As I said yesterday, the most interesting session for my of the first day of the Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival was called “The right to belong“, with William Yeoman facilitating a conversation between Tim Costello, Abdi Aden and Isabelle Li . I am only going to touch on a few points made, but my notes are below and I am happy to explain the context of any of the fragments.
The discussion was based around the question “What does it mean to belong in Australia ?”. Tim Costello was CEO of World Vision and writes about equity issues. Isabelle Li was born in China, but came to Australia voluntarily to resettle in 1999 after living for five years in Singapore. Abdi Aden was a Somalian refugee who came to Melbourne at 17 and now works as a youth worker.
The most library-relevant part of the talk was Isabelle Li describing her annoyance at being asked “but how could you understand what it was about?” when she revealed that she had read Dicken’s David Copperfield several times as a teen because she loved it so much; the presumption being that a 20th Century young woman in China would not have anything in common with a young lad in Victorian times. But, “of COURSE I could empathise with the characters. That’s the POINT of literature”.
It made me think of libraries, particularly public libraries, as “empathy peddlars”. By providing a wide range of literature, much of it people would not come across for themselves, do we provide more chance for people to put themselves in each others’ shoes? Do our programmes for such a wide cross section of the community give people exposure to ideas and people that they would otherwise avoid ? Does the common purpose of using wifi or a comfy workspace, and the fact that NO ONE IS FORCED TO BE THERE, mean that people get to understand that other people with whom they think they have nothing in common, actually make similar choices to themselves?
I think that there is a lot to be written about the role of empathy, kindness and compassion in libraries (particularly public libraries), and library staff as “empathy workers”. I hope to elaborate later in June…
The tension throughout the session at the writers’ festival was how to welcome new people and help them identify as belonging, while avoiding this identification creating a strong US that then needs a THEM to exclude (to better define a stronger US). How can we avoid re-tribalization when people are seeking belonging, and how does this fit in with attempts to create an ongoing peace? I liked Tim Costello’s analysis of people being willing to follow the Gods of Blood and Soil, which leads to increased racism and nationalism – both allowing demonization of scapegoats (and as has been shown, providing a mechanism that has got people elected).
Isabelle Li talked about the difference between her, as someone who came to Australia by choice, and Abdi Aden as someone who had no choice. Abdi had earlier made the point that, unlike many others who migrate to Australia, he is currently and permanently displaced from a culture that now no longer exists anywhere, having been destroyed by war. He recounted being told that the lack of acceptance by Australians of Somalian refugees would be a passing phase ” The Greeks went through it, the Italians went through it, just wait your turn” … but he is not sure that he wants to wait.
Isabelle asked what we had done here in Australia to fail the young Abdi so badly. And how may we be continuing to do this? This was taken up by the panel as they examined questions about whether only caring for the poor in one’s own country, or only caring when they end up displaced to one’s country, is a failure of compassion. And maybe simply creating problems economically and politically that could be solved more pragmatically by greater foreign aid?
Briefly touched on, but I liked the idea, was the thought that belonging in a new country can happen when one feels confident that one can contribute to the future of the country.
As I said, there was a lot more in the hour-long session (like Tim Costello posing the question “Can the best of our Faith defeat the worst of Religion?”), but many of the ideas would spark their own separate post.