Monthly Archives: October 2014

Time, language and war

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke - Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke – Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

Reckoning of time is an arbitrary thing. The way we have arranged the days and months follows roughly the seasons, though the messiness of the natural world require us to make adjustments like leap years and daylight saving. Despite the word’s relationship with ‘moon’, the month never aligns with the lunar cycle and one can never rely on the length of the month. We count the years from the purported birth of a little boy in Bethlehem. Yet, what is a year in the timescale of the human species, the planet earth, the universe? Completely insignificant.

Imperfect as our reckoning of time is, we use time as markers to celebrate or commemorate events of the past. This year, 2014, has seen some important ones come around.

Thanks to the early Icelandic tradition of recording and writing down stories, the first edition of Saxo’s Chronicles of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, was first published in Paris 500 years ago in 1514. This amazing work covers Danish history from the ‘beginning of time’ with the mythological king Dan and his brother Angel to Saxo’s contemporary times when the Danes defeated the Wends of the Baltic in 1185. Written in the 12th century, Saxo’s manuscript showed great command of language and linguistics and hence he was given the name Grammaticus for the publication. While he probably had access to other historical sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the first many chapters cover the kings of Viking folklore rather than historic fact.

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo's Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo’s Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Earlier this year I followed Michael Hirst’s historical drama, Vikings about Ragner Lodbrok. My son and I had already studied Saxo’s writings about Lodbrok when he did an assignment on the Viking king in grade 4 and was keen to go to Europe to study Medieval history when he finished school. Vikings is amazingly good drama, though Hirst probably exercised as much artistic licence as Saxo.

Fast forward three hundred years and 1814 was the year when Denmark ceded Norway. Since 1397 Norway, Sweden and Denmark had been in a union, the Kalmar Union. While Sweden and Norway remained separate countries, they were ruled by a single monarch, Queen Margrethe I of Denmark. In the 1520s, the Swedes got so jack of King Christian II – the tyrant king – that rebellion resulted in the Stockholm Bloodbath and the Swedes elected their own king, King Gustav of the Vasa. In 1536 the Danish Privy Council declared Norway a province of Denmark – an aggressive move indeed, which meant Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands came under Danish control, rather than Norwegian. In 1814, the Treaty of Keil forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but the Norwegians never accepted Sweden as their ruler and approved its own constitution and its own king, Christian Frederik, 200 years ago this year.

Wanting to shake off the shackles of the Danes, Norway set to change the official language from Danish to the two forms of Norwegian that are the official languages today. In a parallel across the world, 1814 marked the first time when missionaries in New Zealand tried to document the indigenous Māori language. Today New Zealand has two official languages: English and Māori. Language is indeed power.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The once mighty empire continued to shrink through the 19th century. 150 years ago in 1864, Denmark lost a war against Prussian soldiers – and the reason for the war was simplistically speaking: language. Emboldened by the victories against German sympathisers in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the Three Year War (1848-51), a nationalistic government not only formalised the inclusion of Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark, but also imposed Danish as the official language across the kingdom. This was as a provocation gladly accepted by the Prussian emporor and Bismarch and an uneven and swift war was fought at Dybbøl Mølle – which Denmark lost, together with the Duchies. The Danish-German border was drawn at Kongeåen and it was not until the referendum after World War II that northern Schleswig became part of Denmark again and the current border was established.

Perhaps the memory of this devastating war of 1864 was what caused Denmark to stay well out of the Great War, which has its centenary this year. World War I was the war to end all wars. Its comnemoration is a big deal in Australia. Only recently independent from the Mother Country following the 1901 Australian Constitution, Europe was still the centre of the universe and young Australians joined up in droves to serve alongside with the British against the Germans and the Turks. Australian slang for soldiers are diggers – thanks to the endless harrowing experience in the trenches. We remember up to 62,000 Australians who died in a senseless war that killed 16 million people.

Even if time is arbitrarily reckoned and a lifetime is insignificant in the history of the world, the markers we create to remember are important to our self-perception and identity. Danes proudly espouse their viking roots, verifiable in early literature, and perhaps our fallen soldiers are having a great time in Valhalla. Australians identify with the larrakin diggers who bravely fought hard in someone elses war – and remember those that the years will not weary. We count the years so that we remember and make meaning of it all.

What if the world had no borders?

Which way next? Tenerife, Canary Islands, 2005.

Which way next? Tenerife, Canary Islands, 2005.

The nations of the world are important organisers in our world today. A nation state is a geographical area that gets its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign nation.

The nations provide a ready-made ‘we group’ that aids identity of its citizens. Their borders may be drawn geographically, following rivers, mountain chains, oceans, but more often artificially by convention or decision, and often after conflict at the edges. There is a high chance that some people who feel affinity with another nation are caught by these artificial borders, and as such the identity-aiding role of nation states can also be oppressive of minority groups.

