ESR 9 Blog August/September 2023: Sophie Mak-Schram

Summer in the northern hemisphere passed in a blur of screentime, strikes and unprecedented amounts of rain. Extinction Rebellion protests the Dutch government’s subsidising of the fossil fuel industry with an adamancy across days and crowd scales I find admirable,[1] and I wonder (again, again) about the privilege of still being able to choose to opt in, when and how to prioritise a collective whole or a future rather than attempting to sustain myself in the present.

The slippage into abstraction that I wrote to you about last time is one I’m trying to not overthink. I attend a new friend’s fundraiser towards her gender-affirming healthcare costs,[2] I am moved by Barbara Walker’s drawings that articulate the aggressive absurdity of the Windrush scandal.[3] But I’m grappling with an abstraction from location as much as from situation, in the sense of what writing demands – of me, at least. Time is a mush as much as a blur, that I attempt to softly moderate into consistent lighting, quiet rooms. And in that mushing of time, it becomes hard (in a privileged, rather than damaging or resource-costing manner) to turn up at the protests, to keep track of what is growing in the garden, to swim not just once but multiple times in the nearby stream.

I cast my mind back to early August. Arriving into Topolò/Topolove involved a flight caught up in storms, a series of trains across landscapes lit in the golden sunlight, and a late night drive up a winding road until its end. The river rushes loudly here, even in the dark. This small village, many stone buildings leaning into the steep inclines of the mountains, is home to Robida. I’m here for their second Academy of the Margins, alongside 14 other people.[4] Robida is a collective whose constellation as much as practice is porous, but who share a commitment to (re)invigorating Topolò/Topolove and forms of research in, on, through and with it.

Each morning, I walk from the base of the village where I’m staying, to the near-top, where Robida’s communal space – a reading room come bar come kitchen come gathering spot – sits at the base of the final slope to Topolò/Topolove’s church. This walk up cobbled paths takes me further and then nearer again to the river that weaves around the village. From the perpetual rush that I can hear from my bed, to a gentle resonance as I turn the corner, to a knowledge that it is near, but not visible or audible. On the first day, we hike to the Italian-Slovenian border, where the rushing becomes a river navigating through the dark greens of the mountain forests. This river formerly functioned as a partial border, demarcating differing claims on an otherwise already-in-common land. Many of us talk about swimming as the day warms up.

It takes an appropriately long gap in the busy Academy schedule, sufficient sun and enough sleep, for me to reach the river with swimming in mind. And when I do, time feels like it is allowed to breathe. Coming around a ledge in the lower and lighter forest near the village’s base, a fallen tree arches over a large pool glinting in the mid-afternoon sunlight. The river rushes and falls, pools, and then gently trickles onwards. The rest of the world is quiet. The water is crisp and defiant on my skin, and puts me back in all the other bodies of colder water I’ve swum in. A circle of laps in a bay of Lake Geneva in the autumn, in the sharp winter sun on Scheveningen beach, cycling downhill to wade into the Bodensee in the pastel pink of August sunsets after work, and, most recently, catching the end of summer on an amber-hued pebble beach on the east coast of England.[5] I submerge under the small waterfall, tread water in the sparkling light.

Recently, the concerns about sewage being dumped into the sea in the UK and the images of XR protesters being hassled by the police’s use of water cannons, has reminded me of two things: how important it is for me to feel in my body – often through being in bodies of water – and as such, how much I’ve been needing to abstract myself from my body in order to finish writing within the time constraints of this funded programme; and the urgency of socio-political realities even in this West, or maybe particularly so, given historical inequalities of power, wealth and structural designs. Abstract and not, all at once. Material – in this case water – read across ways, differential thought lines of flight towards a similar question, articulated in different realms, of how I want to be and what worlds I seek to sustain.

I think back to the Zapatistas and their claim, poetic and inclusive, that was so often heard during their visit to Europe in 2022: towards a world of many worlds. I think of your worlds, boundaries and territories, abstractions and priorities, and wonder how our commons are keeping.

[1] See here for their demands and how to join in:

[2] Here’s a comparative article that makes clear how difficult access to healthcare is across countries: and here is Stonewall’s 2018 report on trans people in Britain: Both might be triggering depending on your gender and experiences.

[3] See here for more on the work and show:

[4] As part of this, I ran a workshop in three parts. In an old school house on two dawns and a dusk, where we read Aimee Carillo Rowe’s text on belonging, ‘Be Longing: Towards A Feminist Politics of Relation’ (2005) alongside a conversation across writing, audio and imaginary tables, to think through our interests in and conceptions of belongings.

[5] The latter spot, with the amber-hued stones, is so frequently polluted that locals have a special app on their phones to check if it’s currently safe to swim. The normalisation of tools like this, and how in the past year there have been days where almost no locations in the UK were safe to swim in, indicate the increasing absurdity of ecological crisis, even in the West:

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.