Your Reluctant Diplomat
Jessica Harby talks to England about Donald Trump as part of our HOME / AWAY series.
I wasn’t fully American until I left America. Until then, my “Americanness” never really occurred to me. If I had any geographical identity, it was always smaller scale, more specific. I was working-class Midwestern. I was from the poorer neighbourhood of apartments in our high school district. I was a Chicagoan.
Moving to the middle of England over seven years ago made all those distinctions moot. No more micro, everything about me was now macro. I was an American, and more than that I was emblematic. I was a walking information kiosk. I was a flag.
When George W. Bush was president, I was yelled at in more than one pub. The day Barack Obama was to be inaugurated in 2008, I was congratulated by my bank’s customer service representative. A co-worker once played ‘Duelling Banjos’, the theme from Deliverance, at me after the office asked me to explain the First Amendment. People were frustrated after every mass shooting about my inability to enact effective gun control. An Irish wedding guest once brought our table’s pleasant chat to an abrupt halt by angrily asking me how I could justify the genocide of Native Americans. I could never fully anticipate when I would be asked to explain America, but after a few years my reflexes became well practiced.
Then Donald Trump happened. At this point, we all know the stages those of us who don’t support him went through. We started with the belief that he would get nowhere near the presidency, that he was a hateful joke. Then the joke lost its punch line. By the beginning of this year, I started to feel more conspicuous, more like a walking information kiosk than ever. Except that the questions were no longer the mostly entertained musings of someone watching the ridiculous spectator sport of American politics. People very much wanted answers. Why was Donald Trump popular? Why were Americans being recorded yelling racist insults and punching protesters at his rallies? How could we let this happen? They wanted me to reassure them that, in the words of one silver-haired widow I met while walking my dog, we weren’t “really that stupid”.
I finally succumbed. Fine, England, if you want to talk about Donald Trump, we can talk about Donald Trump, but it will take longer than the five minutes I have during this cab journey and it will not happen in a field while my dog defecates next to us. We’re going to do this my way, on my turf, and everyone will be made to feel as uncomfortable as I do in the process.
At the end of April, I set up an installation and office space for three days in the Project Space of NN Contemporary Art, a Northampton gallery, and finally embraced the role that the English have wanted me to hold since 2008. I would be their reluctant diplomat. The public were invited to come in and discuss Donald Trump with me, an American who absolutely did not want to take responsibility for Donald Trump.
Over the three days I built an intricate wall explaining Donald Trump, the American primary system, and connections to UK politics. I was prepared to put myself physically on the line for the duration, to make myself available to the kinds of conversations I would normally swerve to avoid, but I wasn’t expecting how vulnerable I had also made myself through the art surrounding me.
Visitors trickled in at first, but by the final day they flowed. We talked about Donald Trump and we talked about the election but unexpectedly it was not the focus. It became clear that people were responding to my vulnerability with their own openness; strangers were relating to me and sharing their own experiences of feeling foreign or out of place. I had several discussions with people of different nationalities about personal space, and how each country experiences a difference threshold for rudeness. A woman whose English husband lived in the Midwest for two decades spoke about how the American still left in his personality sometimes affects their marriage. A friend who spent his childhood in a crime-ridden neighbourhood in California put into words what I had felt for years, that America is more violent but England is more aggressive. One Gibraltarian visitor shared his experience as the victim of a hate crime in Spain, but then took issue with me not properly distinguishing between patriotism and nationalism on my Trump Wall. Another spoke about attempting to separate her Hungarian nationality from friends who plan to vote in favour of Brexit, trying not to take personally a political stance that could completely upend her life. An English woman revealed her experience as an unwed mother in Dublin. More participants joined the discussion as they entered the space – with every hour I was being let in to more lives.
A visitor joked that my show was like therapy, and we laughed, but looking back I should have asked her to be more specific about the identity of the patient. I had somehow managed to take the hate and fear associated with the worst my birth country has to offer and transform it into an opportunity to connect with my notoriously standoffish home country.
I had purposefully bookended the space with a quote by Rebecca Solnit in two of the installations:
“Citizenship is predicated on the sense of having something in common with strangers, just as democracy is built upon trust in strangers.”
I have no trust in Donald Trump. I have little trust in Boris Johnson. I have the first part of my life in common with my family and friends living in the United States. I have my current life in common with many of the people who visited that gallery space and were kind, engaged and open. I trust them to be good people. I might have accidentally shown myself how much I belong.
Jessica Harby is an American artist living and working in the middle of England.