Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying & Tell People I’m English by Rodge Glass.
Hello 3:AM. The last time we spoke, I’d just spilled over the border into La Paz. I was soaked to the skin, it was New Year’s Eve, and I’d lost my books. I was excited to be in this chaotic, youthful country, such a contrast in so many ways to the magnificent, silent Chilean desert my wife and I had just left. But back then I was exhausted – now I’m full of energy, running marathons in my sleep. Once again, we’re somewhere new. Once again, we’re getting to know a city. But this time something feels different. And the rucksack is finally, completely, unpacked. After spending recent days writing and walking around Cochabamba, the thousand-year-old city in the west of Bolivia, I’d like to talk about national identity, religious identity, and the intersection between the two. As ever, I start and finish with writing.
There is, as discussed in this month’s Granta magazine, a long and rich tradition of writers pinning messages near their desks in order to help their process. The great short story master Raymond Carver’s note to himself was typically succinct: ‘No tricks’ he insisted. And he kept to it. I’m too restless to stick to one piece of advice, forever switching and changing my inspiration in order to get my engine started in the mornings – but if an idea sticks for more than a few days, I know it’s speaking to me. If it stays for weeks, there’s something that needs investigating. When researching last month’s 3:AM blog, I came across a piece in the New York Review of Books which did exactly that.
Essentially ‘The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño’ by Sarah Kerr (December 2008) was a review of two Bolaño books, then newly published – his novel 2666 and also the first English language collection of his poetry, The Romantic Dogs. But it also explored the strange, unique way Bolaño saw the world, his background, and how that background found its way onto page. The piece particularly examined his complicated sense of identity, something I’d always wondered about, given it was multi-national: he spent his childhood in Chile, then lived a wild life as a young man in Mexico before growing up, getting married and finally finding peace as a quiet family man on Spanish Costa Brava. So no wonder 2666 had North America, Central America, South America and Europe in its sights all at once, his characters travelling widely and refusing to accept a simple narrative or identity at every turn.
In ‘The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño’, Kerr writes: ‘Bolaño had a deep scepticism about national feeling, and it has been said that his work starts to point the way to a kind of post-national fiction.’ This is the quote that stuck with me. I had no idea this had been said about Bolaño, and the article didn’t say who’d first used the phrase ‘post-national fiction’. But immediately my ears pricked up. I had that experience so many of us do when we find that particular book, or story, or writer, who touches a nerve so strong that it feels as if it covers us completely. Like our whole bodies have morphed into a funny bone and the world has briefly come, even just for a second, sharp into focus. I read this line about Bolaño and thought: that’s me! I’m post-national! Or at least, I desperately want to be! I’d not thought it through yet but the sentence hit me in the gut, and it did so because like every other writer, everywhere, ever, I’m obsessed with myself. Something which is undoubtedly heightened by spending so much time in the nations of others, in a place where my skin colour, clothes and accent mark me out so clearly as a foreigner. Yesterday I wore flip flops because the sun came out for ten minutes. Men don’t wear flip flops here, especially not during the rainy season. Let’s be honest: I’m not blending in. But why does this issue of identity preoccupy me so much?
Last night, I gave the first public reading from my novel-in-progress, Once a Great Leader, the book I’ve been talking about in these blogs. It’s set between Latin America and Britain, and is partly about the search for identity. But I don’t want to talk about the book this time, I want to focus on the experience. And how it connects to Bolaño’s post-national world.
The reading took place in Casa Principal, the headquarters of Sustainable Bolivia, the organisation my wife is working for here in Cochabamba. I’m here to soak up the city of Cochabamba as much as I can, also to take notes for the Bolivian section of Once a Great Leader. We’re living in Casa Lopez, the volunteer house where our international housemates are also staying while contributing to educational, health-related and fundraising projects all over the city. Sustainable Bolivia is genuinely integrated into the local culture. It’s not-for-profit. It doesn’t charge volunteers extortionate amounts for the privilege of making a contribution. So in short, these people are doing proper work – which makes my dreamy cloud-watching seem indulgent. But I’ve immediately felt comfortable here, I like hearing what others are doing over breakfast, and I was happy to host a Charla (talk) for the Sustainable Bolivia volunteers about my world. In the end, the group taught me more than I told them. It seems many travellers here either want to be writers, or love to write journals, or are just interested in writing. Which makes sense. Those who explore are bound to want to record that exploration in some way. Also, putting thoughts on paper helps us make sense of the landscape around us, and our place in it. Over dinner, I met some interesting people.
