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Category: nowarians

still

Émotion: la douleur de voir partir ainsi pour toujours quelqu’un qu’on a aimé éperdument, ne serait-ce que l’espace de 12 secondes et 3/10.
 [Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer]

A year and a half of nonstop bouncing between geographies has left some marks. Six weeks lost in New York’s wounds, two weeks of sighing over Toronto’s halting flakiness, eight weeks floating though the light and open longing of Lisbon, seven weeks of tender patience and uneasy alertness in Port-au-Prince, plus handfuls of lovely or bewildering stops elsewhere thrown in between. Lather/ rinse/ repeat, for the nineteen months since I left my last home (temporary, still) in the Caribbean.

You can get good at packing and unpacking. That’s not hard. You can rise above the physical exhaustion of constant motion to let those motions become normal. Everywhere, deflecting the same questions on loop — Where do you live now? How long are you in town? — automatic, ritual, white noise. The hardest adjustments are internal. The spaces between people are not the same everywhere, our connections linked by different inputs/ outputs, and you are the international travel human adaptor. When you don’t have a single default or home, there is no normal to disappear back into after a particularly rattling trip. The trip doesn’t end. Everything feels weird all of the time — most of all, you.

One week you’ll greet everyone you meet with a kiss on the cheek, smile warmly, accept the dried fruit or steaming coffee offered, answer thoughtful queries from near-strangers on the health of family members, on the health of your heart. The next, you’ll be in a place where people you’ve met twenty times will pass without a nod. You’ll remember, slowly, that this snub is normal here, back in the place of fickle moods and ritual ghosting of friends and lovers. Here, spaces between people can stretch so far, the waters between them can run so cold. Adapt your touch accordingly.

(Once, freshly arrived from that place and not yet warmed to the new vibe, I breezed past an ex and his friends at a bar without a glance. I did it without thinking, cool walls still up. He confronted me later, face imploringly close — Why didn’t you say hi? — and I felt shame. I couldn’t be this way here, with him, and didn’t want to be this way anywhere, with anyone.)

“We’re going to the beach.” K pings me on WhatsApp mid-morning on a Sunday. The roads were clear, a blessed, temporary opportunity for escape amid weeks of blockades. “Call J to pick you up. He’s leaving his house.” Fifteen minutes later, afternoon plans pushed off, bikini on, towel rolled, ready for a day with the sea. Late afternoon on a Tuesday, a source calls to say she’s stuck in traffic, or there’s been a breakdown, or someone was shot, and could we meet across town in an hour or two instead? Time, space, mortality, everything fluid and unfolding, shifting according to the tides of the moment. That place, full to bursting but always flexible. Then a connecting flight brings you, like a space ship, to this other place where time is rigid. It’s FB invites and advance guest lists, emails that begin apologetic for the late notice, but are you free a week from Friday? R.S.V.P. Interested in attending? Maybe. V busy. LMK. Time flows through spaces differently, and vice versa. Adapt your clock accordingly.

Passport stamp from a teeming city of openness and eager ease for exchange to a smaller city of territoriality and fragile selves. Both, my cities. From here, where you listen tense and watch wary for danger before you turn the corner, to there, where other women walk carefree and alone at night with headphones on ten. Another plane to another place, where male gazes are predatory and pointed, and then off again, to where males are too nervous to give their feelings away with anything intimate as a gaze. The spaces between bodies, inviting or dangerous or confusing. Adapt your heart accordingly.

Adapt, adapt, adapt.

There’s a way you come to know yourself in motion: limber, unchained, unsupported by the usual pillars, a guest and unentitled, at mercy of the winds, carrier of changing skins and privileges, torn-out pieces of self buried lovingly throughout. It feels nothing like the exiles I threw myself into during my twenties. With exile, you’re always confronted by what and where you are not, existing in contrast.

I’ve been reading Dany Laferrière (L’Immortel!) and Mia Couto together this past week, sinking into their respective exiles in 1980s Montréal racism and lust or wartime Mozambique bush imaginary from my still-temporary bed in Toronto:

The cycles of light and of the day were a serious matter in a world where the idea of a calendar had been lost. Every morning, our old man would inspect our eyes, peering closely into our pupils. He wanted to make sure we had witnessed the sunrise. This was the first duty of living creatures: to watch the creator’s star emerge. By the light preserved in our eyes, Silvestre Vitalício knew when we were lying and when we had allowed ourselves too much time between the sheets.
— That pupil’s full of night.
At the end of the day, we had other obligations that were equally inviolate. When we came to say good night, Silvestre would ask:
— Have you hugged the earth, son?
— Yes, Father.
— Both arms open on the earth?
— A hug like the one Father taught us to give.
— Well, go to bed then.
 [O Afinador de Silêncios]

