As you may have read in our 25th issue, I am dealing with the affliction that is called “I Cannot Seem To Get Through Wuthering Heights” (noteworthy: some of my friends shame me terribly because of this). As I will be attempting to read the Brontë sister’s novel for the fourth time this summer, I thought deflecting some aggression while also making a poem might give me the courage needed. Wish me luck, and enjoy this excerpt from Wuthering Heights turned Erasure Poem.
When I was a kid, I was terrified of death, which was slightly peculiar, as the topic of death was not an unfamiliar one in my family. My mother is a pastor and besides church services and weddings, she often leads funeral services, about which she shares stories often enough. On the other hand, that explicit affirmation of death’s existence might have caused my mind to want to deny its existence, if at all possible.
If a hearse drove past, my heart started beating faster, and I would turn my head, hoping to forget that moment as quick a possible. Whenever I was in church with my parents and a song had a line that referred to that eternal irreversibility, I would simply stop singing as if the line, as well as death, did not exist. Laying on my back in bed and accidentally folding my hands in front of my chest would creep me out and I hoped that I would not die that instant because I was already laying as dead people do. “It might give Death some ideas,” I seemed to think. And books. Books about death had to be avoided at all costs, please and thank you.
I’m not sure what I was so afraid of. I think it was the unknown – I never really believed in heaven (I was never really religious despite my church visits), and I did not know whether there was an alternative.
Yet it was books that took that fear away, for a major part. A particular series that was, and still is, important to me in particular, is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Our protagonist Harry lost his parents at age one, and continues to lose many people very close to him. It is the people around him, especially Dumbledore, who help him through this by making him see that “death is but the next great adventure”. And with that they help us readers. Two other soothing lines by Dumbledore that I do really love are: “You think the dead we love ever truly leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly than ever in times of great trouble?” and “do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
The result of reading these books was that they took away many of my fears. It does not make losing someone any less terrible or sad or irreversible, but I try to think of comforting words as the ones from these books at such times, after losing someone very dear to me.
I’ve collected some books that deal with death, that deal with characters dealing with death, and that may help you deal with death.
On Life After Death – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1991)
Kübler-Ross is an Swiss-American psychiatrist and most known for her book On Death and Dying (1969) in which she discusses her theory of the Five Stages of Grief. She was a pioneer in studies on near-death experiences, and that lead her to formulate a certain theory on what happens to us when we die. On Life After Death is based on her conversations with people of all ages who were in the process of dying. Although it may be a bit spiritual, the book is interesting if you want to know if there possibly is something between believing in heaven or there not being anything at all.
I read it after one of my uncles passed, and although I was not sure if I could believe all that Kübler-Ross describes, it was a soothing read.
The Illicit Happiness of Other People – Manu Joseph (2012)
This book is about a father, who preferably smokes two cigarettes at a time, trying to figure out whether his son Unni’s fall from a balcony was an accident or not. Three years after Unni’s death, he receives a package that leads him to search for possible answers. Meanwhile, his wife tries to raise their youngest son, who is dealing with missing his brother and falling in love. The Illicit Happiness of Other People tells a beautiful, philosophical, and multi-layered story of loss, of people, of how difficult it is to lose someone, and of how life must go on.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran-Foer (2006)
After the father of nine-year old Oskar Schnell is killed in the attacks on the Twin Towers on 9/11, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key that he finds in his father’s closet. Oskar’s adventures lead him to meet many strangers, and to slowly find some peace with his father’s death.
Geluk is Gevaarlijk – Rutger Kopland (1999)
This is a very personal pick – not all the poems by this Dutch poet are on death, but many poems are about life, about memory, about happiness, and it is what I read when I knew that someone close to me would pass soon. The poems are not necessarily comforting, but I understood the poems and the poems understood me.
We all know that there is something about books that changes you – perhaps only for a little while, when you are reading the book. In other cases the influence of a book, or several books, stretches much farther than “just” the appreciation for a story. Sometimes, books activate people to do great things – or not so great things. But let’s focus on the positives!
A great example of the positives is the books-inspired activism by the Harry Potter Alliance (the HPA), founded in 2005 by comedian Andrew Slack and the members of the “wizard rock” band Harry and the Potters. Originally meant to draw attention to the violations of human rights in Sudan, the HPA grew to be a large nonprofit organisation that focuses on a wide array of topics: literacy, (LBGTQ+) equality, sexism, climate change, mental health, labour rights, United States immigration reform and economic justice.
The organisation is inspired by the group that comes into being during Umbridge’s tyranny1 over Hogwarts: Dumbledore’s Army. And now Muggles are finally able to join, too.
