“Nations are Fictions”: INTERVIEW with Ana Sobral (Swiss-Based Cultural Mediator and Educator)

As this blog reaches the 1.5 year mark, having grazed over topics as diverse as Swiss watches, neutrality and winter sports, one crucial question never disappears. After all these hours of skiiers and soldiers, beekepers and bureaucrats, mountain folk and murderers, I’ve yet to properly examine what the “Swiss” means in “Swiss movie”. I don’t mean legal terms, or some witty and nuanced description of Swissness (you’ll find enough of them elsewhere on this site) – no, I’m going meta here: What is a nation, and what is culture? And how are they mixed up with each other?

Luckily my tiny brain has an ally in this quest, whose name is Ana Sobral.

Ana is an old friend of the blog – a secret co-viewer for Suot tschêl blau and Mais im Bundeshuus, she even provided expert guidance for the African Mirror review.

And she’s a great person to have along for these meaty meta-topics, not least because she’s spent masses of time thinking about them since arriving in Switzerland eight years ago. Formerly Professor for Global Literatures at the University of Zurich, Ana now alternates between her work at Weiter Schreiben Schweiz, a cultural foundation promoting exiled authors in Switzerland, and her own business, Postcolonial Spectacles. For that, she organises events on postcolonial issues, as well as going to schools and institutes to talk about things like the wider context of BLM, the spread of rap music around the world, and the history of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, all topics go deep into our scarily big topics of What is nation and What is culture. Ana’s own biography also means she has some serious investment in them. Read all about it below…

One way of visualizing the nations of the world. From http://www.passportindex.org

Hello, Ana! Can you recommend us a Swiss film?
Hello! Yes, a film called Heimatland from 2015. A dark, ominous cloud hangs over Switzerland and threatens to destroy the country with apocalyptic storms. It’s a brilliant portrait of the nation. As individuals, when we feel cornered, our deepest, darkest neuroses come to the surface. The same could be said for national identities.

I don’t understand. How can my own unique identity be similar to a collective “national identity”?
National identities, like individual identities, are basically constructed and performed. People invest time and effort into building a national identity – political leaders, social elites, institutions such as schools, and cultural producers. This is surely helpful if you want to run a heterogeneous and stratified mass of people who are supposed to feel part of a unified whole.

Is that the case in Switzerland?
Think of how referenda in Switzerland often reveal a divide, for example between the countryside and the city, in the way people think and what they wish for their communities. Whenever a referendum comes up, you see this weird competition between different parties for the “representation” of the most “authentic” Swiss needs. Particularly the right-wing parties like the SVP [Swiss People’s Party] love using Swiss flags as symbols in their campaigns, to show that they are purportedly defending the interests of “all” Swiss people.

An ad for local elections: “Should lefties and ‘nice people’ destroy Switzerland? Better to vote SVP!” (Swiss apple eaten by diverse caterpillars, including one with the European flag)

But that feeling of being a “unified whole” can lead to problems?
Yes, that’s where the neuroses kick in, just like in individuals: because we’re not a unified whole, we’re divided in so many ways. The national realities of any country, including Swizerland, are a lot more complex. People move across borders to find work, better living conditions, safety. There are massive class differences, regional differences, even cultural differences. These aspects challenge the simplistic narratives that sustain national identities.

What does this weirdness about the phrase “national identity” mean when we start talking about “national culture” – like Swiss movies?
You know, I’m sceptical about thinking of nations as neatly cut off from each other across border lines. Maybe “local culture” is a better term than “national culture”. As a child you tend to experience total immersion into your environment, whatever it may be, and it will invariably include food, language, music, images. That’s your local reality. The language I first learned to speak, my “mother tongue”, connects me automatically to millions of people who speak the same language. Same goes for the food, movies, and so on. That’s the “local culture” that has formed me. It happens to be part of a territory that belongs to a nation, and so we think of it as “national culture”.

Speaking of language – what’s your mother tongue, Ana?
Portuguese, which I spoke with an Angolan accent and a whole bunch of Angolan terms when I lived in Angola, but then switched to European Portuguese when I moved to Portugal.

Switzerland, Portugal and Angola: Three key places in Ana’s biography.

So what nationality would you describe yourself as?
I was born in Angola, partially raised there (till I was 12), then moved to Portugal. My ancestors are Portuguese, but several generations on my mother’s side were born in Angola. So I guess I’m both. But I’m also the descendant of white European colonialists. Do I even have the “right” to call myself Angolan? It’s a dilemma for which I have found no solution.

So do you ever call yourself Angolan?
If I sense some sympathy on the part of my interlocutor, whether they’re from Africa or somewhere else, I may tell them I’m Angolan. If I fear being judged for colonialism or just want to keep conversation superficial, I’ll say Portuguese. If I describe myself to myself, I generally avoid national labels. I’m culturally Portuguese, but I also have elements of Angolan culture. It’s impossible to place myself in a box, and the more I let myself be fluid, the better. 

