ANNE M CARSON
Khadija is coming to the end of her talk – the room is riveted by the warmth of her personality, the grace of her delivery. She says her last word and for a moment silence stretches, reverberating with all the deeply felt reactions to this remarkable woman and her profoundly affecting story. Then the applause rings out, swelling with fellow feeling for her ordeal and her courage in the face of it. At this time in the world when there is much to feel ashamed of, Khadija has given us a vision of healing and dignity and individual human worth. We are hungry for this and we show it by long clapping and loud.
There’s a flutter at the periphery of my awareness and before I know what’s happened a colleague is grabbing my shoulder, urging me, urging someone to respond to Khadija before the moment is lost. My colleague’s energy is contagious. The drive behind her words catapults me immediately, unthinkingly up and out of my chair. She’s right, I think panicking, immediately remiss. How did we not organise to have someone get up directly after she spoke? What an oversight! I rush up to the table where our MC, CEO and another organiser sit. I’m babbling, quickly, we’ve got to respond before it’s too late!
We are Ondru – a fledging social-change-through-the-Arts-organisation who create powerful large-scale art projects, on a shoestring. Ondru is a Tamil word meaning ‘one’ or ‘to become one with’. For us, Ondru means the place where people and ideas come together and where diversity unites. Ondru was set up in a Richmond backyard five years ago by desh and a group of friends who wanted to make a difference in the world. The organisation has grown and morphed since then, becoming incorporated and acquiring a Board along the way. We utilise the powerful medium of art to inspire positive social change. We may be small in funding, but we are large in vision – we want nothing less than to change people’s hearts and minds.
In the words of our amazing CEO, desh Balasubramanium, we seek to provide a voice to the tenderness of the human condition and give light to issues that exist in the dark. It was this poetic articulation of our human predicament which drew me to the organisation in the first place and I am currently Acting Chair.
We have just heard Khadija speak at our inaugural fundraising dinner. It is June 2017. We hope a dinner will become an annual event. Though Ondru is not confined to refugee-related issues, we wanted to mark World Refugee Day – both to celebrate the bravery and resilience of refugees but also to protest and mourn the lack of political will and the suffering this continues to cause in Australia and elsewhere.
Ondru has a special commitment to these issues because desh is a refugee himself who with his family was displaced by war in Sri Lanka and forced to seek humanitarian asylum in New Zealand. His first-hand experience of being displaced, different and floundering, and his innate compassion, drove him to identify with others who are voiceless. But Ondru is also committed to refugee issues through our flagship project Voiceless Journeys, a series of 101 photographic portraits of people impacted by displacement. These are lovingly-taken, intimate portraits of people who have left their countries as a result of internal problems or conflicts to make their life in Australia; people who have positively shaped our communities. We have installed these photos on public buildings and latterly published them in a gorgeous book. We want our fundraising dinner to mirror Voiceless Journeys, our most prominent project to date.
Fifty people have believed in us enough to buy tickets, to gather to eat and drink together, to be reminded of our shared humanity while collecting funds so we can resource our next project – this time focusing on the challenges and gifts of people on the Autism Spectrum, and their families. Perhaps the fundraising dinner will next year be held on World Autism Day.
How do we change the attitudes that allow prejudice and discrimination to flourish? How do we contribute to changing the social structures which reinforce inequality? These have been questions of mine since my teenage years when I first awoke to the relative privilege my family enjoyed, compared to so many others. I didn’t want to be part of that status quo. In one way or another I have been protesting and trying to build alternatives ever since. But social structures and attitudes are so entrenched and becoming more so. I fear we are going backwards and small-minded attitudes and downright discrimination are gaining in influence and traction, modeled by inept and destructive leaders. I often want to grab hold of our complacency and shake some of the solidity out of it, to loosen its negative grip.
Khadija Gbla is a refugee from war-torn Sierra Leone, a survivor of female genital mutilation and a victim of intense racism. She and her family have rebuilt their lives in Adelaide and she has become a social activist par excellence. Khadija established No FGM and her work has won her many awards: the Australia Day Young Citizen Award (2008), Young Achiever of the Year Award (2009), Young African Australian of the Year (2011) – to name just a few. In 2013 Amnesty International declared Khadija a Human Rights Activist to Watch.
She has spoken to us tonight with courage and composure about searing, horrific events in her life. I am in awe of her resilience in the face of such assaults on her person, her dignity and her sense of self. I am particularly admiring about her chutzpah in using humour to take an edge off our discomfort as she tells of the rusty knife which was wielded against her most tender private parts.
It is still profoundly confronting to hear about how she was cut. An undercurrent has shimmied out from her words and resonates in the room, in all of us willing to be moved. Sharp edges of her talk dig into us, causing disquiet. I have read the accounts of other women who have suffered this violence, this violation, so it is not my first time of bearing witness. Involuntarily, I clench my thighs and can’t bear to imagine the pain or complicated feelings of betrayal had my own mother taken me for such an assault.
Khadija has not been broken by her multiple ordeals. Instead she has turned her suffering into the will for change. We have witnessed the transformation she has been willing to undertake so she can be an effective, powerful change agent. How will it affect us – will her story be another occasion of entertainment or will it ignite – or feed – the hunger for change?
I unpack these elements in my reaction to her talk in the days following the dinner. At the time though, I have no clarity. I rush over to the MC and my colleagues. The space, the people, the room itself are still vibrating. Both with admiration for Khadija and from the sharp edges of her talk. I stutter to the MC about needing to respond to her. I almost have to shout as the applause is still loud. The moment has almost passed – I am frantically trying to grab it with both hands before it disappears entirely with the last drawn out clap. I am desperate to honour Khadija after she has made herself so vulnerable to us. We have gifts and words of thanks for her at the end of the evening but now, the response needs to be now, I reiterate …
The others look at me blank-faced as they try to switch gears and it is now, in this apparently insignificant exchange, that the most powerful learning I will take away from the dinner actually happens. desh, Ondru founder and CEO, turns to me with perfect composure, without missing a beat and says:
Social change is not always comfortable. I think it's ok for us all to sit with the discomfort that Khadija’s speech has evoked.
I immediately know he’s right and I drop down through the layers of adrenaline and hype to the truth of his statement. I know from other contexts that it takes a certain degree of discomfort to prise truth from socially sanctioned falsehoods, to interrupt the smooth ride which complacency bequeaths and allow yourself to be catapaulted into social change or activism. desh saw this possibility lurking beneath social niceties. Who do the polite niceties serve, anyway? If we save our audience from the immediate discomfort of hearing details of Khadija’s suffering we might inadvertently blunt their outrage, their horror, their empathy – all the emotions which fuel the engine of change within us, provide incentives to act.
It takes a courageous social activist and artist, like desh, a visionary, to see transformation possibility like this.
Anne M Carson's poetry has been published internationally and widely in Australia. The chapbook Writing on the Wall was published in 2017. She has been recognised in many poetry prizes including a longlisting for the 2017 Lane Cove Poetry Prize. She is also a visual artist and essayist, most recently published in a forthcoming US anthology, Art Matters. She serves as Director Arts on the Ondru Board. www.annemcarson.com