Natalia Sylvester published a fantastic essay on Writer Unboxed:

As an immigrant and a Latina whose recent novel deals with family sacrifice, love, generational trauma, secrets, marriage, adolescence, borders, and immigration, I’m often told things like my novel is very timely, or that the topic of immigration is very relevant right now. I’ve lived my whole life as an immigrant; to me and millions like me, immigration is not a “topic” but a lived experience. We cannot separate politics from our lives because our whole lives there have been policies in place that affect us. […]

In stories like mine, in a time and setting where the current (and historical) politics obstruct and oppress the lives of the Latinx immigrant communities I’m writing about, the political becomes more visible. It is a force that we do not have the privilege, as much as we’d want to, of ignoring. Even if I were to write a fun, “non-political” story that makes for an escapist read, it’d be difficult to do so authentically because my existence as a woman of color and immigrant is politicized in the world we live in.

I am a white cis man. So far, so good. But I am also an atheist gay man raised in a very strict Catholic country where being different is very rarely an advantage. I refused to remain in the closet, didn’t attend mass or religion classes at school. It was enough to become a polarising figure, accused of pushing an extreme agenda. The price I paid for being openly gay (as opposed, I suppose, to people who are openly straight) was high – I lost contact with a large part of my family. The reason? Wanting to bring my boyfriend to a family celebration. When my cousins brought their girlfriends, that was normal. When I wanted to bring my significant other, it was made very clear to me that it was okay for me to be gay – but only where nobody could see me.

A few years ago I happened to be in Poland in time for a rally demanding legalisation of registered partnerships – not even the most extreme of activists dared to demand same-sex marriage at that time. Since I was very open about my sexuality on my Polish blog, I was called onstage without any prior warning. I gave a short impromptu speech, in which I said that in Poland I was “a gay man”, while in the Netherlands I was a person. This was shocking enough to put me in a newspaper. But even though here in Amsterdam I am a person, I still check who is around before I hold my husband’s hand. Because even here, even in 2018 this puts both of us at danger. We’re flaunting, pushing our sexuality down people’s throats, think of the children. We’re holding hands.

Committing a political act either before or after I was called onstage

 

The default people

A default person is a white cis straight man following the mainstream religion of the country he lives in. He was born in that country, and sees himself as a patriot. Being the default brings along a lot of what is essentially political privilege. And the default people don’t want to lose it. Women are great to play girlfriends, wives, daughters, secretaries. They get spoken parts, in which they talk about men. In the first “Thor” movie, directed by Kenneth Branagh, Natalie Portman plays a badass scientist. In the second, she mostly shrieks and faints. I didn’t watch the third one, so can’t comment on that.

Look at the reaction to the all-female “Ghostbusters”, “Wonder Woman”, “Ocean’s 8”, “Black Panther”. Despite the fact that default people are represented everywhere all the time – pop music, movies, TV, billboards, adverts, books, you name it – they feel threatened by anything that doesn’t confirm their view of the world. An Asian actress is shunned, because “Asians are not expressive enough”, therefore she can’t play an Asian woman (!?!?!?!?) and a white woman must step in. Margaret Cho was told she was too fat to play herself. It all boils down to the idea that default people should have a monopoly on being represented. Blockbuster movies featuring gay men (“Brokeback Mountain”), people of colour, women in all leading roles are all considered shocking, ground-breaking, and political. If I have one thing to say about “Brokeback Mountain”, it’s that once you stop thinking of gay cowboys as scandalous taboo topic it’s a rather boring movie. The director managed to make it just scandalous enough for people to watch it. Casting two very popular white cis straight male actors helped, I suppose. It also got them lauded for their courage.

Back in Poland I was regularly told to “go to Holland where perverts like you belong”. I emigrated, and never looked back. I was accepted without any problems, assigned a knowledge migrant visa, later applied for citizenship and received it. This didn’t make me a Dutch person. It made me an immigrant from Poland with Dutch citizenship. I feel very lucky, grateful, but also still resentful towards a country where it is completely acceptable to tell me straight to my face that I am unwanted. I’ve experienced violence – verbal, emotional, physical – because of the political fact of holding my boyfriend’s hand in public. Even during that rally in Poland we, the Dutchies, seemed to be the only couple holding hands. I originally wrote that my life was never in danger, but then I remembered the death threat I received because of what I write on my Polish blog. Specifically, because I don’t hide the fact I am gay.

