Posts Tagged ‘immigration’

It’s not always labeled as such, but this is a Dungeons and Dragons story. Well-written fantasy, but in a world that already feels familiar to some of us. I have never studied economics; even in high school, my civics class was all government and no economics. This book puts the basis for some of our economic problems into terms that I can understand.

It’s like this. Hero work ostensibly exists for the improvement of society and making the world a better place, but it really all boils down to money, sort of like the American education system. Heroes go out and kill ‘bad’ guys and take their stuff. Society measures their accomplishments by looking at the tangible results, the loot. Corporations or guilds see the loot coming in and want a piece of it, so they choose a hero and invest in getting him better armor and weapons so that he has a better chance of getting the loot. In exchange, he promises them a percentage of the take. It was all well and good for a while, but then a couple of things happened. First, heroes started running out of ‘bad’ guys to kill. Too many heroes, not enough loot. The competition gets more intense for a lesser reward, so the investors are less interested in putting their money into something that will not pay. Second, the bankers figured out that you can invest in a hero, get him outfitted and all that, but then while he’s gone slaying the dragon or suppressing the orc menace, you sell your share of his loot to someone else. You get your profits faster and without risk, because you’re passing the risk along to someone else. The hero has now become a hot potato, with everyone selling the shares around until he comes back with a wagonload of gold or something. When dealing with actual companies and small business owners, I imagine that the hot potato can be passed around indefinitely, as long as the company stays in business.

The idea of who is bad and who is good opens up a whole can of post-colonial immigration worms. It’s typical to see the player races – humans, dwarves, elves, halflings, etc – as the good guys most of the time, and some other races as being bad all the time – goblins, orcs, trolls, ogres, the less sexy fantasy creatures. Protagonist Gorm Ingerson is a dwarf berserker, and the story begins with him befriending a goblin. They don’t speak the same language, but Gorm recognizes that the only chance the goblin has of not being killed is for him to give him a job and get him properly registered with the government. He’s not necessarily less prejudiced than the people around him, but he does have some compassion for the innocent. Eventually someone starts teaching the goblin the common language, but for most of the book Gorm calls him Gleebek, the goblin word for Hello.

Speaking of post-colonial worms, let’s talk about the Elgin marbles. Once upon a time, Greeks built huge temples to their deities and covered and filled them with statuary and other stone carvings. Among these was the Parthenon, which is still considered a national treasure today, nearly 2500 years later. Around five hundred years ago, Greece and its Parthenon were captured by the Ottoman Empire, who turned it into a Muslim prayer site. Around two hundred years ago, the Earl of Elgin got permission from the Ottomans to haul the statues back to England, pagan statuary not being essential to Muslim worship. Some pieces were fairly simple to haul away, but some had to be cut off the building. Byron (poet, member of the House of Lords, and enthusiast for all things Greek) was especially voluble in condemning Elgin for defacing and looting the pride of an ancient people, but Elgin sold the marble pieces to the British government for placement in the British Museum, so nothing bad ever happened to him. Shortly thereafter, Greece won its independence and now they want their marbles back. The English are refusing to give them back, because they bought them from Elgin fair and square, and Elgin had the proper permits from the Ottomans, and it’s Greece’s own fault for being conquered in the first place. Now, imagine that the English are elves and the Greeks are orcs, and that the Elven Marbles have been stolen in transit. Gorm and his pals are hired by the elves to get the Marbles back, even though they really belong to the orcs. But, you know, orcs are evil and smelly and dangerous (foreign), so can anything really belong to them? I mean, they don’t speak English.

Well, Gorm’s pals are not really his pals. The team is assembled Avengers-style, and this party is really questionable. The most important danger in Dungeons and Dragons is not the supposed villains, it’s your own party members. People will get each other killed in a heartbeat, either by wandering off or being spiteful in battle. In time, there are pairs of people who start to work well together, but the group never really coheres. They’re all different levels (as DM, I would not have gone along with this), all fairly independent and belligerent, and none are that friendly. Working out your party dynamic is essential because these are the people who will get you killed. The game is more fun when the players aren’t wasting their energy arguing with each other.

