Menu

Change Writer

The agency of refugees

I wrote previously about two narratives that undermine the way in which we look at refugees: that they deserve help because they might be the next Steve Jobs, and that they should be viewed primarily as victims.

In this post I will point out why recognising and celebrating the agency of refugees could be beneficial to our societies, even when looked at from the political right.


Our European nation states are, by and large, organised according to Neo-liberal ideology, which sees the market as right, the state as better when smaller, and democracy as a worthy norm.

And when we talk about democracy from a Neo-liberal perspective, we’re not just talking about one-person-one-vote and the chance to elect any kind of government the masses desire, we’re talking about a very specific type of government.

It has to be a government that promotes the free market, eschews radical ideology and pushes forward ideals such as gender equality and human rights.

Typically, the further right you are economically, the more you trust the market. In fact, the market itself becomes more than just an economic matter as its rules are applied to everything – people, projects, etc.

Neo-liberalism sees the world as a competition. People compete for resources, the strongest win. It’s like political Darwinism. Those who acquire vast resources do so because they deserve them, because they have worked hard and earned them.

This worldview isn’t really compatible with the victim narrative because, deep down, those who view the world as a competition don’t necessarily believe that they have a duty to help those who are losing the game. When it’s a matter of she who plays best wins, the loser is losing because they’re not trying hard enough to win.


Right now I’m not going to get into the systemic violence which works against many who play the  game. Instead I want to suggest a refugee narrative that might work in a Neo-liberal context.

I want to suggest that we start looking at those who arrive at our borders seeking refuge not as victims, but as winners.

These are individuals who, in spite of having all the odds stacked against them, have made it to a more stable place. They have risked their lives. They have navigated unknown territories. They have been brave enough to leave behind everything they once knew.

They have just competed in one of the most grueling journeys that it is possible to take, and survived. 


If we learn to see these newcomers as intelligent, capable individuals who have already proven their ability to face challenges, we might just reduce the stigma of being labelled a refugee.

It might be easier for us to recognise that while there are ways in which they need help, there are also many ways in which they can help us, and many things which we can learn from them.

What does it mean to belong?

There’s a lot of talk these days about belonging: who’s in and who’s out. Everyone seems to have an opinion. No one really knows who gets to decide.

For some, it’s the immigrants who don’t belong. They’re the outsiders who should go back to where they come from.

For others it’s the racists who don’t belong. Here in Sweden some politicians have articulated that racists are un-Swedish. They don’t belong. But if they don’t belong here, where should they go?

On the level of society, there tend to be two parts to the belonging conversation: immigration and integration. Immigration is about who, and how many should be allowed in. Integration is about how those who are allowed in become part of the bigger group: society.

But the question of integration is complicated, partly because those who have the power to make political decisions have never had to consider the process of joining society.

They were born into a family who already belonged. They learned how to belong simply by hanging out. The norms of society are their default settings, trained into them from birth.

Very few of those making the decisions about how integration should work are experts at integration. Those with immigrant histories are usually far enough removed from the integrational process that they might be considered not to have skin in the game themselves, even though their parents or grandparents did.

When you join a group, you do so by proving to the others in the group that you belong. That’s true of the political elite. To join them you prove to them that you can work together, that you know the rules of the game they are playing and that you can join in without causing too much disruption.

There are so many different ways of looking at what it means to integrate into society. Perhaps it means to learn the local language and get a job. Or maybe it’s to have a mixed group of friends that include those from the host culture. It could involve intermarrying, so that you have families that are blended into the host culture.

We should also ask on what level does integration happen? Is it something that takes place on a micro-level, when someone builds a friendship with one Swedish neighbour? Or is it about the macro-level, gaining citizenship and speaking the local language with a local accent?

Whose responsibility is this process? Should the host be the one accommodating newcomers, acclimatising them to life here? Or is it the responsibility of the newcomers to sink or swim as they try to assimilate?

There are so many areas of contention, so much uncertainty as to the basic definitions of the concepts surrounding belonging to society, that it’s no wonder that progress can be slow.

Are you a ________ or merely a consumer of ________ artifacts?

