How Does Remembering the Past from Different Times and Perspectives enrich Personal and Collective Narratives of Immigrants from the Former Czechoslovakia.
‘I woke with this marble head in my hands.
It exhausts my elbow and I don’t know where to put it down.
It was falling into the dream as I was coming out of the dream
So our life became one and it will be very difficult for it to separate again.’
George Seferis (1995, p. 337)
23rd September 1976, Llanbradach, Wales.
Today it was my birthday and I can’t sleep. My Father has told me to count sheep but I always lose count so instead I visit in my mind my Mother’s homeland of Czechoslovakia . I see myself walking in the mountains, everyone is singing folksongs that my Mother sings around the house when she is tidying up or hanging out the washing. I even walk into a village house and watch the women in the evenings plucking geese to make eiderdowns as they tell stories by candle light. Sometimes I get scared when I think of my Grandmother who died when she was 47, the year before I was born and how my mother said she used to visit her in her dreams when she first came to London as an immigrant. My mother told me when she was pregnant with me, her mother came to her in a premonition and told her how my birth would happen, which then came true. I try to see in my mind what she might have looked like and how she might have sounded...................then I fall asleep.
23rd May 2019 , London UK.
The first time I knew I had a cousin in Slovakia was two years after the Berlin wall came down in 1989, two years after the Velvet Revolution(1991). My Mother had found her brother again and discovered he was married with two children. The Red Cross had tried to find her when she was in the UK but she was warned against contacting him because it could cause trouble with the secret police for him. My mother decided to take my brother and I to meet them for the first time.
In August 1991 I travelled to my Uncle’s house in Bratislava; when I arrived at his house, in the hallway stood my cousin, Martina Svabekova. I can still remember exactly how it felt, 27 years later. She was framed in the doorway and we just stood there looking at each other; she looked so familiar. I went into a sort of shock andcouldn’t speak and even if I had we would not have understood each other as we couldn’t speak each other’s languages.
Unknown Photographer ,Streatfield C, Svabekova M. A year after our first meeting (1992)
When I interviewed the artist Tereza Stehikova (2019), she said that she regrets not talking more to her daughter in Czech. Her daughter speaks only English because she was born in the UK. Tereza went on to say, ‘it’s almost like I can’t completely share myself with her.’ I connected strongly with this reflection because my mother only spoke English to me and I had to rely on my mother to translate from Slovak into English.
It was uncanny, and now thinking back to that moment it reminds me of the film ‘The Double Life of Veronique’(1991), which is about two women who lead parallel lives. Veronica lives in Poland and Veronique lives in France: they never meet and are unaware of each other but feel like they have a double and that a part of them is missing.
Kieslowski K. The Double Life of Veronique.(1991)
My cousin then came to London in 1992 for a brief visit which I cannot remember and the only record of it is a photograph of a visit to Madame Tussaud’s which I can not remember being taken. Last year she came to London (2018) to visit and I don’t know if it’s because it had been almost 20 years, but it felt just like when I first met her in 1991; the same feeling of the uncanny, deja vu swept over me, a recognition for which there are no words.
Now I am preparing to visit her again in Slovakia after 20 years, but this time she has learnt English and has a fifteen year-old son who can translate for us. I have been communicating via WhatsApp and she wants to tell me how she felt when she found out she had a family in the UK.
So here I am writing this auto theoretically, which means as Joan Hawkins stated “not simply fiction informed by theory but fiction in which theory becomes an intrinsic part of the ‘plot’ following on from Roland Barthes, Maggie Nelson and Chris Krauss.” ( Hawkins J. cited in Fournier 2015) These authors wrote (although in very different ways) about their embodied experiences in the first person and grounded their own contextual experiences with academic research. This emerging mode of feminist practice challenges the traditional male academic writing style.
This writing style which aims to disrupt, confuse our experience of narrative and fact then present it in fragments, I feel is appropriate in the current times of post truth and social media when authors are finding new ways to describe reality.
Karl Ove Knausgård the Norwegian novelist said
“For me, there has been no difference in remembering something and creating something. When I wrote my fictional novels they always had a starting point of something real. Those images that are not real are exactly the same strength and power of the real ones and the line between them is completely blurred. When I write something, I can’t remember in the end if this is a memory or if it’s not. For me it is the same thing.” (Knausgard, cited in Anthony 2015)
They are as Natasha Bell (2019) says ‘claiming ownership of and coming to terms with individual lived experiences, but it can also be a way of saying, maybe shouting: Here I am and I matter.’
