Circles of Resilience - An observation in Wound topography and possibility.

Circles of Resilience 

An observation in Wound topography and possibility.


by Diya Naidu

She asks me to accompany her into the balcony for a smoke. I go along, bracing myself for the chill outdoors. It is August 2015 and almost the end of my three month artist’s residency in Zurich. She and her sister had come to my studio presentation a few days before this. The work was about violence against women. For the entire forty minutes of the performance, both were engaged, emotional and deeply connected. Both were wounded or, as I would later discover, triggered by a former hurt. One that was ancient and carried by the entire tribe. I would also discover this; essential fact about wound topography – all wounds lead to each other, they are connected.

This is something a certain microbe we now know as SARS-CoV-2 (Covid 19) would ruthlessly demonstrate: the wound of racism (disproportionate infections among black Americans), classism (millions of labourers walking home across thousands of kilometers in India), capitalism (the havoc to food supply caused by the global supply chain) and patriarchy (whole nations and environments suffering at the hands of old male leadership, the rise of domestic abuse upn women and children during lockdown) and how these bodies of pain all flowed into each other. 

After my performance, the sisters had approached and invited me to lunch. Now here we were on their balcony, the gloom of an approaching autumn, after a glorious Swiss summer had announced itself. Nature was heaving and threatening and there was a stillness in the air that announced her impending confession. She handed it over to me to carry forever – the thing she had been aching to say, “I hate being white”. There was venom and pain in her eyes. In my imaginal realm, she morphed into a cobra with fangs turned inwards, gutting its own bleeding heart. I may have taken an abrupt step back. Being handed ancestral wounds and witnessing them is not easy work. She didn’t ask explicitly for a bandage. I don’t think she credited me with that kind of power but she knew I would listen, aware from my work that I was embracing the wound too, though seemingly a different one. “White people are the cause of all the bad things that have ever happened on this planet”, she vomited out. I wanted to say, “No no … It’s not your fault that you are white …” or anything that would stop the wound from spewing. It wasn’t working. I could feel my eyes darting unconvincingly around while my mind processed images of British officers on horseback whipping starving Indians, of conquistadors and cowboys culling whole indigenous American populations, of European men raping African women, of chained slaves on ships, of Nazis and their genocidal camps, of refugees in rubber boats being unwelcome on European shores … I worked hard to stop this historical download of images. She saw it in my eyes. She knew that I pitied her in that moment. We were like two people standing on either side of the same wound, clearly seeing it but forgetting it existed inside us. The only way to resolve this was to begin the long walk towards each other through the space in between. In the landscape of the psyche and the soul, this space was the wound itself. We would have to enter it in order to heal it and ourselves. 

“It is the honour of the murdered that he is not the murderer”, Khalil Gibran’s words flitted across my mind. I had done the classic act of separating from her in my non-guilty developing world brown-ness. In that moment of victim’s hubris and racial ethical superiority the wound expanded and I saw it as clear as the sunlight we so badly missed on that cold balcony: here was the wounding, we both carried it. It did not matter whose descendants we were – the wielders of the sword or the slayed. In any case I come from a tradition where the soul or Aatma’s trajectory is as important as the genetic inheritance. I could, in another life have easily been a Nazi, a coloniser or a rapist. 

Their grandparents on both sides had been Nazis. The parents had predictably tried to heal the historical wrong. As a result the German sisters with Hebrew names spent much of their childhoods missing vacation time, in camps working for peace between Palestinian and Israeli communities around Jerusalem. As adults they had both left home for German speaking Switzerland where they were close to their culture but free of the nation. Both had debilitating psychological challenges and were under medication. They were kind, had enormous hearts and were drowning in guilt. In their wounding they were reaching out egolessly, inviting others to see and examine their vulnerability. I would later thank them for this. There are few things more powerful than offering the broken parts of self up for witnessing. 