At the 2014 TEDxBrisbane, Dr Fiona Reilly spoke about living life without boundaries. She spoke of the intuition and bravery involved in being an emergency ward doctor and in driving around China in a camper van with her husband and two daughters. She ended her talk on an excellent note: what if the world had no borders? On her journey she met a myriad of different peoples who are now counted merely as Chinese. She met a pluralism of different cultures that coexist on the edges of what is now known as China. While it probably does not take circumventing China in a camper van to realise that the world is full of people, just like yourself, with hopes, dreams and aspirations for themselves and their family, Dr Reilly’s epiphany seems well worth the effort: the peoples of the world are more similar than different and the world could be a better place if we were less territorial about the country we – or our ancestors – happen to have claimed.

Once, before nation states, there were no borders. Archeology has shown that the first Homo Sapiens came to Denmark from Germany during the summer season to hunt reindeer in southern Jutland. This was at the end of the last ice age, some 12000 years ago, but the climate in Denmark was still too inhospitable for permanent residence. It was not until some 10000 years ago, when the ice had melted and the seas rose to shape the land roughly as we know it today that humans came and settled in Denmark. And since then Denmark has had waves of migrants, both before and after Denmark was established as a unified country by vikings in 800bc. Who knows who can call themselves indigenous Danes to this day?

Long before the end of the last ice age, some say 50000 years ago, others much longer, people migrated through Asia to Australia. Unlike in Europe where one could once walk from Jutland to the west coast of Ireland without getting wet feet, there was water between Australia and Asia. The settlement of Australia involved seagoing vessels, not mere walking. First nations people of Australia settled more than 500 countries with borders that could only be breached through ceremony, welcome and permission. The island nature of the continent meant these countries existed in relative isolation from migration, until 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay.

The longevity of the Aboriginal ancestral claim to Australia is at least five times that of the Danes’ claim to Denmark. Of course that is not something our current system of nation states now pays any real attention to.

Enamel on board. Mick 2014.

Enamel on board. Mick 2014.

My memory of the small Scandinavian country to the north that I grew up in – perhaps as an indigenous Dane – is of a country of tolerance and acceptance. Yet when I go home, I often hear an underlying racism in the conversation. The discourse that marginalises otherness – unDanishness – is quite strong in Denmark these days, as evidenced by the success of political parties that espouse strong nationalistic us vs them policy.

I wonder how Danes will react to three second generation Pakistani migrants setting up a party called the National Party. The key vision of the party is to return Denmark to the values their parents were met with when they first arrived: tolerance, respect and openness, and counterbalance the current rhetoric that make migrants negative objects in the discourse. The very idea of this party highlights how irrelevant protection of some perceived ideal of the past is in our increasing mobilised world with a growing floating tribe.

How would the landscape of humanity look, if the world had no borders?

Home and the migrant’s curse

An opportunistic floater, pelicans migrate to Lake Eyre in inland Australia, only when it has flooded and food is plentiful. These pelicans at Kiama, New South Wales also follow opportunity. Photo: Mick 2014

An opportunistic floater, pelicans migrate to Lake Eyre in inland Australia,  only when it has flooded and food is plentiful. These pelicans at Kiama, New South Wales also follow opportunity. Photo: Mick 2014

If all the people who do not live in their nation state of origin were a country, it would be the fifth biggest country in the world. Writer Pico Iyer* claims this country – this great floating tribe – would have 220 million citizens. Both my husband and I would be citizens. My sons would not. Not yet, anyway. Iyer’s point is that this floating tribe has a different way of conceptualising home: identity can no longer be defined by where you were born or where you live because it is not so much where you come from, but where you are going.

Over a quarter of people living in Australia belong to that floating tribe – they were born overseas. Most of the rest of Australians are descendants from floaters. Only two and a half per cent of Australians have not been floaters since time immemorial: the first nations people, in Brisbane the Turrball and Jagara peoples.

Yet, we – Australians – claim a particular ‘us-ness’ that is exclusive of other-ness. Our current government defends our borders fiercely from the masses of less fortunate people who are all under suspicion of plotting to float into Australia. Some we want: the economic migrants with skills and money. Others we are told to fear for their otherness: boat people, illegal immigrants, refugees. The dominant discourse criminalises and marginalises asylum seekers for daring to come to our door step on a boat.

At the same time, Australians are some of the most welcoming and accepting people I have come across. Multiculturalism was a policy in the 1980s and though scrapped as an explicit policy, its tenets still run strong in the Australian community. Embracing our floating diversity gives Australia an edge.

Long distance migrants, from the Antarctic up the Australian east coast to Indonesia, sooty shearwater or mutton birds pay the ultimate price for their migration. Photo: Mick 2013

Long distance migrants, from the Antarctic up the Australian east coast to Indonesia, sooty shearwater or mutton birds pay the ultimate price for their migration. Photo: Mick 2013

But being part of the floating tribe is not without its challenges. Many migrants to Australia migrate three times: once to come out to the new land, once to go back home to everything they miss and then once again because the old home was nowhere near as good as the memory of it. I personally know three families who did just that: my husband’s family, a Danish family and a blended Danish-Australian family. Is it just that the grass is always greener on the other side? I think it runs much deeper than that.

In his speech, Pico Iyer says that for the floating tribe, home is a project in progress. Home is less about a piece of soil than a piece of soul.

