Art & Lit

Award-winning student poet Theophilus Kwek discusses the ocean, identity, and poetry

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Safer Waters: Writing from a Distance

It’s summer again, and I’ve been thinking about the sea. I often wonder if growing up on an island has meant that I can hear its siren call even here, in landlocked Oxford: a low foghorn sounding up the Thames, rattling the boathouses. Its undertow can be strong, too strong. Flying back from a conference in Frankfurt, I look out to see the patchwork fields of Flanders disappearing, and for five perfect minutes there’s nothing else but the sea in all its blues, a fragile chain of ships joining Dunkirk to Dover. I touch my face to the window and find it wet.

The sea, of course, is a fickle friend. In The Optician of Lampedusa, journalist Emma Jane Kirby tells of another island-dweller who must confront his ‘sense of kinship’ with the sea when he finds himself at the centre of a harrowing rescue operation. As he pulls each shipwrecked refugee aboard his small fishing-boat, he realizes ‘how stealthily and purposefully it has sucked down so many lives’.

With headlines full of high politics on either side of the Atlantic, we’ve heard less about ongoing crises of displacement in recent months. But all too quietly the sea – aided and abetted by states, smugglers, and security firms – has continued its deadly work.

What does it mean for us to cross the sea without fear? When I was ten, the third-largest earthquake ever recorded struck the west coast of Sumatra on Boxing Day, sending tsunamis across the Indian Ocean. They claimed more than 250,000 lives: tropical honeymooners alongside inhabitants of the region’s proud, ancient cities and their local communities. Two weeks before that, we were with family friends on a beach in Langkawi, an island off the Malaysian coast, devising traps for the translucent crabs that skittered periodically from the shallows. Later we heard that the waves had thrown some on that beach into the crowns of trees fifty metres away.

What does it mean for us to cross the sea without fear? When I was ten, the third-largest earthquake ever recorded struck the west coast of Sumatra on Boxing Day, sending tsunamis across the Indian Ocean.

As I grew older, this memory of the sea was submerged by happier ones. Living in a small island state, taking a holiday inevitably meant going ‘overseas’, and thanks to opportunities provided by Dad’s work, we travelled often. Later, at school, the prospect of studying in a different continent was held up as a reward for hard work and big dreams. We were encouraged to apply to universities abroad, and for scholarships which could send you to Oxford. Life, as it were, took a sea-change: all too suddenly, I was on a plane winding its way up the river into Heathrow.

But something of the double-edged sea has stayed with me. Perhaps you’ve felt it too: the knife-point of distance, the knowledge that that calm, life-giving expanse might pull you under. Even on solid ground, anyone who’s travelled far enough to be here knows the feeling of water underfoot.

It comes back to me as I read about those who brave journeys across the Aegean and the Andaman Seas with unfathomable courage, or as I hear about the 8,300 refugees pulled from the Mediterranean over the Easter weekend alone. It comes back to me as I listen to the stories my grandmother tells – one evening when she’s made the thirteen-hour journey to drop in on me, the first time she’s set foot in Europe – of how her grandmother, almost a century ago, boarded a rickety trading-ship from Fujian to Singapore, trusting her life to the monsoon winds and my great-great-grandfather.

But something of the double-edged sea has stayed with me. Perhaps you’ve felt it too: the knife-point of distance, the knowledge that that calm, life-giving expanse might pull you under. Even on solid ground, anyone who’s travelled far enough to be here knows the feeling of water underfoot.

And it comes back to me each time I sit down to write, as I trace the voyages others have made – including the ones that have brought me so far – from the safe berth of my college room, swapping starlight for my laptop’s pale glow, one kind of sounding for another. I try to get a sense of how the words arrive, what dangers they have survived to find me here. They fill the page with the sea’s immensity. They pulse their tidal rhythms between the lines.

Theophilus Kwek has published four volumes of poetry, most recently The First Five Storms (2017), which won the New Poets’ Prize. He has also won the Berfrois Poetry Prize, and was placed Second in the Stephen Spender Prize for Poetry in Translation. Having served as President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, he is now Co-Editor of Oxford Poetry and The Kindling. He is completing an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

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