In his wonderful book, You Are What You Love, James K. A. Smith encourages us to reflect on the religious nature of the shopping experience by describing the shopping mall as a place of worship:

The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that harken back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces designed to absorb all kinds of religious activities […] As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms if we so choose. Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through the labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure how it will be fulfilled, and so open to surprise, to that moment where the spirit leads us to an experience we couldn’t have anticipated […] And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. We are invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give; we are invited to take. We don’t leave this transformative experience with just good feeling or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible – with newly minted relics, as it were, which are themselves the means to the good life embodied in the icons who invited us into this participatory moment in the first place.

You Are What You Love, p43-45

He argues that the liturgies, or practices, of consumerism are religious activities which shape us in ways that we don’t easily recognise. And they don’t only inform how we relate to things, but how we build relationships and how we approach our spiritual lives.

The pervasive nature of consumerism is challenging because it exists on a level that we are barely aware of. Let’s take an example outside of traditional religious institutions. Let’s say that one day I decide to be a minimalist. The idea of reducing my belongings and the good that would do to my mental disposition and the environment far outweighs the comfort of buying more stuff. So what do I do? I find some blogs which talk about minimalism. I go and buy a book about it. I start choosing which furniture I will buy in my new style of apartment (Muji, maybe?) You see, although I am now a minimalist, I am a minimalist through the overarching system of consumerism – I only really know how to do minimalism as a consumer.

Another example. I decide that I want to be a Christian; that’s my new tribe. so what do I do? I go out and buy books about it. I buy myself a Bible, and an introduction to reading it. I find a book about prayer. I start going to church. In fact, I realise it’s not that simple: I need to find a church that suits my tastes. Does it have music I like? How about the teaching? Does it align with my view on scripture?

Do you see what I’m getting at? Because I am a consumer without even being aware of it, it is the disposition with which I approach all of life.

There are products made to cater to this disposition in every type of consumer imaginable.

Salafists who want to be like the original followers of Muhammad can listen to halal music, or put their money in Islamic bank accounts even though neither of these were present during the Golden Age of Islam.

Vegetarians like myself can buy books about not eating meat, or t-shirts supporting the cause.

None of these things actually make a person more authentically Muslim, or a more serious vegetarian. Having seven Bibles and all the latest Christian pop music doesn’t make me a better follower of Jesus.

But all these things can give a person trained to be a consumer the feeling of authenticity. And the alternatives to consuming our way to the identities we want can be demanding. Being a devout Muslim takes discipline and perseverance. Being a vegetarian means giving up meat. Being a minimalist means letting go of distractions and clutter, not replacing them with (appropriately branded) new distractions and clutter.

So how do we move away from consumerism? Smith suggests that we do it by developing practices (liturgies) that train us to approach the world differently.

If consumerism trains us to see ourselves and our personal gratification as the most important thing, we take on practices that train us otherwise.

The challenge is recognising the formative practices that we already participate in and beginning to imagine counter-practices.

On the death of Eugene Peterson

I’ve been able to identify two different ways in which I grieve the passing of Eugene Peterson from this world. The first, and perhaps most obvious, is that he is one of my heroes. The second is the fact that while he leaves behind a legacy in the form of books, and disciples, the grounding influence of his presence on the church will be sorely missed.

Loss of a personal hero

Mentors come in many forms. Some are traditional, face-to-face relationships with someone who knows you well and invests in you personally over a period of time. Others write books or create other forms of media that speak to you in ways that are formative. We never meet them, but they still impact our lives for the better.

Eugene Peterson was one of the latter for me. I never knew him personally (though I would have liked to), but his writing about the pastoral life helped to shape me and how I see the spiritual life.

“Earthy” is probably the best word I’ve found to describe the kind of Jesus-follower Peterson was. He chose to never pastor a congregation that was too big for him to know all of their names. He was passionate about making the spiritual life something that people understood to belong “out there” in the world, not trapped inside a church building.

While it might not sound revolutionary, the life of Eugene Peterson was counter-cultural, even to the church. When everything was getting bigger and more “professional” and a famous pastor was more likely to invite an admirer to a conference he was speaking at than into his personal space, Peterson did the opposite. He made space for people, even inviting them to visit him at his home, to pray and eat with him.

He lived slow, had time for people, and practiced the Jesus life in a way that wasn’t distant and removed, but embedded in everyday practices.

The loss of a godly man of influence

When my grandfather died many years ago, it felt like part of the foundation of my life had been torn out. His presence on this earth was grounding, giving context to my own identity and journey.

While I’m not as personally attached to Eugene Peterson as I was to my grandfather, he is certainly one of the grandfathers of the faith for my generation. His presence grounding and his life an arrow pointing out an alternative to the distraction-filled, hyper consumptive lifestyle that has become so normative.

