Suzanne Russell is an artist, writer, and activist-lawyer who lives in Copenhagen and New York. Over the years, she has shared her passion for the arts with us through art reviews, interviews, and artist profiles. In this post, Suzanne describes how she recently discovered changes in herself that she was not aware of, and how she rediscovered and reclaimed some lost qualities of herself in summer school. She came to realize that her many years as a wife, mother, guardian and foreigner in a small country have affected herself and her behavior.—ED.
This past summer may have been the best summer of my life. At least, so far. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I put my own desires first and, without guilt or compromise, went off to summer school in the USA. For two weeks in June, I attended Yale’s Writers’ Conference, a sort of summer camp for writers. And for two weeks in July, I was part of a residency program for professional artists called Reconfiguring Site at the School for Visual Arts in New York.
At Yale, I indulged my desire to try something completely new. I took Fiction and Playwriting. The last time I wrote a story was in high school, and I had never written a play. Although I now remember that I used to create plays with all the neighborhood children when I was in elementary school. Being immersed in the unfamiliar world of writers and writing was thrilling. Conversely, at SVA I put myself in the very comfortable situation of discussing public art with other professional artists. We also made street art. Even though I have never made street art, I knew exactly how to go about finding and developing my ideas. The experience made me realize how important being an artist is to me, and how much art knowledge and confidence I have built up over my 52 years of life.
It is as if these summer school experiences have pried open my quiet little life and reconnected me to the world outside of Denmark. More importantly, they reconnected me to myself. Away from my everyday routines and roles, I returned to being the person who I used to be before I became a foreigner, a wife, a mother, and a guardian. At Yale and SVA, I was back on my home turf making jokes and writing in English. I felt able to use all of the different sides of myself, and I also felt free to be my whole self. The best part is that I rediscovered the person I used to be (funny, confident, well-educated, slightly subversive) and could also see how my experiences of the past 25 years in Denmark have helped me to develop and mature. For the first time ever, I could see the personal value of some of the difficult times I have successfully muddled through. I rediscovered myself and I reclaimed parts of my identity that I had lost sight of.
Suzanne (front row, second from the right) with her summer school classmates at SVA
As an artist who usually works by herself, it was exciting to be surrounded by so many interesting, intelligent new people. In both programs, the students were all ages and came from all over the world. I formed a lasting friendship with a young New York actress who is the same age as my son. I met a gay Afghan-American teaching at American University of Kabul who is helping me get information from Afghanistan that I need for one of my refugee cases. I chatted briefly with an English writer who introduced me over the Internet to one of her good friends, a dynamic art historian temporarily living in Copenhagen whom I have already had the pleasure of seeing several times. And one of my teachers-turned-friends is now showing her work at a museum in China and hanging out with one of my best friends from college, a painter who lives and works in Beijing. I could go on and on!
Suzanne performing her street art on 23rd Street and 6th Avenue
It has taken me a while to write about my summer experiences because I needed to get some distance to put them in perspective. How could going to summer school feel so life changing? I may never write a novel or a play, or make public art again. But that seems irrelevant. I have been confronted with changes in myself that I was not aware of. I realize that my many years as a foreigner in a xenophobic country have worn away at my self-confidence and I have become accustomed to living in a state of discomfort or unease. To be somewhat accepted in a small country, I became “small” to fit in. This was a futile coping mechanism: I will never be Danish, and I will always be different.
Somehow as I was politely following the rules of social conformity, I lost parts of myself. My spoken and written English became simplified and peppered with pessimistic Danish expressions in translation. I lost many of my frames of reference and credentials; most Danes don’t know who is in the U.S. Congress and have never heard of Wellesley College. My sense of humor became darker and rougher to appeal to my Danish friends and colleagues. And, sadly, I even learned to keep my mouth closed when experiencing Danish political incorrectness, because I have never succeeded in changing anyone’s mind after years of trying.
I have been working on staying true to myself, and I think I am succeeding. I have returned to my routines and roles, and I am still a polite person. But I am trying to enjoy living in Denmark in a new way, without hiding who I am or expecting to fit in. This summer I had no obligations except to take care of myself and check in with my family every once in a while. I learned how to put myself first, and I am trying to keep myself there. To be honest, it happened so gradually that I hadn’t even noticed that I hadn’t been taking good care of Number One. I wouldn’t call my summer a summer of reinvention, but I did rediscover parts of myself that I had, literally, gotten lost in translation.