Just married (photo: Gerardo Viviers)

“What will children think when they see two men kissing?” is just one way of saying “you’re not really human”. Back in Poland a prominent politician said once that there is no discrimination against queer people, because any gay man can marry a woman whenever he likes. Another pointed out that she never noticed any discrimination against gay and lesbian people. (She is straight.) I was accused of “flaunting my sexuality” and “pushing it down our children’s throats”, as if all children were straight. As if we, as children, were not constantly having heterosexuality pushed down our throats. Why is it so easy to forget heterosexuality is also a sexual orientation? That white is also a colour? (I have a grudge against the phrase “people of colour” for this reason, while reluctantly accepting there’s no better expression to use at this time.)

“Diversity” is a buzz word in 2018. “Representation”, “own voices”, you name it. This doesn’t change the fact that a woman of colour is being told by her white editor that she (the author) doesn’t know how to write a character of colour correctly. (My apologies for not being able to provide a source – perhaps tellingly my attempts to locate the original article led me to…4chān.) That Natalia Sylvester is accused of pushing a political agenda – and, at the same time, asked why her novels are not more political. That when I said on that stage that I wanted to be treated like a person without putting me in a rainbow-coloured box and shutting the lid it proved to be controversial enough to warrant an article in the biggest newspaper in Poland. I take issue with the word “diversity” as well, because it creates another divide: default people versus diverse people. As if non-whites, non-straights, non-*insert dominant religion in your country* were some sort of “diversity tokens”, political simply because they – we – exist in public.

A while ago I noticed that I stopped reading novels written by default people for default people. It wasn’t a political act either. It was seemingly a coincidence that continued until I realised my top five novels of 2017 were all written by women, not all of them white or straight either. I never picked a book thinking “this will be good, because a woman/PoC/gay man wrote it”. I believe I just got tired of the default viewpoint. It truly has been pushed down my throat for decades, together with explanation that it’s good for me, and attempts to convince me there was no other perspective.

I am both exhilarated and upset by the fact “Black Panther” was such an enormous hit and generated so many headlines. “Black Panther” finally gave on-screen representation to people of colour, for once not cast just as “token blacks” to show “our commitment to diversity”. When the makers of “Doctor Strange” were accused of whitewashing due to the fact Tilda Swinton was cast in a role written for an Asian man, they responded:

Both director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts have defended Swinton, rationalizing that casting a woman in the role of a man was already a diversity choice.

Very recently casting of Scarlett Johansson as a trans man sparked controversy. Johansson herself fails to understand the problem. This was her statement:

Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto, and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.

She feels personally attacked and singled out. It doesn’t look like Scarlett Johansson realises what the problem even is. She is a white, straight, cis woman, who already played a Japanese character, because – I suppose – there just aren’t any Japanese actors? (The movie, “Ghost in the Shell”, bombed at the box office.) The very idea that perhaps the role of a trans man could be given to a trans man is a shocking political statement. As if the filmmakers were not already being so brave and supportive by even making a movie about a trans man at all! Below a photograph of the man Johansson will be playing:

Nobody is saying Scarlett Johansson shouldn’t ever play any leading role again. Nobody is saying she is not talented. The movie industry didn’t suddenly stop offering acting opportunities to white actors. Despite the success of “Black Panther” I don’t expect that five years from now all superheroes will be disabled black lesbians (as was sarcastically suggested when the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond started floating around). But disabled black lesbians exist. So do gay atheists born in Poland. Trans male actors. Immigrants. Gay Muslims. You wouldn’t know that from popular culture. But yes, we do exist, and we don’t think about ourselves as “diversity representatives”. We think about ourselves as people. I hope to see the day when that doesn’t seem shocking.