I’m sad for what it means for those of us who follow Jesus to no longer have Eugene Peterson around. We can no longer look to him as an example of what it looks like to live a life oriented on Jesus, an experienced sojourner on the Jesus path.

But his loss is also a challenge to those of us who put him on a pedestal and admired him from afar. Because we can embody the values he stood for and make them a reality in a world that so badly needs them. We can choose to go slow, to listen, and to embody the life of Jesus in the midst of this crazy world. 

When Bono met Eugene Peterson

There’s a bit of Boris in us all

Back in 1890, a young Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about Burma. The poem, The Road to Mandalay, was written from the perspective of a British soldier once stationed there. The soldier reminisces about the place, an encounter with a local girl, and describes his surroundings with the kind of paternalistic grandeur of someone who believes his empire, the British Empire, to be the ultimate expression of civilisation.

The text is also dismissive of Burmese culture and religion:

An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud 
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd

For Kipling’s soldier, this is an uncivilised, heathen place, albeit alluring.

Interestingly, Kipling only visited Burma once, for three days, on his way elsewhere, and he never visited Mandalay.

This lack of experience didn’t prevent him from becoming influential in shaping the perspective of his countrymen on the place. The words he penned on paper describing this destination he barely knew became a go-to text for understanding what Burma is like.

A 20-year-old shaping one people’s understanding of another.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson, who, on a recent trip to Burma, began reciting The Road to Mandalay at the site of a Burmese shrine, while a Channel 4 camera crew filmed him.

The UK’s foreign secretary reciting a poem praising colonialism and dismissing Burmese culture, at a Burmese shrine which he is being invited to visit by his gracious Burmese hosts.

Fortunately, Britain’s ambassador to Burma stopped him before he had a chance to complete his recital and embarrass the UK further, but the episode was a glimpse into the attitude that Johnson has towards the Burmese.

Just days later, at a Conservative Party Conference event, he commented on how the only thing getting in the way of a “wonderful” group of UK businessmen turning the Libyan town of Sirte into the next Dubai was the dead bodies that needed clearing out of the way.

For Johnson, it seems that the British Empire still stands, and he’s happy to brush aside any dead bodies or cultural inconveniences that get in his way.


But this post isn’t just about Boris and his blunders. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the very real ability that we each have to see people who are different from us as somehow less valuable than we are.

And how if we don’t pay careful attention, we can end up using other people’s small ‘incivilities’ as a way of building our own sense of superiority and worth.

In 1978 Edward Said wrote Orientalism, which looks at what happens when this natural human tendency becomes a system of thought. He demonstrates how literature and art shaped the way that Europeans understand ‘The Orient,’ and the effect that perspective has had on justice and international relations.

Orientalism in its essence is about seeing ‘Western’ culture as superior to other cultures, and the actions which accompany such a perspective.

One example from Said is how ‘oriental’ women are portrayed in colonial era literature. They are usually passive, rarely speak for themselves, and are usually there to serve the various appetites of the men around them.1)Orientalism, 1979: 187-188 They are objectified: helpless and inferior.

Said might argue that this way of understanding non-European women has paved the way for our attitudes towards them when they enter our societies. When it comes to discussions like enforcing a Burqa ban, the voices of the women who wear them are usually crowded out by those who choose to speak for them, in the name of justice.

While we would usually offer a European woman (in a similar scenario) the opportunity to explain why she dresses a certain way, the women of the Middle East are still seen as helpless and inferior.


From his many gaffes and blunders, it’s clear that Boris is something of an Orientalist. He adores Britain’s colonial era, and apparently has little respect for other cultures: Britain is best.

But this post isn’t just about Boris and how he is embarrassing the British people.

It’s about how easy it is to view others as inferior, and how much damage that can cause in a globalised world.

Because we each carry a bit of Boris inside us.

We’re all capable of dismissing people who are different from us as weird, uncouth, uncivilised, inferior.

It might be a neighbour. It could be a refugee. It could be someone who votes differently from ourselves.

And in coming to conclusions about people who are different from us before we’ve taken the time to get to know them, we carry perspectives about them which are, at best, naive, at worst entirely false. And we miss the opportunity to promote the kind of understanding upon which justice and change can be built.