This is where artists become potent. Often our work needs us to inhabit the landscape of pain, to develop courage and candour and the warmth to invite community into this place. As we move into an era where limited resources may tempt us to posit seemingly competing wounds – environmental crisis versus unemployment or feminism over queer presence and culture, for example or even use political awareness to declare one fracture a bigger emergency than another, we will increasingly need empathy to not separate our histories with walls of self- righteousness. Why for example did I not offer her my wounds?! I was English speaking and from a liberal and educated middle class family in a country where people still die of malnutrition and water born disease. I had spent those very months in a bikini in lake Zurich whilst simultaneously working on a piece about violence against women in a country where the streets are unsafe and brutal gangrapes occur. This schizophrenia was staggering, the privilege devastating. 

By the time we had finished the cigarette, I could only manage a weak recovery from the dark history lesson. Perhaps I should have simply offered presence and my own state of overwhelm, my wound. 

Four years later in 2019, I would be on a train from Mwanza to Dar es Salaam with a group of artists from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, England and Germany. We would travel on train tracks laid by Indian labourers in Africa, for the colonisers from Europe to make their extraction of the continent’s resources easier. The potency of us coming together in the context of this past and trying to meet through our artistic processes gave us purpose even in our independent and non- funded contexts. We would walk into Bagamayo’s slave trade market together – descendants of those who had perpetrated and those who had borne the brunt for generations to come. We would try to talk back to a problematic past and transform the hurt in the present. The whole town would watch us perform and perhaps some unconscious healing would ripple outwards. We would never be able to measure this empirically. We would be working in landscape that is invisible to most. 

The poetry of Covid times, however, is now upon us where social media, global news media and statistics illustrate these wound landscapes upon both metaphorical and material map surfaces. We have all been invited, implored and compelled to engage, donate, self-isolate and see, both virtually and literally. The wound is now tangible, the witnesses both willing and unwilling – present. 

Somewhere in between these moments I would fall in love with a man from Israel. We would deeply want to bring our worlds together. Our inner worlds were dancing from that first moment anyway, the duet was rich and beautiful. The separation however was written. He would tire of my desperate commitment to immersing in the landscape of collective wounding. He would lose hope. The hope that allowed him to dream of a future with me. He would remember instead the song of his tribe and nation, one strengthened by their collective wounding. “Remember, remember”, they would be told, and remember they would. Many years ago history had been unkind to them. This wound would assure loyalty and allegiance. Two days before he left for his country I asked him, what he would say of a future son’s love for a non-Jewish woman. His answer made me see what my friends had been telling me from the beginning. Some wounds cannot be healed by one or two people. They need a circle – a large determined resilient circle. 

Today I think of the two German sisters running away from home to find respite from a daunting historical shadow and my love appears beside them – running back home to stay true to that very same wound inflicted three generations ago: grandchildren of the opposite camps of that generation, fleeing from love, fleeing from home. I observed how a wound inflicted on a people in a land far away from me, years before my being conceived could today have travelled into the depths of my own heart. No wound is then an “other’s”. Again: in the country of the wounding, no borders exist. Our borders have never been able to protect us from the fractures within. 

We are now in 2020, it is April and Covid has taken over our world. I check on the Africans and the Europeans from the train. I check on the Swiss friends and with trepidation even on the Israeli man. I have recently recovered from Covid and am in my rented apartment for the period of the lockdown. All my friends are in lockdown, everywhere. It occurs to me that for the first time ever, we are all conscious of being in the wound as a race. Every single one impacted by it and aware of each other’s suffering in real time. I am on a zoom meeting. This is an effort at solidarity and surviving this loaded moment in time. This is a Circle of Resilience – simply put, ten artists and a therapist, checking in – holding hands in a virtual circle. We decide to meet as humans who happen to be in the artistic way of life. Here we are trying to deal with the world steeped in pandemic. Almost everybody in the virtual room is sensitive, is acknowledging the loss and grief being carried – both personal and collective. Our therapist reminds us to give ourselves permission to feel what is coming up. To make “I”-statements so that we can separate, for the sake of witnessing clearly, our own experience and the stories we take on. It is clear that people here are possessed by the character of this zeitgeist and overwhelmed by the wound of the collective that has opened itself like a gaping gate to hell. If wounds can travel across space, time, communities and generations, the part of me that emerged from three weeks in hospital seems to believe even more in circles than ever before. I witnessed two kinds of circles, both drawn from love, one tightly tied around ‘me and mine’, like the kind my landlord drew around himself and his family. “Please don’t come back to live here”, he said. This was not about me, he was just wanting to protect what was dear to him. This circle of love accommodated only a few.

