Dignity is essential. It means we are viewed by the other as a human being : an interview with Alice Cherki

A recent black and white photograph of Alice Cherki, sitting at a table, smiling.

Alice Cherki

ALICE CHERKI is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and author. Born in Algiers, 1936. She knew Frantz Fanon well, working by his side in Algeria and Tunisia as a psychiatrist, and sharing his political commitment during the war of independence in Algeria.

Alice Cherki has lived in France since 1965. She is co-author of the books, Retour à Lacan (Fayard, 1981) and Les Juifs d’Algérie (Editions du Scribe, 1987), and author of La frontière invisible (Editions des Crépuscules, 2009) Frantz Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2000) translated into English by Nadia Benabid and published as Frantz Fanon: A Portrait (Cornell University Press, 2006) and Mémoire anachronique (Editions De L’aube, 2016).

Gaele Sobott: Can you talk a little about the history of your family, your place of birth and your childhood?

Alice Cherki: I was born in a family of Jewish Algerians who were in Algeria since the Romans or before the Romans. My parents were born in the small towns of Medea and Ksar Bukhari but they met in Algiers. I was born and I lived in Algiers. I am Algerian, voilà!

Some of my family are Jewish Berbers.

GS: Were there Jews in Algeria before the Arabs?

AC: Yes, the majority were there well before. Some came later in 1492 from Spain through Morocco, others from Italy, and then Alsatian Jews, but at that point it was already colonial Algeria.  Many of those left again and went elsewhere. But most of the Jews of Algeria had been there for a very, very, very long. Some of them were Berbers who converted to Judaism. I belong to that history.

GS: Did you speak Arabic?

AC: Very little. I’m not very good at languages. I come from the same environment as Derrida. at school, we learnt Latin and Greek.

GS: Did you know Derrida?

AC: I knew Derrida very well. He was eight or nine years older than me and that represents a big difference but yes I knew Derrida well.

Like Hélène Cixous and Derrida, my childhood was marked by the Vichy anti-Jewish legislation which excluded Jews born in Algeria, denied us French nationality, the right to go to school, the right for Jews to work in government administration. This was hugely traumatic for me as a child.

One Christmas, I was 4 or 5 years old, my teacher said, “Tell your mother that after the break you must not come to school anymore.”

When I asked her the reason, the only answer I got was, “It’s because you’re Jewish.”

I didn’t know what that meant.  So, I gathered my courage and asked, “What’s Jewish?”

She replied, “It’s you with your big eyes, big mouth and big ears.”

Each of us, as Derrida also relates, was excluded from school, our parents could no longer work.

GS: How has this experience affected your adult life?

AC: It opened my eyes to the injustices of the world in which we live; a world marked by colonial ideology.  In Algiers in the 1950s, there was no intersection between Europeans, the Jews and Arabs –  the so-called natives. I didn’t experience it at home but we were caught up in all that. I talk about it a little in my book, Mémoire anachronique.  Everyone lived in their own sphere. Some of us would meet each other outside these spheres.

During my early years at primary school there was no mixing at all. In Grade 6, there were some girls; Rachida, Malika.  For the whole of my secondary schooling I only knew of one Algerian woman student even though my school was not the most snobbish high school in Algiers.

GS: It was the same principle as Apartheid?

AC: The same principle except that it was more camouflaged. Algerians were contained in their own neighbourhoods. Even the bourgeois had their areas. The Algerians passed like shadows in the European neighbourhoods

GS: What area of Algiers did you live in?

AC: I first lived on the border of a working-class suburb, near the boys’ school, known then as Lycée Bugeaud, now it’s called Lycée Abdel Kader. Later, at the age of 17, we moved to Central Boulevard in Hydra. Our house was on a piece of land owned by my uncle –  my father’s brother, my father’s sister, and my father. After some years, they managed to build a three-storey house there for the three families.

GS: What did your father do for a living?

AC: My father traded in cereal. He carried out transactions with farmers for the export and import of chickpeas and lentils.

GS: How did your interest in psychiatry come about?

AC: Firstly, it was a struggle for me as a woman to study. After I passed my baccalaureate, even though I was from the middle-class, it was not usual for women to continue their education. Women were expected to marry and so on. I had an older brother and a younger brother and was the only girl. Neither of my parents continued their studies. My father, a brilliant student, was pulled out of school at age16 by his father. He was the eldest of ten children There were two or three girls before him so he had to work. I believe my mother chose to leave school to get married. When she met my father, she dropped out.

My parents were both very intelligent and relatively progressive. My father spoke Arabic, but they did not have a higher education.

I already had a certain outlook on society and I was more inclined towards literature. I wasn’t a good student and had never received any awards for excellence. I was impertinent and people always told me I would make an excellent actress. With no one to advise me, in those days, if I had decided I wanted to be an actress, it would have been worse than deciding to be a prostitute. Having said that, I did later have the luck to meet many people who became involved in theatre.

So, I found myself first in hypokhâgne and then khâgne. You know what they are?

GS: No.

AC: Preparatory literary classes for the grandes écoles. The equivalent also exists in the scientific field. I was interested in studying philosophy but decided that would mean cutting myself off from the real world. I made up my mind that I wanted to be useful so I chose to study medicine. But very soon I realized medicine didn’t meet my needs. It was all about identifying symptoms and responding with treatments. I remember a teacher saying, “But Mademoiselle, you ask too many questions.”

We never say, “Why” in medicine. Instead we talk about, “How to fix it.”

So, I was part of two cultures; one of interest for human beings and their psyche, and the other a group culture which stemmed from my medical studies.

GS: Were there other women you knew of who were studying medicine then?

AC: There were a few, but they were a definite minority.

There was a saying that summarized the situation quite well. It relates to sitting the intern examination:

If you are white, European and male, you have an 80% chance of sitting the exam. If you are female and European, you have a 60% chance. If you are Jewish and male, you have a 50% chance. If you are female and Jewish, you have a 25% chance. If you are Muslim and male, you have a 10% chance. As for being Muslim and a woman, you are not even mentioned because you just don’t get the opportunity.

Some managed to study medicine or become trainees but none got to sit the intern examination, voilà!

GS: When did you meet Fanon for the first time?

AC: I was part of a youth movement called AJASS (Association of Algerian Youth for Social Action) and Fanon was invited to give a lecture by a friend of mine, Pierre Chaulet, who died recently. It was a lecture on fear and anxiety in 1955. I must have been 19 or 20 at the time and had to leave my parents’ home where I’d been living. Most of the interns at the hospital were French-Algerian and because of my opinions I faced all kinds of problems. My car tyres were punctured, my white doctor’s coat soiled, my files stolen. So, when Fanon found out I wanted to do psychiatry, he told Pierre Chaulet I should come and intern under him at Blida psychiatric hospital.

GS: So you lived at the hospital in Blida?

AC: Yes, as an intern. That’s where I met my husband, Charles Géronimi. He shared my ideas, but having Corsican parents, teachers but Corsicans, they had trouble accepting a little Jew in their family, especially my mother-in-law.

GS: What were your first impressions of Fanon?

AC: My first impressions, at 20, I found everything he had to say very interesting and didn’t think of him as black. He analysed the subjectivity of racism which was very different from the discourse of the time. On the one hand, we had Existentialism and on the other, Marxist materialism which didn’t include questions of subjectivity. It was the first time I’d met someone who was only 10 years older than me but had immense experience, and a developed understanding of these two worlds, of the two ‘ideologies’.  He was neither on one side nor the other which met my expectations, answered my questions.

GS: He had practical ideas?

AC: Yes, he was a hands-on kind of man.

GS: That’s to say, the development of his thought was founded not only on the theoretical but also on his lived-experience?

AC: On his experience, yes. And that also pleased me. It was from his lived-experience that he elaborated his ideas. But he also had very advanced psychiatric training.

GS: What were some of the work experiences during your time with Fanon in Blida that influenced your practice of psychiatry?

AC: Everything he brought to psychiatry, especially his critique of the School of Algiers’ theory of primitivism. He also introduced social therapy, institutional psychotherapy.

GS: How do you define institutional psychotherapy?

AC: Institutional psychotherapy, as developed by Tosquelles, took off in France with the support of Oury and Bonnafé. It encourages the residents of psychiatric institutions to share things with their caregivers. Through humanising the functions of these institutions, it allows understanding not only of patient symptoms but also the roots of these symptoms. There are still two or three people in France who are struggling to create places that foster institutional psychotherapy, but it is becoming more and more difficult.

GS: Why is it becoming more difficult?

AC: Because of the prevailing ideology. Now we have DCM 3, DCM 4, DCM 5. It is a performative ideology that absolutely bypasses all subjective aspects of alienation.

GS: Did you have any significant experiences in the hospital setting as a female doctor caring for patients in that historical and social context?

AC: What do you mean by significant experiences?

GS: For example, when you worked at Joinville-Blida Hospital, were there certain events that affected you?

AC: Yes, of course.

GS: What were they?

AC: So many things. For example, I saw women hospitalised after childbirth for postpartum, transitory delirium. Some doctors didn’t understand and sometimes even people in the women’s families said, “It’s the djnoun who came to inhabit her.”

It affected me deeply because  I wanted to ascertain their experience of the delivery because it influences their relationship to the newborn baby.  It’s a complicated relationship.

GS: Did you have your own children at that time?

AC: No, I had no children at the time. I now have a son who is 40 years old. He studied political science and then he got involved in theatre.

GS: So, he is fortunate?

AC: Well there you have it.

Black and white photograph of Alice Cherki as a young women. She has short, dark hair, is wearing a white, V-neck dress and a necklace, and she is smiling.

GS: As a female doctor, what were your professional relationships like with your colleagues at the hospital?

AC: Amongst us interns at the psychiatric hospital of Blida, I was considered an equal.

I married an intern from the hospital. No, I can’t say I had any problems. On the other hand, before that when I was at the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers, I was very young, I did my hair in a bun and put on big glasses to make myself look older so I’d be left in peace.

GS: Was your husband originally from Blida?

AC: No, he was also from Algiers but he was an intern with Fanon in Blida. They wrote a paper together on Algerian women and the cultural specificity of TATs (Thematic Apperception Tests).

GS: In your book, Fanon, Portrait, you mention a meeting between Fanon and Jeanson. (1)

AC: Yes.

GS: In that meeting Fanon expressed his wish to go beyond certain ideas so that readers can experience aspects of life that they could never know firsthand.  You talk about Fanon exploring the sensory dimension of language. Do you think that this approach to writing could enable us to communicate experiences around difference, to understand our differences from an egalitarian point of view – not superior or even inferior?

AC: Yes, I think this type of writing is essential. In my experience, sensory writing starts from perceptions, sensations to try to improve communication with the other, I think it is very, very necessary.

GS: Do you know any writers today who write like that?

AC: I’m not qualified to say. I don’t know today’s writers that well. But Kateb Yacine wrote like that.

GS: Do you see difference as a dialectical space that can trigger creativity and imagination?

AC: Yes, that’s what I call the relationship to the other, the recognition of the outside, the stranger. It is important. I wrote another book called La frontière invisible, in which I insist on the relationship to the other. This allows you to accept the outsider in yourself.

GS: In your book, La frontière invisible, you link psychoanalysis and politics. I understand colonial violence, violence of displacement, violence against the subject in the social context, the context of specific historical and political circumstances, for example, those of Algeria and France. But when I try to analyse this violence from a psychoanalytic point of view, I find it difficult to understand.

AC: It is complicated. But you have sought out strangers?

GS: Always, yes.

AC: Perhaps it’s not by chance.

GS: Perhaps not.

Did you know Fanon outside his work, in his family life? What kind of man was he as husband and father?

AC: Yes, of course I had the opportunity to know Fanon outside his work. I knew his wife well and I know his son very well. As a dedicated husband and father. At the same time, he was a very busy man. But he was very dedicated to his family. When his father left for Africa, Olivier didn’t see him that often only from time to time when Fanon came back from working there.  Olivier was only five when his father died.

Fanon loved life. He liked to go out to dinner, go dancing, things like that.

GS: What type of dancing did he like?

AC: All the dances of that time, le slow, the rhumba . . .

GS: Did you like to dance?

AC: It has been a long time since I really danced but yes at the time I loved it.

GS: At friends’ places?

AC: Yes.

GS: What type of music did Fanon like?

AC: He especially loved Caribbean music.

GS: And you?

AC: Back then my tastes were very eclectic. I liked the Arab-Andalusian, Jewish-Andalusian music right through to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and then Jean Ferrat, Barbara, Montand. More and more now I love Musique Concrète.

GS: Tell me more. 

AC: When I was a psychoanalyst, I was working very hard. In the evening, when I had finished working and my head was full of words, words, words, I’d play the likes of Kurtág and Blériot. The music is largely based on the sonority of the human body. It defies the normality of melody. It’s best to listen to it alone. There are not many people who love and desire that genre of music. It scares them.

GS: What kind of a sense of humour did Fanon have? What made him laugh?

