Recently I read that the twenty-first century will be the ‘age of the migrant’. This pronouncement made me laugh and boil with rage in equal measure–for pretty much the same reason. I often come across such headlines telling me that people, by which I mean middle class white Anglo-Americans, are discovering phenomena, whether growing their own vegetables, sewing their own clothes or migrating, that working poor people have known as their lived experience for hundreds of years.
I’ve been a migrant almost all my life. From the age of three months I was on the move from the place where I was born to the next place my parents were going, and then eventually on to the next place my partner was going. I’d never thought very much about what that really means in my life until quite recently. I say I’m a migrant and, depending on your understanding and experience, you might think I mean I was born in one place but grew up in another, or that my job has brought me to a place that I didn’t grow up in. Those are both true in my case, but my life has been permeated and structured by migration in much more complex and layered ways. I was indeed born in a different place than where I currently live. Also,
- My mother and I were not born in the same country and don’t have the same mother tongue.(My mother and father were also not born in the same country as each other, or share a mother tongue, though they share the same ethnicity and race.)
- My partner and I were not born in the same country, don’t have the same mother tongue and we don’t share the same ethnicity or race.
- My grandfather, father and I were all born in the same place, but my father and grandfather both died in different countries (different not just from the place they were born, but different from each other).
- Members of my family have migrated from one place to another for four successive generations (i.e my paternal grandmother’s father was born in India and migrated to Mauritius; his child, my grandmother, was born in Mauritius and migrated to the UK; her child, my father, was born in Mauritius and migrated to Canada; and his child, me, was born in Mauritius and migrated to the UK, Canada and Finland).
Most of the time I do not bother to explain these layers to people, even people I know well. Insofar as people can understand and relate to the idea of migration they can generally only do so one generation or move at a time. I’m thinking here of the confusion an Italian-Australian friend who lives in Canada regularly encounters when she tries to explain how it’s possible that she is both Italian and Australian but living in Canada (not to mention the fact that she is the mother of a child who is part Pakistani).
Though I teach literatures that speak to experiences of colonialism, dispossession, exile and migration, I’ve never really found myself in the literature of diaspora, probably because of my more tangled lived experience. I’m aware that most people who meet me probably think I teach the literature I do because ‘it’s about my life’. It’s not. There’s no novel about my life, family or history. For this reason, too, as with many aspiring writers, I’ve always wanted to write about my life because the world I experience isn’t one I’ve ever encountered in a novel.
The fact that I don’t see myself reflected in literature is not inherently problematic for me, for a few reasons. One reason is that when you study literature from a postcolonial, feminist or queer perspective you come to understand that representation cuts at least two ways. It is marvellous to see yourself represented if that representation allows for the full possibility of your being. If, as is sadly much more likely, representation is a means of confining and producing only certain versions of your being, it is dispiriting, even silencing, to encounter those representations. Another reason is that I retain some faith in imaginative empathy. If we can only truly, madly, deeply love the writing that is about us, or can only write the texts that are about us, what will happen when we are faced with the suffering of others? I have to–I do–believe that we can truly care about those who are not us.
Nevertheless, though I don’t find it problematic that my migrant family and experience are missing from the novels and poems I’ve read, I would like to write about it myself and this is where confusion sets in. When I gave my blog the title ‘thinking from here to there’ I was thinking of it as a metaphorical descriptor–how do I get from the thought I have here to the written page there. I often become lost along the way from here to there, sometimes because I am curious about other things, sometimes because I’m not sure I can make it. As with all metaphors, however, there is an important materiality to the ones that stick in our minds and our narratives. My life has been a literal shuttling back and forth between places and inevitably that means that the raw material of my writing life is oddly unstable at its core. This isn’t to say I don’t have a writing self to work from, or that I am a fragmented self. It isn’t that I don’t know if I exist. It is more a question of whether my existence is worth transformation into text. Literature is a kind of knowing but an odd kind; what authorizes that knowledge, what do we lay claim to know when we write ourselves into fiction?
When literary critics in the 1980s began to write about the ways that fragmentation and unstable meanings were the hallmarks of the postmodern condition, and postmodern narrative, there were others, especially those who studied black and postcolonial writing, who pointed out that such issues were well-known to and had been negotiated by minority writers for years. What seems to be important here and now is something that others struggled to do ten or twenty years ago in another place. The questions of where ‘here’ is and where ‘there’ is are temporal as much as spatial. When Salman Rushdie burst onto the scene with his magical realist Indian-English in Midnight’s Children, it seemed incredible. When GV Desani published his account of one man’s spiritual adventures in All About H. Hatterr thirty years earlier, it seemed odd and disorienting. Now we read Desani and know that he was on to something. His novel is understood now, post-Rushdie, post-modernism, as one of those gems that defies the boundaries between modernism and postmodernism. (If you’re intrigued, you can read more about him here.) What I wonder is how did Desani know that it was possible to write like that? How did he trust his own higgledy-piggledy existence enough to write from it, to write about it?
It is a common enough adage that you should ‘write what you know’. I’m tempted to say I don’t know about anything. I don’t come from ‘here’ or ‘there’. What I seem to know about is the motion of knowledge itself; the moment before you understand; the moment after you realize you don’t know; the moment you realize that you never understood; or the moment you realize that no one has ever understood you as anything more than a particular instance of a general problem (migrant, woman, marginalized).
I can imagine an argument that all literature is really about not knowing, about not being sure of what you really know, but I don’t find such broad generalizations useful for solving the problem of writing. It doesn’t help me to learn that this is a ‘universal’ problem when I can see for myself that the universal has never yet happened to alight on the particulars of my experience. Existential novels, for example, are about not knowing whether we are doing the right thing, living in the right way, but they rely on very sure and certain characterizations of time, place and human behaviour to communicate that. In fact, canonical existential novels are, often, the highly stylized and aestheticized products of writers very sure of the value and solidity of their time and place. Marginalized writers, on the other hand, are often writing about a time and place their readers don’t know, perhaps even a place their readers don’t really believe exists. Sometimes that is another side of the same space they inhabit with those who are at the centre–they show you a place you thought you knew because you live in it–and sometimes it is a place they have left behind but reconstructed in memory. In either case, they can claim a knowledge of something, a place, a time, a world that they breathe life into with form and language.
My attempts to write my world into existence, both academic and creative, seem to founder in the ceaseless motion between the places I’ve moved to, left behind and sometimes returned to only to leave again. I am not a nomad, there is no natural cycle to my wanderings. Neither am I a cosmopolitan, making myself at home everywhere with the casually imperial air of one who is free to travel anywhere. I wonder, is it possible to make fiction out of that, the constant movement of self and knowledge? What would that look like? How would it read?