agree with it’s use, it’s been reappropriated by the hip-hop generation and everyone from A Tribe Called Quest to Kendrick Lamar have stated on record why they use it and what its use means to them. But although that’s slightly different in that they’ve taken a word that was originally meant as a slur and embraced it, the spirit is the same. Once we start going back to the true meanings of the words and celebrating them rather than being ashamed of them, then we’ll all be better off. Being African (I’m purposely using that generic term as opposed to specifying a particular African nationality), or Mexican, or Polish, or Bulgarian should have no value in and of itself other than as a denotation of nationality but, sadly, the weight of these terms have become relative and their equivalence isn’t always the same.
F: In your interview for KSFR Radio Cafe, you talk about what you call Europe’s “existential crisis” over the past few years especially in light of the recent refugee crisis. You discuss the way Europe is no longer the political and economic power it once was, and the way we tend to use “Europe” to refer to Western Europe only. How do you think the recent flux of Syrian refugees has affected that crisis?
SA: Before the refugee crisis, there was already tension with internal migration within the European Union, particularly from Eastern Europe to the more prosperous West. This has caused a lot of friction in what are called the receiving countries and within the European Union itself, and has shown how little Europeans know each other, or want to get to know each other. The wonderful Polish writer, Andrzej Stasiuk writes about this in his book, Fado. He recounts how he and a Ukrainian writer were on a book promotion tour somewhere in Western Europe and they could tell the audience anything they liked about living in the East, however fantastical, and they believed it, so ignorant were they about the East. This is where the existential crisis exists: as the European Union has grown to include more members, it demands conformity even as it diversifies. As Stasiuk writes, “They want us to become them, but they don’t want to become us.” He writes of Western Europe seeing Eastern Europeans as a “threat.”
In one of my essays I talk about what I call “the hierarchy of Europeanness.” It’s kind of a play on George Orwell’s classic line from Animal Farm: “All Europeans are equal, but some Europeans are more equal than others.” Eastern Europeans are seen as less European or civilised than Western Europeans, who are seen as more European and more civilised than Southern Europeans, and so on. This sentiment can be applied to almost any minoritized groups anywhere, whether it’s the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States, the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa, or the refugee crisis currently affecting Europe.
The recent flux of Syrian refugees has merely added another outer layer to the hierarchy, but the main thing it’s done is that it’s exposed for the world to see what we in Europe already knew—that Europe is more divided than united.
F: In your essay “#BlackLivesMatter in Europe’s Refugee Crisis” for For Harriet, you make the argument that because many Syrian immigrants have fair complexions similar to white Europeans, Europe has been more eager to accept them than their African counterparts. What do you think needs to change for Europe to recognize African refugees in a similar way?
SA: I wouldn’t say more eager. They’re definitely not “eager” to accept refugees of any kind, Syrian or otherwise. As I say in my SFAI 140 talk, it’s a grudging acceptance as opposed to an outright rejection, which is what many African refugees receive. It’s not only that they have fair complexions; it’s much broader than that, although their physical proximity to whiteness helps Europeans to empathise with their plight more. What it boils down to, fundamentally, is the denial of black people’s humanity. We’ve all seen the unequivocal public outrage surrounding the killings of Cecil the lion and, more recently, Harambe the gorilla, but when it comes to the murders of unarmed black children like Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, suddenly that’s open to debate. Why?
What needs to change? Empathy. We really need to ask ourselves why we believe that African refugees, so-called “economic migrants,” don’t deserve to live the same safe, free lives that we, by-and-large, do.
Studies have shown that there’s a widespread belief among certain groups that black people don’t feel pain in the same way as Caucasians. People seem to think that those of African descent are either genetically predisposed to suffering, or they’ve become inured to pain, hunger, poverty, and hardship. Until we stop believing that people of African descent are either subhuman or superhuman, until we broaden our social circles to include people who are different from us, until we tell and be open to receiving new stories that show black people in a different light, then, I fear, nothing will change.
F: In Kindred Spirits, you mention the BBB rule used by Belgian recruiters to refer to those who are “blanc, bleu, belge“ that they would prefer to employ over immigrants. When was the first time you encountered that term and what was your reaction?
SA: The first time I encountered the term was in a Flemish newspaper that reported the findings of either a survey or an exposé that revealed that recruiters were routinely using BBB to signify that an employer only wanted to be sent white Belgians for interview and, suddenly, it all made sense. The impact of the BBB rule can be seen everywhere in Brussels—on the streets, in the education system, in housing, and in the labour market. So, although it wasn’t a shock, it kind of validated what I thought I knew.
The term was never personally applied to me (I don’t think!) because I found work outside the recruitment / temp agency system as I had skills, particularly language skills, that were in demand. It’s what I call in one essay “my perverse ancestral luck” because, as a native English speaker whose people happened to be colonised by the British, I had an advantage over my Belgian-born, French-speaking first- and second-generation peers. I was able to access job opportunities that they were unable to because I spoke English even though they spoke the same language and shared a colonial history with those with the power to give them work.
F: What writers and books have you read recently that excited you?
SA: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert really resonated with me and gave me the boost I needed to persevere with my writing. The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum showed me what it means to write an honest, coming-of-age memoir in essay form when you’re in, or fast approaching, middle age. I love almost anything by Rebecca Solnit, but The Faraway Nearby, which I first read earlier this year, was so moving and beautifully written that it hurt to read.