AC: He had a great sense of humour, Fanon. It was humour that made him laugh.

GS: People who are very involved in revolutionary struggle often dedicate huge amounts of time and energy to the cause, and I suppose that doesn’t allow them to be very good parents.

AC: That’s true, yes. Especially at the time because the people involved in the struggle were very young.

GS: Have you met children whose parents were not only very involved but who were tortured, wounded or killed as part of the struggle?

AC: Yes, children who became orphans.

GS: Regarding the children of revolutionaries, what observations have you made?

AC: It was very variable. For example, Fatma Oussedic, her father was a great militant and she has good memories of her relationship with him. In addition, many families did not only consist of the father and mother, there were, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. They weren’t nuclear families. If we’re talking about orphans this helps a little. But when you see your parents killed before your eyes, that’s not the same thing. As for the children of the surviving revolutionaries following independence, the notion that their fathers are heroes has weighed heavily on many of them.

GS: Would you mind giving me a brief definition of your concept of alienation and the ways it may be experienced in countries marked by colonisation.

AC: That’s a big question. Both the coloniser and countries who achieved their independence, like Algeria, deny in various ways the colonial wars that have taken place. Algeria swept a large part of the past away by claiming the national story begins at the time of Independence. Generations have been taught that they have one history, one language, one origin. This kind of discourse has done a lot of damage. There are many young people who now don’t know who they are.

GS: How does that manifest psychologically?

AC: It varies considerably and is different in Algeria and in France. Here in France these young people are excluded from participating in the inner circle, In Algeria they are divided. There is group of social conformists who represent the youth, and another group of which no one ever speaks but which gnaws away at the heart and soul of the country.  Young people are suffering a great deal, even those who are socially successful. Many young people ask, “What was Algeria like before 1962?” Many are Berbers. The heterogeneity of their roots has been hidden from them. It is as if these roots don’t exist but they are longing for what I call multiple identification … not to be cast in a single mould.

In France there are many young people who describe their lives very well and write novels. Some are very interesting, written in the language of the suburbs. For example, Sabri Louatah, Les Sauvages.

GS: What is your definition of dignity, especially the dignity of colonised people, people considered mentally ill or disabled?

AC: Dignity is essential. Dignity means we are viewed by the other as a human being.

GS: In revolutionary situations, when a group of people can no longer withstand massive pressure and extreme violence, they react violently to create a change in the power structure. This changeover is often quick, lasts for a moment, the objective is specific: to get rid of the immediate cause of the violence that oppresses them. Beyond this moment of revolutionary violence, what measures do you think people can use to get rid of the everyday violence that continues?

AC: Firstly, to speak.

GS: To whom?

AC: Speak, tell, write. . . I think there are many forms of expression, of creation. Because we must get by. We must get out of the stupor. The essential thing is to get out of it, including through collective struggle.

GS: What for you is the most urgent task required to change human relations in the future? What needs to be done to update and develop new definitions of power?

AC: We need to do work in many areas if we are going to change human relations and bring about new definitions of power. Each person should focus on their own domain, the place where they live. It’s true, like many people, I feel I am very active and committed. At the same time, I denounce all modes of liberalism and things like that.

GS: How do you define liberalism?

AC: It is being governed by financial capitalism which transforms the subject into an object.

GS: Is it enough to denounce? Sometimes I get the impression that it is useless.

AC: I know it well. Organisations are important. There are organisations, people who are militant. I am fortunate to have a son, and nephews who are politically engaged in their fields. Me, everyone knows my positions, my writings. My son works in theatre. They go to schools, to high schools. I am not against the revolution.

GS: Do you think that as individuals, we are afraid of revolutionary violence, afraid of revolutionary confrontation?

AC: It depends. There are many people who are afraid of violence. In my case, I’m not afraid. Many French people want to stay in their little cocoons. In Europe, the French are very much like that, withdrawn on their plots of land, and yet they made a revolution.

But I believe violence is . . . for example, what happened in 2005 in the housing estates, with Sarkozy insulting everyone. People called them riots but I called them revolts. Those young people were not afraid.

GS: It is temporary, a moment?

AC: Revolution is always like that. It’s a moment. But moments that produce difference. Every revolutionary moment must be seen as the introduction of change.

GS: Even if it takes a long time to get to that point.

AC: Yes, like psychoanalysis.

GS: Why did you choose to become a psychoanalyst?

AC: Because I found it was the best way to understand the psyche and help people. It’s exciting, I love it, yes, I like it very much.

GS: You must undergo psychoanalysis for several years to be a psychoanalyst?

AC: Yes, you do. It’s experience. You see, even you talk to an 80-year-old woman who is a psychoanalyst and it’s fine.

GS: Yes, it’s been good.

AC: I have lots of stories to tell. I am attentive to other human beings.

GS: Ah yes, but not all psychoanalysts are like you.

AC: That’s true.

GS: Did you have any conversations with Fanon about the ‘Jewish question’ or the events that led to the establishment of the State of Israel?

AC: Of course, Algerian Jews, like myself and Jacques Azoulay, worked with Fanon in Blida. Fanon had very close Jewish friends in Tunis. The subject of the establishment of the State of Israel was far from our concerns. Fanon was profoundly atheist. I, too, am an atheist. We were part of the struggle for Algerian independence, there was never any conversation about the existence of God for example. Those questions and discussions were not on our radar.

GS: But religious discourse was there nonetheless with Messali . . .

AC: Oh, yes. Those discussions took place within the independence movement. It was very heterogeneous. There were plenty of different poles of thought, different ideas. For example, Fanon, returning from sub-Saharan Africa, jokingly said to his colleagues, to the revolutionary friends of the mujahidin, that they should follow the example of Islamic Africans, their wives can walk topless. He said that jokingly. I mean the issue of Islam as a fundamental direction was probably underestimated, but religion was not ubiquitous in our workplace. I think, even Messali, he was for independence from France, he was married to a French woman, he wasn’t a religious Iman.

GS: When and why did you leave Algeria? Do you consider yourself a woman in exile?

AC: I did not really leave Algeria. I settled in Paris but with frequent trips to Algeria and back. I’m not in national exile and I think exile of the psyche is the hallmark of any successful human life.

Notes:

1. Alice Cherki refers to a meeting  between Fanon and Jeanson in her book, Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2000), however the English translation, Fanon: A Portrait, (Cornell University Press, 2006) refers to a letter.

Alice Cherki was interviewed by Gaele Sobott in Paris, 26 September 2015 and by email between 18 and 20 November 2016.

Translated from French by Gaele Sobott

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“Dignity is essential. Dignity means we are viewed by the other as a human being”: an interview with Alice Cherki by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

La dignité est essentielle. C’est être regardé par l’autre comme un être humain : un entretien avec Alice Cherki

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAALICE CHERKI est psychiatre, psychanalyste et auteure.  Née à Alger, 1936.  Elle a bien connu Frantz Fanon, en travaillant à ses côtés, en Algérie et en Tunisie dans son service psychiatrique, et elle a partagé son engagement politique durant la guerre de l’Independence d’Algérie. Elle vit en France depuis 1965.  Elle est coauteur des livres, Retour à Lacan (Fayard, 1981) et Les juifs d’Algérie (Éditions du Scribe, 1987), et auteur de La frontière invisible, (Editions des crépuscules, 2009) Fanon, portrait (Seuil, 2011), et Mémoire anachronique (Editions De L’aube, 2016)

Gaele Sobott: Pouvez-vous m’en dire un peu sur l’histoire de votre famille, votre lieu de naissance et votre enfance ?

Alice Cherki : Je suis née dans une famille de juifs d’Algérie qui était installée là depuis les Romains ou avant les Romains. Mes parents sont nés dans les petites villes de Médéa et Ksar Boukhari. Mais ils se sont rencontres à Alger. Je suis née et j’ai vécu à Alger. Je suis Algéroise, voilà ! Une partie de cette famille est juive berbère.

GS : Y avait-il  des Juifs en Algérie  avant les Arabes ?

AC : Oui bien avant, majoritairement.  Quelques uns sont arrivés d’Espagne en 1492 par le Maroc, d’autres d’Italie, et ensuite des Juif alsaciens, mais c’était déjà l’Algérie coloniale, beaucoup d’entre eux sont repartis d’ailleurs. Mais la plupart des Juifs d’Algérie étaient là depuis très, très, très longtemps. Certains d’entre eux étaient des Berbères judaïsés. Moi j’appartiens à cette histoire-là.

GS : Est-ce que vous avez parlé l’arabe ?

AC : Très peu. Je ne suis pas très douée pour les langues. Et en plus, je suis un peu comme Derrida. On a vécu certainement dans le même milieu et puis à l’école, on apprenait le latin et le grec.

GS : Vous avez connu Derrida ?

AC : J’ai très bien connu Derrida. Il avait huit ou neuf ans de plus que moi et ce qui représente une grande différence mais oui j’ai bien connu Derrida.

Mon enfance a été marquée tout comme Hélène Cixous et  Derrida par les lois de Vichy qui excluaient les Juifs nés en Algérie, les destituaient de la nationalité française, du droit à fréquenter les écoles et à exercer dans les administrations. Vous voyez, cela a été un grand traumatisme d’enfance.

A 4 ou 5 ans, à Noël mon institutrice m’a dit,  « Tu diras à ta mère qu’à la rentrée, tu ne viens plus à l’école. » 

Lorsque je lui ai demandé la raison, j’obtiens pour seule réponse, «  C’est parce que tu es juive. » 

Moi, je ne savais même pas ce que ça voulait dire. J’ai pris mon courage à trois mains et je lui ai demandé, « Etre juive c’est quoi ? » 

Elle m’a répondu, « C’est être comme toi avec des grands yeux, une grande bouche et des grandes oreilles. »

Chacun d’entre nous, comme le raconte Derrida, a été exclu de l’école, nos parents ne pouvaient plus travailler.

GS : Comment est-ce que cela a marqué votre vie d’adulte ?

AC : Cela m’a ouvert les yeux sur l’injustice, sur le monde dans lequel on vivait, un monde marqué par l’idéologie coloniale, pas chez mes parents, mais on était pris dans ce mouvement-là. A Alger dans les années 50, il n’y avait pas d’intersection entre les différentes sphères. Il y avait les Européens, les Juifs et ceux qu’on appelait les Arabes, les indigènes. Il n’y avait pas d’interpénétration. J’en parle un peu dans mon livre, Mémoire anachronique. Chacun vivait dans sa sphère. Les rencontres se faisaient à l’extérieur.

Quand j’étais dans les petites classes où la mixité n’existait pas à l’époque, il y avait quelque filles qui s’appelaient Rachida ou Malika, mais dès que je suis rentrée en 6e, dans ma classe il n’y avait qu’une seule Algérienne pendant toute ma scolarité secondaire et pourtant j’étais dans un lycée qui n’était pas le lycée le plus snob d’Alger.

GS : C’était le même principe que l’Apartheid ?

AC : Le même principe sauf que c’était plus camouflé. Les Algériens étaient contenus dans certains quartiers. Même les bourgeois avaient leurs quartiers. Les Algériens passaient comme des ombres dans les quartiers Européens.

GS : Vous habitiez quel quartier d’Alger ?

AC : J’ai d’abord vécu près du lycée de garçons, le lycée Bugeaud, devenu maintenant le lycée Abdel Kader, à la frontière du quartier populaire. Plus tard, à l’âge de 17 ans, nous avons emménagé sur le boulevard central, à Hydra, dans une maison sur un terrain qui était une copropriété appartenant à mon oncle, le frère de mon père, la sœur de mon père, et mon père. Ce n’est qu’au bout d’un grand nombre d’années qu’ils sont parvenus à y construire une maison à trois étages pour y abriter les trois familles.

GS : Quel métier exerçait votre père ?

AC : Mon père était céréalier. Il faisait les transactions avec les agriculteurs pour l’exportation et l’importation de pois chiches et de lentilles.

GS : A quand remonte votre intérêt pour la psychiatrie ?

AC : J’ai d’abord beaucoup lutté pour faire des études. Quand J’ai passé mon bac, même si je venais de la moyenne bourgeoisie, ce n’était pas classique que les femmes continuent leurs études. Pour eux, c’était le mariage et cetera. J’étais la seule fille. J’avais un frère ainé et un frère cadet mais mes parents n’avaient pas fait d’études. Ils avaient été tous les deux retirés de l’école.

Mon père, un brillant élève, a été retiré du lycée à 16 ans par son propre père parce que c’était une famille de dix enfants et qu’il était l’aîné. Il y avait deux ou trois filles avant lui et il fallait qu’il travaille. Ma mère a choisi de quitter sa classe de première, je crois, au lycée pour se marier. Quand elle a rencontré mon père elle a abandonné ses études.

Mes parents étaient tous les deux étaient très intelligents et plutôt progressistes. Mon père parlait l’arabe, mais ils n’avaient pas fait des études supérieures comme on dit à l’époque.

