All through this year’s glorious U.K summer we’ve been thinking about snow and ice – literally and metaphorically – for our project to reimagine Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen story. The nights are drawing in now, the wind is cold and we’re getting closer and closer to our event. Scroll down for more information & how to book. (Maria tried to chase the sun but found she couldn’t escape.)
On a short break in beautiful Málaga, not only did the rain catch up with me, but who should I bump into: Mr Andersen who travelled to Málaga in 1862, on one of the ‘first cultural tours of the 19th century’. Here is a sculpture of him by Maria Córdoba in the Spanish town he said he felt ‘most happy and comfortable’ in.
As if that wasn’t enough at CAC (Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga) I found myself mesmerised by this and other paintings by Hernan Bas – all of men or boys. It’s called Thawing.
Paintings of men/boys generally hold a currency of ‘everyman’-ness while women are interpreted very differently in the art world which in turn determines how non-binary people are seen. Bas’ young men in the exhibition are referred to as androgynous. I’ve yet to see a major exhibition by an out lesbian artist.
Nevertheless I was enchanted by this artist’s work: his exploration of adolescence, the shifts between past and present in his paintings, of which he says that he likes to make images ‘that describe the middle of the story, maybe the intermission, but never the end’.
Back to Snow Q EVENTS: On December 1st at 4pmLewes Live Literature presents a sneak preview from Snow Q. Maria Jastrzębska will talk about the Snow Q project, with performances by actor Rita Suszek of new text written in the curious hybrid language of Ponglish (half English / half Polish). An intimate try-out of a new work in progress at the secret space that is LLL HQ. Numbers are very limited and entry is free but by invitation only. If you would like to come please contact: email@example.com.
OnDecember 21st between 4pm and 9pm Snow Q presents its COLLABORATIVE INSTALLATION at the Regency Town House Basement Annexe in Brighton/Hove. For all the information about our event please go to our Snow Q event page or click HERE – we recommend booking! This will be the culmination of this phase of our work. Which isn’t the same as the end of course…
Two of Snow Q’s founding artists, fine artist Dagmara and writer Maria, are Polish-born and bilingual, actor Rita is a more recent arrival from Poland and the composer Peter has strong Polish connections and knows Polish. We’ve drawn inspiration for this collaborative project from The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (written in Danish, translated into many languages including Polish and English.) At our meetings we often switch between languages. Not surprisingly perhaps Maria has been writing poems for the project in somewhat macaronic language or what she calls Ponglish… Peter asked her to explain a bit more about this:
You know how it is with artistic decisions – you go on your nerve then rationalise later. Originally Gerda was going to speak with words simply missing (her difficulty in finding/expressing herself) but it didn’t work as well out loud so I had to think again. And I wanted to write something that explores the bilingualism of our project anyway.
I’ve been drawn to Gerda and Kai, the two young people in the original story but there is another character who immediately caught my imagination too. I haven’t wanted to post spoilers but some background could be helpful.
On her quest Gerda is helped by the Crow, whose first language – naturally – is Crow. “it is so difficult to speak your language” the Crow says to Gerda. Sadly, although her grandmother understands Crow, Gerda has never learnt it. How many migrant families struggle with communication across generations as well as with their host countries? How many languages become erased?
I grew up between two cultures, two languages. We children would mix those languages as I hear young Polish people doing today. My parents discouraged this, hoping to preserve our mother-tongue. Largely thanks to them I’ve maintained a good level of Polish, but of course there was something deliciously transgressive about mixing the languages – Ponglish has that charm for me.
I’m obviously not the first poet to write about a Crow… but am hoping mine has its own identity. (More Shakespearian Fool than naturalistic animal.) Incidentally, in Polish Crow takes the feminine pronoun while animals in English are generally ‘it’ (Ted Hughes’ Crow is ‘he’ of course) which adds another dimension to thinking about it/her!
My Crow is old – in Timelord (sic) fashion – and has managed to learn a mix of Polish and English as additional languages. Being a bird gives it a wider perspective on the world it has flown over. Gerda and Kai are more typically second generation so mix in a bit of their mother tongue but speak mostly English. Kai’s Polish has become almost a form of punctuation – the way London kids say ‘innit’ etc – while Gerda uses Polish for emphasis or when searching for a word.
I am also by no means the only writer working with a plurality of languages: among others, poets such as Vahni Capildeo (equally at home in Old Norse and the various languages of her Indian diaspora/Caribbean background) or Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese (using English, Polish and Danish) spring to mind. I write in English but Polish is always there at my shoulder. Mary Jean Chan* calls Chinese a ‘foil or fraternal twin’ to her English. She too has written on the importance of multilingualism for children.