The first thing folks say to you in a situation like this one is: where do you come from? When asked, my wife is proud to say she’s from Scotland, and from the city of Glasgow specifically. Despite having travelled widely in several continents, teaching in Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile and now Bolivia, she has a clear, strong national identity. She has a Scottish flag on her rucksack. On the surface, my answer should be equally as simple: I’m English. But I’ve noticed recently that I tend to hesitate, not knowing quite what to say. Perhaps it’s an inability to give a straight answer. Perhaps it’s because there are certain parts of my identity I’m more at ease with than others. Or perhaps it’s because the answer is genuinely complicated. I’m not saying my situation is any more complicated than anyone else’s but, while chatting to anthropologists from Holland, film-makers from Brazil and many others besides at the Sustainable Bolivia house, I wanted to be honest. And why not? It’s not rare to have a mongrel character.
I was born in 1978 into the Mancunian Jewish community, and perhaps religion is the best place to start here, as it influenced me the most – but even that is complex, as Judaism might be described as a culture as much as a religion. Or perhaps nothing to do with religion at all. (Depends which Rabbi you ask, I’m afraid. The old adage about two Jews having three opinions has some truth in it.) Of course, my Judaism is also influenced by the nations my ancestors lived in. If you go back far enough, my family comes from Russia, Bulgaria, and Germany too (the borders have shifted over the years), and my mum in particular still feels a strong, meaningful connection to Russia, having been close to her Russian family. Largely those other national identities are not mine, though the food traditionally eaten in the ghettos and shtetls of Eastern Europe has survived, still being eaten in Jewish homes; I was raised on delicious Shabbat (Sabbath) meals which seemed as essential to my childhood as my own arms or legs. Also some Yiddish words have survived through previous generations and down to me. If anyone can give me direct English translations of words like ‘schlep’, ‘schloch’ and ‘mensch’, I’m prepared to use them. But until then, that language isn’t dead.
My parents were raised orthodox in the North of England, though I am Reform and pleased to say my clan now extends to non-Jews of all stripes. I do feel Jewish, and I’m proud that my upbringing gave me values I still hold today, especially in relation to tzedakah (charity) and also the spirit of debate that has shaped much of my work. I was raised with the high holy days, the festivals, I learned Hebrew in my Jewish Primary School from the local Rabbi, I sang Hebrew songs in the choir and conducted my bar mitzvah piece in that language too, in front of my community, in my local synagogue – as intended, it encouraged me to act like a man, though the ability to read from the scriptures is long-forgotten now. Two decades later, my best friend is the Rabbi at that same synagogue and I couldn’t be prouder of him. I attended Jewish Sunday school too, and taught younger children when I was a teenager. I went on holiday camps with a Socialist-Zionist youth movement every summer and winter for several years, and spent one camp watching videos of bodies being scooped up by trucks in Nazi concentration camps, something I’ll never forget, no matter how hard I try. The social justice elements spoke to me, so I stayed on and became a leader. Like many Jewish-British teenagers, I also spent a year in Israel, between Jerusalem University and a Kibbutz in the desert, where I was at my happiest picking Pomelo fruit, eating in the communal house and talking late into the night. (Perhaps it’s the Kibbutz in me that likes living communally with volunteers.) What else? I’m told I look Jewish too, as well as sound Jewish. Now I read it over, the above seems like a lot. It seems like more than enough for an identity. Perhaps when people ask where I’m from, perhaps I should say: the Jews. It certainly seems like a bigger place in my mind than England does.
Still, I’ve spent the last fifteen years drifting from my Jewish identity, if not running from it. I don’t believe in God, am not a Zionist, I feel uncomfortable in synagogue, I don’t pray, and don’t relate to the Israeli state in the slightest – something that places me at the very edge of most Jewish communities in terms of my politics. Some Jews call me a self-hater and I don’t mind that, though I don’t agree with them. But then, what does it matter if I don’t live in a Jewish community anymore? For years I’d lived mostly in a place where I’m the only one, so these days my Judaism seems like a ghost identity most of the time. It’s still there and always will be, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. Perhaps that’s something I should discuss with my Rabbi.
When my grandma died a few years ago and I went to morning prayers with my dad and brother, wearing the tallas (prayer shawl) and pretending to read from the siddur (prayer book) was certainly the right thing to do (alas, I can’t read the Hebrew any more) – but though it sounds sad, it also felt like something ancient and distant, like someone else’s religion. Is it? A wise man once said that Judaism doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do with God. And anyway, crudely put, if the SS were to knock on my Bolivian door tomorrow and demand to know if I was Jewish, I doubt that claiming not to be a believer would save me. ‘I am a Jew because I am a Jew because I am a Jew’, said another wise man. Roughly translated, if you’re born with it, you’re stuck with it. And I’m certainly built out of the history of Jews, regardless of how I choose to behave. But should I include it when asked where I’m from? Or is that absurd? After my year in Israel, I reacted by diving into another culture and nation, something that, during my travels here in Latin America, I realise I’ve been doing in different ways ever since. Have I been a tourist all that time?