Just married (photo: Dorota Kozerska)

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

In 2015 I decided to sell my apartment, and move in with husby (we were not married yet, so with my fiancè) (that word will never not be hilarious). With help of some lovely, lovely people we got it renovated, sold most of the things I didn’t need, and the only thing remaining was an IKEA kitchen block. I wanted to add a photo of it, but I seem to have deleted all of them. This is probably a good thing, as they were somewhat triggering for my PTSD. So here’s a different pic.

(Photo: Kjell Leknes)

The guys who bought the kitchen block – four cupboards put together, with a countertop on, er, top – asked us not to take the thing apart, as they would come over and just carry it to their truck. I became somewhat worried, because that countertop was so heavy husby and me couldn’t move it at all without a third person, so I asked a friend of mine – big boy – to come over and help. Husby was at work. The buyers came over, and they were three rather small guys. I mentally congratulated myself for thinking of getting another pair of hands, and then we started getting the thing out. It was easier than I expected. We lifted it, maneuvered to get it out of the door, and when we were outside together with this huge, heavy thing, we relaxed, thinking the worst was behind us.

This was a mistake.

The guy next to me must have relaxed a bit too much, because he suddenly dropped his corner. I was the nearest person, and the entire weight went down for just a moment. After that we loaded the thing onto the truck, I briefly wondered how the three of them are going to get it out seeing as five of us barely managed to put it in, but it wasn’t my problem anymore. I got my 100 euros, the space in the apartment was now free and open, and my lower back felt warm.

I knew that warmth. I had two back injuries before, both sustained at the gym, both due to my stupidity. So I shrugged, thinking “well, that’s a week off the forge and gym”. But the day after the pain was horrible. And the next day it became worse, then worse again. I white-knuckled it for a while before going to a doctor. I was sent to do an xray (which showed nothing), then to an orthopedist (who did nothing), then to various physiotherapists, exercise therapists, sports rehabilitants, and a pain specialist. In total I have seen either eight or nine people about my back. After a while it became somewhat blurry. My life consisted largely of sitting in one precisely chosen position on a very specifically angled pile of pillows. Dry needling made the pain worse. One sports rehabilitant in Poland caused me the worst pain of my life – I cried while in bed, but couldn’t find any position in which it would hurt less. There was no gym, no forge, until the second or third physio found out a part of my spine slipped sideways (please don’t ask me for Latin names for that), and blocked the left part of my pelvis. This was eight months after the accident.

It took another half a year (I believe) to figure out that there was another injury. I had a cracked joint in my spine, the joint kept triggering a nerve, and that nerve gave me tons of pain. It was unnecessary – often pain carries information, “this is wrong, fix it”. This particular pain only hurt endlessly, and when triggered by any sort of wrong movement it hurt worse. I became dependent on painkillers which were literally driving me insane, and in December 2016 I decided I was done with this planet. 2016 was the official worst year of my life. I found myself crying in the shower, sitting on the floor, unable to lift myself up anymore, the opiates taking the pain down all the way from excruciating to plain horrible. I always travelled with a cushion to put under my back, and with a supply of painkillers. Yet every time the pain became less unbearable, I tried to go back to the forge. I worked for 30 minutes, then 40, then back to physio and painkillers, then 15 minutes and I was already in pain… But I wasn’t ready to give up.

Post-accident photo – one of the rare times I managed to actually get some work done. And then, of course, paid for it.

Both injuries eventually got “fixed”. One by what I call “cracking” my spine, a white flash of pain, certainty I will never move again, then realisation I could not just walk, but also bend again without lifting my leg involuntarily. The other, that pesky nerve, by simply burning through it. I took a month of a break, then tried forging again. Then two months, and tried again. I kept on trying the forge, but I noticed I was becoming weary. Every time I got on the tram, the main thought in my head was “I’m going to work for half an hour, then be in pain for a week”. I moved from heavy work to less heavy work to making tiny things from thin stock. It didn’t improve things pain-wise. And eventually I fell out of love – not with the fire, the iron, the hammer, but with the fact I was doing something that ultimately caused me way more harm than good. I do wonder sometimes how much better my back would have been had I given up forging for a year or two, or if the injuries were detected faster. But there really is no point thinking about it. What happened, happened.

