Thursday, 26 October 2017


You can be one of the most famous writers in the world and still face problems at certain airports if you don’t have a “Western” passport.

That’s what best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discovered on a recent visit to Paris.

“When I arrived at the airport with my Nigerian passport, I had the most humiliating, and annoying, questioning,” she told participants at the 2017 CityLab conference held in the French capital Oct. 22-24.

The event, described by organizers as “a celebration of cities and city life”, brought together mayors from around the world, as well as “urban experts, business leaders, artists and activists”, to discuss sustainability, inclusion and other issues.

Writers Ta-Nehesi Coates and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
speak with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg (Photo: SWAN
The main objective was to “explore solutions for the most pressing issues facing city leaders and city dwellers alike”, said the organisers and co-hosts – The Atlantic media group, The Aspen Institute and Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Adichie, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun and We Should All Be Feminists, participated in a discussion with fellow writer Ta-Nehesi Coates titled “Identity and Belonging: The Souls of a City”, responding to questions from Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic.

“I think we have to be careful not to romanticise cities,” Adichie said, when asked about her favourite town. “They can be alienating as well. People walk past each other.”

She was particularly blunt about Paris, saying that “Black people feel excluded” in certain areas of the city, and she described ways that her acquaintances try to fit in, some by speaking English instead of French because Anglophone foreigners seem to be “more respected”.

Adichie stressed that a city needs “affordable housing and inclusion” to be sustainable – things for which Paris aren’t highly rated  and these were themes that also concerned other artists at the conference.

In an earlier discussion, Ruth Mackenzie, artistic director of the city’s Théâtre du Châtelet, said that to achieve more social inclusion, artists can make a difference in neighbourhoods by engaging with local communities.

“You listen and use their skills,” Mackenzie said. “You can use public spaces where people can see work for free.”

Choreographer Elizabeth Streb. (Photo: SWAN)
She and her colleague Elizabeth Streb, founder and director of dance company Streb Extreme Action, took part in a panel on “setting a more inclusive stage”, which is seen as necessary in most major cities.

“When we talk about the theatre-going public, the issues of class and race are hardly addressed,” Streb said in an interview with SWAN, on the sidelines of the conference. “I think it’s a disgrace and ignorance when you hear some of the things said in the ivory tower about outreach and including people.”

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, co-founders of The Good Chance Theatre which works with refugees, called for cities to do more to support activist cultural initiatives. On a panel with Majid Adin, an Iranian animator, filmmaker and refugee, the two said the arts could help to decrease social tensions and divisions.

“This is a difficult moment in our collective history, with things that are dividing and segregating us,” Murphy said. “We believe that culture should be at the centre of our cities.”

With all the talk from participants, it was left to Adin’s animated film to demonstrate the impact that artists can have. Loud applause followed the partial screening of his video for Elton John’s well-known song “Rocket Man” – interpreted as the journey of a refugee.

With support from Murphy and Robertson, Adin had entered “The Cut”, a competition that invited independent filmmakers “to create the first official music videos for three of Elton John’s most famous songs”.

Adin based “Rocket Man” on his own migration to England, via the Calais refugee camp in northern France, and was named one of the contest's three winners. The video premiered last May at the Cannes Film Festival and is a poignant appeal for the inclusion of people who are so easily marginalised in cities.

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