Another social issue is the drug addiction. In a world of magic combat, of course there are healing potions, which means that of course there are people addicted to healing potions. The elf in Gorm’s party tends to sneak off by herself, cut, and then heal. It’s sad and frustrating – the addiction cost her a lot of prestige and skill, but most people don’t know about it. She keeps it secret and somehow manages to function most of the time, and this is how addictions work in the real world as well. We accept the fact that our friends are quirky and if we’re not really that close we don’t look under the surface. I know that I have an addictive personality and a body that creates dependence quickly, so I try to be careful about drinking coffee and alcohol or doing anything else. Those habits are expensive, and easy to form. I’ll have a drink occasionally on the weekends, meaning maybe a couple of drinks once in four to six weeks, but when I feel stress my brain jumps to alcohol as a solution. Even if it’s 6:30 a.m. and I just woke up. A long habit of denying myself anything has kept me from ruining my life with addiction, but not everyone was trained in self-hatred the way that I was.

Of course, the Elven Marble thing is a setup and Gorm realizes too late that there is no right solution and that the banks, guilds, and corporations are all ready to destroy the world to increase their own profits. I’m used to distrusting institutions, so this part of it feels familiar and right to me, even though it’s a big double cross and the friends I play D&D with would not appreciate this kind of plot twist.

So, this is a novel set in a familiar fantasy landscape, but demonstrating the evils of capitalism run amok, sort of like what we have here in the United States today. I enjoyed it, and if you’re into this sort of thing, you probably will too.

Advertisements

I don’t know what business I have buying a small collection of Bradbury stories when I have an omnibus collection of all his stories. And yet, here I am.

bradbury

Bradbury seems best known for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, and this collection is pretty much in the same vein. There are a couple of stories about humans moving to Mars, a few about the distant future, the ocean, immigration, and other things.

The title story is about crank cures in the Middle Ages. A girl is wasting away from a mysterious illness, and after attempting various treatments, is cured by a night of passionate love, so the title of the book means Sex. Maybe a little scandalous in the 1950s, but less so now.

Bradbury’s Martian stories can have different foci, but these are centered on the way we respond to unfamiliar environments. As a foreign traveler, they make a lot of sense to me. In “The Strawberry Window,” a family needs the comfort of familiar objects, so the father blows all their savings on shipping the front porch steps and other things from home. In “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” the people gradually become the foreigners they were afraid of. These concepts are accurate in my experience. For me, it’s not the porch steps or the wind chimes that help me feel safe and comfortable – it’s my books. I had nearly an entire suitcase of books that I brought with me, and even if I didn’t read them, just having them near me helped me feel more like myself. And then, human beings are remarkable plastic, so contact with foreign cultures and environments changes us. Like the colonists, we begin to use the native names of places, and then other verbal habits of the natives, and while we don’t change eye color and body type, we seem to come to belong to a place, even if it’s not where we want to be. The melancholy can become part of our character; it seems to belong to us, or to the place; the sadness is the correspondence between ourselves and our environment. We need to belong so fiercely that even depression can bind us together.

Despite his apparent sympathy for immigrants, Bradbury’s stories about Ireland seem intent on perpetuating the stereotype of a nation of oddly canny, yet unworldly and innocent, drunkards. They’re a little unfortunate.

The beach can be a strange place. I know that beaches are quite popular, but they don’t draw me as strongly as they seem to other people. I’m happier in the mountains – all that open space can make me agoraphobic. Bradbury was from the Midwest, so it must have been new and marvelous to him. In “In a Season of Calm Weather,” a tourist sees a retired Picasso drawing something large and fantastic in the sand with a discarded ice cream stick. As with so many things, it is beautiful and overwhelming and temporary, washed away with the tide. “The Shore Line at Sunset” is about a mermaid washing up. As is ever the case in such stories, one man wants to make money by selling her to a university or a traveling show, and the other man wants to let her go and be free and beautiful in her natural home. Because this is Bradbury, the fantastic and imaginative wins.

These are short little stories, pleasant to read and easily got through in ten or fifteen minutes, emblematic of their time, the hope, the conformity, the unreality, the fear. Some of his stories can be threatening or scary, but I didn’t find any of that here. Nice little stories.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working on grading some research projects, and the teacher gave them all the same topic, so it’s been a little hard to focus on because my mind keeps wandering away from globalization to other things. Any other thing. This morning I was finishing the last of it, and I had some coffee to help me wake up and focus, and I listened to exciting swing music, so now I have all this energy and not much to do with it.

