Even the psychopaths behind genocide and mass murder take the time to justify their evilness when confronted. To make excuses, to rationalize, is human nature—even for the inhumane.
We instantly think of the Russian generals ordering missile launches at shopping malls and hospitals in Ukraine. We think of the gunners in helicopters firing on women and children as they run from their villages. When asked how they can do that, they respond: “It’s not so hard, you just don’t lead them as much as when you fire on men.” Cold, ruthless, remorseless evil—but justified in their minds.
Scaling back a bit, this week we’re hearing from a poet who applied her contemplative abilities and
writing chops to a look at violence on a more banal, day-to-day level. And in her willingness to bear witness, Arianne Zwartjes forces us to do the same—she’s too talented to look away from. Her These Dark Skies earned a starred review by Eileen Gonzalez in Foreword’s July/August issue and the conversation that follows reveals a writer at the top of the thinking game.
There has been so much literature about racism, colonialism, immigration, and other topics that you cover in These Dark Skies. Your book, however, takes a very personal approach, integrating a lot of your own experiences, thoughts, and reactions regarding these large, universal topics. Was this a natural way for you to approach the subject, or did it take some consideration and workshopping for you to arrive at this method?
I came to this project, and to this subject matter, very much as a creative writer rather than an academic (though I love theory and dip into it often!). My training and background are in poetry, actually, and my first book was lyric poetry; my second book is a set of very lyrical, fragmented essays—a meditation on mortality and medical trauma which was born out of my training as an EMT. So coming to this subject matter from a personal angle felt very natural, though as a poet I’m not always a highly narrative writer, so that was one area I had to expand into for this project, trying to develop my narrative voice and bring in more personal anecdotes to help balance out the more theory- or research-based parts. I really wanted this to remain poetic, and readable, and for a long book to be readable to a wide audience, you’ve got to use story to carry people through it, because story is so much how we engage and make sense of the world around us. In a sense the threads of art-writing in the book are also a use of story, just one that appeals to different sensibilities in the reader: visual cues, imagination and metaphor, the poetry of color and of movement.
You mention that you were not always as aware about issues like intersectionality, and that you gained greater awareness thanks to your travels and interactions with people from other places. Obviously, such extensive travel is not a viable option for everyone, and you point out how hard it is to hold on to lessons learned once back in America. Do you have any ideas on how Americans can broaden their perspective on such important issues and retain those lessons long-term?
I think just paying more attention to international news, reading news sources from different countries and different perspectives, and trying to be more aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world, is a really good starting place. We so often don’t even realize how few international perspectives we are exposed to—our news sources in the US are incredibly US-centric, and things that happen elsewhere in the world can feel “far away” due to our geographic isolation (limited borders with other countries, lots of ocean surrounding us). I think broadening the sources we pay attention to (and not just to Europe!—to voices from the Middle East, and Africa, and the Pacific, South America, all over Asia…) is a huge step forward in this regard.
Europe and America have historically intertwined yet distinct conceptions of race and racism. Was there any similarity—say, in the way America and another country views a particular issue—that struck you as notable, either in a positive or a negative way?
I think there are a lot of similarities, such as in our relationship to colonialism—museums and antiquities are one good example of this. In the Netherlands, since Anna and I lived there, there’s been a really strong Decolonize The Museum movement which aims to confront the colonial practices and perspectives that have underlaid so many museums’ approaches to their subject matter—including repatriating objects of wealth that were stolen, but also reconsidering the curatorial gaze, who gets access to serve as curators and what audience they envision speaking to, and how they contextualize the work they are showing. This is a movement, obviously, that is also happening in the US—and it’s been further aided in visibility by some of the protests around “art-washing” and the use of art institutions by donors to sort of clean up their names around colonial or militaristic profiteering, such as with Warren Kanders and the Whitney Museum.
Another of the things that has also really struck me is how similar the push-back of white Europeans and white Americans has been to the voices of scholars and activists and artists of color who are calling out some of the “colonial continuities” [to use a term I became familiar with through the writing of Markus Balkenhol] of racism, slave-holding, and economies built on colonial exploitation—the defensiveness, and at times the outright viciousness and violence, of that pushback is really similar on both continents. And in both places, it’s a pushback that comes from both conservative and liberal/progressive white people, which I think is really important to acknowledge.
On the flip side, was there any major difference that really struck you about how one country versus another deals with a particular issue?