I admitted (finally, again) to myself that I’d like to try to sit still somewhere for a little while (again, finally), at least longer than it takes to finish a TSA regulation mini shampoo. A default home base, a combination launch/landing pad filled with books and artwork liberated from their boxes, my notes and files all in one place, a mailing address, a single normal to relax into between overlapping worlds. Sitting still will help me think, I told myself. I’ve been wanting so badly to write, to read, to just be, without the consuming distraction of booking flights, organizing sublets, shipping, visas, exchange rates, negotiating which shoes to bring, recalling which belongings I have stored where, keeping track of my SIM cards, or swapping out slang and pop culture currencies so damn often — operational code switching ramped to an international scale. (How I managed a transition from news to longform through all of this is baffling.) More than anything else, I’m tired of mourning the distances that matter. I’ve missed some important goodbyes, and it’s hard to forgive myself for those. Friends doubt that I can sit still anymore, and say so to my face. No no, I insist, it will be a relief to give myself freedom from movement.

Beginning to plan for stillness, just considering gig offers and longer-term sublets and imagining alternate lives in a couple of cities, has thrown me into the worst creative block I’ve experienced in years. My active bouncing fighting mind, panicked, held itself hostage through most of December. Come on, I coaxed, we have deadlines to get through. It, too, will have to adapt.

 

interlude

 

I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.

/mia-skye sagara

 

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.]

more to dream

But while I was abroad I felt the need to find out who I was and where my soul was. I chose to be a Haitian woman. I couldn’t see myself being forever a nigger in the United States, an immigrant in Canada, or a stranger in Europe. I felt the need to be a part of something. This couldn’t be the black cause in the United States or the immigration cause in Canada. It could only be the cause of the Haitian people. Thus, I decided to return to Haiti.

Myriam Merlet, The More People Dream

I talked to a friend the other night, far from his New Mexico home in Hong Kong, where he’s decided to stay for another year. “I’m quickly becoming a refugee from everything,” he said. “In a way, it’s a nice feeling.”

There is no comparing self-imposed exile, or self-controlled banishment, from the kind of displacement people affected by war, economic collapse, or natural disaster experience. They are on different planes, different planets. I am a different sort of migrant from my parents, me with my fancy degrees, languages, bank cards. But when you are removed, for whatever reason, your relationship with yourself, your past and your future changes. Plucked from a space where you don’t have to second-guess such things, second-guessing becomes everything. It’s in your air.

“I chose,” writes Myriam Merlet, “to be a Haitian woman.” She sought and found her soul in her native Haiti, where she passed decades later in that terrible January quake along with so many others. I am saddened to know that, were it not for that disaster and her death, I might not have found her words. Sadder still that there will be no more words.

I’ve reached the conclusion that one should just proceed, and to hell with the others. This means that I won’t play the game. It’s hard and frustrating because you find yourself alone. At times you question your sanity, your ability to function while being so different from others.

A tribute to Myriam, and to others who perished in the rubble, is here.

the never-written that could be, etc

Notes:

Ryszard Kapuscinski, lonely in Lagos with “some sort of tropical infection, blood poisoning or a reaction to an unknown venom, and it is bad enough to make me swell up and leave my body covered with sores, suppurations and carbuncles,” fought his hot, sweaty affliction with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Ryszard quoted Claude, and now I quote both:

By whom or by what had I been impelled to disrupt the normal course of my existence? Was it a trick on my part, a clever diversion, which would allow me to resume my career with additional advantages for which I would be given credit? Or did my decision express a deep-seated incompatibility with my social setting so that, whatever happened, I would inevitably live in a state of ever greater estrangement from it? Through a remarkable paradox, my life of adventure, instead of opening up a new world to me, had the effect rather of bringing me back to the old one, and the world I had been looking for disintegrated in my grasp.

Then then he went back to Poland, where he no longer existed. Friends would pass him in the streets, looking quizzically at the apparition. What are you doing here, stranger? You’re supposed to be gone, off reporting from somewhere tropical, alive in your dispatches. Existing in abstract. He went away again and was revived.

Realness is a slippery eel.

radar

.

I was that person running to my gate, terminal 1 CDG, my limbs aching from sleeplessness and the weight of my carry-on. The bags tugged me down, wanted to coax me onto the floor, but my legs pushed forward. I heard my name echo over the loudspeaker three times, then four. The plane wanted to leave to Keflavik International without me.

Suspended in the air, or flying through some country-side highway, hours spent staring out of windows thinking and trying not to think. I said once that I only feel at home when I’m in motion, but I don’t know whether “home” or “motion” are the right words.

There is a certain comfort in long-distance travel. It’s not so much the act of being in transit, because the experience itself is very still, very removed. Suspended.

Emotional and physical exhaustion wore me down and I nearly cracked from the strain a few times along this last journey. Break-down from the build-up of so much. But here, in this in-between state, is neither the time nor place — it has no time and has no place. It is a reprieve. A distancing.

Maybe that’s what’s comforting about it. Emotional and physical distance, manifest. See me as I disappear.

.