Globalization is becoming rather a pertinent topic lately, with Brexit and Trump’s increasingly intolerant policies. These current struggles are foreshadowed in this book, describing Turkey a good twenty or thirty years ago. Thinking back over Pamuk’s career and the books of his that I’ve read, The Black Book was written before he became internationally famous, and the dominant feeling is the author’s deep love for Istanbul. Then there was this one, The New Life, which expands over all of Turkey, but the optimism implied in the title is misleading. This is an angry, unhappy book. Then there was the first one I read, My Name is Red, the historical murder mystery that helped him really ‘make it’ in the world market. A few years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and quickly became the best-selling Nobel author in history.

So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place. Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business. That the reader hears the clumsiness of my voice within these pages is not because I am speaking raucously from a plane which has been polluted by books and vulgarized by gross thoughts; it results rather from the fact that I still have not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.

First-person narrator is not a happy guy. The book starts off promising, but it actually goes south pretty quickly.

I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity. It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with brilliant lucidity. This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace.

Most of us who love reading have had this sort of experience, and I think that we’re especially susceptible to it when we’re young, as he is. Early 20s, still at the university, a time when we are acutely aware of the fact that we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be. But for most of us, the research we do into the books we read, no matter how emotional we feel about them, is essentially impersonal. We don’t meet our favorite authors, in my case because they’d been dead for over a hundred years. For Protagonist, though the book leads him into intensely personal spaces.

In the life of those people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself of as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.

He reads the book, and it’s so powerful for him that he wants to meet with the girl who first made him aware of it. They do meet again, but she’s not really into him; she’s all over the guy who introduced her to the book, Mehmet. Mehmet isn’t as into her as she is into him. One day, Protagonist is looking for them and sees Mehmet get shot in the street, right next to her. He asks around and gets really contradictory information about what happened, whether Mehmet is alive or not, still studying at the university or not, still in town or not. Eventually he gives up and takes to the buses. At this point I really started to feel like I was reading a book by David Lynch – the critics say Kafka, but I haven’t made it through The Trial, and I have made it through Eraserhead. They all three share this phantasmagoric quality, which feels sort of allegorical but is not transparent enough for me to find the meaning.

He’s riding buses, changing destinations at random, and Turkey is a big country. There’s plenty of room to get lost in. Then his bus crashes. Then another bus crashes. Then he starts looking for buses that are likely to crash. He thinks he’s being led intuitively by the book, but this section (Act 1 of 3) is full of random accidents. He starts to see that the new life he’s looking for is really close to death. Indeed, his obsession with bus crashes seems to lead toward death. And crime, since he robs the newly dead to keep buying bus tickets. He does run into the girl again – her name is Janan, and in keeping with Pamuk’s habit of portentous names for female characters, it means Soulmate. They ride the buses together, still looking for crashes, both now also looking for Mehmet. In one of the crashes, they meet a couple who had been going to a dealers’ convention to meet Doctor Fine, so they steal their identities and destination.

Act 2 is at Doctor Fine’s. Unbeknownst to Janan and himself, Doctor Fine is Mehmet’s father. Mehmet is an identity that he stole later on. Doctor Fine thinks that his son is dead, and he blames the book for polluting his son with Western influences. Because he hates the book so much, he has spies all over the country looking for the people who read and are affected by the book, and if they seem to be spreading the book they get shot. This is where the similarity to ultra-nationalists like the Americans who support Trump and the British who support Brexit became a little uncomfortable for me. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, and I personally love North Carolina quite passionately, but I don’t believe any community is served by extreme conservatism. Things change. Cultures change. It’s what happens. But Doctor Fine and his followers are devoted to preserving one aspect of culture as Turkish and rejecting the ways that their culture is changing. No culture can be distilled to a single issue, and choosing the making of local goods and crafts instead of mass-produced imports only makes sense to them because they are dealers trying to preserve their livelihoods. As with our conservatives, they assume that what is good for them personally is good for the nation as a whole, and as with our conservatives, they pick and choose which parts of the country and the culture are Turkey and deny the existence of others. A significant portion of Turkey is European, it borders on Greece and Bulgaria, but European influence is bad for Turkey, which they perceive to be an Asian, Muslim country. And how much of America is heterosexual, white, and Christian? Not all of it. Not even most of it. A recent study showed that white Christians have become a minority group (comprised mostly of people over 30), and if you subtract the gay white Christians, they’ll be even smaller.

