Where do I belong? Here?

4 May

Where indeed do I belong? That’s a question bang on the money that I have personally been asking for all the 70 years of my life! Shortly after Anita Sethi’s talk started, at the Swindon Festival of Literature, the penny dropped that it wasn’t all about me! It actually couldn’t be.

OK, there were several overarching aspects of human existence from which I could learn or be reminded about eg the kindness of strangers, the stunning power of the countryside and the therapeutic value of creating with the written word. 

However, there was much more as the session was to be a quite intimate revealing of the impact of, and response to overt, shameful racism which is wholly outside my experience being a white male. Thank you Anita.

The conversations with “I Belong Here” author, Anita Sethi were all that and much, much more. The conceit, the starting point, immediately sparked interest in a much deeper way than similar incidents we might gloss over in a red top or even a broadsheet newspaper or internet site: “Asian woman racially abused on train.” The chance given here is to delve much deeper. 

Anita, of mixed heritage including Guinea, India, the Caribbean and Kenya, emphasised that she was born and had lived all her life in England: Anita is a British woman with brown skin colour. As a white, elderly British man I cannot begin to imagine how Anita Sethi felt during and after this abusive incident. However, some readings she gave at the online event, opened up a new world to me due to her clear and evocative descriptions. That, in this quite short, 50 minute interview Anita eloquently described the meta issues arising from intimate details of her anxious heartbeats and fear of travelling alone again and the open racism, did mean that her life was opened up in some way to myself, as an outsider. The breadth of the author’s research, to support her self-analysis and self-development, walking back towards wellbeing, is outstanding. 

Some of the sections, eg Mouth, Backbone, Lifeblood, Foot, shows what might lay in store for the reader. The whole journey is set amongst walking tours of the backbone of England, the Pennine Way with its treasures explored, reflected upon, and then moved on from, in a strengthened way. As Anita returns to rude emotional, and I am sure, physical health, so we the listener are given hope. Readers may well breathe more freely and compassionately, the air in their lungs, which as Anita points out, unifies us all, as it is identical to, and shared by, all other humans. 

The co-interviewers, Matt Holland, director of the Swindon Festival of Literature, an elderly male with whom I can identify, and Asian female researcher and writer, Jahnvi Singh, (who of course had cultural insights beyond me), meant for comfortable and informed viewing with the best of both worlds.

If I have any criticism it would be that the time rushed by as I was eager to know more! I am looking forward to reading the whole book and discover how I might get the most out of the countryside; also to learn what Anita has demonstrated in her formidable first book: how to turn adversity into positive steps forward strengthening our backbones for fulfilled, broadly educated lives. 

So, where do I belong? Clearly I belong at many more of the 40 events at this year’s Swindon Festival of Literature. Now, how can I play a part in getting a more holistic education curriculum that teaches why black and brown people are living in the UK? And further, how we in the white indigenous population might much better live in harmony and not ignorant hate with our colonially-rooted, diversity of cultures that so enrich the UK in the 21st Century. 

Now, where are my campaigning and walking boots? 

Words by Tony Hillier

Anita Sethi, author of I Belong Here, was a guest at the Swindon Festival of Literature online 2021.

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