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The Only Question: Durban-Melbourne – Adiela Akoo and Rijn Collins

Адиела Аку и Рейн Коллинз

The Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature Program Directorate continues publishing The Only Question - new international project - materials. 40 authors from 18 UNESCO literary cities (or related cities) participate in the project.  Authors from Durban and Melbourne – Adiela Akoo and Rijn Collins – are the guests of the project.

The organizers invited writers, poets, playwrights, translators from UNESCO literary cities to imagine they have the opportunity to ask just one question to an author from any other literary city. The initiative will help to introduce the authors from the literary cities to each other and establish their dialogue. The project will also let to understand what issues are of concern to authors from different countries today. Besides, it will provide an opportunity for readers to get to know new writers and poets.

Questions and answers by the authors (in Russian and English) along with a short biography of each participant and links to their publications will regularly appear on the Ulyanovsk UNESCO City of Literature Website, other literary cities' websites, and social media, etc. Writers' dialogs will also be offered for publication on the project partners' platforms (literary magazines, libraries, literary media, and mass media). As a result of the project, in summer 2022 an online anthology will be released (in Russian and English) with all the conversations.

Durban and Melbourne – Adiela Akoo and Rijn Collins

Adiela Akoo

Адиела Акоо

It's wonderful to connect with you, Rijn.

I have read your bio and based on that, this is my question to you: 

“Many advocate isolation as a way to facilitate introspection and hence, connection to our higher selves. Being deeply interested in the links between identity and isolation, what have you discovered in this regard?”

I look forward to connecting further and reading  your response.

Warm regards, Adiela

Rijn Collins

Рейн Коллинз
Фото: Шеннон МакДональд

My first real experience of isolation came in my teens, when I moved from Australia to Europe for a year-long language exchange. I knew no-one in Brussels. I spoke no Flemish and little French. I was, for the first real time in my life, alone. This had a profound influence on my development and instilled in me a deep appreciation of solitude.

I’ve been fascinated by this topic ever since; it finds its way into my writing often. But it’s important to note whether the isolation has been sought or inflicted. Anyone who’s been subjected to prolonged bouts of lockdown due to Covid might recognise the burden of the latter, and how vastly it can differ from the liberation of the former.

Both have left their mark on me. After my year in Europe, I returned to Melbourne at the age of eighteen and fell into a period of agoraphobia so intense it effectively removed me from society for two years. My main communication came through writing letters to pen-pals I found in the classified section of punk magazines. I became so focused on written sentences that it took me a while to realise how spoken ones had effectively disappeared from my life.

But I recovered, and slowly began to explore the gifts of isolation again. I spent ten years living by myself in a tiny Melbourne flat with a taxidermy snow goose suspended above my writing desk, and a comically rotund black cat who loathed my partners and attacked their bare calves in the shower. And I travelled by myself, as often as my savings would allow it.

These are some of my favourite memories, right down to solo writing residencies. Taking myself out to dinner on my travels gives me gentle joy: reindeer and cloudberry wine in Helsinki, sopapillas and tequila in New Mexico, smoked cod and Black Death schnapps in Reykjavik. I do it whenever I can here in Melbourne too. Occasionally strangers try to ‘rescue’ me and I’m as bewildered by their invitation to join them as they are by my refusal. The pace of life seems relentless and I snatch these pockets of solitude when I can, and relish them.

Then came Covid. Isolation became ‘iso’, something to refer to with dread and disdain. Here in Melbourne we’ve had one of the longest, most gruelling lockdowns in Covid history. I’ve spent it in an industrial western suburb where my 5km allowed radius held petrochemical vats and shipping containers. It was difficult not to align it with the years I spent agoraphobic, fearful of the outside world, but for very different reasons.

I’m not the same person I was at twenty though. Introspection has allowed me self-awareness I would not have had without the agoraphobia, or the solo travels, or even lockdown. These experiences have led me to a deeper understanding of myself and my place in this world, and I take great comfort in that knowledge. Whether this is the connection to the higher self your question refers to, I’m not entirely sure. But my identity – and my writing - has been influenced by these periods of isolation, and I find myself grateful for the insights they’ve given me.

Previous issues:

  1. Heidelberg-Ulyanovsk – Şafak Sariçiçek and Sergei Gogin
  2. Melbourne - Heidelberg – Christopher Raja and Klaus Kayser
  3. Calgary-Mannheim - Kelly Kaur And Claudia Schmid
  4. Melbourne And Ulyanovsk - Rijn Collins and Gala Uzryutova
  5. Heidelberg - Nottingham – Ingeborg von Zadow and Leanne Moden
  6. Durban-Ulyanovsk – Adiela Akoo and Sergei Gogin
  7. Heidelberg-Ulyanovsk|Moscow – Şafak Sarıçiçek and Irina Bogatyryova
  8. Yekaterinburg-Iowa City – Ekaterina Simonova and Jacquelyn Bengfort
  9. Iowa City-Québec – Jeremy Geragotelis and Vanessa Bell
  10. Heidelberg-Ulyanovsk – Juliane Sophie Kayser and Gala Uzryutova