The pleasure of reading, which natty older gentlemen complain is lacking in our culture, must be in the musical harmony I heard reading the documents and murder reports in Doctor Fine’s mad and orderly archive.

It’s not that reading was lacking, but that people weren’t reading what their parents read. Just consider the furor that this book is raising, not because young people weren’t reading but because they were reading the wrong thing. Like that time I almost got into a fight with an older colleague over the value of graphic novels. Really? Your worst fear is that your students would rather read Death Note or Black Butler than The Canterbury Tales? What if they never stepped foot in a library or read anything at all? Wouldn’t that be worse? And isn’t that happening? In the place where I used to live in the Midwest, the libraries only serve people who live in the cities. If you live in the county, but in a small town or village outside of the two main cities, you have to spend $75 to get a library card. People in the rural areas are unlikely to be able to afford that, or to prioritize it. I may have ended up spending more than that at the used bookstore, but it wasn’t all in a lump sum. This is just one of the ways that American society punishes people for being poor. If a kid lives out in the country, where cell towers are few and internet signal is weak, his only access to information is through his school library, and teachers are often so pressured to spend every moment of class time preparing to meet state and national standards that they don’t have time to take their classes to the library. Kids can go to the library before or after classes begin, but if students ride the bus, they arrive at school with only a few minutes to get to class and they have to leave immediately after classes end. Again, no time for the library. In that part of the Midwest, access to information is limited to children whose parents can afford to live in the city. How are we supposed to have an educated populace if we restrict who can use the library, or if we dictate which books are to be read? I think we’ll be much better served if we teach children that the world is knowable and available to them and that learning is interesting and rewarding than if we explain patiently to them all the metaphors in Chaucer or lock them out of the library because their parents are poor farm workers.

There and then, as here and now, the conservatives blame foreign influences for the natural changing of culture. Trump’s immigration policies show a great deal of prejudice and a great deal of ignorance about how our country actually works. We’re in a less extreme version of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia: as higher education becomes more available, fewer Americans are taking ‘vocational’ positions. We are expecting a produce shortage soon, because most of the fruit pickers in California are being deported and Americans are not willing to take those jobs. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we won’t get hired for that work, and that we’re too good for that sort of manual labor anyway. You want to get rid of the people doing the lowest paid work? Okay. That means that pretty soon we’ll have no electricity, all the toilets will be clogged, there won’t be any good fruit, and new construction will grind to a halt. In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes there’s a janitor at the library who spends half the night reading the books after the building is closed to the public. This character felt unrealistic to me in a way that I wish he didn’t – he combines a lifelong love of learning with a contentment to work in a low-paying job that doesn’t require an education. We invest education with this sense of vocation, as if I have a duty to work in the field of literature because I have a degree in it. And now I’m unfit to do manual labor because employers expect me to be too snobbish to do the work. We need to instill a sense of pride in all sorts of work, and relax our expectation that every American needs to go to a four-year university. We need plumbers and construction workers, and right now we need them more than we need more English teachers (a dime a dozen, we are). We need to forget this idea that the life of the mind and the work of the hands are incompatible, and raise up more young students to become like Bradbury’s janitor.

Drifting back to Pamuk. Protagonist does finally find Mehmet, living under a new name and copying the book for select friends and acquaintances. His life is like that of the monks before the printing press, writing the scripture over and over again.

What I do might appear simple, but it requires great care. I keep rewriting the book without missing a single comma, a single letter, or a period. I want everything to be identical, right down to the last period and comma. And this can only be achieved through inspiration and desire that is analogous to the original author’s. Someone else might call what I do copying, but my work goes beyond simple duplication. Whenever I am writing, I feel and I understand every letter, every word, every sentence as if each and every one were my own novel discovery. So, this is how I work arduously from nine in the morning until one o’clock, doing nothing else, and nothing can keep me from working.