(Image by Andrew Parsons)

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Orientalism, 1979: 187-188

The utility of refugees

There are several strands of conversation, or discourse, on the subject of refugees and why they should, or should not be offered the hospitality of our national borders. I find two of them particularly disturbing.

First, the idea that refugees are worthy of help because of who they may become.

The argument goes something like this: we should allow refugees into our countries because they may become the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein: they may end up contributing to history in such a way that it would be a huge mistake not to let them survive and thrive in our country. They are valuable because they contribute to our sense of the common good, and thus because of their utility.

The flaw in this argument is that it fails to recognise that human beings are valuable. They’re valuable not because of what they contribute to the greater good, but because of the basic fact of their humanity. We should offer hospitality to refugees not as some kind of high odds gamble in which we may hit the jackpot and find ourselves hosting a genius, but because we recognise the humanity we share.

The second is the idea that refugees should only be understood through the paradigm of victimhood.

There is a good reason why refugees tend to appear in the media as either victims of a great injustice, or as villains seeking to portray themselves as victims.

The reason is that the former is the easiest way for organisations like the UNHCR to raise funds.

They make a video that talks about how helpless these people are and how we must save them, otherwise they will die or face some other terrible injustice. How do we save them? By giving money to the UNHCR, who in turn promise to convert cash into changed lives.

The competing story about refugees has its roots in the same concept, but is the antithesis of the victim discourse. It says that refugees are not victims, but opportunists using political unrest in their homeland to further their personal ambitions. They leave an otherwise peaceful part of Syria and move to London or Stockholm in order to improve their standard of living and to give their kids a chance at getting in to better schools. Refugees, in other words are not victims but scroungers who don’t deserve to be helped.

My issue with the idea that refugees are victims is that it ignores the agency, the decision making powers, that the individual refugees have and use throughout their process of relocating.

Most of the people I have met who have obtained refugee status are extremely creative, strategic individuals who have used all their abilities to get to Europe and begin building a life for themselves here. They are doing what any of us would if we found ourselves in a similar position: finding a place that is more stable – somewhere that future generations can succeed. I don’t understand why we can’t learn to celebrate this creativity, to recognise their agency, rather than seeing it as a threat.

The victim narrative paints the picture of someone who is utterly useless once they arrive in their host country: they’re all take and no give, which is the opposite of the experience I have had as I’ve gotten to know refugees in Sweden and Jordan.

What Downton Abbey Can Teach Us About The Future

When my wife told me that she wanted to start watching Downton Abbey, I was a little reluctant. Although I enjoy reading the Brontes and Dickens, I’m not usually enthralled by TV period dramas. That said, after sticking with it for a season, I started to enjoy it for several reasons…

Before I get onto them, I want to talk about StrengthsFinder. When I got my results from Gallup’s personality profiling tool, I learned that Futuristic is one of my strongest themes. This means that I’m always looking ahead, and can picture fairly vividly what it might look to take certain turns in life. I gravitate towards ideas about the future, so am more naturally engaged by Sci-fi than by period dramas.

But there’s something interesting about Downton: it’s all about change.

After a few episodes I began noticing the overarching narrative: a traditional aristocratic family in the first part of the 20th Century coming to terms with a rapid succession of changes.

Transitioning from Honour to Guilt

Right now I live in the Middle East. The dominant culture here leans towards collectivism and honour much more than the individualism and guilt of my birth culture. People recognise themselves first and foremost as members of a particular group – usually a family or tribe. Even in Europe, Middle Easterners can learn a lot about each others’ history by exchanging last names.

Honour is a big part of collectivism. What one person does affects the standing of the group as a whole, so it’s important to make decisions that honour your family.

The family in Downton Abbey are on the knife edge between collectivism and individualism, and this is incredibly interesting. An example of this from season 5 is when Lady Mary decides to stay at a hotel in Liverpool with her potential fiancé in order to decide if she wants to marry him or not.

In the collectivist mind, this is outrageous. Think of the damage she could do to her family! But Mary is making a decision that she believes is in her interest as an individual.

Of course, because she is still living in an honour culture, her grandmother goes to great strains to cover up Mary’s behaviour, in order that the family, and her future prospects, are not harmed.

Embracing The Other

One of the intriguing things about the Crawley family is that they are continuously faced with opportunities to accept or reject people who are outside of their social sphere, and who others would consider outcasts.