I think this is an important point for this piece of writing as it is a way of claiming my maternal past for myself when I have only heard it through others.
I feel it gives my writing the feel of a live document and puts the reader alongside me in the narration instead of being a bystander as in the academic tradition of the written essay.
Even as I write this it feels so strangely nuanced with a poetic memory, in the same way that the film director Andrei Tarkovsky said ‘everyone has his individual stream of time’ which contains ‘dreams imaginings, memories and even flashes of newsreels.’ (1989,p.168)
Tarkovsky. A. Film still from The Mirror ( 1975)
23rdJune 2019, London .UK
“If you leave a note book and don’t return to it for a long time and don’t go back and look at those pages even preferably a few years later when you have to struggle to remember what it was about , I think that process of coming back to things you wrote or did or thought in a few years' time is tremendously productive, it allows you to see a part of your own subconscious that you won’t see in the moment but will make sense in a few years’ time.”
I’m preparing for my Journey back to Slovakia to meet my cousin in a month’s time and I find myself looking through my visual diary from 1991, which to me now looks outdated. I’m flooded with memories of visiting a country that had just become independent and I think about Naeem Mohaiemen’s quote above. I can not recall drawing the events In the sketchbook but I can remember how it felt to be there, but only through my subconscious. Walter Benjamin (1914,quoted in Caygill, 1998, p.1) said “ Past things have futurity” and I can see now how the past is always informed by the future and in the case of looking at my sketchbook after 28 years and not remembering the process but the images, this triggers the feelings of the events that led me to document the landscape around me. I realise that my memory is untainted by nostalgia because it is involuntary. I agree with Naeem Mohaiemen that reflecting on work you have not seen for a while can help you connect to your subconscious. In my experience it showed my feelings for the period that I visited, where at the time I just thought I was drawing what I saw.for a while can help you connect to your subconscious. In my experience it showed my feelings for the period that I visited, where at the time I just thought I was drawing what I saw.
Streatfield C. (2019) Sketchbook pages from 1991
Svidran A. ( 1991)Caroline Streatfield : visual diary entry ,Slovakia.
24th June 2019, London, UK.
I’m visiting the Tate Britain to see the work of Natalia Goncharova.
In Russia she was known as an avant-garde artist and also a set designer, costume designer, writer and illustrator.
Natalia’s paintings depicted rural scenes of the Russian countryside and peasant life. The style is like my sketchbook with the brush marks and the folklore subject.
Goncharova N. Mother of God, The Ornament, Flowers (1911)
Goncharova N. Women with Rakes (1902) Goncharova N. Peasant Woman
from Tula Province (1930)
Goncharova’s paintings were deemed too Slavic to be accepted by the Western art world and therefore not avant-garde in the West.
I can’t help thinking of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who famously painted French Polynesian natives and was celebrated as avant-garde and I wonder whether this was because he painted exoticism and because he was a male artist. I wonder whether if he had gone to Russia and painted the peasants there ,his paintings would be considered avant-garde. The noble gaze or primitive gaze of Gauguin is troubling for me in so much that he didn’t live in, he was a voyeur whereas for Goncharova this was her life.
Paul Gauguin , Le Sorcier d’Hiva Oa ( 1902)
Streatfield C Self portrait with rake (2019) Goncharova N. Women with rakes (1902)
20th June 2019. London, UK.
Fantasy projected diary entry 24th July 2019
I’m travelling on the train from Vienna to Bratislava to meet my cousin and I’m thinking about nostalgia for one’s home land . Nostalgia was identified in the 18thCentury by the Swiss physicianJohannes Hofer (1669–1752). He identified nostalgia in Swiss mercenary soldiers as a mania tied to homesickness. Homesickness has always been recognised, from Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey through to the artist Benolt Aubaud ( Manchester Art Gallery 2019) who installed a bedsheet with the words ‘Homesick’ written in graffiti-like text; it feels like a statement of modern times.
Streatfield C. Benolt A.(2019)
As I have never lived in Slovakia my nostalgia is not to return; I understand my nostalgia to be for an imaginary past and I wonder whether, if I had been taken there as a child, would it exist at all? As Boym (2015, p256) observed ‘All immigrants know that exile is much more attractive as a poetic image than as a lived in experience.’
I arrive at my Uncles house in Bratislava , except it’s not my Uncles house anymore as he died 8 years ago, but I can stillfeel his echo from 20 years ago. The reality has changed but the memory is strong; I wonder if this is because I haven’t been here since so my mind hasn’t processed that time has moved on.
