Guten Tag, lieber Feind!  A suitcase filled with stories

That, to me, is the focal point of the exhibition ’Hello, Dear Enemy’. A suitcase surrounded by beanbags, inviting children to gather around, sit down, take a moment to relax and reflect on the wealth of picture books they have encountered. To share their thoughts with their friends, so they will, hopefully, one day be able to sit down with people they may now consider their enemies. Because reconciliation, dialogue, and mutual understanding, that is what this exhibition is all about.

Koffer

This suitcase full of books has a big brother. It rests in my parents’ house in Holland, the country I grew up in. This big wooden trunk no longer has any material contents, but it is the home of memories, of nostalgia, of stories of childhoods spent in the tropics. It also holds a great silence. When I was young, I sometimes asked my grandparents to tell me about the war, about the camps, about the ocean liner that took them halfway across the world. I wanted to hear what it was like for them to leave home knowing they would never be able to return. Sometimes I would get a short answer, but mostly they would look away, eyes clouded, and sigh ’Oh, child, don’t ask. Those are not good stories’. Growing up in a family of refugees, one learns early on: some memories are too overwhelming, too painful and complex to be expressed in words. They lurk like monsters in the dark, ready to eat you alive. Sometimes, though, they can be hinted at in pictures. Shaun Tan does this with great skill in his acclaimed wordless picture book The Arrival. Here, too, we see how a suitcase becomes a powerful symbol. The strong images in Tan’s book visually convey the trauma of being uprooted and the longing for places and people left behind, but it also shows what hope and expectations lie in the journey itself.

My grandparents would sometimes talk about their first years in Holland. How long it took them to get used to the cold winters, how they never got used to the bland Dutch food, how the Dutch people looked at them: the first immigrant family in the village. One of the books in the exhibition that addresses a similar experience from the perspective of the villagers is Max Velthuijs’ Frog and the Stranger. Some readers will find that they, like Pig and Duck, are suspicious of this strange new neighbor they have heard so many ominous rumors about. Others may feel that they are more like Frog, who responds to Rat with a sense of wonder and curiosity. And then there will be children who identify with Rat, and wonder: ‘What do I have to do before they accept me for who I am? Do I really have to do something impressive like save a life before they will see that I mean well? And what if I don’t speak three languages, like Rat, and am not particularly good at anything else either? Will I ever be good enough?’

For these children I hope this exhibition will provide a rare occasion to share their doubts, anxieties, and stories with their companions. For the others, I hope it will bring them an opportunity to open their hearts and minds to new arrivals.

Kelly Hübben, Netherlands/Sweden
Fellowship holder, December 2014

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