In the poems I’ve been writing for our installation Polish words are preceded or followed by English translation though it’s not always quite so literal. Writing like this has allowed me to be playful, enjoying both languages, (plus a few in Crow) which I hope the audience will pick up on. As the words are mainly spoken – not on the page – the sound matters as much as meaning.
Myself and actor Rita Suszek will be presenting a sneak preview of this work in Lewes on Dec 1st. Entry is by invitation as numbers are limited – If you’d like to be invited, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you to Dagmara for all sketches.
*Mary Jean Chan New Poetries VII Carcanet
& Queerness as Translation: from Linear Time to Playtime in Modern Poetry in Translation House of Thirst Focus on LGBTQ+ Poetry, No 2 2018
If you told someone they were looking especially old, how would it go down? Why is ‘old’ – still – such a dirty word? As part of our research and development for Snow Q, a collaborative project inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen story, we’ve been meeting different groups in the community. It’s important to us to work across a range of ages. So often in our artistic work – unless we are teaching young students – we can end up spending time with people of the same age. Having worked with the Brighton Young Carers Group earlier in the project, Maria recently visited Older and Out a social networking group providing a monthly lunch & meet up for local older LGBTQUI people where she received a warm welcome and tasty fish and chips:
In the Snow Queen story Gerda is helped on her quest by a range of characters, including two of my favourite: the old Lapland woman and the old Finnish woman. They live in the far north of the world, nearest to the Snow Queen’s frozen domain. The Lapland woman guides Gerda on her way and in order to communicate with the Finnish woman – and since she has no paper – she writes her a message on a dry fish. When the Finnish woman receives the message, after she has read it three times so that she knows it by heart, she pops the fish into her saucepan as she never wastes anything…We had some wonderful discussions with the Older and Out group about stories and characters they remembered being influenced by or looking up to as children. These often included comic book characters rather than literary ones, Rupert Bear, Minnie the Minx, Desperate Dan, Wonder Woman, Dan Dare, also The Famous Five as well as actual war heroes such as fighter pilots Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson. Some of the group were children during World War 2 and could remember the impact of their stories vividly. Some remembered growing up before TV and the thrill of being allowed to buy a comic. Not surprisingly, a couple of the women mentioned feeling alienated from female role models of the time.
Although we’d already eaten our fish for lunch (followed by trifle!) Dagmara had kindly prepared some Snow Q paper fish for me which I then asked the group to write messages on. Being passionate about inter-generational dialogue I asked them to write messages for younger people on the fish – in true older Lapland woman style – in particular their messages for young LGBTIQ people. These messages will be worked into our installation with Dagmara’s help.
In the work I’ve done with both older and younger LGBTIQ people before as part of the ongoing heritage project Queer in Brighton I’ve been struck by how vital this communication across different generations is. We often don’t know our own history as it’s been erased or covered up in mainstream narratives. Our relationship to family is not always straight(sic)-forward so that feeling connected to those younger and older than ourselves is especially important. We need our elders. As someone who never had much in the way of role models and who is now older myself, I felt especially privileged and touched to be working not only with people of my age but also those older than me who struggled for years in the face of prejudice and persecution.
Katabasis is an ancient Greek word meaning a descent. It can mean the sinking of the winds or sun, following a river down towards the sea (in some texts it’s a military retreat) or – more importantly for us – a trip to the underworld. A gradual deepening or descending in the search for understanding. Team Snow Q recently re-visited the Regency Town House Annexe Basement in Hove – the site for our collaborative installation re-imagining Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen, which will take place at Winter Solstice, on December 21st, 2018. Details about this will follow in a later post but meanwhile Dagmara and Wendy explain why we chose this exciting space:
There are many stories within stories in the Snow Queen. They vary in length and pace and some may even lack an obvious purpose. The structure doesn’t have an apparent pattern, symmetry or rhythm, yet re-reading it doesn’t increase one’s frustration but allows one to see new and unexpected themes and moods. The layout of the basement annex, which was the former servants quarters of The Regency Town House and the chosen venue for our production, is not unlike the story of the Snow Queen. Once you step inside, the long dark corridor takes you straight through the entire basement. All the rooms lead off the corridor and the visitor can experience the space as easily as you can read Hans Christian’s Andersen tale within one sitting.
There was an obvious parallel for us between the story of the Snow Queen and the dark ambience of this basement annex.