One of the first of these is Tom Branson, the socialist chauffer who wins the heart of Lady Sybil. The family are faced with a choice: lose Sybil, or accept Tom. To begin with they reject Tom and push away their daughter, but over time, and with the untimely death of Lady Sybil, they begin to accept Tom as one of them.

As time goes by, the Crawley family become adept at absorbing people from outside into their family, whether it be ex-convicts working as servants, nouveau riche businessmen, or Lady Rose marrying into a Russian Jewish family.

The Best Educated Are Not Always The Best At Embracing Change

It’s easy to think that society’s elite are the best suited for embracing change. They’ve been to the best schools, had access to the most information, and been exposed to the highest standard of art and culture. However the Downton story shows that these things don’t automatically result in people with open minds.

In reality, Lord Grantham has been raised to maintain a system. His goal is to maintain the honour and reputation of his family, and that means stewarding Downton well. He and his butler, Mr Carson, are kindred spirits. They see the world that was as the way it should be. If possible, they must uphold the old ways and traditions.

But the world is changing and the foundations of the old system are beginning to crumble. The finances of the aristocracy are no longer entrenched. The working and middle classes are asking for more opportunities and exerting themselves politically.

For each character in the series who is intent on maintaining the norm, there is another who embraces change. The Dowager Countess has Mrs Isobel Crawley, Lord Grantham has Tom Branson, Mr Carson has Mrs Hughes. Each of these relationships is a mix of polar opposite attitudes to change, and extreme fondness for one another.

Why is this important to the future?

Each of these themes is important to our world at the moment: Exploring honour culture should help us better understand the challenges refugees face when coming to terms with European society.

As our cities and towns become increasingly multicultural, it’s good to ask ourselves if we will open the door to embrace and include the outsider, even if it means that we may be changed in the process. Check out this small town in Finland that did just that.

And when we see the entrenched elite squirming at the rise of new leaders from more ordinary backgrounds, we can remember that they’re not always the best suited for facing change. We mustn’t fear change just because they do.

Who knows, perhaps the trouble Lord Grantham had with accepting the future is the same that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were expressing at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn gaining power 🙂

The Psychology of Conflict

It can be so easy to view institutions as unshakeable, fixed perspective, entities. They stand for something that is public and impersonal, something unchangeable.

But what if we looked at organisations more as the sum of their individual parts than as an official whole?

A few weeks ago I was listening to the wonderful Analysis podcast from the BBC. In the podcast they interviewed psychologists who were working with groups long in conflict.

Listen to the episode, “Will They Always Hate Us?” here

They carried out experiments to see if they could increase levels of empathy of one side in a conflict towards those on other side. They showed Palestinians fake news articles of an Israeli leader criticising his own government. After reading this news article, they found that the group had greater empathy towards Israelis. They reversed the test, and found that it had the same effect on Israelis.

By observing self criticism, the readers started to see that the unified group that they were used to thinking of a single identity was actually made up of people with many different perspectives. They began seeing people as people, not just a category.

The researchers also questioned the leaders of these conflicting groups about what it would take for them to begin discussing solutions for peace in their region, and the answers they received were fascinating.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the president of The Israeli Government said,

I have nothing to discuss with Hamas until recognise the right of the Jewish people to be here. If they’re ready to recognise that right, then anything is on the table to discuss.

Khaled Mashal, of Hamas asked researchers,

Will they ever apologise for the harm they did our people in 1948, for their dislocation and dispossession?

Many of the answers surprised researchers because they weren’t based on monetary or material restitution, but on showing recognition and respect for the other’s story.

Each side in a conflict has a different history on which their worldview leans. In order for meaningful dialogue to take place, the other side needs to recognise this alternative history.

As I listened to it, rather than hearing an institution at odds with another institution, I heard the voices of people who have been wronged and who need their pain legitimised, recognised, owned up to, so they might move forward into something constructive.

Essentially they were saying time and again something akin to “we need forgiveness.”

Too often in popular society forgiveness is seen as either something easy and insincere or too costly (the Husband forgiving his wife’s murderers the day after she’s killed). But at the core of it there’s something essential to forgiveness that frees both parties to move forward into the present. It’s something divine, the effects of which have the potential to unstick centuries of misunderstanding.

But it also takes daring. It takes leaders who won’t let pride stop them taking the first step.