J’avais déjà un regard sur la société. J’étais plutôt littéraire. Je n’ai jamais eu de prix d’excellence parce que je n’étais pas une bonne élève. J’étais plutôt impertinente. On me disait toujours que j’aurais pu être une excellente comédienne. Il n’y avait personne pour  vous conseiller. Si j’avais dit je voulais être comédienne, cela aurait été pire que prostituée à l’époque. Mais J’ai eu la chance de rencontrer beaucoup de gens qui sont devenus des gens du théâtre ensuite.

Je me suis retrouvée d’abord en hypokhâgne et khâgne. Vous savez ce que c’est ?

GS : Non.

AC : Ce sont des classes préparatoires littéraires pour intégrer les grandes écoles. Elles ont leur équivalent dans le domaine scientifique. Mais je me suis mise en tête que je voulais être utile et que si je me mettais à faire de la philosophie je me couperais de la vraie vie si vous voulez. J’ai donc obliqué vers la médecine. Mais très vite en médecine, je me suis rendue compte que ça ne répondait pas du tout à mon interrogation. C’était une médecine des symptômes auxquels on répondait par des traitements. Je me souviens d’un prof qui me disait,  « Mais Mademoiselle vous posez trop de questions. »   On ne dit jamais,  « Pourquoi  » en médecine. On dit toujours,  « Comment faire. » 

 Donc j’avais cette double culture de l’intérêt pour l’humain et son psychisme et puis une culture de groupe seulement parce que j’ai fait mes études de médecine.

GS : Est-ce qu’il y avait d’autres femmes qui faisaient des études de médecine ?

AC : Il y en avait quelques unes mais elles étaient très minoritaires.

Il y avait un dicton qui résumait assez bien la situation pour passer le concours d’internat qui était assez prestigieux :

Quand on est blanc et européen et garçon on a 80% de chance d’avoir le concours, quand on est fille et européenne on a 60% de chance, quand on est juif et garçon on a 50% de chance, quand on est fille et juive on a 25% de chance, quand on est musulman et garçon 10% de chance et quant aux filles musulmanes le dicton ne mentionnait rien parce que il n’y en avait pas.

Certaines parvenaient à devenir externes ou stagiaires mais aucune n’obtenait le concours d’internat, voilà.

GS : Quand avez-vous rencontré Frantz Fanon pour la première fois ?

AC : Je faisais partie d’un mouvement de jeunes qui s’appelait AJASS (Association de la Jeunesse Algérienne pour l’Action Sociale) et Fanon était venu faire une conférence par l’intermédiaire d’un ami à moi, Pierre Chaulet, décédé récemment. C’était une conférence sur la peur et l’angoisse en 1955. A cette période-là,  j’ai dû quitter mes parents chez qui je vivais encore à l’époque. Je devais avoir dix-neuf, vingt ans. A l’hôpital, compte tenu de mes opinions, comme la majorité des étudiants et des internes en médecine qui étaient plutôt Algérie-Française, j’y avais beaucoup d’ennuis.  On nous crevait des pneus de voiture, on me salissait mes blouses, on volait mes dossiers et quand Fanon avait su que je voulais faire de la psychiatrie, il a dit à Pierre Chaulet et bien qu’elle vienne comme interne chez moi à l’hôpital psychiatrique de Blida.

GS : Alors, vous avez habité à l’hôpital de Blida ?

AC : Oui comme interne. C’est là où j’ai rencontré d’ailleurs mon mari, Charles Géronimi. Il partageait mes idées, mais ayant des parents Corses, instituteurs mais Corses, ils ont eu du mal à accepter une petite juive dans leur famille, plus particulièrement ma belle-mère.

GS : Quelles ont été vos premières impressions de Fanon ?

AC : Mes premières impressions, à vingt ans, j’ai trouvé ses propos très intéressants et je ne me suis pas rendue compte qu’il était noir. Il analysait la subjectivité du racisme ce qui était très différent du discours de l’époque. Il y avait d’un côté l’existentialisme et de l’autre le matérialisme marxiste pour qui les questions de subjectivité n’étaient pas à l’ordre du jour.

C’était la première fois que je rencontrais quelqu’un qui avait 10 ans de plus que moi avec un immense vécu et une grande expérience de la rencontre de ces deux mondes, des deux idéologies entre guillemets. Il  n’était pas d’un côté ou de l’autre et cela a répondu à mes attentes et mon interrogation.

 GS : Il avait des idées pratiques ?

AC : Oui, c’était un homme de terrain.

GS : C’est-à-dire que le développement de sa pensée était fondé non seulement sur le théorique mais aussi sur le vécu ?

AC : Sur le vécu, oui.  Et cela aussi me plaisait. C’était à partir de l’expérience vécue qu’il a élaboré une pensée. Mais il avait une formation psychiatrique très poussée.

GS : Quels événements vécus lors de votre travail avec Fanon à Blida ont influencé votre pratique de la psychiatrie?

 AC : C’est tout ce qu’il a apporté par rapport à la psychiatrie et la théorie du primitivisme de l’école d’Alger, et il a introduit la thérapie sociale, la psychothérapie institutionnelle.

GS : Qu’est-ce que c’est la psychothérapie institutionnelle ?

AC : Voilà, dans la psychothérapie institutionnelle, que Tosquelles a développée, et qui a trouvé d’ailleurs un grand essor en France avec Oury et Bonnafé, il s’agit de permettre aux pensionnaires des institutions psychiatriques de partager des choses avec leurs soignants, d’humaniser le fonctionnement de ces établissements, et que de là puisse émerger si vous voulez non seulement une compréhension des symptômes mais aussi des racines. Il y a encore deux ou trois personnes en France qui se battent pour créer les lieux de psychothérapie institutionnelle mais c’est de plus en plus difficile.

GS : Pourquoi plus difficile ?

 AC : A cause de l’idéologie ambiante. Maintenant on en est au DCM 3, DCM 4, DCM 5. C’est l’idéologie performative qui court-circuite absolument tous les aspects subjectifs de l’aliénation.

GS : Avez-vous eu des expériences significatives dans le milieu hospitalier en tant que femme médecin soignant des patientes dans ce contexte historique et social ?

AC : Qu’est que vous entendez des expériences significatives ?

GS : Par exemple, quand vous avez travaillé à l’hôpital Joinville-Blida, est-ce que certains événements vous ont affectée ?

AC : Bien sûr que oui

GS : Lesquels ?

AC : Tellement des choses. J’ai vu par exemple, des femmes hospitalisées pour des post-partum, après l’accouchement, avec un délire transitoire. Certains médecins ne comprenaient pas et parfois même des gens de sa famille disaient,  «C’est les djnouns qui sont venus l’habiter.»

Cela m’affectait beaucoup parce que ce qui m’intéressait vraiment était tout ce qui concernait la manière dont elles avaient vécu cet accouchement, ce qui avait infiltré leur rapport à ce nouveau-né qui est toujours un rapport compliqué.

GS : Est-ce que vous aviez des enfants vous-même à cette époque ?

AC : Non, je n’avais pas d’enfant à l’époque. J’ai actuellement un fils qui a 40 ans. Il a fait des études de sciences politiques et est ensuite devenu un homme de théâtre.

GS : Alors il y a de la chance ?

AC : Bon ben . . . voilà.

alicecherki

GS : Quelles étaient vos relations professionnelles en tant que femme médecins avec vos collègues à l’hôpital ?

AC : Dans le milieu de l’internat de l’hôpital psychiatrique de Blida, j’étais considérée comme leur égale.

Je me suis mariée avec un interne de l’hôpital. Non, là je ne peux pas dire que j’avais des problèmes. En revanche dans un milieu Algérois de l’hôpital de Mustapha quand j’étais très jeune, je me faisais un chignon et mettais des grosses lunettes pour paraître plus vielle, pour qu’on me fiche la paix.

GS : Votre mari était originaire de Blida ?

AC : Non il était d’Alger aussi mais il était interne en psychiatrie à Blida avec Fanon. Ils ont écrit un article ensemble sur les femmes Algériennes et la spécificité culturelle de T.A.T.
(Thematic Apperception Tests)

GS : Dans votre livre, Fanon, Portrait, vous évoquez la rencontre de Fanon avec Jeanson.

AC: Oui

GS : Il y exprime le fait qu’il aimerait dépasser certaines idées afin que le lecteur puisse expérimenter des aspects de la vie qu’il ne pourrait pas capter dans un premier temps. Vous parlez aussi de la dimension sensorielle du langage. Pensez-vous qu’une telle conception de l’écriture peut nous permettre de communiquer des expériences autour de la différence,  de comprendre nos différences d’un point de vue égalitaire  –  non supérieur voire inférieur ?

AC : Oui je pense que ce type d’écriture est essentielle. Mon expérience avec l’écriture sensorielle qui part des perceptions, des sensations pour essayer d’améliorer la communication avec l’autre, moi je pense que c’est très, très nécessaire.

GS : Vous connaissez des écrivains d’aujourd’hui qui écrivent comme ça ?

AC : Je ne suis pas qualifiée pour en parler. Je ne connais pas aussi intimement les écrivains d’aujourd’hui mais je sais que Kateb Yacine écrivait comme ça.

GS : Envisagez-vous la différence comme un espace dialectique déclencheur de créativité et d’imagination?

AC : Oui c’est ce que j’appelle le rapport à l’autre, le fait de reconnaitre l’étranger. C’est important. J’ai écrit un autre livre qui s’appelait,  La Frontière Invisible, dans lequel j’insiste sur le rapport à l’autre et qui vous permet d’accepter l’étranger en soi.

GS : Dans ce livre La Frontière Invisible il y a un lien entre la psychanalyse et la politique.

Moi, je comprends la violence coloniale, la violence de déplacement, la violence faite au sujet dans le contexte social, le contexte des circonstances historiques et politiques précises, par exemple, ceux de l’Algérie et la France. Mais quand j’essaye d’analyser cette violence d’un point de vue psychanalytique, je trouve que c’est difficile à comprendre à mon niveau.

AC : C’est compliqué. Pourtant vous avez été cherché des étrangers ?

GS : Toujours, oui.

AC : Ce n’est peut-être pas par hasard.

GS : Peut-être pas.

Avez-vous eu l’occasion de connaître Fanon en dehors de son travail, dans sa vie familiale ?

Quel genre d’homme était-il en tant que mari et père?

AC : Oui, bien sûr j’ai eu l’occasion de connaître Fanon en dehors de son travail. J’ai bien connu sa femme et je connais très bien son fils. En tant que mari et père, il était très présent. En même temps il avait beaucoup à faire. Mais il était très présent. Bon, Olivier, quand son père est parti en Afrique, il ne l’a plus beaucoup vu à ce moment-là sauf si Fanon venait de temps en temps. Olivier n’avait que cinq ans quand son père est mort.

Il aimait bien vivre Fanon. Il aimait aller dîner, aller danser, les choses comme ça.

GS : Il aimait quelles danses ?

AC : Toutes les danses de l’époque, le slow, la rumba . . .

GS : Et vous aimiez la danse ?

AC : Ça fait longtemps que je ne danse plus vraiment mais oui à l’époque je l’aimais.

GS : C’était chez des amis ?

AC : Oui.

GS : Fanon aimait quel genre de musique?

AC : Il aimait surtout la musique antillaise.

GS : Et vous ?

AC : A l’époque j’étais très éclectique. J’aimais la musique arabo andalouse, judéo andalouse jusqu’à Bach, Beethoven, Mozart et puis Jean Ferrat, Barbara, Montand. J’aime de plus en plus la musique concrète.

GS : Dites-m’en plus.

 AC : Quand j’étais psychanalyste, je travaillais beaucoup. Le soir, lorsque j’avais fini de travailler et j’avais la tête remplie de mots, de mots, de mots, je mettais des choses comme Kurtág et Blériot, et c’est uniquement la sonorité qui vient du corps et qui s’échappe de la normalité de la mélodie. Il faut écouter seul parce qu’il y a peu de gens qui aiment et envient cela.  Cela leur fait peur.

GS : Quelle sorte d’humour avait Fanon ? Qu’est ce qui le faisait rire ?

AC : Il avait beaucoup d’humour, Fanon. C’était l’humour qui le faisait rire.

GS : Les personnes très impliquées dans la lutte y consacrent souvent beaucoup de temps et j’imagine que cela ne leur permet pas d’être de très bons parents.

AC : C’est vrai, oui. Surtout à l’époque car les personnes impliquées dans la lutte étaient très jeunes.

GS : Avez-vous rencontré des enfants ayant eu de tels parents, non seulement très impliqués mais qui ont pu aussi être torturés, blessés ou tués dans le cadre de leur combat?

AC : Mais oui les enfants qui devenaient orphelins.

GS : Concernant les enfants de révolutionnaires, quelles observations avez-vous pu faire ?