His encounter with Mehmet closes this portion of his life, and I felt like it would have been a good close to the book, but like Mulholland Drive, just when it ought to end it doesn’t, and a dozen years go by in the course of a few pages, and there are fifty more pages that tell about Protagonist’s life when he’s my age, and he goes on another, shorter quest to find out about the book. He reads all the source material, disappointed to find out how much of The New Life is based on La Vita Nuova, and then tries to track down another source of inspiration, the New Life candy wrappers that were around when he was a child. Throughout the book he seeks The Angel, and at first he identifies her with Janan, and later he identifies her with the angel on the candy wrapper, and he finally realizes that The Angel of Desire is really The Angel of Death. There’s been a conflation of Eros and Thanatos since the beginning, experiencing a new life while looking for bus crashes. I suppose there’s some accuracy to the idea that change is a sort of death, but I don’t think that literal death is necessary. Change is one of the characteristics of life; Death is an existence that does not change, where nothing is desired.

As I implied earlier, there is a lot of bitterness in this book. The conservatives long for death so much that they are actively killing the people who disagree with them, and the adherents to the book find madness and death. There are a few, very few, who can give the book a place in their lives without letting it flood everything and take away the good things they had, but our protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by both sides. He’s serious about that line, ‘the world is a cruel place.’ He describes the Turks of his peer group as being like himself, hollow shells of adults who are too tired by the conflicts they live among to do anything toward resolution, change, or happiness.

I wonder if a big part of my problem with this book and the similarities with my own society is my disenchantment with materialism. Here and now, as there and then, most people’s life is about things, whether books or houses or furniture or ornaments or clothes or whatever. The identity of the characters, and even of the book, is unfixed and mutable, while things remain the same. When protagonist borrows some old books, unread for more than a decade, the old woman who owns them asks him to return them quickly so they don’t leave her with an empty shelf. Books containing ancient wisdom and original thought are treated as mere knickknacks. I’m holding onto books that I haven’t read in years, but it’s because they’re hard to find and they mean important things to me. Her books are a reminder of the dead husband who loved his books more than he loved her, but she likes the way they look on the shelf. I suppose I see my books as living things, dear to me because of their uniqueness, and not things like a glass unicorn. They’re not status symbols or proof of wealth. Considering how much money I spend on books that I could be devoting to other things, they’re rather a proof of poverty.

I suppose what I’m saying is, this isn’t a happy book, and it reminds me of all the things in the world that I’m not happy with. If you want a happy book, read something else. If you want to be convinced that people are all basically the same, regardless of time or place, and the same dramas keep getting acted on different stages, by all means. Read this book and compare it to the news from the United States. Collectively, humanity does not learn quickly.

Henry Miller has such a reputation, I was rather expecting something racy and exciting, and then again, there’s the title. In that respect, this one was a bit of a disappointment. It’s like reading Jack Kerouac all over again, but with more of a message.

When peace comes it descends upon a world too exhausted to show any reaction except a dumb feeling of relief. The men at the helm, who were spared the horrors of combat, now play their ignominious role in which greed and hatred rival one another for mastery. The men who bore the brunt of the struggle are too sickened and disgusted to show any desire to participate in the rearrangement of the world. All they ask is to be left alone to enjoy the luxury of the petty, workaday rhythm which once seemed so dull and barren. How different the new order would be if we could consult the veteran instead of the politician! But logic has it that we ordain innocent millions to slaughter one another, and when the sacrifice is completed, we authorize a handful of bigoted, ambitious men who have never known what it is to suffer to rearrange our lives. What chance has a lone individual to dissent when he has nothing to sanction his protest except his wounds? Who cares about wounds when the war is over? Get them out of sight, all these wounded and maimed and mutilated! Resume work! Take up life where you left off, those of you who are strong and able! The dead will be given monuments; the mutilated will be pensioned off. Let’s get on – business as usual and no feeble sentimentality about the horrors of war. When the next war comes we’ll be ready for them! Und so weiter . . . .