(Image credit: hjl)

When Values Trump Profits

Like many aspiring writers out there, I’ve read my fair share of “How To Grow Your Readership, Publish A Book, Make A Six Figure Salary And Get Voted President In Just One Year” posts. I’ve done my best to understand how people build platforms and tribes. I’ve memorised mantras like “don’t guest post without making sure there’s a link to your email sign up form.”

But a few days ago I went against all that advice and published an article that was heart felt and values based, anonymously.

There were a variety of reasons that I published it anonymously, and I knew in doing it that I would lose the opportunity to create a “call to action” that would gain me readers.

But the piece just didn’t belong here on changewriter.net, and I had to get the message out.

So I did. And with a lump in my throat I hit publish.

Over the last 72 hours, I’ve watched it become the most widely read piece I’ve ever written.

Even though I haven’t grown my personal empire through it, I’m still happy that I chose this way to get my message out. Because sometimes the value of what we have to say outweighs the gains we can make by saying it.

Two examples

Several years ago the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia made a plea to their customers that surprised them: Don’t Buy This Jacket. Their message was that if they had the choice between buying a new jacket and a recycled one, they should take the option that causes the least damage to the environment: the recycled one.

Patagonia: Don't Buy This Jacket

They released their campaign during Black Friday. The day in America when many people go out of their way to shop the latest products at discount prices.

They told people:

“The environmental cost of everything we make is astonishing…Consider the R2 Jacket shown, one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60% recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.”

Their message made one thing clear: here’s a company that puts their values before their profit margins. These are people who care about the environment, and taking care of their planet is a higher value for them than selling jackets.

On their company website they explained:

“It would be hypocritical for us to work for environmental change without encouraging customers to think before they buy. To reduce environmental damage, we all have to reduce consumption as well as make products in more environmentally sensitive, less harmful ways. It’s not hypocrisy for us to address the need to reduce consumption. On the other hand, it’s folly to assume that a healthy economy can be based on buying and selling more and more things people don’t need – and it’s time for people who believe that’s folly to say so.”

Fairphone are another company that have impressed me with similar commitment to values over profit.

This summer the company tweeted a link to an article entitled “Why I Love The Fairphone — And Why I Won’t Buy One”

The article explained that the best way to take care of the environment and the supply chain of electronic devices is to buy less of them. The best way to serve the core values of Fairphone is not to buy their phone, but to continue using your old one. Until it wears out.

Of course Fairphone didn’t go as far as to launch a campaign to stop people buying their phones. After all, they don’t yet have the committed consumer base of Patagonia, but in promoting this tweet I caught a glimpse of a company that puts their values before their profits.

So, with that said, who wants to sign up to my email list? 😉

Dear Henning (A Tribute To Henning Mankell)

Dear Henning,

With the news of your death, today is a sad day for many of us.

We devoured your novels, whether the Wallander series, or lesser known works. We revelled in your storytelling, which despite being fictional always felt deeply honest.

We were inspired by your actions, how you consistently spoke up against injustice and tried to do things that would help. Like your theatre in Mozambique, or the memory project for victims of AIDS. You found a way to put your skills and influence to use for the benefit of the poor and voiceless.

We were delighted when you joined a group of activists on a ship headed for Palestine with the desire to break the Israeli embargo on aid.

3594924447_6b79c5d455_b

But there’s another, more personal reason why I’m going to miss you and your stories.

For me, you were one of my early guides into the world of Swedish culture. Not because of the factual accuracy of the stories – Ystad isn’t the victim of as many murders as your stories would have us believe – but because of the zeitgeist you captured so well. Through Kurt Wallander and his adventures, you beautifully painted the atmosphere of change that exists in modern Sweden. Such change isn’t always clearly spelled out to newcomers like myself.

In the years since World War Two, Sweden has become a haven to those fleeing war and instability in their homelands. That is set to continue. Unsurprisingly, in the face of such change, those who grew up in a very different Sweden have had some adjusting to do. Many have made these adjustments with incredible grace. They’ve chosen to personally embrace the outsider. Others have adjusted more slowly, as if waking up to a whole new world that doesn’t quite feel like their home.

Inspector Wallander guided me into that world and helped me to understand a little of what that conflict must feel like. He gave me a glimpse into how a values driven society comes to terms with its decisions, as they’re worked out in the earthy reality of day-to-day life. And he allowed me the opportunity to mourn the Sweden of my parents-in-law’s youth, a Sweden that is now just a memory.

For all of the above, I’m very grateful.

With much respect,

Jonathan

(Image credit: PalFest)