I was in my twenties when the word 'imagination' took on a new meaning.
Together with a group of fellow rebels - for I recognise now that's what we all were, in some way - we were studying, some of us only briefly, at a university in which group work was a key ingredient. We had come together because we wanted to write about Frida Kahlo.
At the time I had only the most rudimentary knowledge of Kahlo; I knew a little about her life, I knew her most famous paintings, but I didn't have any real insight into her life. The months spent with my fellow students, writers, rebels, changed that. In essence, she was one of the first people who came to define 'imagination' for me. Kahlo, the painter, the woman who re-imagined herself, who refused to be defined by what life had thrown at her, who refused to let her country be defined by the oft-used, stock imagery of Mexico.
We studied her paintings, we read her diary, read letters and books about her, went to exhibitions, studied photographs, watched old movies and read history books that depicted the time, challenged history books of the time (for this was another feature of the course we were doing - teaching us all to be critical of what history presented to us and claimed as so-called 'fact'). 'History has been written by the rulers', said one of our Argentinean teachers and there's another version lurking in the shadows, just waiting to be told. Kahlo herself was the proof of that.
Our end result - a hefty one hundred-plus page dissertation on Kahlo wasn't word perfect, but somehow it set all of us off on a path towards our imagination. We became writers, photographers, filmmakers and more (with various detours along the way, or perhaps the detour became the way) and whether it was Kahlo who sparked our imagination or we came to Kahlo because we all recognised something in her, I can't say.
“I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.” ― Frida Kahlo
Today, the word has taken on yet another meaning for me. A noun that asks us to use our abilities to create something that might not yet exist; a verb when we put this into action; we need the powers of it more than ever - to resist, as Kahlo did, what is our given path - to imagine another way, another world.
I look at the different rebellions around the world and they are filled with all the power of the imagination and this now folds into and under the word too, like that song Lennon sang not so long ago, simple perhaps, but nevertheless: imagine all the people. They are there. They have always been there.
As I watch them in the streets, rising up, the phoneme of the word breathes life into the word too, becoming its very essence as they all march forward. 'There is a vacuum now in the centre and we need to fill it with hope, otherwise it will be filled with hate' Naomi Klein has said.
I think of Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale that imagined another future, but one that was born out of so many lived-through pasts that it felt both eerily recognisable and later eerily prescient when the future overtook the present. I think of Claudia Rankine's An American Lyric which puts me inside another body and lets me feel the effects of on-going racism on mine, I think of Thorkild Hansen's Arabia Felix, a teenage read about an 18th century journey that felt like a warning for today. I think of all the indigenous people and all their stories, speaking of that which we are only just beginning to truly hear.
I think of the power of words, of imagined worlds.
I think of Kahlo, who filled her life and our lives with hope - not the souvenir Kahlo we have to come to know of late, but the real life Kahlo, whose life also contained real pain and darkness, but who nevertheless moved forward. And so must we.
Imagining a different tomorrow - but also reimagining or perhaps reconfiguring our relationship with what has gone before. We hold the knowledge for the future we need if only we stop to listen to the past.
“No moon, sun, diamond, hands — fingertip, dot, ray, gauze, sea. pine green, pink glass, eye, mine, eraser, mud, mother, I am coming.” ― Frida Kahlo, The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait
What does 'imagination' mean to you? Tell us in the comments below.