There is something different about the HPA compared to other nonprofit organisations. The company’s human touch, the personal connection that they have with their supporters through social media or the option to start a subdivision of the HPA in a community or school, definitely helps to engage people who want to, in some way, actually participate in creating a better world. Since its conception, the HPA has grown to be a large organisation with about 85 so-called chapters – the subdivisions of the HPA – and together with the members of these chapters and other supporters of the HPA, it has achieved quite some successes.
For example, the HPA has managed to stop the passing of a proposition that would have repealed marriage equality in Maine (the name of this project was ‘Equality FTW’), raised more than $123,000 for an organization that provides health care in Haiti (a project called ‘Help Haiti Heal’), organized an annual campaign called ‘Accio Books’ to collect books for children all over the world who do not have easy access to fiction, and, after four years of campaigning, persuaded Warner Bros. to use chocolate in their Harry Potter chocolate products that is fair trade (this campaign was called ‘Not In Harry’s Name’).
Every campaign draws a parallel between itself and the canon of Harry Potter, but nowadays the canon of more and more other fandoms that inspire positive social change, such as the Hunger Games fandom, is used for campaigns. An example of that is the #myhungergames campaign to raise awareness to poverty. By doing so, the HPA gains attention from fans of other fandoms who perhaps would not have been involved with the HPA before. And more and more famous Harry Potter fans, such as Evanna Lynch, the actress who portrays Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter movies, and John Green, writer and vlogger, show their support to the Harry Potter Alliance. J.K. Rowling herself said: “It’s humbling, and it’s uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character.”
In the end, the HPA is a great and enormous example of how books can change people and their actions, and how, maybe, books are able to inspire their readers to change the world.
For more information or if you want to participate:
Website of the HPA: http://thehpalliance.org
The Dutch and Belgian HPA Chapter: https://www.facebook.com/groups/315553841877340/
- In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Umbrigde is appointed Headmistress by the Ministry of Magic, and Dumbledore, the original Headmaster, has to leave. While seeming to be a sweet lady in her pink outfits and pink room decorated with ceramics with kitten-print, Umbridge is bigoted and cruel, and she does not mind applying vile corporal punishment.
- People without magic abilities (“Non-magic folk” in Hagrid’s words).
“Valar morghulis.” This phrase may be familiar to you, if you have watched a season or four of the television series Game of Thrones or read a book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. It is a phrase from a language called ‘High Valyrian’, and it is translated as “all men must die”. High Valyrian is a language that is not actually spoken by any native speakers, and the possible speakers, if existing, are probably fans of the series. It is one of the many planned languages in this world, human-made and often used in a book- or television series, as well as films and games. In another category of planned languages, you will find languages such as Esperanto, meant as a second language for all human inhabitants of planet Earth, so everybody can understand each other. Continue reading “Interview: On Fictional Languages and They Should Pay Us For This”
Do you have a favourite love story? You probably do, as we all are spoon-fed love stories from the moment we first saw the outside world.
Romantic love, differing from other ‘kinds’ of love, such as platonic love, is a major theme in a great amount of songs, books and movies. Not to mention commercials, that often feature very happy couples or that send the message that if you buy Brand Name X’s product you’ll suddenly land yourself a girl- or boyfriend and so forth. Oh, and remember that one day in February that tries to make us participate in consumerist society and purchase boxed helium balloons and teddy bears holding fluffy hearts in the name of love? (If that is totally your thing, do the thing, but why only on Valentine’s Day?)
Our whole society seems to be focused at finding romantic love, preferably in the form of a relationship with the person you’re in love with. Best would be if this person turns out to be the love of your life, the Prince Charming, the Perfect Woman. Of course it is not the single thing that is important in society, but romantic relationships, the ones that may eventually lead to marriage or some similar mutual agreement, remain a huge ‘thing’. It is an expectation, often set by yourself after years of hearing love stories in all forms, that you start aiming for that from a young age. Some practice rounds first, perhaps, but many will want ‘the real thing’ rather sooner than later. Not the main point, but besides that all, these expectations are extremely hetero-normative.
What bothers me most about this main focus on romantic relationships is that to some it is seen as a failure when they don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend (yet) and that it will be attributed to a deficit in appearance, personality, or both. It contributes to a feeling of not being good enough to be in a relationship. This urgent need to find romantic love diminishes us as individual human beings. It makes us end up in relationships that we value for the idea of a relationship and it makes us value everything that we wish for that is not that relationship less, even ourselves. There are people who are unable to view themselves as whole unless they are in a relationship with someone. Which may sound great and hopelessly romantic in Twilight, but in real life the love story doesn’t end after a few hundred or thousand pages and you will have to spend your whole life with the person you are.