AC : C’était très variable. Pour Fatma Oussedic, son père était un grand militant et elle garde un bon souvenir de sa relation avec lui. En plus et dans beaucoup de familles il n’y avait pas que le père et la mère à l’époque, il y avait tout un environnement, les tantes, les oncles, les cousins, les cousines, etcetera, pas de famille nucléaire. Si on parle des orphelins ça aide un peu. Mais quand on voit leurs parents tués sous leurs yeux, ce n’est pas la même chose. Quant aux enfants des révolutionnaires survivants après l’indépendance, le caractère de héros de leur père a pesé lourdement chez beaucoup d’entre eux.

GS : J’aimerais que vous me donniez une brève définition de votre conception de l’aliénation sous toutes les formes où elle peut être vécue dans les pays marqués par la colonisation.

AC : C’est une grande question. Il y a eu  les dénis qui ont porté sur les guerres coloniales d’un côté et puis sur les pays nouvellement indépendants, notamment l’Algérie. On a fait table rase de ce qu’ils  avaient avant en disant que l’histoire commençait au moment de l’Independence. On a enseigné aux générations ce type d’histoire en leur disant vous avez une histoire unique, une langue unique, une origine unique. Ca a fait beaucoup de dégâts. Il y a beaucoup de jeunes qui savent plus  où ils en sont.

GS : Comment est-ce que ça se manifeste psychiquement ?

AC : C’est très variable. Ce n’est pas pareil en Algérie et en France. Ici, ils sont exclus de l’intérieur si vous voulez. En Algérie ils sont clivés.  Il y a une partie sociale conformée et puis une partie intérieure dont ils ne parlent jamais mais qui les rongent. Les jeunes vivent une grande souffrance, même ceux qui ont réussi socialement. Et puis beaucoup d’entre eux demandent, « Avant 62 c’était comment l’Algérie ? »   Beaucoup sont des berbères. Il y a tout une hétérogénéité de racines qu’on leur a cachée. On leur a dit que ça n’existait pas. Eux ils ont envie d’avoir ce que j’appelle des identification multiples… ne pas d’être assignés à un moule.

En France il y’a beaucoup de jeunes qui racontent très bien leur vie. Ils écrivent des romans, et quelques-uns sont écrits dans le langage des banlieues et sont très intéressants. Par exemple, Sabri Louatah, Les Sauvages.

GS : Quelle est votre définition de la dignité et plus particulièrement la dignité des personnes colonisées, des personnes considérées malades mentales ou handicapées ?

AC : La dignité est essentielle. C’est être regardé par l’autre comme un être humain.

GS : Dans les situations révolutionnaires, lorsqu’un groupe de personnes ne peut plus supporter la pression massive et l’extrême violence, sa réaction est violente afin de créer un changement dans la structure du pouvoir. Cela est rapide, dure un moment, l’objectif est spécifique : se débarrasser de la cause immédiate de la violence qui les opprime. Au-delà de ce moment de violence révolutionnaire, quelles mesures pensez-vous que les gens peuvent utiliser pour se débarrasser de la violence quotidienne qui continue ?

AC : D’abord parler.

 GS : A qui ?

 AC : Parler, dire, écrire . . . voilà je pense qu’il y a beaucoup de formes d’expression, de création. Parce qu’il faut s’en sortir. Il faut sortir de la sidération. L’essentiel est d’en sortir y compris par la lutte collective.

GS : Qu’est ce qui reste le plus urgent pour vous aujourd’hui à comprendre afin de changer les relations humaines dans le futur ? Que devons faire pour mettre à jour et développer de nouvelles définitions du pouvoir ?

AC : C’est dans beaucoup de domaines, changer les relations humaines dans le futur pour mettre à jour les nouvelles définitions du pouvoir, chacun dans son domaine, chacun dans le lieu où il vit. Moi, c’est vrai comme beaucoup de gens, je me sens très engagée. En même temps je dénonce tous les modes du libéralisme et les trucs comme ça.

GS : C’est quoi pour vous le libéralisme ?

AC : C’est être régi par le capitalisme financier qui transforme le sujet en objet.

GS : Est-ce qu’on se contente de dénoncer ? Quelque fois j’ai l’impression que cela ne sert à rien.

AC : Je sais bien. Les organisations sont importantes, il y a des organisations, des gens qui militent. J’ai la chance d’avoir un fils, et des neveux qui sont engagés politiquement dans leurs domaines. Moi, tout le monde connait mes positions, mes écrits, mon fils dans le domaine du théâtre, il fait  justement du théâtre vivant. Ils vont dans les écoles, dans les lycées. Moi je ne suis pas contre la révolution.

GS : Pensez-vous que nous, en tant qu’individus, avons peur de la violence révolutionnaire, peur de la confrontation révolutionnaire ?

AC : Ça dépend. Il y a beaucoup de gens qui ont peur de la violence. Ce n’est pas mon cas. Beaucoup de Français veulent rester dans leurs petits cocons. En Europe, les Français sont très comme ça, très repliés sur leurs lopins de terre et pourtant c’est eux qui ont fait une révolution.

Mais, moi, je crois que la violence elle est . . ., par exemple, ce qui s’est passe en 2005 dans les cités, avec quelqu’un comme Sarkozy qui avait été insultant et tout, les gens appellent ça les émeutes, moi, j’appelle ça des révoltes et ces jeunes-là n’avaient pas peur.

GS : C’est temporaire, un moment ?

AC : La révolution est toujours comme ça. C’est un moment. Mais les moments qui produisent les différences. Chaque moment révolutionnaire doit être vu comme l’introduction d’une différence.

GS : Même si ça prend beaucoup de temps.

AC : Oui, comme en psychanalyse.

GS : Pourquoi avez-vous choisi de devenir une psychanalyste ?

AC : Parce que j’ai trouvé que c’était la meilleure façon de comprendre le psychisme et d’aider les gens et c’est passionnant, j’adore, oui, j’aime beaucoup.

GS : On doit faire une psychanalyse de plusieurs années pour être une psychanalyste ?

AC : Oui. Il faut en faire une. C’est une expérience. Même vous, voyez, vous parlez à une femme de 80 ans qui est psychanalyste et ça va.

GS : Ça va.

AC : Je raconte beaucoup de choses. Je suis attentive aux autres d’êtres humains.

GS : Ah oui, mais tous les psychanalystes ne sont pas comme vous.

AC : Ça c’est vrai.

GS : Avez-vous eu des conversations avec Fanon au sujet de « la question juive » et des événements qui ont conduit à l’établissement de l’Etat d’Israël?

AC : Bien sur des juifs Algériens, comme moi et Jacques Azoulay, ont travaillé avec Fanon à Blida. Fanon avait des amis juifs très proches à Tunis. Le sujet de l’établissement de l’Etat d’Israël, c’était loin de nos préoccupations.  Fanon était profondément athée. Moi aussi je suis athée. Nous étions dans le combat de l’Indépendance de l’Algérie, on n’avait jamais de conversation sur l’existence de Dieu par exemple. Ce n’était pas du tout dans les champs de nos interrogations, de nos conversations.

GS : Mais le discours religieux était là quand même avec Messali . . .

AC : Ah oui. Il y avait ce discours dans le mouvement indépendantiste. C’était très hétérogène.  Il y avait plein de gens qui étaient dans des pôles différents, des idées différentes. Par exemple, Fanon, qui en revenant de l’Afrique noire, disait en plaisantant aux collègues, aux amis révolutionnaires de moudjahid, qu’ils devraient prendre l’exemple de l’Islam des Africains, leurs femmes elles peuvent se balader les seins nus. Il leur disait ça en plaisantant. Je veux dire que la question de l’Islam comme direction fondamentale était probablement sous-estimée mais la religion n’était pas omniprésente dans le milieu de travail dans lequel on se trouvait. Je crois que même Messali, était un indépendantiste, il était marié avec une française, Il n’était pas un iman religieux.

GS : Quand et pourquoi avez-vous quitté l’Algérie ? Considérez-vous comme une femme en exil ?

AC : Je n’ai pas vraiment quitté l’Algérie. Je me suis installée à Paris mais avec de fréquents allers-retours. Vous savez, je ne suis pas dans l’exil territorial et je pense que l’exil psychique est le propre de toute vie d’humain réussie.

Alice Cherki a été interviewée en direct par Gaele Sobott à Paris le 26 septembre 2015 et par courriel entre le 18 et le 20 novembre 2016.

Remerciements à Martine Cassagne et Karima Mezoughem pour leur assistance dans la transcription de cet entretien.

Creative Commons License
La dignité est essentielle. C’est être regardé par l’autre comme un être humain : un entretien avec Alice  by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

“I Think of Dance as My Most Honest and Purest Form of Expression . . .” An interview with Christelle Dreyer

Christelle Dreyer1

Credit: Marike Van Wyk

Christelle Dreyer is a freelance graphic designer and dancer who lives in Brackenfell, Cape Town.  She took up competitive ballroom and Latin dancing in 2004, then moved onto contemporary dance in 2010, performing in Dance Joint produced by Jazzart Dance Theatre and choreographed by Jackie Manyaapelo,  Infecting the City, choreographed by Tebogo Munyai, and Unmute Project, choreographed by Andile Vellum. She has worked on projects with various dance companies, including Jazzart Dance Theatre, Remix and Unmute. She recently performed in No Fun ction alL anguage, at South Africa’s National Arts Festival 2016 in Grahamstown.

Gaele Sobott: How did your passion for ballroom and Latin dancing initially develop?

Christelle Dreyer: As a child I loved listening to all kinds of music and watching people dance. I can`t really recall exact dates, but Jazzart Dance Theatre came to my school and I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the kids to be part of a performance. It opened me up to realising that I actually could move and not just be on the side admiring people as they danced. After that I started Ballroom and Latin dancing.

GS: What then led you to contemporary dance?

CD: I started taking open dance classes as a way to keep fit and do something different. I enjoyed it so much I never stopped.

GS: How did you become involved in No Fun ction al Language?

CD: I received a phone call from Danieyella Rodin who works at The Chaeli Campaign, the organisation that produced No Fun ction al Language. She asked me if I’d like to audition for the show and then emailed me all the relevant information. I contacted Jayne Batzofin, the director, who was conducting the auditioning process over a two week period. So I auditioned and got a part in the show.

GS: Who are the other performers in the show?

CD: Andile Vellem Daniel Mpilo Richards, and Iman Isaacs are the other dancers. Dave Knowles is the musician.

GS: Tell me about your experience of working on the show.

CD: No Fun ction alL anguage has been an exceptional experience and an amazing opportunity. From the start of the creation process to the final production and the moments in between it’s been an incredible process of growth and discovery.

Jayne Batzofin and the cast, everyone involved, have been so open-hearted and open-minded. Some of them, before meeting me, hadn’t had any interaction with a disabled person but the way they approached the idea of disability is no less than amazing. I would like to think that we have become a little No Fun ction alL anguage family. I feel blessed to be part of the team. Together we created a work that has stimulated discussion around what happens if we don’t have the right words or any words to share our thoughts, discussion about our desperate search for meaning and about inclusivity for all members of our society. Each chapter of No Fun ction alL anguage encouraged different thought processes and emotional dialog within me. It was great being in a position to explore these things through performance. The response from audiences has been more than overwhelming.

GS: How did you contribute to the choreography of the piece?

CD:  When Jayne choreographs she uses a theme then allows us to improvise our body movements in relation to the theme. So we generated new movements and material. These were then incorporated into duets or into the larger choreography.  In chapter five of No Fun ction alL anguage, for example, that entire solo was created by me, and Jayne refined and detailed some moments.

GS: Please describe what Chapter Five is about.

CD: Chapter Five was about deception. How you experience deception, what it means to us. I looked at the emotions we feel when we are deceived and when we deceive and worked on translating that into movement. So Daniel explored the act of deceiving someone. His character was saying, “I love you” but not meaning it. Andile and Iman looked at how you can deceive yourself, and I worked on how sometimes you want to believe the deception. You know you are being deceived but you want to go ahead, for example, you believe that person loves you. So the choreography I developed was communicating that process of trying to hold on to what you know is not true but what somehow is pleasurable. Well it would be pleasurable if it was true. You try to hold onto that pleasurable non-reality for as long as you can. So my choreography was very quiet.

GS: How did you translate quiet into movement?

CD: Slow and controlled, under the radar.

GS: I think it was Silence, the chapter where you were on your back and moved your leg up very, very slowly.  That was a powerful moment.

CD: Yes that took extreme concentration, and the right breathing.

GS: Do you have control over your safety during the creative process?

CD: Complete control. If my body doesn’t want to do something, I don’t. But I try new moves. If that doesn’t suit me, I say so. I know what my body is capable of. Anyone who works with a disabled dancer knows that there are certain traditional ways of dancing that may be impossible. It’s a fine line between a director knowing when to push and when not to push you. At the same time you don’t want a director to be patronising and not get you to push boundaries.

From left to right, two male dancers, one standing facing audience, the second lifting his arms and one leg high over the third dancer who is seated in a wheelchair. She leans away from him and holds her hands on her head. The last dancer, a woman, stands facing the away from the other dancers. They are all dressed in casual pants and tee shirts in various shades of grey.