This makes me think about the veterans I’ve taught – for example, a twenty-one-year-old Marine with brain damage from an IED in Fallujah, which prevents him from operating a motor vehicle, and yet he can’t get any sympathy or slack from college professors in terms of attendance policies or length of assignments. Yes, war is bad, but my protest of the Iraq War does not consist of limiting opportunities for success for the kids who fought in it. They’re just filling a need – it’s the politicians who create the need, and they are the ones responsible. But they sometimes have no military experience of their own, or they felt the experience to have built their character or some such nonsense, so they don’t let themselves think of the thousands of lives they put at risk every day. One of the things I really liked about Obama was the fact that he worked with veterans, so he had seen the effects of war and its impact on the daily lives of the young people we send into the world. When he talked about finishing our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had specific faces in mind, people he knew who had been there. I didn’t get excited about all of his military decisions, but I respect the position from which he made those decisions.

Miller also addresses the immigrant experience.

But the real reason, as I soon discovered, was that I wanted to be among English-speaking people; I wanted to hear English spoken twenty-four hours of the day, and nothing but English. In my weak condition that was like falling back on the bosom of the Lord.

Yes. Leaving Saudi Arabia to vacation in Paris was amazing and fantastic and all of that, but sometimes we need to be surrounded by our native language. Language is an essential part of identity, and it is overwhelming to spend a few years being constantly reminded of what isolates you from the people around you. The irony is that Miller leaves Paris for London, but his writing is riddled with late-1930s, early-1940s American slang. He makes it across and talks with the border guards, but they speak a different English than he does, and they reject his visa application and send him back across the Channel. Speaking English does not make us all brothers.

My favorite story of the collection is the longest, “Astrological Fricassee.” It is about Miller’s meeting with a gay Hollywood astrologer, after which he goes to a huge party the astrologer is hosting. Miller fakes an interest in the zodiac to get in, apparently to drink free liquor and meet girls. The feigning becomes pretty obvious, though, so he’s not as successful as he would like with the ladies, but he’s very successful with the drinking. It becomes clear that Miller is not the sort of guest one wants to have, because he’s still there hours after everyone else has left, after the host’s boyfriend comes around and starts acting affectionately (after the party, remember what year this is), after the host has stopped being polite and has started asking him pointblank to leave. Eventually Miller and the two other obnoxious guests who won’t leave make enough noise that someone calls the police, and the gay couple disappears into the night. I guess alcohol gave people some leeway, or they gave themselves permission to be what they truly were when everyone else was elevated. It’s a world that I have a hard time understanding, because for me proximity to alcoholic beverages was a result of coming out of the closet, not being inside it.

I didn’t have much love or laughter from this book, and toward the end it just gets weird. If you’re on a Henry Miller kick this won’t hurt you, but if you want a good introduction to him, I’d choose one of the more celebrated works, like Tropic of Cancer. I may not have read it, but it must be a better sample of the goodness of his writing.

Those of you who read this blog to keep up with the developments in my life will be pleased to know that I’m going to publish a number of posts that I wrote without putting online. Back at the end of May, I was losing my patience with my relationship, and that frustration sort of exploded one day while I was writing. I wasn’t sure if he was monitoring my online activity, so I kept it on my hard drive, along with the next few months of posts where I worked out what to do. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have worried so much – after the first few months with him, I wrote a letter about the frustrations I had then, and he said that I was just blowing off steam, so he gave himself permission to disregard the honest expression of my feelings. Shortly thereafter he asked me to stop verbalizing everything I was feeling because I was too up-and-down for him. Well, I never stopped being a volcano of turbulent emotion, I just stopped sharing with him who I am. With thirty years in the closet, I have a lot of experience in hiding inconvenient feelings. But I’ve moved back to North Carolina, and he didn’t break up with me, but he didn’t come with me either. A wise friend suggested that he’s going for a slow fadeaway instead of an immediate breakup, and that seems right, and one more example of how I feel he’s not fair to me and doesn’t respect or understand my emotions. He once accused me of being a coward because I dislike conflict so intensely, and while that may be true, I’m not the one who’s afraid of being single.