That’s a complicated answer! For me personally, born in the UK to a wholly white British working-class family, I find it much easier to identify as British than as Swiss, even though I now have both passports. As an example, Kate Bush has been in the headlines again recently, and whenever I hear her being praised, I always feel a strange sense of pride or “home”-ness. What nation or region’s culture feels more like “home” for you?
I love West-African music in a way that surmounts any other type of music. Afrobeats, Highlife, and Semba and Kuduro from Angola. I’m often ashamed of that, because it feels like such a colonial thing to do. “Oh, the natives of that part of the world, don’t they make the best music ever!” But as someone pointed out to me the other day, it’s OK for me to be fond of that music, if I grew up surrounded by those sounds and rhythms. It’s “home”, in a way.

I also love certain Angolan dishes and ask my parents to prepare them whenever I visit Portugal. For example, I love beans in palm oil. You usually eat them with grilled fish, and add bananas and fried cassava flour to the beans. Then again, if you present me with a traditional Portuguese fish dish, I will probably also associate it with home. My favourite is probably baked codfish with potatoes and cream. My parents cooked both Angolan and Portuguese dishes, even when we lived in Angola, and it’s difficult for me to separate these things.

You’re a literature specialist. What sort of literature feels like “home”?
I love many Portuguese language poets, including Brazilian ones. Language is definitely broader than the nation state, particularly in former colonial empires like Portugal, which spread across the globe. But generally, when it comes to literature, my horizons are much broader. I feel very much at home in the English language, which I have been exploring since my early teens. Any book in the English language that deals with colonial histories will appeal to me in a special way. I’ll probably identify with the depicted experiences and feel at “home”. Recently, for example, I enjoyed Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, which describes the invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s troops from the perspective of Ethiopian women and resistance fighters.

The subtitle of this blog is: “Learning about Switzerland from Its Movies and TV.” Do you think this is actually possible, or even useful?
Nations are fictions, so they need to be narrated, transmitted through powerful symbols, summed up in myths. Much of the cultural production within a nation will make use of those elements in order to reach a broad audience. That’s where we critics and researchers come in.

Could you give an example of a previously unfamiliar nation you’ve looked at in detail?
The most adventurous incursion I made as a lecturer was into Somalia, a country I knew very little about. I was researching into a rapper called K’naan, who moved to Canada as a refugee when he was a teenager, and made a name for himself as a representative of refugee experiences, but also as a storyteller of the Somali civil war, one of the most brutal wars in recent history. I decided to offer a whole course on the representations of the Somali Diaspora in Anglophone culture.

And you learned more about the Somali Diaspora?
I’m amazed at how much we learned. Of course it’s partial knowledge, but I can now sympathise with someone from Somalia in a way that I couldn’t before. I know details of Somali history that probably affected this person’s family for generations. And I learned it all by reading novels and poems, articles and essays, listening to K’naan, and talking to scholars from the Somali Diaspora. 

The Solothurner Film Festival awards its highest honour, the Prix de Soleure, to the best film (documentary or feature) with a humanistic message. In what different ways can movies and TV help make a region, country or nation a better (or worse) place?
That’s a tricky one. I’m pretty certain that movies and TV can amplify already existing ideas and feelings. I’m a bit more sceptical about whether they can change things radically.

Thanks Ana, much appreciated!
My pleasure!

So, what is the “Swiss” in “Swiss movie? My main take-home from the interview with Ana is that nations are fictions. I can only conclude that a Swiss feature film thematizing Swissness is a fiction (a fun love story on an Alp) which sustains and influences another fiction (Swissness has to do with Alps).

Freaky. But all is not lost. On the one hand, we shouldn’t worry too much about a big part of our identity being fictional, because it’s only human (why not like West African music if you grew up listening to it?).

However, we also need to be careful, because every fiction has an author or authors, and those authors might have intentions opposed to our values. Not only that, but fictions are famously good to stir up our emotions, emotions like a sense of belonging: from the Swiss flag on the voting campaigns to good old popular movies which amplify ideas like “sacrifice everything for your country”. Watching a movie might not persuade you to vote differently or act in a different way, but can stir things up in your mind, make things bigger or smaller. Reinforce or erode your sense of belonging to a particular tribe.

Mind you, you could say the same about film critics and cultural commentators – hello, Swiss Me Deadly project. So what kind of existing Swiss fiction does this blog “amplify”? For example, it features quite a lot of migrant movies, so does it unconsciously promote a “woke” pro-migrant agenda?

And what about the style, and the fact I write in English? Am I injecting a good dose of British humour, helping the Swiss like their own movies again? Or am I barging in like the colonial Britain of yore, thinking I’m better than everyone else, telling people what to watch? What a responsibility. It’s a good job my audience is so tiny.

All this meta stuff is making my head hurt, though. I think I’ll just watch a movie instead…

My interviewee Ana Sobral freelances via Postcolonial Spectacles as a teacher, consultant and public intellectual. Her main areas are racial justice, cultural diversity and colonial history, and how they’re related to our everyday lives. She also works as project manager at Weiter Schreiben Schweiz, a cultural project showcasing exiled authors living in Switzerland. In a former life she was Professor of Global Literatures at the University of Zurich.

Title photo with grateful thanks to Stefan Walter.

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