I’m sitting in Paris, in this biodynamic and organic wine bar (Complètement BIO! Pas de sulfites!), having an extra glass of wine just because I’m in town for a meeting and I’m on my own tonight and why not? I’m reading an Aleksandar Hemon article in an old New Yorker, about how he absolutely owned Sarajevo, he felt like the geography of the place was imprinted on his soul. And then he happens to be out of the country when the siege begins, and then he doesn’t go back for ten years. He’s losing the geography of his youth and unwittingly overwrites it with Chicago, which happens to be the place where I imprinted….
All the places in his story are my places, and at any moment, I might have seen him walking down the street any time. We overlapped five years, years during which he was engaging, and I was disengaging.
And I know it’s the three glasses of wine, and Hemon is an awesome writer, but I feel absolutely melancholy about what I’ve given up in leaving Chicago. And yet I can’t quite imagine moving back. When I visit, the geography of my youth is gone, only the street grid remains. Which is sort of what he says, too.
And just as I’m thinking, why don’t I have a home with that imprinted geography anymore? Why did I give that up?, I look up and one of the bartenders is animatedly demonstrating how she wants to add a shelf over the back bar to the other one. In Japanese. Because they’re Japanese.
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Why did this Japanese couple open a bar in paris? Don’t they miss home? Are they Parisians now? What does that mean? (Parisian? Japanese? Home?)
If you ask, I’ll tell you: you should go live abroad somewhere for a while.
I tell this to all my students, and to any young narrative artist who is curious.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is as nearsighted as I am, but when creating narrative, your job is to develop a clear-eyed and complete view of your characters. You don’t want to bumble around like an actual person in real relationships, you want to know more than they know about who they are, so you can cause them to act in ways consistent with, possibly, nature, and, certainly, themselves. But when you’re an American narrative artist, for example, and you’re writing about American characters, they can function a bit like bas-relief sculpture to you, in that you can see their very clear outlines, but you can’t somehow see the massive granite that they’re rooted in. You can’t see all the way around them, 360 degrees. And that’s because you yourself are rooted in that same piece of granite, and it’s behind you and inside you, and you never noticed it.
When you go somewhere else, with a different culture, and ideally with a different language, and you try to live there for a while, your own edges, torn from that granite base, become (sometimes uncomfortably) evident to you. You can suddenly see your (for example) Americanness. (I say “for example” because this all applies equally to people of other cultures, going to live in other, non-native-to-them cultures.) This is incredibly valuable when making art, especially narrative art. It’s probably also very valuable when living as a human being in any context, but I’m not sure I want to claim the authority to announce that.
The thing is, when you live abroad, your perspective on home changes, and is complicated to the point that “home” starts to require scare quotes. What is home? And simultaneously, your understanding of how much you are (in my case) an American makes equally clear how very much you are not, and will never be a French person (again, in my case). So staying put will mean that you’re not at home either. “Going native,” might be nearly impossible, but there are many degrees of native. I have met people from other countries who have spent 20 or 30 years in France, and are neither French nor of their country of origin anymore, really. And they seem perfectly OK with that, basically. I mean, what’s the big issue?
But a part of me yens for a feeling of rootedness.
I imagine that sometime I’ll find myself in the place I want to be, and I will stay there, because I will want to be there. I will visit other places, but there will be this one place that feels like home, and I’m going to want to be back there. But I’m in my mid 40s now and it hasn’t happened yet, so possibly the whole notion is just a fantasy.
In France, we live in a well-located and inexpensive, but small and inelegant apartment in a well-located and inexpensive, but small and unfancy town. The apartment does not compare in aesthetics or space to our nice middle-class house in Brooklyn. But I find I really don’t mind the downgrade. Probably partly because I know it’s semi-temporary. The exit date, the fact that we are going, we are really going to go one of these days, it totally changes our way of being here, even after having extended our stay to four years, which is a long time. We’ve done a lot, we’ve taken advantage of it. We’ve also not taken advantage of it in various distressing ways; I have goals for things to do and see that I don’t know that we’ll meet. But we still perch very lightly in some ways.
There are advantages to perching, like not caring that much about stuff that I might care about elsewhere in other circumstances. That in itself can be a problem, depending on your perspective. I was talking to my friend Myla, who told me that she had left Prague after living there for a year right after college because she had problems with the culture there, but felt like, as a non-Czech, she’d never have the right to complain or take action, and she couldn’t live with that. She felt the impossibility of going native-enough.
Contrast that to my feeling of freedom as an expat, where one thing that’s really great about it is that they’re not your crazy relatives. And yes, you’ve got to find a way to engage and feel the right to take action. But some things about your adopted place will never hurt you like the things of home hurt.
None of which means I don’t still lust for middle-class kitchens. If it sort of turns out one day ten years down the line that I never get back to that, it’s going to be a little disappointing. But in some ways, that’s what this whole transition has been about, clearing out the hurly-burly of previous existence, to see the core. Which, for me, is defined as:
What do we really want to do with our time, and how can we make that possible in our actual lives?
Definitely, for sure, when you quit all the jobs on the side of making your art that used to support you but were time- and life-sucking, the financial side of things is sobering. That’s the subject of another article, though.
For now, the important thing to remember is: we are actually doing what we want to be doing for a much larger percentage of our time. And our priority from here on out must be to somehow maintain that balance.
As I imagined Aleksandar Hemon absorbing the street grid of Chicago into his cellular structure, and then followed that thought right into a puddle of saudade for my Chicagoan self, it did occur to me that perhaps I felt that way at that time partly because I was a teenager there, a young person, and eventually as I got older, I felt less and less at home even as I knew more and more about the place. So maybe it was just fake all along. Maybe moving away made me realize how superficial it all was. So now I can’t recreate that solid sense of belonging because the sense that I used to have came out of a naïve point of view. Either I removed the possibility of that sense of uncomplicated, complete absorption by splitting my loyalties, or maybe it was that I just got some perspective, which in the end I can’t feel sorry for.
And then it occurred to me that all of this is just another way of grappling (again) with the prickly notion of “authenticity” (scare quotes intended). And what a waste of time that is.
La Perdida, my book that’s essentially a 250-page exploration of the perils of too much focus on “authenticity,” came out almost 10 years ago. You’d think I’d recognize the problem when I displayed it myself. In the end, I am authentically myself, and I’ve actually lived my life. I’m not pretending that I’m French, I actually live in France as an American. I’m not pretending I’m a Chicagoan, I really did live in Chicagoland for 28 years. And so I’m a Brooklynite, too, I guess. I’m all those things. It’s not pretentious to claim something that is actually who you are. But I grew up with a horror of “poseurs” and it’s hella hard to shake. The reward of shaking it is a slightly more quasi-Buddhist ability to live in the moment, and be who I am, rather than mooning over what I used to be or agonizing over what I wish to become.
That moment of realization in Paris, that the whole notion of an “authentic” home had become almost unbearably complicated, marked a turning point for me. It’s when I began, finally, to reject the tyranny of the notion that I have to be cool and down, that it’s OK for me to go Out on the Wire and try things that seem out of my wheelhouse. It’s when I started to realize that not only trying to do things that are really hard but also allowing myself to not do them perfectly, and to make that struggle visible to the world can be a font of passion in my work, and of a deeper connection with my audience. Taking creative risks—like deciding to live abroad and dealing with the (literal and figurative) dislocation that comes with that—means doing stuff that feels INauthentic to begin with, but all that means is that we’re beginners. Daring to be a beginner is the only way we’ll ever learn anything new. That’s all I really want.
Image credits: Author Photo: © Alain François, argus/Shutterstock.com.