 

GS: How do the themes of language and communication addressed in No Fun ction al Language relate to you personally?

CD: For me communication takes on many different forms. I think of dance as my most honest and purest form of expression and communication. In those moments of dance, the movement and the spaces between movement, I find what I really want to say to the world. I also communicate as a graphic designer. My work tends to be minimalist, which I feel expresses my easy-going personality.

I think the way I communicate with others is largely determined by the circumstances I’m presented with. For example, the way I communicate with Andile Vellem, who is Deaf, is different to how I communicate with the rest of the cast. My sign language is very bad, but somehow it’s often easier to convey information to him than to someone who can hear, other times we have big gaps in communication. I really need to work on my SASL (South African Sign Language). As far as spoken language goes I am fluent in English and Afrikaans. Not really sure about fluent as my vocabulary is not that large, in my mind at least. I find it difficult to learn new languages. But also I realise the value of discovering new forms of communication and maybe just maybe, I will be putting pen to paper more often.

GS: Afrikaans and English. How do these languages figure in your life? Do you consider either of these languages as your first language or mother tongue?

CD: Both languages are equally as strong as each other in my life. My parents raised me speaking English and I went to an English-speaking school but my family, my parents, aunts and uncles, also speak Afrikaans, and my community.

 GS: Afrikaans has historical significance in the context of the ant-Apartheid struggles and the 1976 student uprisings against the Afrikaans Medium Decree. Do you think the language still represents an oppressive force for some people? Tell me more about what the language means to you.

CD: I was a bit too young to fully understand what it was like during Apartheid. I don’t really have the experience. My parents are the ones who know about what happened then. But from what I observe now Afrikaans is becoming a more general language in Cape Town. There are a lot of Coloured people who speak Afrikaans but it’s a bit different to the way White people speak the language, not pure like in the text books.  Coloured people have their own slang, and it’s more musical. Also the humour in the way Coloureds speak the language is different. I enjoy that humour.

GS: What are the elements of your identity that have remained steadfast over the years, what has changed?

CD: Well my identity is not something I really think about in great depth. Apart from the more obvious things like the fact that I am a Coloured disabled artist. I think I have always been open to experiencing different things. Perseverance and persistence is something I’ve always had and I have a feeling that will not change anytime soon.

I never understood myself as unique. That was partly to do with me being a twin. I am a twin but actually my sister and I are completely different.  My immersion in creative processes demanded that I explore my sense of self. So that definitely helped me realise and embrace my uniqueness.

GS: I was recently at an event where the writer and journalist, Sylvia Vollenhoven was talking about her book, The Keeper of the Kumm. She said, you can be Zulu or Xhosa and it defines to some extent your history but Coloured is a more general term. She feels that people who identify as Coloured are largely excluded from the narratives of nationhood that South Africa is now constructing. What does this part of your identity mean to you?

CD: There are lots of divisions and classes in the Coloured community. The way you live as a Coloured person, where you live, the way you identify, the way you’re brought up. Generally yes, a Black person has a very strong sense of identity. The backstory of being Black or the backstory of being White is usually solid where they know their granny’s granny’s granny.  Many Coloured people haven’t answered the questions, Who am I? What is my history? Where do I belong? Like what exactly is a Coloured person? Yeah, it’s complex. I don’t think Coloureds really know how to define themselves. They don’t have resources to draw on. Like me, I don’t know the history of my grandparents or beyond them.

GS: Why do you think that is? The reasons why you don’t know?

CD: Maybe because the past has been painful and people haven’t wanted to talk about it. But I’m lucky at least I knew all my grandparents. I only have my grandfather left. He has dementia now so I can’t really ask him about our family history. My father’s parents died many years ago. My mother’s mother, Ma Yvonne Lopes, played a big role in encouraging me to be confident and proud of who I am. She was an amazing grandmother. My mother too, she instilled certain values in me and I don’t give her enough credit for all my successes. I am content with who I am and where I am in my life. My friends and family keep me grounded.

GS: Elaborate a little on your identity as a disabled artist?

CD: I was diagnosed with OI (Osteogenesis Imperfecta) when I was a baby. My sister also has OI, I mention this because I always get asked since we’re twins. Because of my OI I spent many of my childhood years with broken bones or in hospital. My mother has lost count of the number of operations I’ve had, at least twenty.  The amount of times I’ve broken my bones seems endless. My tolerance to pain has become so high that most of the time I don’t realise I have a broken bone and in some cases more than one.  I was born and grew up in Cape Town with my parents. I’ve always been surrounded by family and friends so apart from OI issues I’ve had a very normal childhood.  OI is one of the many layers that shapes who I am. I Matriculated in 2004 and started studying Graphic Design at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in 2006. I graduated with a Baccalaureus Technologie in 2011. During my years as a university student I never stopped working on my dance goals and dreams.

GS: Can you describe any barriers you have encountered as an artist with OI?

CD: The strangest thing to me is that artists are generally more open to individuality and people expressing their uniqueness. But somehow when people see disabled artists they have this preset idea that disabled people cannot produce the same high quality as them. I am not saying it is all arts practitioners and audiences but that bias is there. Yet in many cases the standard of work produced is of equal quality or even better.

I have experiences where I would go for graphic designer interview and I’d be told they could not hire me because I was not what they expected but I have a very good CV and portfolio. I don’t put the fact that I am disabled in my CV as that should not be the measure as to whether I get the job or not. Of course they know they can`t say to my face it is because I am disabled that they will not hire me, so they come up with polite and creative ways to tell me. It really is not fair.

It’s very satisfying when I get to prove people wrong and exceed their expectations of me as an artist. Like after performances of No Fun ction al Language when audiences are left not only in awe but with different perspectives of disability.

GS:  How did you find disability access at Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2016? What changes would you like to see?

CD: I feel that disability access was not taken into consideration at the Festival. This is really disappointing as there where disabled artists on the festival program. There is so much said in South Africa about human rights and treating people as equals, yet the basic needs of people using wheelchairs, deaf people, blind people are not being considered. I’m blessed to be able to walk for short periods of time, but what about disabled people who can`t walk at all and need their wheelchairs to get around? Access is not just needed for artists but also people attending the festival, audience members. It’s a national festival, disabled artists and audiences should be welcomed, not excluded.

I think disabled people are standing up for themselves more than in the past and that they are being integrated as part of their communities so much better. There is still however a long way to go.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival 2016 – No Fun ction alL anguage Trailer

This interview was conducted 21st July 2016

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“I Think of Dance as My Most Honest and Purest Form of Expression . . .” An interview with Christelle Dreyer by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

People love stories: An interview with Amit Sharma

A young woman wearing a blue singlet lying on a bed with an anxious expression on her face. Next to her is a young man also lying on his back. He is only wearing black shorts.

GENEVIEVE BARR AND ARTHUR HUGHES AS ALICE AND PHIL IN THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER BY JACK THORNE CREDIT: PATRICK BALDWIN

 

Amit Sharma 2Credit-Matt Cetti-RobertsAmit Sharma has been the Associate Director of Graeae Theatre Company, London, since 2011. He recently directed The Solid Life of Sugar Water, a Graeae Theatre Company and Theatre Royal Plymouth production, gaining unanimous acclaim at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, leading to a 2016 UK tour including a run at the National Theatre.

Amit is a graduate from Graeae’s Missing Piece actor training course. In 2012, he co-directed the outdoor spectacle Prometheus Awakes (with La Fura dels Baus/co-commissioned by GDIF and SIRF), marking the first large-scale outdoor production to be artistically led by Deaf and disabled people in the UK. Also for Graeae, he directed Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man, which toured both nationally and internationally and co-directed Graeae’s Rhinestone Rollers in Sequins and Snowballs with Jenny Sealey at the Southbank Centre. As Assistant Director, he has worked on Graeae’s productions of The Threepenny Opera, The Changeling and on The Four Fridas for Greenwich and Docklands International Festival 2015. Amit currently leads on Write to Play, Graeae’s flagship new-writing programme in partnership with venues across the UK.

 

GaeleSobott: Can we start by talking about the set design in The Solid Life of Sugar Water. The bed is central, upstage, vertical with the actors standing against it. From the audience perspective it is as if they are looking down on the characters lying on the bed.

Amit Sharma: The thing about Sugar Water and the aspect that I was really interested in was the relationship between the two characters, Alice and Phil, how much they were or weren’t communicating. The style, as it was written by Jack Thorne, consists of two monologues essentially inter-dispersed with both the characters’ dialogue. Well it is much more intricate and clever than how I’ve just described it to you, but the nature of them not talking to each other and addressing the audience set up something which is immediately striking, irrespective of the subject matter. There is some form of subtext that is going on between the two characters, which is very exciting. When we did our original set design it was very abstract, very sparse actually. Then we did a reading of it and the designer said to me, ‘I think we’ve got this wrong. I think the audience needs to be placed in the bedroom. The bed is missing.’

She was absolutely right. The bed was like the third element of the relationship within the text. So then we needed to decide how to be artistic about it. We didn’t want the bed to be literal. The piece isn’t naturalistic. We jump from the past to the present and then back again. So we developed the idea of looking down into the couple’s bedroom.

GS: What is that perspective? What does it give to the play?

AS: I really wanted the audience to feel that they couldn’t get away from being privy to and a part of the couple’s life. I don’t know about you, but when I visit a friend’s house the bedroom is always the last place I look. It would be a bit weird to go and look in their bedroom. That’s because it’s private and you’d feel as if you were prying into someone’s very personal space, even if they’re not in the room. I wanted the audience to feel like they were able to be in that space.

GS: How does this position the audience? Are they voyeurs or perhaps fly on the wall?

AS: I think more fly on the wall. I think voyeurism has an element of choice about it. Maybe fly on the wall does too. I just wanted the audience to really feel the pressure cooker of the couple’s relationship and be a part of that. Not able to separate themselves from it. That’s what the play does. You fall into it and by the end you’re feeling all kinds of emotions because of the performances but also because of Jack’s writing. The writing and the set. That’s why I wanted the audience to be together in the bedroom with the couple. I wanted them to be with them in their private moments without feeling they were intruding. At the end I wanted the audience to feel they have been through so much with this couple. It’s actually about healing both for the couple and also for the audience.

GS: The audience are looking down on the bed but they are also being spoken to directly by the characters. It is not possible for the audience to position themselves as just observers. They have to participate. What are your thoughts on this?

AS: That’s the good thing about theatre. You can set up a convention and then just totally break it. So whenever the characters were on the floor, that was like the wall of their bedroom but it became less about the bedroom, it was the post office, the bridge, even though the bed was always present. As a creative team we wanted it to be subtle, so yes the bed was always in the background because there was always that big question of them trying to have sex.

GS: There are many disabled artists and directors who feel there is a need to explore sex and disability, for various reasons including societal attitudes, the infantilisation of disabled people. What is the importance of sex in disabled art? What is the relation of this play to the exploration of sex and disability?

AS: The most interesting thing coming out of Sugar Water is that question has not been asked. It has not been unpacked. What the play does is almost normalise that very question of sex and disability. It is such a huge topic for so many different reasons. Perhaps it is because of the performers, one performer is Deaf and one performer has a physical impairment, but not to the extent where it impacts on their sex lives. What I mean by that is that if, say, one of the characters was a wheelchair user who had 24 hour personal care then that dynamic shifts. I was reading an article today about the Independent Living Fund and this guy saying how it can be difficult to live independently for example to go out and chat up girls because you’ve got someone else there all the time. So you have to negotiate that relationship. This play doesn’t go there. People have picked up on the element of communication between the couple, but the sex element not so. I also think it is because of how Jack as a writer was playing with the idea of sex. There’s a lot of comedy with some really graphic descriptions.

GS: Well yes there is comedy and there are very serious moments, a fine line.

AS: Yes, Jack Thorne gets that fine line absolutely right. In rehearsals we spoke about how graphic we should get or if we should get graphic at all. If we were brave enough to show our naked bodies and those kinds of discussions. It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t about that. It would have become alienating, as opposed to the audiences going: ‘Come on, we’re theatre audiences. We’re pretty smart. We can go whichever way you want us to go. We don’t have to see nudity to get what you’re talking about.’

It felt like we could just tell the story. The most interesting thing is the intricacy of communication between the audience and the performers. The couple think they are talking to each other and they’re not really, and they do the direct address where there is a conceit between each character and the audience. There are many different levels of communication.

A close up of a man's head, profile looking down with streams of water flowing over his head and face.

GS: Can you talk a little about the quality of the reviews the play has received?

AS: Well I think the journey of journalism and the way this show, and other shows at the Edinburgh Fringe by Deaf and disabled artists, have been reviewed has really shifted. It’s really come a long way. The art is now being reviewed as opposed to the performers and their physical shapes and sizes and what have you. It is really refreshing to see the work being reviewed in this way.

Talking about Sugar Water the reviews spoke about the subject matter as happening to two human beings not to two disabled people. In relation to Genevieve, being a Deaf performer, the discourse was quite intelligent as opposed to talking about a Deaf person blah blah blah, it was more sophisticated in both the reviewing and the conversation around it. That hasn’t always been the case.