Ignorance is a novel about immigration. It changes our reaction to the people involved, though, by referring to them as émigrés instead of immigrants. Immigrants are itinerant laborers from Latin America, southern Asia, or some other slightly disreputable country. Émigrés are refugees fleeing unsatisfactory political or economic situations. Émigrés are more educated in general and are more aware of and invested in current events. They bathe more regularly, have lighter skin, and make more of an effort to learn the language of their new country. They have children instead of anchor babies. The power of French terminology. We do this in English too – what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? We all have our reasons for leaving.

Ignorance is not just about immigration; it’s about returning after having been gone for a while. I don’t mean the two-year stints that I do in other places – Kundera means spending twenty years in a foreign country, then going back to where you were born. At this point, you can no longer call it home. Home is where you either rent or own a living space where you keep your stuff. That no longer applies to the birth country. I’ve never stayed gone the length of time that he says is necessary for The Great Return, but I feel the same things on a smaller scale, as I travel about and occasionally head back to what should be home.

Home has always been a difficult concept for me. It seems to denote a place where people feel safe, and I didn’t grow up feeling safe. Children in abusive homes seldom do, I believe. My father refused to self-medicate his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with drugs or alcohol; he beat his kids instead. I dodged that by being tiny and young; four older siblings can be useful. My mother wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, so I never felt that anything I did was good enough for her. I did notice, though, that she seemed grateful if I could handle something by myself, so I did. I rarely took my problems to anyone, and besides, I was afraid that if I did a social worker was going to come split our family apart. Somehow most of my siblings have forgotten what it was like to grow up with that, because they want to have a close relationship with her, and they argue about where she should spend her retirement. I don’t want her following me; I can only tolerate her for about three days. Visiting my mother always shows me how far I am removed from ‘home,’ culturally speaking; she tried to convince me to buy a George Strait CD this summer.

I tend to think of the area where I studied at university as home. As soon as I graduated from high school, I rocketed away from that place and moved a solid 350 miles down the road. At Thanksgiving, I went back to my mom’s house with a big bag of laundry. I set it next to the washer and said, “Look what I brought you!” She replied, “You mean look what you brought yourself. I have to wash your brother’s work clothes.” [All weekend? Really?] I had been joking; she was serious. That was the moment that I first realized that this was not home. I was happier at school anyway, so it was easy to start calling it home. My ex’s family was from that area, so after we graduated we kept calling it home and coming back to it, and now that my kids live there it’s the place with the greatest draw for me. The place I came from is Down East; the Appalachians of North Carolina and Georgia are home.

Kundera’s characters experience this in a much more extreme fashion. They left Prague when Russia stamped out Czech-ness in 1968, and now that the Communists are gone, many of the Czechs are returning (published in 2000, but probably set early-90s). After twenty years abroad, what does it mean to come home? The opening page of the novel:

“What are you still doing here?” Her tone wasn’t harsh, but it wasn’t kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

“Where should I be?” Irena asked.

“Home!”

“You mean this isn’t my home anymore?”

Of course she wasn’t trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: “You know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do know, but aren’t you forgetting that I’ve got my work here? My apartment? My children?”

“Look, I know Gustaf. He’ll do anything to help you get back to your country. And your daughters, let’s not kid ourselves! They’ve already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it’s so fascinating, what’s going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out.”

“But Sylvie! It’s not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I’ve been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!”

My life is here. This is the struggle that long-term immigrants have to deal with; where is your life? What is temporary, what is permanent? I’m renting a storage unit where I keep the detritus of nearly thirty-five years of living, and there’s an ocean and a couple of continents between my apartment and it. Which place is home? This is where I work and sleep, there is where I’ve stashed my life. How can this be home if most of my books are there?

“Tell me,” he said. “Is this still our country?”

He expected to hear a sarcastic response about worldwide capitalism homogenizing the planet, but N. was silent. Josef went on: “The Soviet empire collapsed because it could no longer hold down the nations that wanted their independence. But those nations – they’re less independent than ever now. They can’t choose their own economy or their own foreign policy or even their own advertising slogans.”

“National independence has been an illusion for a long time now,” said N.

“But if a country is not independent and doesn’t even want to be, will anyone still be willing to die for it?”

“Being willing to die isn’t what I want for my children.”

“I’ll put it another way: does anyone still love this country?”

N. slowed his steps: “Josef,” he said, touched. “How could you ever have emigrated? You’re a patriot!” Then, very seriously: “Dying for your country – that’s all finished. Maybe for you time stopped during your emigration. But they – they don’t think like you anymore.”