This weathervane (made before the injury) is now proudly displayed on a roof of friends’ house in Germany, and it works!

I have a large tattoo saying “BLACKSMITH”, colours of the iron being heated up, flames around the letters. For a long time every time I saw it, it hurt – mentally and emotionally. It felt like a cruel reminder. It took me at least two years to arrive at the conclusion that I earned this tattoo, same as I earned each of my burns and scars. I never stopped being a designer just because I no longer work in that job. My M.Sc. in maths hadn’t been taken away from me despite the fact I never worked in any field even barely related to mathematics. (Pro-tip: at job interviews having a degree in maths is going to get you everywhere.)

Today I am largely pain free, as long as I observe certain precautions. I can’t lift a shopping bag, but a backpack is fine, even a full one. Just not for too long. I have to be careful when I take the trash out. Reading a thick hardback book is going to be a challenge – I will never not be grateful to the inventor of e-readers. I don’t get to play with power tools anymore. Or to hammer hot iron. Asymmetrical movements are dangerous for me – I can bench press and do back pulls, but a while ago I gave myself a few days of sharp pain by pulling a curtain that got stuck. It was a sideways movement. I only rarely need a cushion when I travel, and most of the time when I go somewhere I manage to find a chair I can sit on at least for a longer while. At home I have a profiled armchair with lower back support, cushions on the sofa for lower back support, a desk chair with – guess what? – lower back support! I also have a home gym, which was one of our best purchases ever, despite costing way too much money. This gym allowed me to strengthen my core, my back muscles, and – well – all other muscles as well. All I have to remember is that there are exercises I can’t do, and at the merest hint of pain I stop.

(Photo: Dorota Kozerska)

Am I done with the forge? Hell no. I will never stop loving the smells; the dry heat of the coal fire; the wizardry of shaping thick iron; the superpower feeling I had when I did my first forge weld. I like to think a day will come when I will be able to go back to forging – even if only at limited capacity. But there was a sort of silver lining – this injury forced me to think of a plan C. When I had a burnout and had to stop working as a graphic designer, blacksmithing became my plan B. I didn’t have any other. If back then I didn’t manage to find my place by the fire… I don’t know what would have happened. But in 2015, when the injury struck, I already had other plans, and once I stopped being in so much pain I began to pursue them…

To be continued, of course.

Main photo: Casper Prager.

How I became a blacksmith: Part 1, Part 2

I think the first time I actually felt I was a blacksmith was when I bought my own anvil, Bubba (presented above with a small selection of tools I was using).

Or perhaps it was when Casper the Master Smith said he thought of me as “a blacksmith with less experience”, and I kinda died and went to heaven.

It might also have been when I started noticing I can work without thinking at all. It was a meditative sort of experience. Hands did the work, my mind floated peacefully. It was the first time I understood why people meditate. I felt serene, happy, watched my hands do what they were supposed to, cursed when I got a burn (which happens often), and enjoyed the fact I was doing one of the most butch things one can do while listening to Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson.

(As an aside, there are amazing female blacksmiths, which is a factoid known to even less people than the fact blacksmiths do more than make horseshoes.)

With Casper. (Those are not his real ears.)

It was thanks to Casper that I got to start practising forging. He told me he had space for someone to work, but wouldn’t be able to serve as a teacher. Since I felt I learned a lot in Poland, this was an arrangement that worked for me. Afterwards Casper helped me quite a bit, actually, and when I say quite a bit I mean a lot. At the beginning I was capable of making a mistake even when choosing stock, because my M.Sc. in maths made me forget that materials had thickness. I would be measuring something, then turn it into a metal ring, and to my surprise discover it was smaller than I expected it to be. But I think I only made that mistake 100 times before I finally learned. Although, come to think of it, there’s a chance I had to stop before I learned.