I arrived in Glasgow in 1997 and stayed there, mostly, for fifteen years. Three degrees, two Universities, many jobs and five books later I left the city, though now I have a large Scottish family, my mum lives up there, my wife’s family are Glaswegian and I will always have a strong connection to the place, no matter how the rest of my life unfolds. During that fifteen year stretch I started to lapse into telling people I was Scottish, or at least explaining that I felt more Scottish than anything else. Which, now I write it out, seems ridiculous. Still. Scottish culture and Scottish writers had inspired me to take up the pen; my literary support network was there; the books which guided me were by Scottish writers, and Scottish literature became my literary speciality. I travelled to New York and Copenhagen representing Scotland, discussing Scottish letters, Scottish life. My writer’s apprenticeship was with the finest living Scottish artist, Alasdair Gray, who taught me how to form a sentence and dictated books on Scottish history and politics while I typed. I ended up writing his biography and also a graphic novel about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Scottish soldiers, so if I’ve made any small contribution, surely part of that is to Scotland. And that further complicates things. Writing is supposed to be bearing your soul. Looking deep into your culture. If that culture, for me, has been Scottish during my adult life, does that mean anything at all?
Later in my Scotland period, whenever I visited family in England, I noticed that I knew virtually nothing about my home city, and still only knew the routes I used to take to school or to the train station. I had few friends left in the place as I’d not invested in it. Sometimes my dad would tell people, ‘He went up there to university and forgot to come back’. Also, despite having written three novels based in the north of England, these were largely triggered by childhood memories or attachments; I felt increasingly uncomfortable saying I was from England at all. I had always believed you should try and make something tasty out of local ingredients, wherever you are – and Scotland was where I was. And yet, sometimes I got in a taxi in Glasgow and I’d be asked how long I was here for, if I liked it here, and when I was going back home. That’s the accent talking. No matter what contribution you make to any place other than your childhood home, your voice will always give you away, reminding you, perhaps, to go back.
Which I did in 2012, joining Edge Hill University in Lancashire, a beautiful campus university which has a Liverpool postcode but which is close enough to where I grew up for me to drive there every morning. Though I liked it a lot being in Manchester (and loved walking to Old Trafford to see Manchester United from my Chorlton flat), finally living as an adult in my home city proved to me that I didn’t really come from there; after all these years I’d have to get to know it like a foreigner would. And now, Edge Hill has allowed me to come out here to Latin America, to write this book, and to see how the identities of others operate. Which is another education. In recent months I’ve spoken to or read about Chileans who feel fiercely Chilean, Argentinians who could not feel more Argentinian. And as of this month, Bolivians too. This country has suffered centuries of oppression, it’s struggling with widespread poverty, and it has a multifarious, ancient indigenous culture pre-dating the Spanish conquistadors, also their current borders, by hundreds of years: and they all seem to feel deeply proud to be Bolivian. The first thing people want to know wherever you go is, Do you like my country? It’s the same in Bolivia as it was, say, in the Serbian countryside, or any other complex place I’ve been over the years. The very best thing you can do, your number one weapon to make someone’s day, is to tell them that you love it. If you praise the country, you praise the person. And here in Cocha, you get a great big smile too. Is it something about me that prevents me from feeling the same about England? Or is that in itself an English trait – us English, who are so self-deprecating, so reluctant to fly the flag? It was something I thought about before the reading last night, when meeting new faces who asked me where I came from.
Several people came up to me after the reading and said the book I’d read from sounded ‘so English’. It took me a while to realise this was a compliment. They said they liked my English accent and mentioned English writers whose books they loved. They mentioned English family members, English holidays, English work trips and English experiences on the road. They mentioned the green English countryside and even English food. I was slow to pick up what was happening, but I eventually noticed they were doing exactly what I’m bound to do when I get home: enthuse about where I’ve been, despite its flaws, embracing it for what it is, the good and the bad. Which is the same in every place. And which is what I should do, despite my instincts, when it comes to my own country. Perhaps, I finally realised, in order to understand anything about other people’s nations, you need to learn to accept your own and not worry about it too much. Though that wouldn’t be very English now would it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rodge Glass is the author of six books, most recently LoveSexTravelMusik: Stories for the Easyjet Generation, as well as the biography Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography, and he is co-author of the graphic novel Dougie’s War: A Soldier’s War. He is supported by the Edge Hill University REF Investment Fund, and by Arts Council England. [Pic: Georgie Glass]
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, February 7th, 2014.