I went to a lecture on ancestral memory in June 2019, when Jenny Pistella ( Heritage learning consultant) talked about ‘genius loci’. In Classical Roman religion the genius loci was the protective spirit of the place. I feel protected in this house. I then remember I did not have a single conversation with my Uncle because he did not speak English and I did not speak Slovak, but I felt that he loved me with the way he looked at me. He also said in Slovak how I reminded him of his mother.
My mind jumps to my friend Peter Lang, a Czech artist who said that he speaks Czech when he goes to Prague but ‘they say its old fashioned, it reminds them of other times… and I look like an idiot.’
It is as though his language has frozen at the time that he left (in 1968) and as Tarkovsky said ‘These remembrances can run alongside the time of now’.(1986,p173)Tarkovsky also said that all moments are ‘ co-equal.’ I think he meant that all the moments add up together to bring us to the present time.
24th July 2019, Bratislava, Slovakia.
I arrive at my uncle’s house and it feels like 1991. In my mind, time is such a strange concept when I contextualize it , all the years in between seem to shrink. I spot the hallway where I met Martina for the first time. She is standing in the kitchen and we greet each other. The weight of the memory of my Uncle is heavy in the air and I half expect him to smile at me from the kitchen. We hug and kiss each other, we are older now and even though we have only seen each other a few times in our lives, there feels like a shared history built up over the years since we first met here. A quote by Tarkovsky (1986, p.57) floats into my head ‘Time and memory merge into each other: they are like 2 sides of a medal. It is obvious enough that without time, memory cannot exist either … Bereft of memory, a person becomes the prisoner of an illusionary existence; falling out of time he is unable to seize his own link with the outside world’
Martina speaks in clear English and we talk as if the years haven’t separated us. Later on she confides to me that my Uncle in 1991, when he went to the airport to meet my Mother after not being in contact since 1968 , he was so scared and nervous that he would not recognise her , he could hardly drive the car. He didn’t have any recent photos of her and only had one photograph of the two of them together, taken just before she came to the UK. Roland Barthes said when looking at photos of his Mother ‘ sometimes I recognised a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments’ (1980, p 65) and I think that was what my Uncle was worried about, not being able to recognise her as he remembered her.
Martina said when my Uncle saw my Mother it was as though the years melted away and he recognized her straight away, so the energy or essence of someone I think its stronger than the image. This is also what Roland Barthes talks about when he describes looking for ”punctum” when he looks at a photograph.
Streatfield C. Doorway in J Svabek’s house. (2019)
25th July 2019 Bratislava, Slovakia
I’m meeting Zuzana Homolova at 12pm by the fountain in front of the Presidential Palace. Homolova (b.1948) was a school friend of my Mother and is now an artist and world-famous folk singer. She interprets old Slovak ballads into folk songs and came 16thin the world folk music awards in 2018.
12pm –Even though I have never spoken to Zuzana she greets me like an old friend, I start to interview her over lunch.
Streatfield: When did you lose contact with my Mother?
Homolova: It was in 1968, the Russians closed the borders, I was working in France and stayed for another year, then in 1969 I returned to Slovakia , your Mother was already in the UK, I wrote to her asking to join me in France but we lost contact.
Streatfield: When did you have contact again?
Homolova: It was in 1989………By then I was a published folk singer and my manager sent my CD to the BBC to be played on the World Service. By coincidence your Mother was running the radio programme and heard my singing, she then looked at the CD and recognised the name but wasn’t sure if it was the same Zuzana Homolova. She then wrote to my manager and then my manager gave me the letter and I recognised her handwriting straight away .We met again in 1993.
When Zuzana told me this story it reminded me of the book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (1997) where the main characters lose contact with each other but Pelagia (main character) hears music on the radio and thinks it is by the man she once knew. ‘Once she had come in from gathering berries and could have sworn that she heard the last bars of 'Pelagia's march, but she realised that she could not have done, since the captain was dead.’ (1997, p 57)
Streatfield C. Zuzana Homolova , (2019).
Unknown photographer, Homolova Z and Sivdran G (1966)
21stJune 2019. London, UK.