If we are able to decide to shift the focus from romantic relationships to the relationships with everybody who adds value to our life – that is, all the different kinds of relationships with friends, the relationships with family, as well as boyfriends and girlfriends, wouldn’t we be more whole of a person, and happier with the person we are? What if a romantic relationship would be one of the many ‘pillars’ of important things in life, and not one of the few? I’m sure you will be able to find plenty of soulmates, persons with whom you have “a deep and natural affinity” (according to Wikipedia), not just a soulmate for a romantic relationship, but also a soulmate for finding the best red velvet cupcake in town, a soulmate for playing Mario Kart, a soulmate for conversations about the meaning of life, and a soulmate for browsing bookstores. And wouldn’t it be great if that soulmate can be you on some or even all of these occasions?
I like to think that this shift not only makes us appreciate all that is in our life more, even the romantic relationships that we might be in, but that it might also break the taboo on being alone. Lonely and alone are not equals, and yet many people will feel a stigma against them if they decide to drink coffee alone, or go to the cinema on their own or, perhaps worst, dine at a restaurant without company. And perhaps, on one of these occasions you might fall in love with a person, and consider it one of the many great things in life – because I’ll admit it: being in love is great, it is just one of these many great things.
Of course, such a radical shift in what is valued in our society cannot happen overnight, but hopefully one day, in my utopic society, everybody can decide for themselves, without pressure or hurry, when they allow themselves to find a romantic partner, at 17, at 76, or never, and that does not change anything in the way their life is valued.
As a final request, I would like to ask if we, for once and for all – as it represents everything I’ve pleaded against – can get rid of that god-awful ‘Forever Alone’ meme.
While Yentl wrote about the over-sensitivity and the tendency to romanticize melancholy that seems to apply to our generation, I’d like to write about what also seems to be a big issue for people around twenty. Perhaps it goes hand in hand, or little finger in little finger, with the over-sensitivity that we were raised with, bottom line is that there is a problem.
A couple of years ago, just around the time I started university, while skimming my way through the humongous pile of flyers, newspaper articles about the shrinking labour market that my mother had started gathering for me and a general load of information that you would need three brains for to process, I read something about how a lot of students had to deal with psychological issues during their studies. It seemed logical to me that causes were, for instance, due to unstable living environments. Since I counted myself lucky that I did not have to deal with that, and seeing those psychological issues as something far removed from me, I soon forgot about the article.
That is, fast forward two years, until I found myself reading flyers at the student psychologist’s office, after having to admit that I had become one of those students. I found out the number that had been described as many was actually 49 per cent – half of the students have to deal with psychological issues, and for many of them, from both university and HBO this is due to the pressure that is put on them because of their study.
Research of the LSVb (Landelijke Studenten Vakbond/ National Student Union) elaborates that the most common issues are depression, fatigue, stress, anxiety, as well as performance anxiety, concentration issues, burn outs, and demotivation. Although I was slightly surprised by the number, I was not surprised by the causes. I did want to know how it could possibly be solved.
Some people may try to hand you a straightforward answer: students just should not want to do it all. Students should realize, they say, that it is impossible to study the required amount of hours a week – which is 40 hours, as you may know, and manage to gather enough points to have a bachelor within three years. All this while holding a part-time job so you can live on your own, preferably something that helps you build your resume for future use and if that is not possible both a job and an extra curricular activity aimed at the future career. We should not forget that a social life outside of it is important as well, probably involving study or student associations, sport clubs and/or just a circle of friends outside of that – they promised you this would be the best time of your life – and besides that, have enough time to relax every once in a while. Just summing it all up makes me want to crawl into a nice pillow fort with a dozen of books, television series and food and preferably never come out to face my responsibilities ever again. Oh, and hopefully those are your only activities, and you do not have any hobbies, a need to sleep at least 6 of the recommended 8 hours a night and a natural inclination to become an adult (which comes with enough problems on its own).
In order to minimize the stress, students are advised to stop doing, or at least cut back on doing some of these things. Naturally not on studying – heaven knows where you end up if you do not study at least 40 hours a week! Under a bridge, probably, trying to find out which of the needles lying on the ground next to you is the cleanest. And even when cutting back on the hours – which, at least 80% of the students is doing already, 168 hours a week is not enough to keep doing the things you have to do to ensure a future career, especially when your field of choice is not economics, medicine, science or law, and to get a degree in time to evade a crippling debt. If you need a bit longer than three years you probably end up under that aforementioned bridge accompanied by those needles of debatable cleanliness as your debt in combination with the shrinking labour market and the fact that you decided not to do that one internship because you could not handle more debt and stress means that you’re basically done with.
