In the spring of 2008, the bones of an ancient market gathered, one upon each unsharpened corner of Sunken Garden, Sacred Heart Chapel resplendent at their center. Slowly, they became visible; the stalls were marked and colorful; and merchants and traders were everywhere – selling spices, food, drinks. The beauty of the market was not the goods it brought forth, rather it was its diligent busying – hawkers and merchants, beggars and thieves, wandering minstrels, dancers and magicians, all bustling, bustling, as they would do in a real open-air market. The sounds of it, too, were punctuated; different languages, accompanied by the distinct charm emanating from the gamelan orchestra, making its way to meet a talking drummer. This was no ordinary market; it was the semblance of Samarkand, one of the oldest open-air markets in the world, and the reenactment of Wole Soyinka’s monumental work, Samarkand & Other Markets I Have Known. It was also the largest and most expansive event The Marymount Institute had ever hosted, in collaboration with so many others on campus, and it truly felt like the entire university was at the pulse of it. Those walking by Sunken Garden that day wouldn’t know this to be a performance, though in many ways, it also wasn’t; it was the embodiment of the human spirit, our never-ending disposition to seek; to be exposed to things we may have never experienced before, and find connections. And it was that for many of us who were there; it was an exacting experience, that humbled us, surprised us, and taught us the power of interconnectedness: in the market, in the theatre, in the church. The market was just beginning to unfold.
This was an event unlike any other, and one that had taken countless hours to put together, to call on the right people, to produce. It was spearheaded by Theresia de Vroom, professor of English Literature in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts and director of The Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and Arts. When asked about the market, de Vroom reminisced with deep fondness; “It was a truly global event,” she said, “It would have been foolish to think of it as only a market. It was more than that, it is more than that.”
The market hosted vendors from a multitude of cultures; visitors could find Nigerian drummers, Salvadorian pupusas, Chinese herbalists, an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, Yoruba songs, Greek Retsina vendors, and so much more. “It is necessary for students to be exposed to different cultures,” de Vroom said, “And as educators and academics, it is our duty to make sure the next generation of students have first-hand experience of other cultures. That is the only way to understand the breadth of our humanity.”
The meeting of cultures is something de Vroom was exposed to as a child, perhaps unintentionally so. She was born in Indonesia, to an Eurasian (mixed-race for generations) mother, and a Dutch father, and she grew up in the height of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II. Multiple family members, including her grandfather and uncle, were imprisoned in the prison concentration camps, where they perished. A family heirloom de Vroom still holds is the only thing left from her grandfather: a cigarette rolling mat made of bamboo, and buttons. How did it feel to witness that, and to have to leave her family and community behind, to seek safety in another country?
“It was difficult,” she said. “It still is difficult.”
This is perhaps why de Vroom found herself at the center of the liminal spaces between different cultures; not quite belonging to any, and still belonging to all of them at the same time.
A different thing altogether.
When she was in graduate school, Julia Lee wore a shirt that said Angry Little Asian Girl, in a defiant response to a racist incident that had happened previously in her class. She was boldly trying to incite a discussion about stereotypes that are attributed to her race and culture.
“I didn’t have a choice; I was born in Los Angeles, in a time where different cultures and races were already clashing,” she said. Lee was referring to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, which forever changed the fabric of the city and beyond, exposing the tension between different cultures.
Born to Korean parents, Lee would eventually grow up to become an associate professor of African American and transatlantic literature at LMU. The liminality of being between cultures is what helped her to be in a unique position to take on that role, she would explain; when one’s own existence continues to shift and change, one has to try to find meaning in that shift, and continue to adjust, to develop new perspectives of understanding others.
We talk briefly about Min Jin Lee, another brilliant Korean American writer, and what she identifies as the shift in purpose in the second and third generations of immigrants, of people finding themselves between cultures. According to Min Jin Lee, the first generation’s goal has always been survival, but their children, and their children’s children, are always seeking more meaning in their lives, to have a clearer purpose. When survival alone isn’t enough to thrive, what does one do, she asks.
They redefine the boundaries that have been ascribed to them by the world, and in doing so, they invite others to cross these boundaries, to see the way they see, to truly understand what it means to have a different perspective, what it means to be of a different race, or to be in between cultures. In other words, they have to make themselves malleable enough so others can share their experiences, and be moved by them. This constant breaking and remaking of things requires such diligent and consistent work, it requires perseverance, and tenacity. Otherwise, how could one do this work, and not lose themselves in the process?