Fantasy projected diary entry 28thJuly 2019
Today I’ve arrived in Prague and I find myself in Wenceslas Square , I first heard about this place as a child when my mother used to tell me about Jan Palach, who was a student who set fire to himself in 1969 to protest against the Soviet Invasion of 1968. I’m immediately brought back to January of this year and reminded that I went to a screening of a film about Jan Palach at the Czech Embassy . I will never forget the evening because I sat next to a man called Ivan Hartel and when I started to talk to him he told me he led the student revolution in 1969 in Prague (He started the Palach Press). He was a physicist and is a poet ,activist and author. Throughout the film I sensed the weight of history, more so with Ivan sitting next to me. He said he was emotional and couldn’t talk because he was taken right back to the events of 1969. He said the film was set in his university where he was a student. I asked him why he left Czechoslovakia and he said he left because the other choices were either prison or exile.
We talked about art; I mentioned the photographer Josef Koudelka who took the famous photo of the moment just before the Russians invaded Wenceslas Square in 1968 and how the film was smuggled out and published anonymously under the name PP, for Prague Photographer. Ivan says he is friends with him and tells me the story of how he took the photos in detail. The photo perfectly demonstrates the stillness before the Russians invaded and the tension in my mind knowing what happens afterwards and how time always moves forwards.
Koudelka J. Wenceslas Square ( 1968)
So with this in my mind I take a photo from the spot where Koudelka stood half a century earlier.
28th July 2019 . Prague, Czechoslovakia .
I can’t find the spot where Josef Koudelka stood to take the photograph 50 years ago. I walk to where I think it is and there are buildings in the way, I feel annoyed with myself that I was naive enough to think the buildings would have stayed the same. I walk further on and come across the spot where Jan Palach set fire to himself and I take a photograph of the memorial instead and I can see that his memory has been frozen in time.
Streatfield C. Jan Palach memorial. Wenceslas Square (2019)
23rd June, London,UK.
Fantasy projected diary entry 31st July 2019
Today I’m visiting the museum of communism in Prague,when I interviewed Peter Lang in April 2019 and he said that his parents were not in the communist party. His father was a film director who worked for newsreel . When the Russians invaded in ‘68 he set up a clandestine tv unit and they broadcast from various building sites. They were like a pirate radio station, because the Russians had closed down the radio and TV stations. He used the same location that he had used in 1938 when he filmed the Germans invading Prague and he had smuggled the film out, so he had a renewed experience. He mentioned a famous newsreader, Otka Bednarova, that people trusted and that she read the news and kept people informed rather than the official news which wasn’t to be believed. When his father realised that the freedom movement was going to be suppressed and he wouldn’t be able to work, and that Peter wouldn’t be able to go to college, the family emigrated.
Unknown photographer. ( 1954) Peter Lang age 6
In January this year I heard Kamila Bendova ( b.1946) talk about being a member of Charter 77 which was a dissident movement which started with a petition signed by 300 people calling on the communist authorities to respect International human rights
Ondfej Nemec. Kamila Bendova (2014)
Bendova spoke about how their phone was cut off for eight years, how the secret police would blackmail her and her husband through their children and not allow them to go to the college or university, which echoed my friend Peter Lang’s experience.
She said that women played a big part in the movement since a lot of meetings took place in the kitchen, and the women cared for the children and hid notes in the prams and baby slings to pass the word of meetings and other news around.
They would hide all unpublished manuscripts around the house in case the secret police knocked on the door.
31st July 2019 Communist Museum, Prague.
Streatfield C.(2019)Photographs from the Communist Museum
24thJune 2019. London, UK
Fantasy projected diary entry 31stJuly 2019
I’ve settled into my seat on the aeroplane and we have just taken off from Prague airport. I look out of the window, the land looks far away , it’s a strange feeling because I have only known it since 1991 as being ‘real’ I haven’t lived it. But what I do know from the experience of talking to the people that I interviewed is that I have developed a clearer understanding of where I fit into the history of this part of Europe.
It feels like I have an imaginary past that I have added layers to over the years . This enrichment is temporal and visited by the experiences of lived in moments. While unique to me, it is a story that is played out across the world in the immigrants home.
This shifting of the narrative within the present time makes life more interesting for me. In all the places I’ve lived in, while there I took on the accents and nuances of the people which added memories to my present time. To imagine myself as a traveller from the past when I inhabit these places helps me to imagine my ancestors who came before me, whether real or imagined.
I look out of the window and a thought comes to me
If life is a dream then the dream is embodied in the narrative.
31st July 2019 Prague airport , Czechoslovakia
In the past week I have got to know my cousin more than in previous visits , all the memories of our past meetings have grounded us with the passage of time, so what could have been a shallow family connection built on fantasy has now deepened. I think this is because now she can speak English and has been able to share the spoken experience of her fathers ( my Uncles ) death with me, this is the connection we both have which leads us back to my mother and the separation of us as family.