One of my favourite things to do was acquiring new skills. Among them were two sorts of welding: electrical and forge welding. The first one is kind of self-explanatory. But it felt like magic, because at the beginning of the day I was still terrified of the electrodes and I just waited to die, and at the end of the day I was making welds like the big boy I was. They were awful welds, but I was fucking them up all by myself! I couldn’t sleep that night, excited by the possibilities, by the fact I was doing it at all. When I was a good boy growing up in front of his computer I didn’t expect to one day find myself welding pieces of metal, and loving every moment. Why would I? It wasn’t even a dream, it was way beyond that.

Forge welding is what happens when you heat the metal right to the temperature where it begins to melt. One needs a really hot fire for this, really good eyesight, really good coordination, and a much lighter hammer than you would expect. The metal is essentially very thick liquid at this point, and if you hit it hard you’ll have drops flying around, wasting material. When you see photos of blacksmiths with sparks flying around, that means they were just posing for a picture, as the metal is then ruined. If a blacksmith isn’t posing for pictures and has all those sparks flying around, it means they aren’t good enough at their job. Not that it happened to me or anything.

That’s the healthy amount of sparks. This forge weld worked, and I was super proud even though the effect wasn’t actually usable for anything but practice. I still have that piece.

One of my favourite memories from those years is making an alien plant. For fun, I took the picture below. The plant sold within 40 minutes from me placing this photo on Facebook. The buyer said she wasn’t sure whether it would be worth the price and she expected to haggle a bit, but when she saw it she decided it was worth every cent. I later made a double plant, Patsy and Eddie, which you can get from Etsy. I don’t think I had the first plant long enough to decide on the name. I utilised a LOT of techniques I learned to make those plants. And from all I know, its owner was happy.

One of the things that made me happy was the fact that my works will be around a long time after I die. I used to walk by gates that I knew got forged 200 years ago, they were still very much in use, looked gorgeous, and made me happy. I’d just touch the metal, and feel a spark of connection between me and that long dead blacksmith who made the gate. I loved being dirty, sweaty, experiencing that lovely muscle ache that tells you you’ve worked hard. I put as many of those experiences in the novel I’m writing, and it felt great to revisit them. In fact, I put too many of them in, and the editor I am working with asked me politely to remove 50 pages some of them. I’ve made those connected hearts, and told people nobody will be able to split them… except, of course, for a blacksmith. Those hearts also proved popular, and made lovely gifts for people.

(They are golden, not green. Blame the phone camera.)

I have so many amazing memories from that time. Asking to use the 18 kg (40 pound) big grinder, being told time will come for that and the small one will do for now, then the time actually coming and me being like o-o-h-h-m-m-y-y-th-is-ma-ke-s-my-han-ds-vib-ra-te. (I had muscle pain IN MY FINGERS.) Doing the forge welding on my own, and actually succeeding. (The technique was employed in both the alien plants.) Making my own tools – how many jobs allow you to start with literally two tools, a hammer and one pair of tongs, and use those to produce everything else you need? One of the things Casper and me did was turning a shop-bought boring hammer into a proper forging one, and that was HARD – but extremely rewarding. This hammer served me until the last time I visited the forge, and I still have it. In all probability I will use that hammer forever.

His name is Johnno.

Now, in 2018, my wrists and hands are covered in scars, and I am proud of those. I earned them. Pro-tip: if you have low pain tolerance, do something else. But if you like playing with fire, getting legit dirty, if the thought of turning square metal stock into a rose excites you, if you want to create work that will still be useful decades from now, I can’t think of anything better to do. I don’t actually have many of my works around, as a large part of them was either sold or given away. I’ve made sculptures in 2D and 3D, a wizard staff that sold before I had a chance to finish it, tools that remain usable today, a shoerack we’re using, ashtrays, bowls, more and different alien and non-alien plants…

In part four I will explain why I no longer work as a blacksmith, which is not to say I don’t intend to ever try again. It’s the best job on Earth as far as I am concerned, even though you’re very unlikely to make money from it. How do I know that? The picture below (by Dorota Kozerska) shows exactly how I felt most of the time.