GS: What comments did reviewers make in relation to Genevieve being a Deaf performer and character?

AS: The discussions were linked to the idea of communication. Naturally if your partner doesn’t sign then you have to rely on lip reading and you may not catch all the communication. Phil can’t sign so he is not able to get what he feels across all the time. The scene when he’s on the bridge and he tries to sign and gets it completely wrong really resonated and got the biggest laugh every time. By that point the audience realises Alice and Phil are not communicating on a number of levels. It was about them as individuals and what they felt for each other, what they wanted and needed from each other. Phil had never had a huge number of relationships before hand. Alice had just come out of a very difficult relationship. So that makes two very vulnerable people in a position where they are wondering if the relationship can work, can they get along. Can they get married and try to have a baby. Is their relationship driven by their love and passion for each other or by their insecurities? Sometimes the best art doesn’t answer the questions it poses. It poses the questions for the audience to consider.

GS: Do you think Alice and Phil’s relationship is resolved in the end?

AS: I don’t want to say. Some people are unsure whether they continue or they don’t and I intended for that to happen. In my head they do, yeah. But I didn’t want to answer that. I spoke to Jack about it. He really wanted a happy ending and I really didn’t want a happy ending. I said, “Ok if we’re going to have a happy ending we have to hint and suggest the possibility.”

GS: I do think the play ends with them understanding and respecting each other.

AS: It’s only at the end that they actually say, ‘I love you’ to each other. Having been through the trauma of losing a baby. Jack’s a smart dude!

GS: There seems to be some relationship and similarities between The Solid Life of Sugar Water and Lungs, which also played at 2015 Edinburgh Fringe. Can you explain this?

AS: We had read the script about three or four years ago. When we got the script we were really interested. Duncan Macmillan is a great writer. We were thinking of doing a double bill but then Paines Plough went ahead with the commission so we didn’t.

GS: I found the story quite similar.

AS: Yes that’s why we had the idea that the two plays could work together.

GS: Where are you taking the play next?

AS: We’re putting a tour together. We’re going to be at the National Theatre for three weeks, which is superb. It’s the first time Graeae has been there and we’re incredibly proud. We hope the momentum builds from there.

It’s one of those plays. I remember reading it for the first time, here as a company, and the kind of silence at the end of the reading, everyone taking deep breaths. We knew it was a huge impact type of play. Audience reactions to the play have been emotional and deep. One woman stopped watching half way through. She sat there with her head down and just wouldn’t watch. There was obviously something that really connected with her. She started watching again a bit later. She was with a group of her friends and I saw her at the end. She was just in complete floods of tears. I don’t really feel bad about too many things but I did then.

GS: Why did you feel bad?

AS: I felt for her because I didn’t know her story and didn’t know what it was that she was relating to. I went over and asked her and her friends if they were alright and did as much as I could, offered her a gin and tonic. Theatre is such a powerful thing. I think people sometimes forget the impact theatre can have.

GS: Why do you think theatre powerful as opposed to other mediums of storytelling?

AS: It’s so immediate. You’re there. You can connect, relate to the work. You are immersed in the play for the length of the piece. People love stories.

GS: You can watch a series on TV and experience stories. What is it specifically about theatre?

AS: The craft of theatre is important, the putting together of the story although you can also do that with film and TV. There is something unique about theatre in showing that passage of time. I think the immediacy of you as a member of the audience and your relationship with the performers is so unique to you in an environment where there are other people as well. That is very special. You can watch television or a film in a cinema however the screen allows you to be one step removed from it. You can’t really do that with theatre. It is more interactive. It’s more immediate.

The question in theatre is – Why now? What’s important about telling the story now? With TV and film you can go back to it again and those performances won’t change but with theatre they will. You can go one night and the next night there will be subtle differences, something may have shifted – become more superficial, something may have become deeper. There’s an unknown quality. There’s that thing also where if something ‘goes wrong’ the performers just have to pick up the baton and carry on and audiences love those moments when it doesn’t all go to plan. Film and TV are created where it all goes to plan so with theatre there’s a different type of freedom and an improvisational quality.

It’s about creating the story. The performers grab the audience very quickly, in a vital and stark way, asking them to empathise with them.

GS: Did the actors contribute to Jack Thorne’s script during rehearsal. Were changes made for any reason?

AS: Well the actors didn’t really suggest changes but we did shift the script around them. We didn’t have any idea who we wanted to work with so in the beginning in Jack’s script the character, Alice, wasn’t Deaf. When we cast Genevieve as the actor for that part, Jenny Sealey, the Artistic Director of Graeae, and I had a conversation and we gave notes to Jack saying there are elements relating to Genevieve that should have some representation in the script. But in contrast, the Post Office scene about Phil not being very strong wasn’t adapted for him because of Arthur’s arm or anything. That was the original script.

GS: I didn’t take that scene as being about his arm.

AS: Well some people do you see. They think that was where his impairment was being referenced because he had this big box that he couldn’t quite carry. That was always there. But Phil signing on the bridge wasn’t there before we cast the actors. Jack did a couple of rewrites based on Jenny’s and my notes.

The stuff that happens behind the scenes may change according to the actor you cast. At the beginning we had created a soundscape and every now and then there’d be a heartbeat noise as a cue for the actors to shift position. There was also a sound cue for the actors to know the audience was seated and we’d got clearance from front of house. It was a dog bark. Genevieve has hearing aids so she could feel the vibrations of the heartbeats, the shift and the change, because there was a speaker close to her. What became slightly tricky was her trying to listen to the dog barking because of the frequency and because there were so many people in the room all making noise. So we discussed a better way of cueing and her feeling comfortable within the cueing system.

Also because there is so much direct address, I said, ‘You have permission to look at Arthur whenever you want. We’re not asking you to play hearing.’ But Genevieve got around that by learning Arthur’s script as well and picked up on his rhythms, picked up on how he delivered the text. That was her process. She wanted the same access and freedom as him and decided on her own cues. That didn’t mean Arthur had to do it exactly the same way each time. So there was that kind of negotiation going on during rehearsal.

GS: How do you cast at Graeae? How did you cast the actors for this play?

AS: For this play I got a casting director in. We work with some amazing performers and some amazing actors. I just felt this time round it would be really healthy for the Company to audition new people and add to our expanding pool of performers.

GS: Do you specifically cast disabled actors?

AS: For this play I decided the casting breakdown. Irrespective of impairment this is what I’m looking for. Just by the nature of the play we needed people who would be good at delivering text. I don’t mean in the classical sense, I mean it’s such a wordy play. There is a demand that Jack’s writing presents itself. That doesn’t mean being quick or slow or whatever. That’s what Graeae does – we say this is the play and this is what we are looking for. Let’s see who we can get through the door.

GS: I believe Graeae practises some form of affirmative action in casting performers and actors who identify as Deaf and disabled. How does this work?

AS: Yeah in our plays we’ve got at least fifty percent actors who identify as Deaf or disabled. For the two-hander I thought we had to have two performers who identify. We couldn’t have one. It just didn’t feel right. It was such a small company. But when we did the Threepenny Opera there were something like twenty performers so ten were disabled and ten were non-disabled. As it transpired, we got to the end of rehearsals and three of the people who previously didn’t identify said, Oh yeah, I’m deaf in this ear or I’ve got this impairment. So the Deaf and disabled were staring to outnumber the non-disabled. It was interesting. One of the reasons is that if people declare their impairment jobs shut down.

GS: But not here at Graeae?

AS: Yeah exactly, absolutely not at Graeae. For Sugar Water we were conscious we wanted new blood and we found it. The other thing is that we will use some of the people who auditioned but didn’t get involved in Sugar Water for other projects. So we did pull in a new pool of actors. We are good at that.

GS: What’s the next project?

AS: At the moment we’ve got the Write to Play initiative, nurturing new writing talent. We’re also developing a new adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for production in 2017. There is also a verbatim play around the Incapacity Benefit, the Employment and Support Allowance, that’s under commission.

GS: Whose voices are represented? Those who apply for or receive the benefit, or those in the bureaucracy who assess people, hand out the benefit.

AS: A bit of both but mostly people on the receiving end of decisions. We’ve got a doctor. We’ve got a legal aid person, a variety. We’re doing a taster session at the moment in aerial training building up to a project with war veterans in 2018 – an outdoor piece I think. It’s linked into the recent 1914-1918 reflections on the First World War. There’s a big artistic element to it all. We are very fortunate to be working in this profession on great projects with wonderful people. It’s a really odd time because for a lot of Deaf and disabled people at the moment they don’t know whether they’re coming or going.

GS: Are you referring to government austerity measures?

AS: Yeah but the profile of Graeae is really accelerating. The Company is being recognised for the work that we’re doing. We’ve got Ensemble starting next week. It’s an eight-month, work-based, professional-development programme for six young artists. They’re nineteen to twenty-five year olds and we’re training them as theatre makers. Jodi Alissa Bickerton is our Creative Learning Director. She’s running that programme. It’s in response to barriers faced by many Deaf and disabled artists, as well as a lack of diversity within the current theatre climate.

GS: How do you choose the participants?

AS: We get the information out there. There’s an application process. We audition, then we interview them and go from there.It’s difficult at the moment because the austerity drive is seriously impacting disabled people on a number of levels, work, living, health.

GS: Do you think disabled artists have a responsibility to reflect this in their art?

AS: I think disabled artists have a responsibility to their art. It’s a tricky one. I think it’s about choice. Some artists are deciding to reflect in their work what’s happening socially, economically in our society. Other artists feel that the art itself, no matter what it’s about, will create the shift, create the change. It’s a difficult choice but I don’t begrudge anyone for whatever the choice is that they make. I really resist the idea of hierarchical disability. Disability includes such a wide range of circumstances. It can mean so many different things to people. The wider the experience and the subject matter of our art, the better it is for changing perspectives. Graeae does a lot of advocacy work but it can be really relentless. The cuts are creating a lot of insecurity.

GS: How important do you feel disability-led writing and directing is to changing public perceptions around disability?

AS: I think everything needs to be driven by the story that the writer or the director is trying to convey. Sometimes that feeling of importance can be restricting and uncreative. Audiences are smart, open and intelligent. If you take them on a journey then they’ll go with it. If everything about a play or a show becomes agenda driven then it can fail in changing those perceptions. The story is the thing.

Further Information:

Interview with Genevieve Barr & Arthur Hughes

Information on Graeae and the tour of The Solid Life of Sugar Water  or

The interview was conducted by Gaele Sobott on 28th September 2015 at Graeae Theatre Company in London

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People Love Stories – an Interview with Amit Sharma by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

In Memory of Lauretta Ngcobo 1931-2015

Front cover of book. Close up photo of woman's eye, nose and mouth in orange tones. Title - And They Didn't Die Autor - Lauretta Ngcobo

 

Lauretta Gladys Nozizwe Duyu Ngcobo (née Gwina)  was born in the southern-most part of KwaZulu Natal in 1931. She was the first girl in a family of four. Her mother, Rosa Fisekile Cele, had a difficult time with the birth. Lauretta wrote,

On the night of the second day, my grandfather, who knew the white doctor personally, had managed to persuade him to venture into the black reserve, by night, to save the life of his elder daughter and her unborn child. And so he did.1

Lauretta was born into a family of storytellers, growing up in a rural setting where she valued her exposure to oral literary traditions. Commenting on how poetry informed all occasions she said,

It was performed to honour kings, to welcome newly born babies, and to rock them to their sleep. It is sung at weddings, at funerals and at war. It even heralds peace.2

She recalled her mother relenting in family arguments and reciting poetry at the doorway of the ‘great house’, ‘the maternal family line first, followed by the paternal line’ until the grandmother nodded her head and the argument was over.3

Lauretta’s mother would tell her African folk stories. Her great-grandmother narrated episodes of Zulu history. She composed poetry about her painful life as the least-loved wife of her husband’s four wives. She also created poetry for each child in the family including Lauretta who used to cry as a baby. ‘Apparently I had a very sharp voice . . . My poetry imitates the honey bird which is very insistent.’ 4

When Lauretta was seven years old her father, Simon Shukwana Gwina, died. Both he and Lauretta’s mother were teachers. Lauretta’s mother became the sole breadwinner in the family. Despite the difficulties, she was determined that all her children would be educated regardless of their gender.

The public openly condemned us, girls, who ‘demanded’ the same privileges as boys. In a family where mother had never made us aware of the preferences, the remarks were not only hurtful, but created a throbbing consciousness of one’s burdensome value.5

Lauretta went to primary school in Webbstown and Nokweja. In 1944 she was at a boarding school run by American missionaries in Dumisa and then in 1946 she went to Inanda Seminary. At home, she had gained a knowledge and interest in English literature and history from her mother.

