Where to Belong is the tender, moving autobiographical story of artist and performer Victor Esses’ journey to find home.
Esses is Jewish-Lebanese, Brazilian, and gay; this is an exploration of how to find your place in a rich and complex world of identities.
What actually is home? Is it the four walls that surround us, is it the person we spend time with or is it a feeling and sense of place? If we had to leave where we live today, where would we go and what would we take?
This online tour was based on Unfamiliar which was nominated for the 2019 Lukas Awards.
September 23: Chapter Arts Centre.
I visited Beirut for the first time four years ago, the first in my family to ever go back, the city where both my parents were born, where my dad left with his family as a young teenager to find a better life in Brazil in the late 60s; a country full of promise of opportunities and peace, where my mom was forced to leave after being stuck at home to the soundtrack of bombs and gunshots for 10 days that included her 15th birthday, at the start of a civil war that would last 15 years. At 13 and 15 they were made immigrants. Neither had a choice, neither were prepared for such big changes. São Paulo was way more accommodating to hard working Jewish Middle Eastern immigrants than Paris, or Houston Texas, places where my mother went through. She was also a refugee – although she’ll never call herself that – because if you were displaced in a war, that’s what you are; because if you have to leave your house in the middle of the night wearing as many clothes as you can fit on your body, hiding behind building after building not to be shot, that qualifies you; and because even if you took a plane and not a boat, and you had little money in your pocket to start again, you’re still that, and there should be no shame in it. You were still helped by the refugee agency HIAS, the same one to help my dad’s family years previous, shortly after the 6-Day War between Israel, Lebanon and other neighbouring countries, a time when it got more and more difficult to be Jewish in the Levant. When many had to choose between moving to Israel or faraway lands. And of course, when being Palestinian in Palestine was the hardest it had ever been.
I was born in São Paulo, Brazil, to a lower middle-class family – neither of my parents went to university – who worked hard to change their situation. When I was growing up, I was curious about mom’s history. She had a terrible memory, could rarely answer my questions. She did remember those pivotal moments. But it’s like the rest didn’t stick. We went to a synagogue every Saturday, where most people were from Syria or Lebanon. At school you’d find more Ashkenazim – European Jews. We felt Brazilian, but also apart from, we lived in a unique community, we had our own customs. I craved that reality outside, what looked like choice. We were very few: I didn’t have much of a selection of peers to befriend, and I didn’t always feel I belonged with the friends that I had. I felt different. I wanted to play with dolls, I wanted to gossip, I hated football (all the clichés of a cis gay boy), I liked watching soap operas. I loved music. We’d listen to Lebanese music – Sabah, Fairuz, Najwa Karam – but also to Brazilian music. Dad loved Roberto Carlos, Jewish religious music, and mom loved George Michael, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, all the divas adored by the gays. And yet she had a deep fear, a hatred of such beings. And that’s how I learned about this stuff. Cazuza had died, a Brazilian 80s rock star. It was all over the news. I asked my mom what happened. She said regretfully that he died, but then hatefully that he died of AIDS, he was “um bicha” (a faggot – usually the article is feminine, but she’d choose the masculine). She had lived with a closeted gay uncle in Houston Texas and her parents had often made comments. She had not had the best of starts, had not had the chance to develop her thinking, of maturing; she was on the move and learning a new language every few years.
When I was young, I very much enjoyed parts of our way of living. The rituals, the shabbat (Friday night) dinners, being treated with more respect for being the eldest and being male. The privileges these things afford us. But the cost was high. That meant I had to suppress another side of me, the side that might be perceived as feminine, in an extremely binary reality. It takes years to redirect such learnings, and much willingness. Years later I have done my best to disconnect from all that which one day I was, where I supposedly belonged. But it comes an age when you realise that you don’t need to be reactive. There comes a time when I can choose what serves me and let go of the rest.
For a long time I wanted to encounter the place I heard of so much and so little. I had planned to go with my parents some years before, but a war started: Israel invaded Lebanon and we had to cancel. And no other opportunity came. I got tired of waiting, so I booked a flight with my partner and off we went. I spoke to my parents on Skype beforehand, and took note of many places to look for when I was there. In that conversation, mom revealed that in those ten days before leaving, they could only survive because Palestinian men, refugees themselves, would bring up bread to them. And that journey brought a lot of things to the surface, the conflicts of all parts of my identity, being a Jew and being an Arab. Being gay and having grown up religious, being Lebanese and being Brazilian, and having become myself in London, the city I chose as a refuge, which is as close to home as I could call. All these internal conflicts needed an outlet, a place to coexist and I wanted to stop feeling like I needed to reshape who I was for every different occasion. A life’s work. I also wanted to connect with everyone in my surroundings, get them to see me, and each other.
Where to Belong, my solo multimedia piece, is the result of that. A place where I can speak of all of this and invite you to bring your story in as well. Where we can all be human, and connect in that place, and still celebrate our differences. I’ve tried for a long time to find acceptance from my parents, and then realised that I need to find that from myself mostly. Making and performing this piece has been the most healing experience I have been through. It’s a warm, welcoming, gentle hour where you might feel deeply challenged but hopefully deeply held. It’s a place we need now more than ever. I am so happy to finally be able to take it to different cities around the UK, after London and Edinburgh runs.
This will be my first time performing in Wales and my first time ever to come to Cardiff. I’m so excited to connect with the people there who I’ve always found warm and lovely whenever I came across them; a place where people have their own questions of identity when having their own language and being part of a bigger place; where there’s also a population of refugees. I can’t wait to meet you. And ask those questions together. And laugh together. And possibly cry.