The Annex wasn’t completely new to us as we had visited it over the years to see art exhibitions and events but the potential to transform the space still feels limitless. Like in the Snow Queen, there are as many moods and emotional textures as there are rooms within the basement. Each room seems to offer a different scope for an emotional narrative. The newly restored, austere servant’s room we imagined could be occupied by the puritanical Grandmother character of Kai and Gerda (or maybe even by Andersen himself) while the servants’ kitchen we can visualise transforming in to the flamboyant flower garden. There are stairs that lead nowhere. Hiding places for keeping secrets, windows and peeping holes and a claustrophobic, moody meat safe.
Every time we examine this space, we step into another world and discover something new.
If you would like to know a little bit more about the history of the Regency Town House and the Basement Annexe where our event will take a place, please visit this website:
If you’ve been following our posts you know by now what a powerful source – Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen story – we chose for our collaborative project. We are Snow Q. What does the Q stand for? Questions? Queer? Quest? Queen? All of the above and more. Unusually, most of the protagonists in the story were women. Maria wanted to build on that, while she also knew that she wanted the two young protagonists – a little older than Andersen’s children in her portrayal – not to represent girl and boy in a conventional way. However she saw them as still caught up in a world which discriminates on a range of counts including gender, a world which destroys the planet, which forces people to flee from their homes or to live in poverty.
Growing up I looked like a boy, got mistaken for a boy (to my delight) and had no desire to become a woman (or an adult possibly.) Grown women wore pinchy shoes and they didn’t climb trees, did they? Hard to tell now how much of that came from inside or outside. Boys had so many freedoms denied to me as a girl. My frantic mother carted me off to see a psychologist. As I grew older it got worse, since I was attracted to other girls as well as boys. Later I found women (and men) who were detonating the notion of what being a woman means in this society. Ever since, I have embraced identifying as a woman. I still get mistaken for a man from time to time.
Back in those 1960’s/70’s, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy, June Arnold all wrote books with characters who either switched genders or defied categorisation. They used pronouns such as per or na, instead of he and she. I also read writers like Sheila Rowbotham* on the dominance of the male point of view, Don Milligan* on gender and sexuality. There were countless books, papers, meetings and discussions on how inextricably the rigid male-female dichotomy was linked to racism, class, all the ways of dividing people. I realised I was part of something bigger. I joined campaigns and protests, became a feminist.
Perhaps because it was so hard for me to communicate with the generation before mine when I was growing up and also since I’m passionate about language, I’m interested in the different ways older and younger people talk about the world. Younger people are also challenging preconceptions about gender. They’re using words like ‘non-binary’ which reminds me of my experience but I wanted to hear how they see it so I asked some friends:
Tate and Jude Fletcher wrote to me saying:
“A non binary person is neither male nor female. They would place themselves on the spectrum somewhere between or outside of those two genders. In Western culture this can be little understood, however there are many cultures around the world that recognise more than two genders and have done for many generations. Non binary people have always existed in our society but it is only fairly recently that they have been able to have a voice and be more visible. Often non binary people use different pronouns to the more widely recognised he/him, she/her. One alternative is the use of they/them pronouns. This is often argued to be grammatically incorrect which is in fact false. It is usual to use ‘they’ when speaking about a single person whose gender is unknown to you. For example: “Someone has left their phone here. I wonder if they’ve realised?” There is no correct way to present as non binary. You can present in a feminine, masculine or androgynous way. So a person’s gender should never be assumed based on their appearance.
It would be a big step forwards in making non binary and trans people feel more at ease if it became the norm when meeting someone for the first time to ask what pronouns they use as well as their name. A non binary gender is just as valid as male or female and hopefully this will be recognised legally in the not too distant future.”
Tate and Jude also pointed out that being non binary can mean different things to different people and and that non binary people can present in many ways. You can’t lump any people all together. I asked writer Elly J Morris what non-binary meant to her specifically:
“I’m a nonbinary person, specifically a genderfluid femme. It’s taken me a long time to decide on the words that best describe how I feel about my gender, and for me they work perfectly. Nonbinary in the rejection of the gender binary, genderfluid in my presentation and the way I feel on different days, and femme in my embracing of feminine energy separate to being born AFAB (assigned female at birth).
Engaging with gender in a deliberate way gives me power and agency in a way that being a cis women never did. As well as being a political statement, my gender is a feeling I have within me. I do experience dysphoria, but not as severely as others. It’s more of a frustration with not being able to present how I’d like to all of the time.”
*Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World (first published in 1973! )