A quest awaits me here, I’m searching for familiarity, anything that might point to a sense of belonging in this strange, mixed-up city centre where neo-classicism is at war with the ultra-modern. If you open my passport you’ll see ‘Place of birth: Birmingham’. This isn’t strictly true, I was actually born in the suburban satellite town of Solihull, but to all intents and purposes, I’m from Birmingham. I’m a Brummy. Aren’t I? Well, the short, intuitive answer is no, I’m moved away when I was six, and anyway, I feel half Dutch now. In today’s blog I’m talking to two of the High Impact authors about where they are from and how that affects their identity.
I start by asking Chika Unigwe on the train from Oxford to Birmingham. Where were you born is an easier question than where are you from. Her answer is Enugu in Nigeria, the country in which she spent her childhood. She grew up speaking Ibu and the lingua franca English but moved to Turnhout in Flemish Belgium she was eighteen. She still lives there with her Belgian husband, though they lived in Canada for a while and she has spent a lot of time in the UK.
I ask her whether she feels Belgian or Nigerian? ‘It depends on the time of day’. That’s familiar to me. She is both nationalities at the same time and it affects her writing. ‘Some of my experiences are outside Belgian reality,’ she says, ‘so it is more logical to write about them in English.’ Others must be written about in Dutch, like the short stories she has just published. We discuss our common experiences as outsiders in the low countries. It’s not easy to integrate but she suggests that a white continental European identity (like her husband’s) makes it much easier than when you are a different colour. There’s an assumption of common values.
Her children, raised in Belgium, with a white Flemish father, are still sometimes asked where they are really from. ‘But the UK has always felt like a haven because the level of acceptance is greater,’ she adds. ‘It’s a historical difference, black people have been here longer and so are more integrated. Nigerians didn’t really start moving to Belgium in any great numbers until a decade ago.’ In England there’s a black audience for her events. In Belgium, the recent arrivals are still struggling to find their way. Literature is a luxury and the Dutch language is still too unfamiliar.
At the end of our chat we both agree that the myth of national identity in general needs addressing. ‘Society is becoming ever more diverse, there is no dichotomy of black or white,’ Chika says. Fifty shades of grey, I think to myself. A 21st century identity is not necessarily formed by nationality but is fluid and shifting and we need to be able to accommodate that, without automatically reaching for cliches of place and belonging.
One thing Chika has in common with Peter Terrin, the next writer I discuss these issues with, is a reluctance to call themselves ‘Flemish’. It’s too small, ‘Belgian’ is more encompassing. Being Flemish is not an identity but a culture, a political stance. Peter calls himself ‘a European’. He was born in Teelt in West Flanders and moved to Ghent at the age of twenty. Flanders feels too small and narrow-minded for him too, he says. ‘Nationalism is very present again unfortunately.’ Then he tells me about an important period in his life when he was seeking an identity for himself and moved to York to join a girlfriend. Yes, York in Yorkshire, a city I wouldn’t automatically place him in.
A long-standing fan of British culture, he’d grown up like many Dutch-speakers watching the BBC. ‘Snooker, football, East Enders, Only Fools and Horses, I watched it all,’ he says. Though having lived in England he realised that his adoption of ‘Britishness’ was tied up in his relationship to his girlfriend and when they broke up he moved back to Ghent. ‘You can really see that the UK is an island now, it’s its own tiny world, falling back on it own traditions. There’s too little refinement. I don’t feel at home here anymore.’
It’s interesting because I don’t feel at home in Britain anymore either. Getting off a plane here and entering the fray of raucous voices and the badly-clad always feels like a rupture to me too. I don’t feel like I belong and I find Birmingham even harder to place, though the event takes place in a full Cathedral and suddenly I do feel at home again. I’m an atheist but despite this there are cultural traces of religion in my sense of inner self. Funnily enough, Ramsey Nasr feels this too and it’s the theme of his reading tonight, the magnificent poem ‘Psalm for an origin’. A child of a non-practising Muslim and a non-practising Catholic he’s ended up with an attachment to Calvinism he describes as like a ‘coccyx’.