Finding My Identity in a Post-Brexit Society
[Article and Illustration By: Gabriela Saldanha Blackwood]
You reach a point in your life where you begin to want to contextualise yourself within the world and be absorbed by its history. To become more than an apathetic passenger drifting by weightlessly. Certain things trigger that feeling of burgeoning curiosity. For me it was the events of 2016. I am half English and half Brazilian (to be simplistic about it) – those are the passports I own; those countries are where my extended families live. The contrast is evident in my double-barrelled surname: Saldanha-Blackwood. But for the greater part of my life, I have neglected my Brazilian self as well as my English self, and identified evasively as a European Londoner. It seems to fit me the best; London is a city built on and enriched by immigration, whose whole fabric is made up of complex layers of mixed identity. I am Portobello’s Saturday market: overflowing with different narratives. I also feel this invisible string which connects me to mainland Europe: Lisbon, Berlin, Siena, Delphi. It is as though it is my greater home. It is where all my ancestors lived; moving around from country to country, never occupying somewhere for more than two generations. My family line practically covers the whole of the European map.
So after the Brexit vote, it all became a bit sinister. I felt rejected by 51.9% of my own country and protective of my hazy European roots. I have no tangible identity, no straight simple lineage to point a finger to with an assured ‘Aha!’ It was this need after the Brexit vote to all of a sudden define and find one’s camp which panicked me. The morning I learned the result, a heaviness weighed on my chest. It was reminiscent of the feeling I get answering an ethnicity questionnaire which I have had to fill in seemingly too many times, even just to join a gym. My eyes scroll down the clinically empty boxes each next to the title for a reduced ethnicity. None of them are me, until I reach the final one… ‘Other’… tick. My skin is olive in tone, a visual signifier that I am ‘other’. I often get questioned about where I’m from, and my answer is always London… ‘No, but where are you really from?’ It felt for a long time as though my identity was suspended like an amorphous, nebulous entity in front of me, out of reach. I was staring into an abyss asking myself again and again: ‘Where am I really from?’
It took time for me to realise I must create my own nuanced identity, a feeling which I believe defines the children of immigrants. If our space isn’t already there, we have the agency to forge it ourselves. A work currently in the Tate Modern’s new building by John Akomfrah titled ‘The Unfinished Conversation’ struck me with how it managed to articulate this so acutely; this feeling which is so isolating but simultaneously universal. It does not require me to reject the countries and cultures I have come from. Brazilian music conjures a specific nostalgia in me that no English songs ever will; Marisa Monte’s voice not only connects me to Brazil but it connects me to my mother and her story. It is parallel to the feeling I get rummaging around rock pools and eating greasy chips on the English coast with my father, or riding a horse on an open plain on the Portuguese-Spanish border as my grandfather did all those years ago. It is easy to feel reduced to our passports nowadays, an impersonal definition. But I am the lemons of Sorrento, the Austrian mountains, the French lavender fields, the train journeys and boat journeys my ancestors took to escape or to find. I draw upon their bravery to walk into the unknowns of my own life. I can feel them all with me pushing me forwards. Perhaps the most important thing is the spirit in which we occupy our space, not the space we occupy.