Then was the circle drawn by the the nurse who said, “I’m not scared, this is what I chose and here is my opportunity to serve”. She had drawn a large circle, also of love the only difference was this included her own family, her neighbours, community and this stranger who was a threat to her but somehow warranted a place in her heart, prayers and service. In this act of inclusion, her heart expands, the wound appears smaller and courage appears. 

In the Circles of resilience arts-humans from all over the larger global circle meet. Light is shed upon the wounding. A gentle one, facilitated by the healer in the room. We stay with the wound, caressing it, holding its hand recognising how it lives in each of us and how it manifests in the collective. Dora the dancer, (all names changed) is a girl with, “half my heart in Bangladesh and half my heart in France”. Yamini the poet and traveller is stuck in Germany and therefore lost, seeking “tools and clarity“, envious of the plants that always seem to know which way the light is. In therapy circles, the wound is where the light comes in. When witnessed with courage, grace and compassion it presents an opportunity for transformation. Actor Anil and choreographer Danny both hold anger and guilt and the dichotomy of allowing these emotions to travel through their bodies like daily “visitors” questioning everything. “Where is our relevance? Are we doing enough? Was it always like this?!” Dance student Kriti is without words and cannot name her experience. Ananya the film maker is feeling absurd and ashamed but accepting and experimental too. 

“Mass suffering”, “P-bomb” (referring to the guilt that comes with privilege), “productivity”, “freaking out”, “democratic concerns”, “never ending day”, “alternate universe”, “understanding of self”, “surrender”, “listen” and “loneliness” are some terms that populate these circles. 

John, the performance maker is “terribly calm”. This scares him. He jokes a lot. “It is what it is”, is his title for this chapter of human history. Aisha studying performing arts in Vienna says that like her, her anger does not leave the room. “It just stays there. And now, the apartment is feeling bigger.” This shift in just her physical space is a forewarning of the changes to come both in inner and outer worldscapes. 

As a movement artist my body is my diagnostic tool. As a human, it is my map and locates me in the present. Priya, a Baroda based filmmaker reports feeling change, internal and bodily. “Sense-making has not happened yet.” Her feeling of helplessness as she hears a voice on a microphone tell daily wage workers, “The bus is full, please wait for the next one”and then, “This is for your own good”, devastates her. She breaks, many of us cry. Our healer asks: “Are you willing to feel the pain?”

Behind all the to-do lists, the activism and inequality, the productive days and the days we nail our practice, underlying every online dance class, lockdown poem or throwback video of last year’s travels is this question: “Are you willing to feel the pain?” Spending enough time in your wound, means you get to know it really intimately, the voices that trigger it, the depth and rawness, the shadows that dance on its edges and the blood that spills out. When I see your wound, I see mine. The circle becomes a mirror, a non-hierarchical womb of safety and witnessing, and in that seeing something already shifts. 

I imagine returning to the balcony with my German friend. I recall that moment of separation, where I was fool enough to think of her wound as just hers or her community’s. I ask forgiveness for every moment, I may have resented having to deal with the white guilt in the room, or rolled my eyes at Brahmin (upper class Hindu) guilt, or scoffed at patriarchal male guilt and first world self-loathing. Not because repentance, apology and perhaps even guilt are unnecessary (these are in fact essential),  but only because each wound seems to be a way to enter and heal other wounds too. All wounds lead to each other. The fight is as much within as without. Are we willing to feel the pain, to stand in the wound together in circles of resilience, witnessing the scar that we collectively hold and individually manifest?

This is my only interest for now.