“To tell”, short essay from “Elsewhere” (2014)

by Marta Colpani


Everything is a story and it can be told. So is a nation, so are its inhabitants, so is its particularity as a specific form of collective identity. The question I ask myself is what is the story that is to be told? And who is telling it to whom? Even when I think of my own story, I am not sure whether I am an Italian immigrant in the Netherlands, or rather a Dutch woman with Italian origins. Who are my others and who are my neighbors, and to what extent are my neighbors part of my personal narratives of foreignness, in both my countries? In other words, what stories do I want to tell about my culture, once I have found out what culture that is, and to whom do I want to tell those stories?

Benedict Anderson defines national identity as an imagined community because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. According to Michael Harbsmeier the existence of this image of self as a community and its value can only be confirmed by contrast with other groups’ identities. Thus in the case of a national identity, the identity becomes such when it projects a “national otherness”.

The imagined community identifies as a unity, a single voice. The Swedish ethnologist Orvar Löfgren ascertains that “inspite of expanding literature [on national identity] we still live with at the Dutch example, these trivial elements place emphasis on a certain imagined “Dutch singularity”, in contrast with other national, cultural and even religious identities that are themselves as much idealized and anachronistic.

Unfortunately, Scheffer’s edge is solely practical and more concerned with the socio-economical consequences of migration than with the personal experiences of otherness or foreignness experienced by many individuals in their own environment. I like to freely interpret his statement as a plea for telling the stories that coexist in the Netherlands, among its inhabitants, because otherwise the characters and tellers of these stories don’t get a place to speak from within this false unity.

Scheffer was probably wrong and somewhat superficial in his socio-political conclusions, but at some point he spoke the truth: “we don’t sufficiently articulate what it is that keeps our society together”, hence we tend to universalize. We should take a step back in this social, cultural and political dispute, stop keeping ourselves busy with the “nation”, the “migrants” and its unavoidable generalizations, and start telling the single stories that make us who we are (Ramadan & Scheffer 2010).

In the Netherlands, like everywhere else, the static identity that is communicated and cultivated in the public sphere mismatches the experience of its inhabitants on so many levels that our true stories threaten to get lost, we almost forget them. It requires a certain discipline to keep telling these stories with honesty and to share them with others. After all, the stories that we tell to each other shape our identity, in the first place as individuals and eventually as a group.

What I would want to encourage is to stop thinking in terms of national identity with all the imagery that comes with it, and to start giving shape to our particular stories. We live here, we dwell, we habit our homes, our streets. We create the landscape and care for it, we use the surroundings and shape it at the same time. This is something that we’ve already been doing, more or less consciously. We should become more aware of the stories that we tell to each other, in that they establish who we are, they settle who becomes the foreigner and who does not. And how.

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