I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.
It is a strange thing to feel in exile at home, rather than at home in exile.
My last real home, or closest thing to home, was Port-au-Prince. I spent nearly four mostly-consecutive years in Haiti, but a few months ago decided that I needed a breather. I wanted to be quiet and still and nowhere for a little time, to think and to write, before packing up again and either returning to the heat or moving elsewhere. Nap swiv.
And so I landed in West End Toronto for the summer. The friends who have gotten used to seeing me pop in a few times a year for short visits are not quite sure what’s up now that I’m hanging around longer. They are almost startled to bump into me on the street or at parties — Oh, you’re still here? Others, who I haven’t crossed paths with in years, are confused about where I’m supposed to be. How’s New York? they inquire. When do you fly back to Paris?
I blame my blog name in part. I’ve used “nowarian,” a word born of the playful genius of Caribbean English, as my username, social media moniker, and blog identity for nearly a decade. In that decade I have moved house at least 22 times (that I can recall) in five countries. This has made me very good at packing and unpacking, a master at airport security lines, more graceful with goodbyes and heartfelt with hellos, and kept me from accumulating more than I can carry. My shoulders have never been stronger, my keep-or-toss decisiveness never sharper.
But lately, I’ve been complaining to friends, the word has started to feel like a burden. What if I want to accumulate things? What if I want to lay down roots? What if I don’t want to be from nowhere? After so many years away I’m a ghost in my own home town, a foreigner in my fatherland, and the last place I felt entirely in my element is a country that, even should I decide to live out the rest of my days there, will forever view me as an outsider.
Adaptable Otherness, in a way, is my jam. This is how I was raised in West End Toronto, crashed up against all these other kids whose parents’ life choices and migratory options forced us to grow together, all different skin tones and hair textures and cooking spices that seeped into our bargain bin, hand-me-down, and home-made clothes. I can’t recall if we asked one another where we were from. I’m not sure we cared at that age. At lunchtime we traded leftover curries, cured meats, greens, thick soups, beans and rice, spicy roasted peppers smothered in olive oil and garlic. We taught each other how to swear in our respective native tongues, played tiny interpreters at parent-teacher meetings, and developed a collective way of speaking that incorporated our many accents. Nobody stuck out as different, because we all did. I romanticise those days, though I know I shouldn’t. The poorest kids were sometimes shunned for being too fresh-off-the-boat, frayed fabrics, faces dirty, bruised. Mr McLean choked one of the Jamaican kids up against a wall after recess. The French teacher screamed at the Mexican kids, calling them gangbangers. I still sting with the memory of the school librarian taunting me, her British accent echoing, asking if I knew how to speak English.
In 2008 I called up Dr Winford James in Saint Augustine, Trinidad on a day when he was feeling “good and strong, good and strong” to ask about nowarians. He was as solid an authority as any, it seemed, as he helped write the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Dr James explained that the word has origins in Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Tobago, and Trinidad. There was no one correct way to spell it (nowarian, nowherian, nowhereian, nowierian), just as there was no single agreed-upon meaning. He walked across his office, found his copy of the dictionary, opened it to page 409, and read aloud an official definition:
no-wher-i-an 1. A person who is not connected with any church or who professes no religious faith. 2. [By extension] Sb who is not respectable; sb of no consequence. 3. [By further extension] [Derog] An unkempt looking knockabout; a person of no fixed abode.
Yikes, I said. Dr James tried to mellow the harshness: “It’s a term that has a kind of semantic potential,” he said. “It has shades of meaning.” Shades that can shift and migrate. If a nowarian can be from nowhere — disconnected from his or her roots and surroundings — then a nowarian can be from everywhere too. At the time, I found some comfort in this.
“I don’t belong here,” a friend said to me one night in Port-au-Prince before I left, as so many have on so many Port-au-Prince nights. This one was a blond American, a foreign aid worker. She hadn’t grown up questioning, in ways subtle or enormous, whether or not she belonged in her Northern California town. This discomfort was new for her, and no matter how long she stayed or the effort she made, she said morosely, she would never belong in Haiti. Of course she wouldn’t, I thought. Aloud, and naively, I wondered: why was that so awful? She looked at me, bewildered by the question.
* * *
[Because it needs to be addressed: Sorry for the silence in this space. I have drafts on drafts, accumulated over the past year plus, but none of them felt right. Like everything else, I’ll throw blame on the burden of that word, hungry for motion, nowarian.]