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Saneha and me: Losing and finding

Adrienne Jansen

 

Here’s what happened.
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It was the last night of a university writing course. Twelve of us sat around and read our work aloud and talked politely about publishing opportunities. I went home. I was hardly in the door when I got a call from our local police station. They had a Lao man in custody and they needed a translator.
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At that time, refugee resettlement and teaching ESOL occupied most of my life. I was often asked to find translators. I knew this Lao man, Saneha, and I knew he didn’t need an interpreter – his English was good enough. So I went to the police station myself. Saneha had come to New Zealand as a refugee from Laos (read the history of Laos to understand what that means). That night he had been picked up on a drink/driving charge. It was his first encounter with the New Zealand police. He was very afraid. He was in a small cell and he was shouting. Shouting how he was a writer and no one here understood him.
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I had known that Saneha was a writer. What I hadn’t realised was how well-known he was – his poetry was known across numbers of refugee camps, and in other countries. But I hadn’t seen him as a writer. I had never talked to him about writing.
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For the first time I was face-to-face – emotionally, not intellectually – with the profound loss that a writer can experience living in a country where they don’t speak the language. That night Saneha was under the intense pressure of being picked up by foreign police (with no idea what might happen), being drunk, and being very afraid. Under that pressure, it all came out – his anguish at being an exile and, above all, at being a writer who no one recognised or understood. Anguish was the right word for it.
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Saneha and I started to work together as writers. He had written a long poem about being in exile, and we agreed to make an English version together. Over weeks he talked me through it, stanza by stanza. That English version – which turned out to be extraordinarily close to the Lao version, in spite of our language limitations – became, of all the poems I have had a part in, the most widely-read. It was distributed around the factory where Saneha worked, around his soccer club, it travelled to the US, UK and Australia. He and I read both Lao and English versions at a national conference on mental health. It appeared in several publications.
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Out of loss, he had clawed something back.
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What had I found? A new way of thinking about writing poetry. Saneha’s poem was not an individual effort. He consulted others, and asked older people to write significant parts of it. He wrote with a sense of responsibility to his community. Shortly after that, I wrote a long poem which was a compilation of conversations I’d had with Cambodian refugees. I wanted to catch something of Saneha’s approach to writing. I’ve always been interested in writing as a collaborative, not just individual, activity, and here was a concrete application of that. But my find – a new way of thinking about poetry – was trivial compared to the scale of Saneha’s loss.
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Much of my writing has been alongside immigrants to New Zealand. Often I’ve been the writer for the person with the story to tell. That’s a very productive partnership. But I am constantly reminded of the losses involved in changing countries. Of course there are gains too – and they can be large gains – but they can be slow in coming. So what have the ‘finds’ been for me? There have been many, but one in particular: a constant challenge to the way I view the world. And what better gift for a writer than that!
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Here’s a small example: Abdalla from Sudan lived with us for a year. He was writing a series of stories of his life. He went kayaking with us, and the first time we went, the tide was in. The second time, when we went to the same place, the tide was out and there were wide mud flats. Abdalla looked in astonishment and said, ‘Where’s all the water gone?’ He constantly reminded us how much we take for granted our scientific rational lens on the world, and how different the world looks without that lens.
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There are so many examples.
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We’re thinking a lot about refugees these days – not only the Syrians, but also the Colombians, the Burmese, the Afghans, the Iraqis – and about changing countries, the lost and found of it. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the loss of language – it’s not just about communication, it’s about power, and identity.
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Which takes me back to Saneha.
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I wrote a poem about that evening. It’s a pantoum, not a particularly good poem, no title, but it was my attempt to capture the collisions of those events. It’s my small ‘find’ out of a night of loss.
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Saneha writes songs in Lao
He writes poems of passion and freedom
It’s the last of the writing class sessions
They’re finishing with a discussion
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He writes poems of passion and freedom
He’s been caught on a drink/driving charge
They’re finishing with a discussion
Then they are all having tea
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He’s been caught on a drink/driving charge
The writing class read out their poems
Then they are all having tea
In Laos all the writers are dead
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The writing class read out their poems
The policemen laugh and eat chips
In Laos all the writers are dead
And Saneha cries in the police cells
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The policemen laugh and eat chips
Saneha shouts how they hate him.
And Saneha cries in the police cells
The writing class plan for a party
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Saneha shouts how they hate him
It’s the last of the writing class sessions
The writing class plan for a party
Saneha writes songs in Lao

 

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