An epic piece of work that makes very bold choices.
Review by LiLi K. Bright
Mapping her narrative on to areas of the body, Anita Sethi shares a story in I Belong Here that is deeply embodied at multiple levels. ‘I love looking at the grass, which stretches like a green skin over the surface of the earth, covering whatever lies within its body’; and ‘Skin is like a landscape in itself, home to incredibly diverse communities of microorganisms.’
My journey as I made my way through the book traversed not only place, but also time, memory and loss. Sethi seamlessly combines personal history, family history and heritage, and socio-political history, weaving these together with vivid descriptions of the Pennine Hills. I Belong Here is a call to act with courage in the service of justice.
Sethi’s exploration of belonging gets to the core of social justice. She writes of the power of protest to spark and create change. I found it inspiring to be on this journey with her and to witness her overcome fears I face myself. She is adamant that she is not acting ‘without fear’. She does not hide the difficulties and dangers, instead she makes them visceral and real. When she slips on Malham Cove, I wince. Her account is accessible and relatable, and shows that it is possible for each of us to follow Emily Dickinson’s advice, as Sethi repeatedly does: ‘If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.’
When Sethi writes, ‘I now feel that speaking out is an act of survival, even if it kills me – it would be a worse kind of death to remain silent’, I hear echoes of Zora Neale Hurston, ‘If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.’
Evident in the lyricism of Sethi’s text is a deep skill with, and love of, language. She demonstrates her knowledge of words in a way that is accessible – making clear the links she draws so that we can follow her train of thought. As a result, I felt I was inside her head, hearing her reactions and reflections. Evocative place names give rise to philosophical musings on a street called Hope, in a town called Settle, and many others.
Sethi makes words do their work. Every nuance of meaning is evoked and put to use to illustrate the connections between things:
‘Our bodies bear witness, too, hurt leaves its presence even in our posture, the way we carry ourself, our bearing. My body bore witness that day […] There have been times I could not bear what I had witnessed. Putting into words what we have witnessed makes it more bearable, what remains untold becoming toxic, unbearable – for language can bear more than us […] To bear witness to another’s suffering moves the victim from a state of isolation to one of belonging.’
I Belong Here sits within a rich and extensive body of work. Sethi references other books that I now want to read too, and this adds richness and depth to her work. I’m looking forward to Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers and We Mark Your Memory: Writing for the Descendants of Indenture, as well as returning to the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer and Emily Dickinson.