Furthermore, there are plenty of reasons not to stop on activities that are not your studies, job or internship. Relaxation, sleep and a social life are important for every person. You cannot order someone to just stop living for a couple of years and just to build a future.
Now, of course, every person has their own capacity of how much they can handle, and plenty students manage to do very well; everyone divides their priorities differently. Even if for some, or for many, this problem is caused by the way we have been raised to be very sensitive, the amount of students who do not completely manage is, well, mental. At some point, I hope to find figures about how our parents’ generation was doing mentally, although it is impossible exclude the current shrinking labour market and the time pressure caused by the financial situation from the equation.
Perhaps we should look a bit beyond what the students do, and a bit more at what the government does. The ultimate question is: what happens when eventually half of the higher educated population sits at home with panic attacks, fatigue or a burn out?
As children and teenagers we hear often enough that words do not just have meaning: they can also hurt, although some songs and stories may claim the opposite. If you’re lucky, you’ll experience little of the negative power that words can have and see mostly the good that words can do, but unfortunately there are plenty of people who have experienced, and still will experience that some words hurt. Of course, words don’t necessarily harm or work in a positive way – there are plenty of influential words and plenty of less influential words in the world, as there are plenty of influential and less influential people in the world.
There are certain words and terms among the powerful words with a negative meaning that have been heavily debated over the last decade, or even longer. These forms are derogatory words that have been used to insult people who belong to certain groups or minorities. These words are categorized as racial slurs or homophobic or transphobic slurs, and include words such as “nigger”/”nigga”, “faggot”, “dyke”, “queer”, “tranny”, “slut” and so forth.
The debate mostly involved the discussion of whether these words should be used or avoided, or whether their meaning should be changed, and furthermore, if these slurs can be used – who is allowed to use them. To some people it is obvious that if you belong to a group that has used a slur against another group, you immediately lose the right to use that word ever again – even if you no longer intend to offend with it.
As an example for the arguments used in the debates I will discuss the usage of the n-word. When listening to rap music, there is a large chance that you will hear at least one or two songs in which the rappers use the n-word to describe themselves, their friends or other people around them. Quite some fans of this genre pick up aspects of the language that rappers use, and inherently, they might start using the n-word. The result is a discussion: is using the n-word acceptable or not?
Fact is that there is not just a consensus within these groups on the usage of a word. You will for instance find the opinion of those who agree with talk show host Oprah, who discussed the matter with rapper Jay-Z on her show. In her opinion, people, no matter whether they are black or white, should not use the n-word at all. The colonial history that the word has, the background of oppression the word comes from, makes it a word with so much power that there is no justifying the use of it. Furthermore, using the word, especially as a black person, can give others the idea that it is actually acceptable to use a derogatory form. To quote Tina Fey’s character in the Mean Girls movie on a similar matter: [to the female students] “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
Jay-Z disagreed with her. He believed that with eradicating a certain word from a language we do not solve a problem, the problem lies deeper than just the meaning of a word. By claiming the word, however, he says, we strip the power it has been given from it and give it a new, empowering meaning. That does not mean that white people are allowed to use it. As the n-word was/is used by white people as a derogatory slur, and as white people are very privileged compared to black people, white people have lost the privilege to use this very word.
Of course, there are people who do not care who uses the n-word or not. Tyler the Creator, a rapper, shared his view on the use of the n-word in an interview, and he does not really care who uses the word or not. In his opinion, the word has a whole different meaning nowadays, and he does not place so much importance on language and the meaning of language. In the end, he claims, a lot is context-dependent as well. Some people may accept a word such as the n-word, while others may find it funny, and there are people who may find it offensive. Tyler says, however, that he does not have an opinion on the hateful derogatory use, as it has never happened to him.
All three, the ones who want to abolish the word, the ones who want to (re)claim the word and abolish the old, derogatory meaning and the ones who do not really care, make an interesting argument in the discussion that can be applied to many of the words that are considered derogatory.
In the end, I feel like the decision lies mostly with the people against whom the word has been used. As a white person, you cannot really decide what is racist towards a person of colour, as a straight person you cannot decide what is homophobic or transphobic towards a LGBTQ-person, and as a man you cannot decide what is sexist towards a woman. But I do think that all people have at least some emphatic capacities that make them able to estimate what might hurt or offend others, and it may be time to consider the usage of this ability more often.
Header image courtesy of hercampus.com