“My encounter with another world and another culture and the beginnings of an attachment to them had set up an irritation, barely perceptible but incurable-rather like unrequited love, like a symptom of the hopelessness of trying to grasp what is boundless, or unite what cannot be joined; a reminder of how finite, how curtailed, our experience on earth must be”
Tarkovsky A.( 1986. p101)
Jaros H (2019) Martina Jaros and Caroline Streatfield.
Barthes R. (1980) Camera Lucinda .Vintage Publishing
Barthes R. (1987) Criticism and Truth. The Athlone Press.
Bernieres LD.(1997) Captain Corellis Mandolin, Vintage publishing.
Blazwick I.(edited)(2002) Memory. White Chapel Gallery and the MIT press.
Boym S.(2001) The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books; Perseus Books Group
Caygill H.(1998) Walter Benjamin.Routledge.
Cazeaux C .(2017) Art, Research, Philosophy. Routledge
Enright A. (2008) The Gathering Vintage Publishing
Erjavec A.(edited by)(2003)Post Modernism and the Postsocialist Condition
Foucault M.(1977) Language, Counter-memory, practice. Cornell University Press.
Gibbons J. (2007) Contemporary Art and Memory Tauris & Co Ltd.
Groom A ( 2013) Time. Whitechapel Gallery & the MIT Press.
Groys B.(1992)The Total Art of Stalin. Princeton University Press.
Groys B, Ross D, Blazwick I(1998)Ilya Kabakov.Phaidon Press Ltd.
Hatherley O.(2016 )The Ministry of Nostalgia Verso Books
Holmes L.(2009) Communism, Oxford University Press.
Hunter Blair, K. (2014) Tarkovsky: Artistic Kinship between Arsenii and Andrei ( 2014) Tate Publishing
Idov M.(2011) Made in Russia, Unsung Icons of soviet Design. Rizzoli International Publications, Inc.
Ings S.(2019) Financial Times
Kraus C.(1997) I Love Dick, MIT Press
Kraus C. (2006)Topor,Semiotext(e)
Martin D(2019) Tonight the World. Barbican.
Rattansi Ali ( 2011) Multiculturalism .Oxford University Press.
Ritivoi D A.(2002)Yesterdays Self. Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Scharf A. (1968) Art and Photography Penguin Press
Seferis G. (1995) Mythistorima. Collected Poems. Princeton University Press.
Stewart S.(1984) On Longing John Hopkins Press Ltd.
Tarkovsky A. (1986) Sculpting in time, Reflections on the cinema. The Bodley Head Ltd.
Tarkovsky A (2012) The Collector of dreams Layla Alexander-Garrett
Turovskaya M. (1989) Cinema as Poetry Faber and Faber Ltd.
Streatfield (2019) Conversdation with Ivan Hartel.18 Jan
Streatfield (2018) Conversation with Naeem Mohaiemen 3 Dec
Streatfield( 2019)Conversation with Tereza Stehikova. 31 Jan
Streatfield(2019) Conversation with Peter Lang. 11 Feb
Streatfield(2019) Conversation with Eva Poole. 5 April
Streatfield(2019) Conversation with Gabriela Svidran. 1 Feb
Streatfield (2019) Conversation with Zuzana Homolova 25July
Anthony A ( 2015)Karl Ove Knausgaard: ‘Writing is a way of getting rid of shame’
Bell N (2019)Cruising for Intellectual Mothers: How Writers Use Theory to Explore the Personal and the Personal to Explore Theory
Mohaiemen N.(2018)Naeem Mohaiemen
Tuck L (2015)True Confessions of an Auto-Fictionist
https://lithub.com/true-confessions-of-an-auto-fictionist/( accessed 25.07.2019)
Revolution Begins at Home: The Women of Czech Dissent (2019)
The Double Life of Veronique (1991) directed by Kieslowski K. France, Poland: Sideral Films. (Accessed on 04.02.2019)
The Mirror (1975) directed by Tarkovsky A. Russia: Mosfilms
(Accessed on 18.02.2019)
Nostalgia (1983) directed by Tarkovsky A.Soviet Union, Italy: Sovin film.
( accessed on 24.02.2019)
Memento. (2000) directed by Nolan C. Newmarket films.
(Accessed on 13.03.2019)
Tripoli Cancelled ( 2017) directed by Mohaiemen N. Bangladesh, Germany, UK. Lux
( Accessed on 03.12.2018)