“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids--and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me.” – from the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I remember when I first came across this book. Before I had even read it I felt deeply moved by the title and the idea of it. It is funny to say that I felt a sense of recognition at the feeling of not being recognised, but that’s how it was. I felt recognised, I recognised myself, in the description of invisibility. I loved reading this book. I loved that it existed. The world of the novel is not at all a world in which I live, and the characters in the novel and their lives are factually far from the details of my life; and yet it felt in that moment like it was written for me; like it was written about me.
I recognise the feeling of being invisible.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading written reflections from people who took part in a project I co-organised called Lying Fallow. I’ve noticed that there is a thread that runs through them, a sense of
what it means to be recognised and what it means to be anonymous.
what it means to be accepted without the need to be recognised.
what it means to matter, to count, as someone in the room, even if your way of being someone is not the dominant way of being.
what it means to be counted as part of the conversation when your contribution is one of silence.
what it means to hear someone without already deciding who they are and what they bring.
what it means to hear someone without needing to be reflected in them.
Each piece of writing is bringing a different perspective and is written in a completely different style – but somehow the thing that keeps calling out to me in my reading of them is the sense that recognition without already-knowing is a rare and precious thing. That these spaces in which we can hold each other without needing to ‘know’ each other, where we can be counted without having to declare ourselves, are incredibly important and incredibly hard to find.
Right now, as you may know, I am living in a city that I do not call home. I have moved here. And part of what is happening, across every strand of my life, is that I am figuring out what it means to recognise when the land and the people are not familiar. I am trying not to simply impose structures of knowing and understanding that are from another place onto this place. [ – a very particular challenge in a place like Sydney, a city which in so many ways and for painful historical reasons superficially models much of itself and its thinking on 'England'. And of course, I am a part of this lineage now, of violence, of invasion, and of stolen lands.] But I am also experiencing what it feels like to not be recognised. To not be known. To be invisible.
It is interesting how quickly I feel the need for someone to know my history, to know the work I have done, to know and value who I am and what I have to offer. It is interesting how quickly I feel the fear of anonymity. It makes me realise how much I have been held by the listening of others, counting on them to know me or to want to know me. I have found that I've been spending time with friends in my dreams, as if to replace the day-world with the night-world, making the nights familiar and the days strange.
We are so quick to know.
And I awoke this morning thinking about the violence in what we call understanding, in the act of drawing an equivalence between ourselves and others when they do not necessarily ask for it. I realised that there are times when I might think that I am making someone feel welcome by agreeing with them, but by agreeing with them on my terms I am only making them into another version of myself … and that turns out not to be about them at all.
I understand the violence in the act of drawing an equivalance, or even what we might call 'understanding' - it is an act of taking away, of removing potential and possibility, it is in fact an act of colonisation.
I was thinking about how it is sometimes the most generous act to not already know someone; to care to hold what they have to say without needing to draw an equivalence with one's own life. To notice them. To not need them to be making themselves visible. And to not need to become visible through them.
(with special thanks to Ben Webb, Emma Adams, Michelle Outram & Stella Duffy for your reflections on Lying Fallow, which have been inspiring me)