Touchdown, London. 4 months and 2 theatre projects since leaving this year of travel behind me, and I’m once again sat in front of a blank screen trying to tie the past to the future and understand how they relate.
The honest truth is, I’m waiting for time to firm a few things up before I tinker around in my memories from this year. It’s all still too raw to look at very closely.
Running in silent parallel to so many of these entries was a somewhat protracted personal trauma in the form of an unexpected heartbreak that shaped and affected much of my experience of the year. I don’t know where that fits in with all of this, I still don’t know if it’s perfectly appropriate or utterly inappropriate to even mention it here. Coming back to London after Rwanda, I sobbed for myself and the enormity of the pain I felt, as well for the CRC boys and the unfathomable intensity of their pain which I would never fully understand. When my own relatively insignificant tragedy was already so unbearable, what could my friend Peter and the boys have possibly been through? I found myself on my hands and knees, vomiting grief in uncontrollable sonorous waves of tears, accompanied by my illogical yet heartfelt plea – “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.” I had no idea what exactly I was sorry about, but all I could do was repeat those words. Sorry for not being strong enough to bear my very small cross? Sorry for Peter? Sorry for not being Peter? Sorry for being part of a world where his level of suffering is possible? Sorry for disappointing the people I loved, for inadvertently contributing to all of this, in my own way… The lines between who I was crying for and when and why became so blurred in the end that I finally stopped seeing “my pain” and “their pain” as separate things.
Pain is shared as joy is shared. In some sense, some part of me sought out this years’ entire amazing and difficult experience when I headed off to “connect with ex-combatants”. Connect with pain, connect with trauma, and connect, finally, with healing. I’m not claiming to be any closer to understanding the experience of war. Some things I will never understand unless I live them; perhaps the closest I’ve come to understanding is having learned enough to realize that I should be grateful that I don’t. But I do think we are all intimately connected with humanity’s collective joy and grief in a way that we rarely allow ourselves to acknowledge. A part of me worries that this blog (or any ‘professional’ face of this project) isn’t the right place to air these very personal and—let’s face it—self-involved musings. Vivienne Franzmann has an interesting monologue which I think points to this fear (which is prevalent among artists who address difficult narratives outside of their own experience) in her play ‘The Witness’ in which the protagonist is Alex, a Rwandan-born woman raised in Britain after escaping the genocide as an infant:
The next day, I had this lecture and Dr. Kalmar put up a slide of Botticceli’s Madonna and Child and he made some connection with contemporary photojournalism and when he put up the next slide, it was yours. One minute, I’m trying to find my mobile, because Dr. Kalmar goes ballistic if anyone’s phone rings and I’m cursing having such a big bloody bag and laughing with this boy Stuart and the next, I look up and there it is, filling the whole wall. And I feel like I’m going to faint or puke. And the whole time Dr. Kalmar’s talking, I’m worrying in case I do because it would be so embarrassing. And I’m trying to work out which would be more embarrassing, puking or fainting, and I’m trying not to look at the photo, but trying to look as if I am and trying not to look like I’m about to faint or puke and then Dr. Kalmar stops talking. It’s all quiet apart from this noise at the back of the lecture theatre. Someone’s crying. And it gets louder and louder and I look round and it’s this girl from Surrey who’s in my seminar group and she’s crying. And by now the girl is hysterical, and one of her friends is helping her out of the hall. And I stand up to leave, but I go all dizzy and fall onto Stuart. Then Dr. Kalmar looks at me, turns the projector off, makes a joke about mass hysteria and cancels the lecture. Afterwards, I’d arranged to meet Jen and I see the girl, the crying girl, in the bar and I go up and see if she’s okay, because I feel bad for her, you know, responsible. I know it’s stupid but… And when I ask her if she feels better, she says she’s fine, that she’s having a bad day, that she’s split up with her boyfriend and is gutted because she loves him. She says the photo made her feel awful, stirred something up and she says she’s embarrassed, but laughs and says it was cathartic. Cathartic. That’s what she says. (Beat.) She was crying because she’d split up with her boyfriend. She looked at the photo and it made her think of what she’d lost. In that photo, I’m screaming for my dead mother on a pile of bloody corpses and that bitch is crying about her fucking boyfriend.
There’s a lot to unpack in this monologue, and indeed in the whole play, which is about a British war journalist who made ethically questionable choices in order to capture the most dramatically compelling photos of the genocide. What’s most interesting perhaps is that ‘Alex’ is Franzmaan’s creation, these are issues that Franzmann is grappling with, as a playwright from Walthamstow creating a dramatically compelling play about a Rwandan-British character.
Like I said, I understand this concern, part of me shares it. But a larger part of me thinks that once you get beyond the initial curiosity of the objectify-someone-for-their-
intense-experiences stage, and you get to friendship, compassion, empathy, and love, then all of these perhaps more superficial questions melt into irrelevance. If you love someone, you won’t question whether or not you’re objectifying their story or using their pain for catharsis. Love and connection don’t work that way. If you love someone, then their story becomes inexorably linked with yours, and you tell them and mourn them and celebrate them both together.
A dear friend in London found out about the death of a family member during a rehearsal this summer, where 3 of her closest friends were with her. We all chanted that day, we all cried, we all sat for hours holding one another. Was it cathartic? Surely. Did we all cry for our own individual reasons? Without a doubt. But we cried for her too, and for one another, and for everyone we’ve ever loved. We all understood all of this, there was a complicity that day, a permission.