The night before I first left for America my grandmother pressed my face between her palms and demanded that I do not fall in love with any place but home. As if this was a place people went to get lost in.
Four years later and she is right. It is 2am on that slanting veranda in central Iowa and I am wrestling with the same Hindi that squeezes out from the other end of the phone-line. Angry and embarrassed, I run back to my apartment, slam the door shut, and push my pillow so far into mouth that I can no longer speak.
We are so heartbroken and dizzy from belonging to all these places.
The feeling doesn’t restrict itself to language – it colonizes our day-to-day. The displacement has no replacement; this is the reality of diaspora. Of leaving, really. We have been thrown into this strange miasma where the water refuses to adjust to the skin. Someone has stepped into the living room of our soul, while we were asleep, and rearranged the furniture. The question then becomes – how do we deal with this disownership?
Tarfia Faizullah – in her commentary on Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 – offers a relevant but piercing image:
Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald
inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between
us still irreparable –
It seems that we are equally close and distant from ourselves. The “us” is both the speaker and the subject, and it is in these seams that we are able to articulate our two-ness. Tarfia’s book, titled Seam, is interested in how we communicate these distances – through love, anger, and above all, memory.
Why call any of it back?
She asks. The question pushes against direct representation, but still manages to flood the imagination. What is the use of this remembering, of constructing such context, of inducing this kind of heartbreak with the world? This, you imagine, is a thing we simply must do to continue existing in our multiplicities. The boy that skins pistachios in his grandmother’s backyard is still remembered by the boy that now raps to Biggie in his jagged Angrezi. Tarfia speaks to this as well:
It is possible to live without
memory Nietzsche said but
is it possible to live with it?
This is exactly what the book – and we – struggle with, the painful and unfamiliar awakeness that comes from being contextualized. Paraphrasing the sentiments of Rushdie, I too have never forgiven America for not being Delhi. My memory of home will not let this happen. But what is there to forgive? Nothing.
Now, my imagination synthesizes a home between memory and body. It accommodates me as a participant in its defining process – a home that is constantly built upon itself, not replaced. Stuart Hall calls this “production,” an exercise with no foreseeable edges, always in the process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. This is precisely what Tarfia does with Seam – her poems produce identity through memory. It is, then, in thinking and writing about home that we can truly exercise self-articulation.
Tarfia’s home is in Texas, but her body, it seems, belongs to so many other places. It is this feeling: of being ten years old and sitting in the isle seat of an unnamed flight, waiting for the stewardess to walk by so you can ask her the same question. Where are we going and how long till we get there? Soon, always very soon.
I reread the book three times before finally putting it down. When I did, it was seven in the morning and the sun’s saffroned light had lined the edges of my window. I opened my computer and immediately began typing the only words that came to mind at the time. I began typing to her. I knew if I waited any longer, the feeling would pass and my words would seem jagged and angular, even to myself.
I started, in large, unspaced letters – thankyouthankyouthankyou. It was only days later that I received an email response. Again, as you can imagine, it was nighttime (the only time when things like these happen.)
Varun, it started.
I want you to know how moved I am by your email. It means so much–speechlessly–to know that the work is especially reaching and resonating with other South Asians.
For there is a loneliness in that negotiation you spoke of: Iowa/Delhi/all the in-betweens. It’s a loneliness that we don’t always know how to voice. The connection we can forge between us through poetry is a light that, at least for a moment, annihilates that loneliness, makes room for the brave, if frightened, interior voice.
Thank you. For who you are and all that you do.
Yours in common pursuit,
More than anything else, what Seam demonstrates is the ability of the mind to imagine, beyond itself, boundaries that correspond to a home (both the body’s and the mind’s). Towards the end of her collection, Tarfia vocalizes an almost beautifully selfish idea:
But what else is mine, if not all
this strange beauty?
She is jumping off the page and grabbing my throat, with equal parts love and anger, saying here! Here is your complex, frustrating, multiplicitous, language-less, language-full world. I am giving to you what has already been for so long yours.