There is something strange that happens in the open-air market. Because it’s outdoors, because vendors are generous with their time and goods, because it’s so busy, and filled with life, it’s difficult not to encounter folks from different walks of life. Beyond the staging itself, what Samarkand does, like other open-air markets, is to invite, instantly; one would not seek to belong somewhere, they would not question their stories of origin, or their purpose or path in life; simply put, in the market, everyone belongs, everyone is at home. That’s perhaps what makes it a globally encompassing event; not just the fact that it brought together different cultures, faiths, and traditions, but simply by its structure alone, it is a testament to the beauty of humanity.
This is something de Vroom insists upon; not just the importance of exposure to other cultures, but the personal connection one needs to make with other cultures, in order to have a more expansive view of the world. She uses herself as an example; before she met Elias Wondimu of Tsehai Publishers, who is a pillar of The Marymount Institute, everything she knew about Ethiopia was the stereotypical things one would expect. Through his tenure at the institute, and their many collaborations, her understanding of that culture was deepened, expanded.
“It’s important for students to have access to things they wouldn’t otherwise have. The more you are able to develop a personal connection to different people from different backgrounds, the more you can change the world. You can become a citizen of the world.”
Becoming a citizen of the world requires continuous and intricate work, perhaps an unlearning of sorts, letting go of our limited understanding of the world and others, it requires open-mindedness. In order for that to happen, and to have an impact on us, it is necessary to have cross-cultural translators such as de Vroom and Lee, doing the work of interconnectedness, seeing what we’re not able to see, offering new perspectives for us to consider.
Cross-cultural translation is something that may come naturally to people who have experienced different cultures and traditions, but that alone isn’t enough. There are many among us who have always been othered one way or another, who were forced to assimilate, conform, lessen ourselves in order to fit the expectations others have of us – in order to survive. Both de Vroom and Lee have been working from this space of liminality, and used their unique position to help others.
When Lee was attending graduate school at Harvard, she said she found herself drawn to the African American literature courses, which were unlike anything else she’d ever taken before. “Something in me was awakened instantly,” she said, “And I knew right away what I wanted to do.”This deep understanding for inter-cultural perspective is one that brought both de Vroom and Lee together, to plan a conversation with two luminaries and cultural icons: Wole Soyinka, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., in an inaugural global conversation held on March 4, 2022. Soyinka has previously served as the president’s Professor in Residence at The Marymount Institute, and had been a mentor to Henry Louis Gates Jr., who in turn, is also a mentor to Julia Lee. The event was truly extraordinary; in addition to the conversation, there were musical interludes by Ayo Adeyemi and the Soul of Africa, Betty G., and a musical recessional by professor Kim R. Harris.
The conversation, moderated by de Vroom and Lee, illustrated the deep and meaningful bond of Soyinka and Gates, each of whom come from different backgrounds, cultures, upbringing and worldviews. They share the gift of great storytelling; through different mediums and disciplines, and through their work, they’ve contributed greatly to the larger cross-cultural conversations we continue to engage with. One thing, in particular, was clear: how, by continuing to map out their different geographies, they each grew in their respective fields and disciplines, and in doing so, they brought along countless others with them – through their storytelling, their recounting of our complicated histories, and the love of intellectual curiosity they continued to exhibit throughout. We see ourselves in them, and in de Vroom and Lee’s own vast experiences; because of this conversation, we have been changed, we have been moved, we have gained a different perspective.
Throughout the entire performance of Samarkand in Sunken Garden, the market presented itself as a shape-shifting thing; it became a place of exchange, but also a place of comfort, of familiarity, of discovery. Here it was, erected out of nothing, serving as the theatrical performance that it was, but also giving others the space they needed to be their authentic selves; there were dancers, singers, musicians, drummers, cooks, poets, writers, priests, and folks of different faiths and cultures. It was an invitation to partake in this continuous dialogue. The same invocation Bryant Keith Alexander, dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts and interim dean of the School of Film and Television, made at the inaugural global conversation, and the same we continue to make now: “I invite you all – in and through your own diverse cosmologies of faith, religious practice, and spirituality, to open a space in your mind and heart to call forth blessings. Call forth the blessings of the sun, moon, and the celestial ancestors to bear upon the wonder of our time together, here.”
This is our invocation too; that you continue to insist upon sharing the space with others; that you continue to advocate for those belonging to historically disadvantaged populations; that you continue to seek a life in service of others unlike you, and that in doing so, you may continue to persist and persevere in the dialogue across cultures.