For me, home is certainly an ongoing project. At some point after my sons were born I proclaimed that I now belong here in Australia where my boys came into the world. However, despite my affinity to the place where my sons belong, something kept tugging at me – a sense of emptiness and being out of place. Too many of the people I care about most are not on the soil I thread, and my soul longs for elsewhere. This is why I must go back to Denmark to be where my extended family is, where my nieces and nephews are growing up fast, where my history is, where my roots are still firmly dug into the sandy soils of the reclaimed heath of mid Jutland. Yet it can only be for a time because my boys are so Australian and belong here. That is the migrant’s curse.

I will keep floating in search for moments when the piece of soul collides with the piece of soil that feels like home.

*I found Pico Iyer’s TEDglobal talk via fellow blogger Kirsten Fogg. Kirsten writes insightfully about belonging.

Memory and language

Do I recall this differently in Danish and English: Moreton Island with my sister and childhood friend - obviously a lot of Danish was spoken. Photo: Mick. 1992.

Do I recall this differently in Danish and English? Moreton Island with my sister and childhood friend – obviously a lot of Danish was spoken. Photo: Mick. 1992.

When my father was dying I started to write my memories of the childhood I had with him. I wrote in my native langauge, Danish, and gave him a long, long brain dump of everything that came to mind in the short period I had. He enjoyed reading my memories and my perspective of events he himself could recall to greater or lesser extent.

Together we wrote the story of his own life, illustrated it with photos and had it published in 100 copies. I put one copy, hot from the press, into his hands just as the ambulance officers came to collect him to take him to the hospice. Two days later he died.

With both my parents now gone there is no-one to remember with me the self that I was as a child. Of course I still have my siblings and a few childhood friends, but they don’t have the memories about me that my parents did. After 23 years of living with English language, it was refreshing to remember and write in Danish. A bit rusty perhaps (but I am not a best-selling author like Christian Mørk); memories flowed easily and my brain was filled with words, images, smells, feelings and sensations that were conjured up and remembered in Danish.

I have lived all my working life in Australia. When my mother first visited us I tried to explain to her my work in Danish. I found it really difficult – I could not find the Danish words for the particulars of my day-to-day working life, which itself was word and language based, working with policy, procedure and freedom of information decision-making, carefully reading complex documents, interpreting the statute, analysing precedents and choosing the right words to describe my decision, so it could withstand scrutiny. I was constantly using English words to explain my role to mum, who must have felt she was losing me in more ways than one.

My siblings can remember with me, but my parents knew me differently. My brother and I fooling around in London 1976. Photo: private.

My siblings can remember with me, but my parents knew me differently. My brother and I fooling around in London 1976. Photo: private.

A couple of years ago I found myself working up my cv in Danish – my public service profession was under attack by an incoming government and the villification of the public service was rife in the media. A public outrage was whipped up against an old stereotype of useless, lazy public servants – a stereotype I found difficult to reconcile with the commitment and hard work of public servants all around me. I lost my job in a restructure and I thought perhaps I needed to go back to Denmark to continue to support my family. Writing about my work experience in Danish was a difficult task and I found it hard to succinctly explain my responsibilties and achievements in a different language. I never sent the cv to any prospective, Danish employers. In the end, I won back my job and I stayed in the Australian-English life world.

Language and memory go together. The story of Nabokov’s three autobiographies is well known: first he wrote and published Conclusive Evidence in English. Then he began translating it to Russian, but found thinking about his life in Russian brought out much more memory worthy of documentation, making the English version seem woefully inadequate. Once he had finished his Russian autobiography (Drugie berega or Other Shores) he then translated it to English; yet he found it difficult to fit his Russian experiences into the ‘straightjacket of English’. So he ended up with three very different documented versions of the same life, the last being Speak, Memory.

We experience the world differently in different languages.  My Australian-English experiences are very different to my Danish experiences – not just because of different place and culture. How I remember my experiences depend on the language I use to remember.

According to Dr Anna Pavlenko, language and memory are integrated – language used during particular events becomes a ‘tag’ for memory of that event and when we try to translate to another language something becomes lost in translation: We lose the sense of a correlation between words and things and words and feelings. It is never quite the same. Our childhood language integrates words with our experiences, which can make the memory feel real. Words learnt in the class room or later in life do not integrate with our experiences in this same way “because by then we learn to suppress our emotions.”

When I reconnected and started corresponding with my dear departed uncle, who was in the business of story telling, he called my Danish language refreshingly crisp and uncorrupted by adulthood and work’s habits. He encouraged me to write more and to write in Danish.

When I joined the Queensland Writers Centre, I was advised to write in English – if I wanted to be a professional writer – because the market is much larger than the Danish market. And if I wanted help and support with my writing here in Queensland, this would only be possible if I wrote in English. Fair enough, but knowing what I now know about memory and language, perhaps this is not quite right for me.

I am currently writing in English – my writing would no doubt be different if I write in Danish. It would also be challenging. I love the Danish language and want to reclaim it for my future self. If I get to write my book when I am away, it may well be in Danish. That would be my writer’s pied a terre.