Prelude 2020: Drawing Borders On Stolen Land
Jennifer Neal responds to the events of 2020, inspired in part by Wordsworth’s epic poem The Prelude. Commissioned by The Willowherb Review and Aerial.
“Who has the “right” to go where? As someone who has lived on four different continents and whose livelihood has centered on the right to “move freely,” this is a precarious question which, I feel, is part of a wider discussion on cultural imperialism, Indigenous activism, and stolen land. While quarantined in my flat alone, I’ve thought deeply about how I navigate through the world as a professional immigrant, and feel that a reshaping of my approach to travel is imperative in whatever world that awaits.”
Drawing Borders on Stolen Land
Not that long ago, I saw a tourism ad on YouTube. A camera slowly zoomed out of a pristine beach. Crystal clear waves lapped at the sand. Underneath the water, I saw darkened outlines of plants and their creatures: shadows of life that formed a topography beneath the surface like an antique marine map.
“Being with people you love.
Connecting with nature.
That’s Greek summer.”
I yelled directly back at the computer screen, as I had been doing for several months since the lockdown began. “That’s Greek summer for who?”
The ad reminded me that it had been months since I’d stood at the top of a peak overlooking Rochers de Naye, watching the sun descend behind snow-capped mountains. Shadows cast by refracted bursts of light had stretched out like sinewy limbs, highlighting bloodstains in the snow that I’d conveniently ignored because I was still happily digesting melted gruyere. My raclette lunch had been scraped down to the grit of its cast-iron pot. And I’d hovered over it, surrounded by the warmth and laughter of drunk, happy strangers.
This is how I will remember my last trip before the pandemic put the world on notice—when I thought that it was just one flight among many more that were to come in the following year.
But during the second month of lockdown in Berlin, where I live, after wearing out the elastic in all of my favourite sports bras while bulldozing through a back catalogue of TV shows and books, I had the pleasure—along with two hundred other participants around the world—of attending an online event with the author Monica Byrne.
In her talk, Monica discussed “The Age of Emergency,” world-building, and utopias. After she finished speaking, she asked us to write down the tools that we would need to construct our own. Immediately, my mind went to the racial justice platforms that have shaped my life. From a Black woman in the United States, my first nationality, to a Black-American amongst First Nations people in Australia—my second. I saw nothing utopian in either.
But then, in the video chat log, someone suggested the elimination of borders and nation-states. And though nebulous at first, it’s an idea that has been keeping me up at night ever since. My life, my career, my very coping mechanism for anxiety has been that if, for whatever reason, something isn’t working out in one place, I can always move to another one. And I have. I’ve lived in thirteen different cities on four different continents, manoeuvring between national currencies, identities, and the fragile partisan rhetoric that props them up. And for years, I questioned the construction of my own identity, as amenable to my environments as the languages I used to navigate them. And yet any impulse to scrutinise the cultural mythologies that have shaped whole nations has meant me being derided beyond their borders to lands where I find things much the same.
This year, my suitcase has been sitting under my bed, static and useless. Instead of escaping, I’ve been scraping off corpses of dead moths, rogue strands of hair, and stockpiling plastic shower caps so that I wouldn’t forget them the next time I’m in transit. This isn’t a protest or an indictment. I have no moral high ground. I love to travel, and I always will.
For me, this is a moment to stand still. When I’m still, I see how all of the countries I once called “home” are imploding because the myths they created to legitimise their jingoism have directly led to their moral downfall instead.
For me, it’s a moment to hope that one of the possible outcomes of this global upheaval is a recognition of the damage that’s been inflicted by the drive to distinguish the ones who belong “here” from the ones who don’t.
It’s a moment to think about people whose stories are as yet unwritten, and the people who are still not valued as much as the natural resources being dug up from their homes and exported abroad. And for a minute, I imagine what it’s like not having the same amount of social capital as a lump of coltan. I imagine if people could move around as easily as their finances, which travel seamlessly between countries, cultures, and languages—welcomed with open arms wherever they go. I imagine if people were capable of viewing a crisis outside of their borders with the moral urgency of a crisis within them, particularly when it’s a crisis composed of infinite other crises, rotting beneath the surface.
And that’s when I find myself dangerously on the edge of imagining a utopia, while still (and at times, barely) functioning in this dystopian reality. One in which my first nationality is embroiled in a bitter fight for racial equity—and my second has stopped trying to disguise its righteous turpitude as sovereignty. Both continue to brazenly block the migrants in most need of asylum while continuing to erode the rights of the people from whom the land was stolen.
When the Greece ad finishes, I stare at my computer screen waiting for the programme to load, all the while wondering if that ad was meant for me—or if viewing it was some sort of statistical fluke. I know the algorithm intended it for Germans. I know that I am not considered to be one of them, wouldn’t be even if I was born here—because neither of my parents were.
The news segment finally loads, showing dozens of faces as dark as mine crowded in life rafts, toppling on choppy waters, being steered away from port at Lesbos, near the Turkish border. I try to imagine them happily lounging on the beaches with their families, in nature, feeling free… what it might be like to welcome them to Europe, except that “Europe” no longer exists. It is simply a place where people live because it is land and land can’t be owned by anyone.
The beaches are still beautiful. The water is still clean. It’s not the most imaginative or radical utopia, but it’s still better than what we’ve got now.
Jennifer Neal Jennifer is an American and Australian writer, journalist, visual artist, and occasional standup comedian currently living in Berlin. She has lived and worked around the world, including Japan, Spain, Australia, and now Germany. Her work has appeared in The Cut, Playboy, NPR, CNN, Gay Magazine, The Establishment and many more.
Aerial is a festival of contemporary music, literature & performance, taking place in the stunning landscape of the Lake District.
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