Which migrant is grateful for his or her displacement? And to whom? To no one, says Moscow based artist Ira Konyukhova, who devotes her practice to undermining and understanding social constructions of colonial oppression. With glazed ceramics titled “Thankful Migrants”, Konyukhova explores the etymological and ontological weight of a border. It may be ridiculous to compare personal and national boundaries. But what is a personal boundary? Where is it to be located? A meter away from another body, or a kilometer? Koyunkhova caresses the ephemeral, invisible, illusory ways humans trace divisions. In the same way, she condemns the transitivity, mortality and irrationality of the war and forced displacement.
What is it like to lose your country?
It is funny in a dark way that in 2019, when I wrote How to Lose a Country, I was asked this question several times, and today, many more millions can answer this question even if they are living in their own country. Millions of British after Brexit, millions of Americans after Trump’s victory know the answer to this question, and now millions of European countries feel the same after Russia attacked Ukraine. On a broader scale, we are losing our home, the planet. We also lose what belonged to the 20th Century, which is a different layer of homelessness. Perhaps this century is the century of homelessness, the age of void and floating.
How would you describe the pain and confusion that follows from it?
The body becomes a stammering, stumbling creature. Every small daily action is prolonged. The careless comfort of knowing your surroundings are replaced by the necessity to premeditate every act. Homelessness is a constant discomfort, a deep giddiness that lessens every possible joy. The instant that chocolate reminds you of the bad tooth - that is homelessness at its best.
What helps against the pain and confusion?
The momentary homes of the traveler, I call them. The intimate conversations where you learn about a host’s weakness, that moment of sharing builds the momentary homes, and that is where the souls of the homeless rest. But I came to this point after five years. The first five years were like, “There is no pain, Rocky!” Work, work, work. I worked so hard that there were times I forgot which floor I was living on in Zagreb. Perhaps there is always the mea culpa part of the story for those who left home, and my self-beating came in the form of excessive working.
When you are terrified, the self gives birth to a second self that consoles you. We are all crowded beings, and our fears can bring out the best in us if we are not afraid of them.
What is the role of fear?
It is in the center. That is why I had to come up with “befriending our fears” in Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World, a sober conversation with fear and embracing your fearful self. I thought we all needed new strategies for dealing with this overarching emotion in the 21st Century. The first time I thought about this was in Beirut. I was alone in a pretty insecure environment, and I heard an inner voice that said, “Don’t be afraid.” When you are terrified, the self gives birth to a second self that consoles you. We are all crowded beings, and our fears can bring out the best in us if we are not afraid of them.
Can we use these emotions in a positive way?
If you mean positive as the opposite of negative in terms of the social results of fear - hostility, violence, xenophobia - then I guess it takes much patience to steer the wheel towards a place where the fear creates not these horrors but genuine curiosity. Curiosity has become an explosive matter since political correctness has become a thing. But when asking questions is considered immoral, the idiotic assumptions of the fearful crowds create violence. So how can we turn fear into curiosity for society? That is one of the questions I keep asking.
Is there a new sensitivity to being a stranger?
I can go on with The Doors song, “People are strange when you’re a stranger,” which is true. But there is a liberating part of the story, not for the stranger but for the local, the host. This has been an ongoing theme in my life. Wherever I go, people tell me their most secretive stories. Knowing that I’ll be gone soon makes them feel secure, and these interactions turn me into the black box of humanity. When humankind crashes, they can crack me and hear all the untold stories ☺ Jokes aside, the sensitivity increases. It is like being without skin when you feel unwelcome. You feel fragile.
The white men are still the moody adolescent, and unfortunately, they are running the show.
Can we build, in some way, on this experience of loss?
Once Camus said that all writers are exiles. We have already been building the extract of humanity, the literature, on this exile experience, if that is true. If nothing is lost, there is no story. The story needs something to look for at the end. But then nowadays I am thinking about another question: can there be a story without going back home? All the archaic stories, the myths, the divine stories are built on the hero / heroine or the narrator going back home. The story is told back home. It is only Buddha who didn’t return but sent his disciples. That makes me think about whether we all tell stories to be heard back home.
Is there a new language of belonging that can help guide us in the 21st century?
Good question. Humanity doesn’t improve much, as we all know. Or maybe I should say we don’t truly get mature. The white man is still the moody adolescent, and unfortunately, they are running the show. Also, we have these world leaders whom we wouldn’t turn to in our darkest hour as a friend. Who would want such self-obsessed friends, right? Maybe, in the end, we all will end up with the momentary homes I mentioned earlier. Friendship perhaps will become our sole home.
Ece Temelkuran is a novelist and political thinker. She has joined THE NEW INSTITUTE as an Elkana Fellow.