My mother got me interested in her favourite writer, Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. Her stories became my favourites too. From her I learned about Henry the Eighth. I was very fond of Thomas Hardy and his stories of rural England and I liked Charles Dickens.6

She enjoyed school but began to sense a ‘silent disapproval of the barefoot life-style and art that was part of my whole way of life’, that ‘the borrowed culture of city girls’ was the dominant ethos, that she was caught in a ‘tug of warring cultures’. She described how she felt a ‘disfigurement of outlook, a mutilation within’, a conflict that had ‘persisted even against the most arduous efforts to strike a balance’.7

In 1950 Lauretta attended the University of Fort Hare and obtained a BA in Psychology, and Zulu Language and Literature. She also studied for a postgraduate University Education Diploma. Fort Hare had a ‘ratio of thirty-five women students to five hundred men in those days. In some classes the preference given to male students was disarming.’ 8

Her first job as a teacher was in Pietermaritzburg in 1954. One year later she took up a position as a scientific research assistant for the CSIR. In 1957 she married Abednego Ngcobo and in 1960 went back to teaching in Durban. Lauretta always enjoyed writing and wrote a number of articles and books which she discarded or burned mainly because of an assumption that nobody would be interested in reading anything she had to say, ‘not the men’ and not the ‘white people’.  She stated,

I don’t think I know why I write, I just know I must. I scribble a lot that I know will never be read by anyone, for since I was a little girl by conditioning, I never expected anyone to read anything that I wrote, outside my classroom assignments. I feel the need to communicate with myself. It is a duty to myself. Yet, by its very nature, writing is an outgoing channel of communication, no matter how private.9

She saw the Bantu Education Act of 1953 as the greatest limitation on Black writing in South Africa. ‘Cut off from the mainstream of world literature ‘which could otherwise act as a model and an inspiration. I have shared these limitations with all Black South Africans whether male or female.’10

Lauretta’s husband was imprisoned in 1960 for his political activities in the PAC and the Sharpeville uprising. In 1963 she was forced to leave South Africa.

I learned that there was a plan to have me arrested. It was the month of May. I had to escape and leave my two children with my mother. I decided to leave at once: the next day, at five in the morning, the police burst into my house to get me. I made it by the skin of my teeth.11

She spent the first six years of her exile in Swaziland and Zambia where she worked as a teacher. Her children were later able to join her in Swaziland. The family moved to England in 1969 and Lauretta began teaching in London at Tufnell Park Primary School. She then taught at Lark Hall Infant School where she became Deputy and then acting Head. She also began to write, spending ‘hours pinning my episodes together at the seams. I cannot think of a more time-consuming way to write . . . I had no time limit to my expression and no deadlines to meet.’ 12

In 1987, her novel, Cross of Gold, was published and suddenly time became very important. She was invited to talk and write essays on a wide range of subjects,

I had to read a lot more widely. This factual diet does little for my creativity – especially considering how limited time is between my teaching job, my ‘factual’ reading and speechifying and creativity. What I need as a writer, more than anything, is time.13

Cross of Gold is told from the perspective of a young, male activist, Mandla. The women characters are silent and isolated. The only active, strong woman, Sindisiwe, dies in the first chapter of the book. She is shot by the South African border police while trying to flee apartheid South Africa into Botswana. Reflecting on the many questions that came from women readers, Lauretta realised that although she was actively occupied with gender issues in her life, ‘it hadn’t occurred to me that the book was not about me, was not about Sindisiwe, it was about a man!’14 She felt that this was a product of her socialisation and began to think of her construction as a rural, black South African woman growing up with the migrant labour system and the absence of men. ‘I was brought up by women. They were strong, independent and silent . . . it was inescapable that I should turn out very much like them: fertile and rich from within but silent or barren from without.’15

Lauretta edited a collection of essays, stories and poems, Let It Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain, published in 1987.  The book aims to ’embody a largeness and a continuity’ extending beyond conventional race and gender stereotypes.16 She included a detailed introduction, an essay on her life and writing and an extract from Cross of Gold. In 1990, she published her second novel, And They Didn’t Die. Lauretta said,

I hadn’t written about women successfully, but at the same time I knew all about women. As I had shared so much of their pain, it could be that that was one of the reasons why I could write a different story in And They Didn’t Die.17

She presents active women characters and portrays the solidarity and strength that binds rural Black South African women. It is through the life of Jezile, a young rural woman, that we are made aware of women’s experiences under apartheid and the migrant labour system. Traditional Zulu power structures, especially that of the mother-in-law, and patriarchy are also problematised in what is a tragic yet tender tale of deep love, human strength and resilience. Her children’s story, Fiki Learns to Like Other People, published in 1993, is based in Southern Africa and aimed primarily at children learning English as a second language.

Lauretta taught Black Women’s Literature on a part-time basis in the Department of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of London. She lectured in Britain, the United States, Italy, Holland, Sweden, South Africa, Botswana and in Zimbabwe where she spoke on the problems of women in publishing at the International Book Fair. She published various essays under the name of Nomzamo. Her article, ‘Four Women Writers in Africa’, was published in South African Outlook in 1984. ‘Black African Women Writers’ was published in Cambridge Journal of Education in the same year. She wrote,

In our modern world, when women assert their right to self-determination and self-definition, it has become urgent for the African woman to write, to reverse the long-established opinions and beliefs that are prevalent today. It has become imperative for our schools to approach African women with enlightened curiosity. It is in the classrooms of our changing world that people must learn about the African women from the authentic voices of the African women themselves.18

In 1985 Kunapipi published ‘The African Woman Writer’, a speech given by Lauretta at the African Writers’ Conference in London in 1984, and an essay entitled ‘My Life and Writing’. ‘The Plight of Exiles’ appeared in African Concord and in 1990 ‘Black, Female, British and Free’ was published in For a Change. For many years Lauretta was president of ATCAL, the Association for the Teaching of Caribbean, African and Associated Asian Literatures.  She said, ‘We sought to persuade the Department of Education and Science through the inspectorate, to introduce into the various syllabi some text books from these rich literature sources.’19 She was also a founding member of the African women’s organisation, Akina Mama Wa Afrika which produced the journal, African Woman.

Lauretta felt strongly that ‘African writing should draw more from the African traditions of oral culture. I have not done much myself in this way but I feel it ought to be the way my writing goes’.20  She would like to write fictional works based on the lives of some of Southern Africa’s women leaders and spiritualists. After thirty years in exile, she returned to South Africa. She worked in education, and served on the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature until 2008.  It was in this year that she was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga by the South African government in recognition of her literary achievements. She edited an anthology of exiled South African women writers, Prodigal Daughters published in 2012. Lauretta Ngcobo died in Johannesburg on the 3rd November 2015. She is one of South Africa’s literary pioneers. A writer who fought tirelessly to give voice to her people, to Africans, to people of the African diaspora, to Black women. She specifically represented the experiences, resistance and power of Black, South African women. 

Hamba Kahle Mme Lauretta Ngcobo

Notes

1 ‘My Life and My Writing’. Kunapipi, Special Double Issue Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, 7, 2 &3, 1985, p.83 Lauretta Ngcobo has published two articles entitled ‘My Life and My Writing’. One published in Kunapipi and republished in A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, eds. K. Petersen and A. Rutherford. Oxford: Dangaroo Press. 1986 and another published in Let It Be Told, ed. Lauretta Ngcobo, London: Virago. 1988. The two articles are different.
2 ibid p.84
3 ibid
4 Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’ by Anissa Talahite, Journal of Gender Studies, 1,3 1992, p.317
5 ‘My Life and My Writing’, Kunapipi, p.85
6 Letter from Lauretta Ngcobo to Gaele Sobott, June, 1993
7 ‘My Life and Writing’, Kunapipi, p.85
8 ibid
9 ‘My Life and Writing’. Let It Be Told. ed. Lauretta Ngcobo. London:Virago, 1988, p.134
10 ibidp.135
11 Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo by ltala Vivan, August, 1980, Between The Lines II. eds. Eva Hunter and Craig Mackenzie, Grahamstown: NELM, 1993, p.99
12 ‘My Life and Writing’, Let It Be Told, p.139
13 ibid
14 ‘Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’ by Anissa Talahite, p.317
15 ibid. p.317
16 lntroduction to Let It Be Told, p.l
17 ‘Interview with Lauretta Ngcobo’ by Anissa Talahite, p.318
18 ‘Black African Women Writers’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 14, 3, 1984, p.17
19 Letter, June 1993
20 ibid

Bibliography

Books

Cross of Gold, London: Longman, 1981

Let it Be Told: Black Women Writers in Britain, ed. Lauretta Ngcobo, London: Pluto, 1987

And They Didn’t Die, London:Virago, 1990; Johannesburg: Skotaville, 1991; New York:

George Braziller Publishers, 1991

Fiki Learns to Like Other People, London: Macmillan, 1993

Prodigal Daughters, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press,  2012

Essays/Articles

‘Four Women Writers in Africa’, South African Outlook, May, 1984, p.16

‘Black African Women Writers’, Cambridge Journal of Education, 14,3 1984, p.17

‘The Plight of Exiles’, African Concord, May, 1987, p.32

‘The African Woman Writer’ and ‘My Life and Writing’, Kunapipi, Special Double Issue

Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, 7, 2 & 3 1985 pp.83-86; A Double Colonization: Colonial and Post-Colonial Women’s Writing, eds. Petersen & Rutherford, Oxford: Dangaroo, 1986

‘Impressions and Thoughts on the Options of South African Women’, Kunapipi, Double Issue New Art and Literature From South Africa, 13, 1&2 1991, pp.165-169

Introduction to Like A House On Fire: Contemporary Women’s Writing, Art and Photography, Johannesburg: COSAW, 1994

 

This is an edited version of an entry written in 1994 for Wozanazo : A Bio-bibliographical Survey of Twentieth-Century Black South African Women Writers (University of Hull)

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In Memory of Lauretta Ngcobo by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

 

 

 

THE COURAGE TO COME FORWARD – An Interview with Colin Hambrook

Black and White headshot of Colin Hambrook, a middle-aged, white man wearing glassesColin Hambrook was educated at Dartington College of Arts in South West England. Knitting Time his exhibition of paintings, drawings and poetry about the experience of psychosis is on show at The Hub, East London until 15 November. The work was previously shown at Pallant House, Chichester and the Impact Arts Fair 2013. Colin’s first collection of poetry, 100 Houses was published by DaDaSouth in 2011, followed by Knitting Time (Waterloo Press ISBN 978-1-906742-65-2). He is the founding editor of Disability Arts Online

The interview was conducted by Gaele Sobott on 28th September 2015 at the Barbican Centre in London just before Colin attended the Creative Future Literary Awards at the Free Word Centre in Holborn.

Drawing by Colin Hambrook. Blue sky with clouds above green hills, a large ball of yellow wool sits just below the hills. Brown knitting needles are stuck in the ball of wool. A thick yellow line runs down the left side of the picture like a river, and green and yellow squiggly lines run parallel to this yellow band. To the right of the picture there is another thick band of yellow intersected by thin meandering green curves that creates what looks like an aerial view of plots of land or small farms. There a two faces, one squashed between the ball of wool and the yellow band on the left and one just below the ball of wool. In the bottom right-hand corner there is a woman wearing a green beret type hat and green coat. She is holding a sheep.