“Who?”

N. tipped his head toward the upper floors of the house, as if to indicate his brood. “They’re somewhere else.”

This passage shows some of my foreignness. The Americans of the South, including all of North Carolina and several other states, tend to think like Josef, patriotism being important and meaning a willingness to die for a certain plot of land and the people who live on it. I tend to be more like N – I don’t want my children to want to die. I’m ready for the American Empire to retract its claws, to loosen its grip on world affairs. Some people are criticizing Obama for not playing a larger part in international affairs (Syria), but I think the United States needs to start asking the question, is this situation any of our business? Less dominance, more cooperation, more letting other peoples handle their own problems. I’m somewhere else.

But I also fill Josef’s role whenever I go back. In my memory, towns stay fixed; in reality, they are always changing. The city I grew up close to built a new shopping center out toward the airport (Target! Best Buy! Starbucks! Welcome to twenty-first century America!); it’s become one of the biggest shopping areas in town and it killed the mall, so the residents see the city as shaped differently than when I lived there. The university I attended has changed the center of campus, ripping out streets and putting in walking areas and a huge fountain; my heart doesn’t recognize it as home any more, even though that is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult. The town close by has changed less, but time still marches on. Zoo Video disappeared more than ten years ago, KFC closed and became Dunkin Donuts, there’s a new Dairy Queen, and last week there was a fire in one of the buildings downtown. Its future is still uncertain, but I think they’ve decided that they don’t have to tear it down. There are some changes I’m comfortable with, like the restaurant that changes hands every couple of years because the parking lot is too small and too much of a pain to get in and out of so nothing lasts, but the downtown area has too distinct a character to lose a building easily.

Kundera spends some time with our relationship to time. We don’t possess the past because our memories are so faulty. We forget things, we reconstruct alternate versions to make sense of the disconnected scenes we can remember clearly, and sometimes we fabricate memories without quite meaning to. In the early years of our marriage the ex had a favorite story to tell about our married life, and once I told her that it hadn’t happened the way she was telling it, and she responded that it made a better story the way she told it. She was right, but she was also purposely obscuring the truth and making me seem different than I am. But it makes a better story, so that’s how it gets remembered. This is the difference between history and the past. According to Kundera, we don’t possess the future either; we can’t predict it or adequately prepare for it, so it’s out of our reach. Because of our inability to grasp either past or future, we can’t really say that we have the present either. The present is indissolubly linked to two unknowable moments, so it becomes covered by the same fog, the same ignorance.

Kundera’s Irena and Josef come back to Prague to think about the possibility of moving back permanently, but they have grown too foreign, their lives are somewhere else, they don’t fit any more. They belong in their new countries, France and Denmark. Their old friends have moved on, and there is no vacant place in anyone’s life for them to step into. Nothing they left behind belongs to them. Thomas Wolfe titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, and while I haven’t read it to see what he intends with that phrase, as an expat I’ve felt it to be true. You can’t go home again because home is never where you left it. It’s changed, moved along, and so have you. I don’t have a single home right now; ‘home’ is an area that covers three counties and several cities that are all on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

Kundera’s novels seem to be getting shorter, tighter. This would have been only one part of Immortality or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but it stands on its own quite well. Ignorance and Identity are much more strongly unified, which I imagine makes them more approachable. Kundera is publishing nonfiction these days too, so it makes sense that the philosophical musings are taking up less space in his fiction. He’s becoming less post-modern. Maybe the rest of us are too. Story is becoming the center of literary fiction again; I wonder what we’ll call this period, thirty years from now?

I envy people with simpler lives, shorter stories. Characters in Hardy novels seem to grow straight out of the ground – their families have lived in the same place for generations, they know everyone they see and everyone they see knows them. I’ve spent my life looking for roots, but I don’t really have them. I’d like to belong to a place instead of wandering about the world, building a life out of blocks that don’t fit together. I’ve got Lincoln Logs, Legos, Duplo blocks, K’Nex pieces, and a bit of an old erector set, and I’m trying to make a coherent whole out of these chunks of different things. Sometimes I can keep things balanced, but other days I just slide apart.