Before we moved to Europe, I was teaching a few essays by James Baldwin with my classes, and two students from Belgium expressed the opinion that at home, such critical conversations about race were kind of swept under the rug, not really explicitly talked about. I can’t say with any expertise whether or not this is widely true, but as I write about in the book, I was really shocked by some of the overt racial/ethnic fetishization, practices of blackface, etc., that we saw in northwestern Europe.
To be fair, the voices of people pointing that out, and criticizing it, have really swelled in volume in the years since 2015–16 when we were there, so that may be changing more rapidly now … and also, there are regions of the US that I’ve never lived in, so there are certainly parts of this country I can’t speak to from personal experience. But things like seeing a full “chieftain-style” feather headdress in the window of a costume shop, or seeing the widespread practice of blackface with the holiday character of Zwarte Piet, or seeing some of the racialized or “ethnic” costumes white Dutch people would wear during festivals … I had the sense that such explicit racialization wouldn’t fly in the US of today (unlike only 10 or 20 or 30 years ago), at least in such public venues. But maybe I’m just being optimistic—and, as I also write in the book, there are plenty of examples of university frat parties, etc., where such things certainly have taken place in recent years.
Another major theme in your work is art and performance: you often describe exhibitions and shows that you attend, and how they help both the performers and the audience better understand traumatic events, such as the experience of refugees surviving and fleeing war. Your own book is also a creative work—do you see it as being its own kind of art or performance? How do you see it in relation to the shows you attended, if you do see it that way at all?
I do hope that this project is artistic enough, in its voice and style, to serve as its own performance of lyrical and metaphoric thinking about some of these issues. And also imaginative thinking—I think one of the reasons I value art is for the ways it can appeal to a different intelligence, a different way of knowing, maybe a more intuitive or embodied way of processing ideas and feelings.
My friend and fellow author Sunil Yapa, after reading the book, wrote, “It really reminds me of Abramovic’s The Artist is Present in a weird way. I sit down opposite you. You lift your head. And in your gaze I see all my doubts and fears and questions reflected. The mirroring of my difficult humanness. You somehow bear witness to the world, meditate on the act of bearing witness, and make art from the jumble.”
And I was so elated by him saying that because it’s exactly what I was hoping for, in writing this book—both that the artistry and the meditative aspects of it would balance out the research, but also that it would ask for engagement in the same ways that seeing a piece of art, or a dance piece, does.
I reference the work of John Paul Lederach a lot in this book—he’s an experienced mediator and a professor of conflict studies—and he writes that it is imperative that we grow our capacity for imagination, to find new ways forward that are “rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist.” To me, art and metaphorical thinking are ways into this kind of wild and unrestrained thinking and visioning.
Naturally, your book focuses on the perspective of an American in Europe, since that is who you are and how you experience the world. You also have close relationships with people from other countries, most notably your wife, who was born in Russia. Do you think there is anything that people from European nations could learn from America or the American way of life, even if it’s only in a “what not to do” way?
Well, in the same way as it was illustrative for me, as a white American, to live in Europe and see through the lens of a culture that in many ways is similar to mine, but also has its differences and specificities … I imagine perhaps a similar exercise in “flipping the lens” could be useful for someone from northwestern Europe. It helped me understand the origins of some of our lines of thought, cultural practices, and also to see how some of those “colonial continuities” I reference above play out in a different-but-similar cultural context—in other words, to see myself and my home culture more clearly. (Though, to be honest, with all the US exports of our culture via Hollywood, the music industry, etc., there’s a fluency with American culture already amongst some Europeans that is generally not true in the reverse.)
Something else I’ve become aware of, through my conversations with my wife Anna who as you mention grew up partially in Russia, is the extent to which we in the US—at least, those of us steeped in white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture in the US—tend to think dualistically, in terms of “good” and “bad” … which likely comes from the strong British and northwestern European heritage of that culture. This leads us, generally speaking, to often think in terms of “good people” and “bad people,” rather than seeing all humans, including ourselves, as complex mixtures of flaw and fallibility—and as I write in the book, such dualistic thinking can make it hard to see ourselves clearly, or to admit to the darknesses we find in ourselves, because those darknesses so threaten our conception of ourselves as “good people.” The more I think about this dualism, the more I see places where it subtly or explicitly underlies many of our cultural constructs, which I find really fascinating. This is an area I think is interesting for both northwestern Europeans and people from the US—or at least those of us who are sort of culturally-WASPy Americans—to think more about.
Thanks for the opportunity to think & talk more about These Dark Skies in relation to your questions! I always welcome readers to reach out—you can find various modes of contacting me on my website, www.ariannezwartjes.com—and I love speaking with classes and libraries and reading groups about my writing as well!