Call of the Ancient by Colin Hambrook

Gaele Sobott: In Australia the visual arts and now dance appear to be surging ahead in terms of developing platforms and exposure for disabled artists. Literature is quite a way behind. In the UK disabled writers and literature seem to be better placed. What are the Creative Future Literature Awards and how is Disability Arts Online involved?
Colin Hambrook: Creative Future is a Brighton-based organisation looking to promote careers of ‘marginalised’ writers and artists. Amongst those they support with their annual Literary Award are a certain number of disabled writers. Disability Arts Online is a partner. We have signed up to help them promote the program, get information out, reach people. In terms of literature in the UK, Survivors’ literature has led the way.
GS: Please explain what Survivors’ Literature is.
CH: The key organisation is called Survivors’ Poetry, founded in 1990 by four poets with direct experience of the mental health system in the UK. In a really short space of time it mushroomed into a huge phenomenon. It was a UK network of groups that all became affiliated, some of them became registered charities or not-for-profit companies in their own right and I would say between ’94 to ‘96 it exploded and was reported on in the media and really picked up on. It was important that the people who ran the organisation and wrote for Survivors’ poetry come from a mental health background. They had experienced mental distress, been through or had an intimate knowledge of the mental health system.
GS: What kind of work were they producing?
CH: In the 90s there was a kind of performance poetry format, going into day centres, resource centres, organisations working with people who had come through the mental health system, and producing workshops and giving people the opportunity to perform. So typically the first half of an event would be open mic encouraging people to get up and perform their writing and the second half would be more experienced performance poets. The organisation still exists with a core force of people in London but it has become less prominent elsewhere in the UK over the last ten years.
GS: Why do you think that has happened?
CH: Survivors’ Poetry’s strength was in its Community Arts ethos, but it has become harder to find funding for grassroots work. It’s hard to keep integrity, supporting individual artists creativity at a grassroots level whilst maintaining support for ‘professional’ artists. Survivors’ Poetry turned to producing a literary output, which has been fairly successful. As part of the Unlimited showcase at London’s Southbank Centre last year, Disability Arts Online and Survivors’ Poetry celebrated the achievement of the organisation with a reading by some of the Survivors’ founding poets in the Saison Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall. The library contains twenty-seven titles under the Survivors’ Press imprint.
GS: Has Disability Arts Online managed to keep its integrity?
CH: Disability Arts Online in the last ten or twelve years has kind of managed. It’s a bit like a dance, you want to keep your core constituency on board and to nurture that talent, but also you’ve got to watch out, keep an eye on the priorities linked to where financial support can be found to ensure funders’ demands are satisfied.
For instance we have a modest contract with Unlimited to report on all of the artists and all of the projects that come out of Unlimited. It’s a fantastic opportunity to spread the word about this important initiative. Much of Unlimited’s aims and values concur with those of Disability Arts Online, working to support the development of art by disabled artists within the UK cultural sector. Disability Art Online’s brief is to interview the artists, review the shows, comment on the work as it progresses, and where possible, to commission copy for other online magazines and press in order to facilitate the reach of Unlimited to new audiences. Unlimited had a fairly substantial presence at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, with several pieces of work in the British Council Edinburgh Showcase. Unlimited is spearheaded by two organisations: Shape and ArtsAdmin and they’ve received support from the British Council in facilitating the artists taking their work outside the UK. In many ways it is a bright, shiny success story.
We have to work hard to ensure our integrity isn’t compromised, which means creating projects that support and create opportunities for our core constituency and looking to remain disabled-led as much as possible, whilst also working with the high-profile initiatives. Without the support of Unlimited many of the artists we work with would never have got the profile they’ve achieved. For example Jess Thom was unknown as a performer before her company Touretteshero received an Unlimited research and development commission for Backstage in Biscuitland. After a year or so of touring she has been commissioned by Channel 4 with a version of the show made for television, Broadcast in Biscuitland.
GS: So does your core constituency consist of disabled artists at grassroots level?
CH: Yes, disabled artists, writers, who are what the Arts Council term as emerging artists. They are people who create because they’ve got to create, not because they’re making a living out of being artists, necessarily.
GS: Is it possible some of these artists could find themselves forever classified as emerging because of the nature of the market and the value system used to categorise their art?
CH: Yes but that’s just the label that the Arts Council puts on it. People are creative because they need to be creative and creativity isn’t a commodity. We have this schism in our society that divides creativity up into commodity and art. It’s nonsense really.
GS: You mentioned that much of the art by disabled performers at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival focused on the body. Can you please talk more about that?
CH: Yes that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Culturally it’s very different from disability arts of possibly ten, certainly fifteen years ago where the focus on impairment was frowned on.
GS: Was that in defence of the Social Model of Disability?
CH: Defending the Social Model but also it was much more then about community and about people raging against the machine, standing up against discrimination, being a collective force. What’s happened is that as the focus for disability arts has moved away and broken up into impairment-focused issues, which I think are important . . .
GS: Why do you think these issues are important?
CH: Because the key problem with what I would call the first wave of disability arts from the mid 80s to the end of the 90s was that it was very much inward-looking and there was a very powerful community of disabled people who were very clear in their aims and making strong art for and by disabled people. Indeed we got the DDA (Disability Discrimination Act 1995). Not the DDA we wanted but we got the DDA. What happened then was that the very clear, concise stand against discrimination got diluted and the Social Model as a source of inspiration and power for people to find a voice kind of hit a brick wall because impairment within the Social Model wasn’t really addressed in a very strong way. So all the slogans like, Nothing About us Without us, the focus on things being disability-led, kind of fell apart when certain disabled leaders, say for example a wheelchair user, didn’t understand all the politics around Deaf issues or blind issues. Having disabled leaders is important but having that broad understanding of access and the issues faced by people with different impairments is more important.
GS: Isn’t it possible to have disabled leaders with a more complex understanding of disability, Deaf experiences, impairment?
CH: Yes that is the ideal, yes.
GS: Why hasn’t that developed or has it?
CH: There’s a choice that happens in either developing the politics or developing the arts. They can go hand in hand and work with each other and they can also work against each other. The emphasis from the funders has been that if you want the money you have got to develop the aesthetic, you’ve got to develop the art. The politics have been sacrificed to a large extent. A big part of that politics is the importance and value of work being disability-led, because at the end of the day, it’s the experience of being disabled by society that motivates us.
GS: With this huge austerity drive and all these cuts do you think there is more of a need now to develop disability political leadership and action?
CH: Yes there is more of a need now than ever. Absolutely.
GS: How do you see that developing given what you have just said?
CH: It needs people with courage to come forward and start demonstrating on the streets again.
GS: Do you see the march to Downing Street on Saturday protesting the changes being made to Access to Work as an example of this?
CH: I’m really angry that the government are cutting Access to Work. In this case the government said they will cap what any one BSL interpreter can earn at $40 000 a year. But who the hell in the arts is earning forty grand a year? Very few I would say. So the demonstrators were protesting the cuts in Access to Work with this cap on how much an individual can earn. There are thousands of disabled people dying because of cuts. The government is playing a game of divide and rule. On the one hand they are saying they want to get all disabled people into work, but on the other they’re denying means to make working an option. There needs to be a clearer focus in standing up to these issues.
GS: So are you saying that political leadership and analysis are lacking?
CH: Yes
GS: When you say there is a need for people with courage to come forward, the courage to do what?
CH: What the hell do we do in this political climate? I got very involved in supporting the 10 000 Cuts and Counting protest. At the end of 2013 we were working with Michael Meacher MP and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. We met Michael Meacher in his office in Downing Street. He had a mass of files of printouts, of emails and letters of people who had written to him of their plight, their family’s plight, what was happening as a result of austerity, what was happening as a result of cuts in disability benefits. The main focus was that over ten thousand people had died within six weeks of being declared fit for work because their benefits had been cut and they’d been left with no money. Those individuals didn’t necessarily pass away because of the cut in their benefits, but equally, many did. Can you imagine the indignity of being on your deathbed and getting an official letter from the Department of Work and Pensions telling you that you are fit for work? And this has happened to many thousands of individuals and their families. There has been a very dangerous shift in attitude that as an individual living in this society you have to prove that you are financially contributing to it for your existence to be valid. We’ve gone back to the Victorian age within a few short years with the ruling class and their bastard politics. They’ve got every evil connivance of screwing the tax payer and they’ve got the media sewn up so they can infest everyone’s brains that it’s disabled people who have brought austerity upon us, that have brought down the economy. It’s evil!
GS: So do you think it is the responsibility of disabled artists to identify as part of the community and bring the politics into their art in some way?
CH: I personally think it is but then who am I to demand that of an individual? I encourage individuals to get involved in Disability Arts Online who have that ethos. I would say though that generally this time around people are finding it much harder to stand up for their rights.
GS: Why do you think that is?
CH: Well I would include myself in this criticism and say after the DDA was established, the disability movement never really went out of its way to include younger people. So we’ve still got the same old codgers now trying to make a stand like they did twenty or thirty years ago. People are older and frailer.
GS: The older people may no longer have the physical strength but they have knowledge. Do you think younger people are separated from that history, that knowledge of what has gone before them? Are they expected to reinvent the wheel?
CH: Yes and the tendency of Neoliberalism is to encourage people into their own little camps, individualism, losing sight of the larger collective.
GS: Do we need to theorise how to change that and if so how?
CH: It has to happen. I think going back to what we were saying earlier there is a value and an importance in the work that has become the key focus for disability arts – the relaying of stories about the body, stories of people’s experiences of individual impairment, of discrimination.
GS: How does art play a role in changing public perceptions?
CH: Art has a key role to play. You might not call an ITV soap opera, art, but in terms of popular culture, it’s much more wide-reaching than most art.  And so for example, Liam Bairstow who trained with Mind the Gap has recently got a lead role in ITV’s Coronation Street. I think that a young actor with learning difficulties being seen on TV is definitely going to change attitudes, make a lot of people think and those changes are really important.
GS: It seems you are saying that change needs to take place on many levels.
CH: That’s where disability arts is at now I think, certainly within the performing arts, and within the visual arts. In the visual arts there is possibly a bit more politics.
GS: Going back to individual courage – someone may have the courage needed to come forward but if others don’t join with that person it could be very demoralising. What is your experience in this regard?
CH: Well yes, for me, we went to all that effort with 10 000 Cuts and Counting and none of the media turned up and it was all forgotten very quickly. No one took any notice. Nobody seems to care that many thousands of disabled people died because of cuts. Nobody thinks that could be me, or that could be a member of my family.
GS: You said the media didn’t pick up on the story. Disability Arts Online plays an important role in providing an alternative media source.
CH: Yes we do provide an alternative media and we keep plugging away.
GS: You started Disability Arts Online in 2002, and in 2004 you set it up as a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. So it’s been running for over eleven years. How do you fund the organisation?
CH: We’re constantly working on funding applications for projects. We have a broad vision for how we operate in terms of raising debate about disability arts practice and supporting the work of individuals and organisations across art forms.
We’ve recently received funding from Arts Council’s Grants for the Arts scheme for Viewfinder over the next eighteen months. Viewfinder will see us working in partnership with Wikimedia UK, Sick! Festival, SPILL Festival, Carousel, the New Wolsey Theatre and Goldsmiths Disability Research Centre. It’s very exciting. Wikimedia UK are keen for us to populate Wikipedia with pages dedicated to disabled artists and a history of the movement. The Disability Research Centre at Goldsmiths University is supporting us in running a series of workshops.
We’re producing a video platform and commissioning disabled artists/filmmakers to curate a selection of disability work from the archives of Sick! Festival in Brighton, SPILL Festival in Ipswich/London and Carousel’s Oska Bright Festival. We will produce videos commenting on the importance of the selection in advancing the practice of disabled artists. So, for example Matthew Hellett, who is a learning disabled filmmaker on the Oska Bright committee will be making a film about what makes for good representation; how the committee judge the best films for Oska Bright. We’ve also got another year of core funding from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, which is renowned for funding organisations with a community remit.
GS: Have you come up with ideas for sustaining Disability Arts Online on a more long-term, financial basis? Have you tried financing the group by any means other than government funding or philanthropy?
CH: We’ve tried a few experiments. We recently worked with Stopgap Dance Company. They produced the Independent Fringe platform in Edinburgh. Disability Arts Online produced a crowd-funding platform for one of the younger artists, Rowan James. That was successful. We raised £1500 towards getting him to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. We want to do more of that.
GS: You have described how outside funding can determine the path you take. So if you want to be independent of those demands and priorities in terms of changing the political situation how do you achieve financial independence and sustainability?
CH: Well yes sometimes you feel that the odds are stacked against you. It is a constant struggle. We need time and energy and imagination to come up with strategies. We have a shared knowledge and experience that can be incredibly useful to many industries, so we are also working to find ways to be more sustainable through consultancy and media partnerships.
GS: You have shared your childhood and some challenging personal experiences through your poetry in a way that must be quite confronting but hugely important in terms of supporting people within the Survivors Movement and people who may feel isolated. Would you like to comment on how art can provide a form of community solidarity and empowerment, especially in reference to your latest collection of poetry, Knitting Time?

A drawing of a small boat knitted from yellow wool, sailing on a blue sea with stylised waves against a bright blue sky

Knitting Time by Colin Hambrook

CH: I’d like to think that Knitting Time had value in giving a voice to issues around mental distress. Mostly, psychiatry condemns individuals to the judgement of a medical imperative, which locates mental health problems in the head divorced from the individual’s life experience and circumstances or indeed from any emotional impact located in the body. It treats the individual as having a separate, disconnected body and mind and introduces powerful and potentially harmful drugs to suppress experience deemed as mental health problems. Often, those experiences can be exhilarating and creative even if they can make it harder to function in the ‘real world’. Often mental health ‘issues’ are a matter of an individual having the confidence to be comfortable with who they are.
So in sharing some of my own journey I would hope to break some of the isolation people feel. There is empowerment in hearing others’ stories, others’ expression. There are poets like John Clare and William Blake whose names come up frequently in terms of writers whose core work continues to inspire empowerment within a survivors’ community. There was a poem by Ellen Link that I go back to again and again that inspires my sense of the value of connection; and connection with nature as a healing force in contradistinction to this narrow framework we are meant to fit in with when it comes to being seen as valid, mentally healthy members of society: “In the woods they blast/ your courage to tell you/ you are not a tree, that the wild wind /and the grey skies are not your cousins/ though their atoms be like yours. . .”

For further reading:

Colin Hambrook’s Art and Poetry Blog

Celebrating the Survivors’ Movement

Jess Thom’s Tourettes Hero

10 000 Cuts and Counting 1

10 000 Cuts and Counting 2

10 000 Cuts and Counting 3

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The Courage to Come Forward – an Interview with Colin Hambrook by Gaele Sobott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.