Words from a tiny town in a far off corner of Iceland.
This is a landscape of edges and surfaces. What looks like the sky is actually the mountain, its steep, hard cliffs jutting darkly out from under the snow and looming over the town like a tidal wave. The sky exists only as the empty stretch between the peaks, and a lone airplane crossing and leaving traces in the blue remains the sole reminder of the world outside. Sometimes the sky is completely white, like the land, and the two things cannot be told apart. It is not yet late enough in the year for the sun to rise over the mountain, so the town must do with the reflection from the snow, which comes and goes, but mostly comes.
I am not alone here, but with others, all of us with a different story. Some have parents who don’t come from where their children come from, others have lived the same place their whole lives. Some have a whole life set up already, others are just starting out. We are all here for different reasons and with different backgrounds, and our experiences of the snow and the sky and the things we do differ from eye to eye. I arrived here with my own baggage, in the form of two university degrees and a distaste for the establishment I was slowly weaving my way into. In this place, I try to shed all the hard skin that I have grown in response.
In the mornings, we meet in the deserted town theater. We sit in a circle on the wooden floor, the stage rising above us with red, velvet curtains. The wooden seats frame the entrance behind us, taken from an old German cinema. You can tell because of the lettering that is still embossed in the brass signs at the end of each row. We take turns bringing something new into each morning. Sometimes we dance, or make voices, or draw, or watch something. Once we formed a human tunnel which each of us crawled through as the others muttered their life story in our ears. On a brightening spring morning in March, on which the snow still lies heavily against the asphalt outside, I bring a book.
I have spent the past two months struggling between my urge to read and my hesitation to make, a clear sign of too many years in academia. It is difficult to get rid of old habits and to figure out the balance between using what you have and discarding what you don’t need. My choice of material this morning in March is a surrender to the centrality of words in my understanding of the world.
The book is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, about being black in America. I read it the previous year while I was living in on Georgia Avenue in Washington DC, the border between the newly gentrified Columbia Heights and its poorer, black neighborhood. On my street, there were laundromats, liquor stores, a chinese takeout – and one coffee bar and yoga studio. Everyone seemed to silently acknowledge the approaching future that these two places prophesied.
I bring the book while we are in the middle of a week about the narratives and discourses that shape our reality. We have talked about capitalism, about the notion of progress, about hierarchies, about the ideas that dictate adulthood. We have talked about sexuality and gender, and we have talked a little bit about race. We have discussed how all of these discourses have impacted the way we have lived our lives, and we have tried to find a fissure between them from which we can experience and expand our own way of being in the world.
I am myself not American, nor black, but I feel entangled in the conflict within the two that Coates dissects. No white person, whatever that may mean, can read this book without looking both inwards and outwards. I am myself a white European from a former colonial and slave trading power. My own country tends towards the slightly to highly racist when it comes to people with darker skin. I find it pertinent to bring Coates’ words into our little, self-sufficient bubble only bordered by mountains and water.
I decide to read from the beginning of the book, for about twenty pages. In these pages, Coates addresses his teenage son, explaining the history of oppression which has shaped his own story and will shape the future of his son’s:
You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. – Between the World and Me
I am sitting in a red, plush arm chair and the others are gathered in a circle around me, on the floor, on blankets, in the sofas. There is a plastic plant in the corner, which accompanies all our group discussions. I feel faces turned up towards me attentively, or staring hard into the floorboards, listening. I make an effort to read slowly and firmly, with emphasis and feeling, trying to do justice to Coates’ poetry and politics. I don’t remember the last time I read aloud. It seems a dying trait in the western world, preserved only in bedtime stories and publication events. I remember a professor once saying that the practice of reading aloud in Europe faded in the 18th century as the novel took its form for a female audience that were supposed to be seen but not heard.
Reading Coates’ words out loud is not just a political revelation, but also a literary one. I notice how well-structured his sentences are, how powerful his words sound in this cavernous room, and how they have a nearly physical impact on their audience and myself. I find myself trying to keep my voice steady during especially emotional and violent passages, which seem to come off the page and slap me around the face with their brutal injustice. I feel a tension in the room, like an invisible thread strung out between each of us in the circle, all connected to this story that is being told. Except for my voice, it is quiet.
Sell cigarettes without authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. – Between the World and Me
After fifteen minutes, I come to the end of a chapter and close the book. I realize I have not known what would come after. I start worrying, like I had while deciding on a topic, whether reading something aloud had been a silly idea, whether I had chosen too difficult a book, whether anyone would even be interested in what I felt was so essential to my understanding of the world.
The room is completely silent. People continue to look down or look up, and no one shifts for a while. I can’t remember now who said the first thing, only that it does not break the tension but somehow heightens it. People start speaking into the tension instead of trying to dissolve it. Some in the circle disagree with Coates’ diagnosis and argument. Some feel his reality very close to their own. Everyone seems to feel the palpable way that his words have edged their way under their skin, to spread to the fingertips and the tongue and the head in a feeling of restlessness and resistance.
Unlike Coates, who is born into a body that cannot yet escape being at the brunt end of epistemic and physical, violence, I can close the book and forget his story. But his words still reverberate into my daily life and inform my thoughts and actions, and my feeling is that by reading them aloud to this group of true friends, his words spread a little further into other bodies and realities and manifest themselves in even more actions, choices and words spoken around the world. More specifically, reading Coates in the whitest of white countries, where people and snow melt together to form a similar hue, showed that words can speak across cultures and affect us even in the remotest of places.
However, this is not a story that ends with a moral and a conclusion. Do not trust my words, because they only represent one out of twenty-two experiences had in that room in that town in that fjord in that month of March. It is only my own little hope that out there in the world, there are twenty-one people carrying and carrying out words that Coates once painfully lived on the streets of Baltimore, that he once wrote in frustration and inspiration at his desk in New York, and that I once spoke in a tiny, tucked-away fjord at the end of the world. It’s small, but it feels significant.
Photos by Cleo Claudine