Five years ago, Joseph O’Neill, the author of Netherland, wrote an essay for The Atlantic entitled “The Relevance of Cosmopolitanism.” Reading it, I experienced the swelling relief of encountering another writer giving voice to shadowy certainties I had long harbored, but never managed to articulate. The essay’s final paragraph, in particular, hit me like a wonderful train (I quote it in full because it’s just too good not to):
“The relevance of cosmopolitanism is fast becoming more than theoretical. As a matter of daily reality and to a degree previously unknown, we are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. This imposes new demands on consciences and nationalistic categories. Literature is not immune from such demands; one might even suggest, since we writers are concerned with reality and conscientiousness, that literature should be unusually interested in these demands. This does not mean that a new artistic regime is upon us. Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions. But it does seem that those who internalize the new world have every chance of writing something newly interesting.”
We are faced with the experiences of others everywhere. For O’Neill – who was born in Ireland and grew up in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran, and the Netherlands, with a Turkish mother and an Irish father, who spoke to him in French and English, respectively – this wide-eyed perspective was forced upon him at a young age. His life is an extreme embodiment of globalization’s steady sprawl, but his use of “we” in the paragraph above is not accidental: in the last fifty years, a dramatic shift has occurred for most writers. Rather than nailing the “manners and morals” (as Lionel Trilling would have it) of a largely homogeneous, well-known local surrounding, authors in a globalized era are increasingly tasked with depicting diverse surroundings, or diverse cultures in a single setting. And to do justice to “the experiences of others everywhere” is no small task. These are precisely the “demands on consciences and nationalistic categories” that O’Neill is referring to: finding the empathy and curiosity to write outside of “your own” culture. But what happens when you lack a nationalistic category to call your own?
Although my parents are both American, and I grew up going to English-speaking schools, I share, to some extent, O’Neill’s international upbringing. I was born in Hamburg, and, as a result of my father’s career, grew up in Philadelphia, London, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Shanghai, and Singapore. Like O’Neill, who now lives in New York, I have also settled “abroad”: I have lived in Berlin for the past six years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere.
This six-year mark has been an interesting one for me: on the one hand, it feels like a major accomplishment, in my ability, like any good golden retriever, to “stay.” On the other hand, it’s made me think hard about why, exactly, I’ve chosen to settle in a country whose language I learned when I showed up here, whose culture, while not as foreign to me as Chinese culture, for example, is more foreign than any number of other locales I could have chosen, like England, or Canada, or, I don’t know: my passport country? Growing up all over the place makes you skilled at adapting, but it also makes you hungry to belong, something that in part motivates my writing: carving out a space I know, trying to understand what I’m witnessing around me. The experiences of others everywhere. But sometimes the ache of un-belonging feels like a stitch I’ve had in my side for as long as I can remember, and it would be nice to walk around without it.
When faced with such existential quandaries, I’ve found an excellent method of gaining insight (and procrastinating) is to ask other writers the same questions. I sent an email to several of my writer friends who have settled, to varying degrees, away from their “home” countries. Three of them generously responded: Preeta Samarasan, a Malaysian Indian novelist and author of Evening is the Whole Day, who now lives in a village in central France; Jeremy Tiang, a Singaporean playwright, translator, and fiction writer, of Chinese and Tamil descent, who now lives in New York, where his adaptation of A Dream of Red Pavillions is being developed by Pan Asian Rep; and Madeleine Thien, a Canadian fiction writer (whose works include Simple Recipes, The Chinese Violin, Certainty, and Dogs at the Perimeter) with parents from Malaysia and Hong Kong, who largely divides her time between Canada and Germany.
My questions and their responses are below. Like O’Neill’s final paragraph, I found their responses much too compelling to cut short.
Brittani: Is foreignness an inherently fertile imaginative/observational state for you? Did any part of your decision to live overseas have to do with your writing?
Preeta: Foreignness is my natural state. I’ve never lived in any place where I was part of the ethnic majority. As a Malaysian Indian, I always, on some level, felt like an outsider. Part of this was the rhetoric of my parents’ generation, which was a direct product of Malaysia’s postcolonial trajectory/social policies/economic policies. We were always told that the country didn’t really want us; that we didn’t really belong; that “there’s nothing for us here;” that we, the younger generation, should try to leave and never move back. So my decision to live overseas didn’t directly have to do with my writing — it was, in a sense, almost preordained that I would leave, no matter what I decided to do with my life I knew from the age of 3 that my goal was to get out of Malaysia. I didn’t leave because I thought it would be good for my writing, but I do think that in the end leaving *was* good for my writing, incidentally. It’s kept my eyes wide open.
As for whether foreignness is a fertile state: if we define foreignness broadly, meaning not just being an expatriate or an ethnic minority, but having the state of mind of an outsider, then I think, in fact, that foreignness is *the only* fertile imaginative/observational state, for any creative person. Creativity comes from seeing things with an “outsider’s” eyes. Sometimes we talk about this as seeing things through a child’s eyes — I think they are related. So much of creativity is making familiar things strange and strange things familiar. You can really only do this if you keep thinking like an outsider. You don’t necessarily have to leave, but if you don’t, you have to find other ways to think like an outsider.
Jeremy: [I find foreignness to be a fertile state], but I feel like a foreigner even when I’m in Singapore. Maybe “outsider” would be more apt. [My decision to live overseas] had little to do with my writing, although I find it very hard to write when I’m in Singapore. But that’s because being in Singapore longer than a couple of weeks or so makes me profoundly depressed.
Madeleine: [Foreignness] has been [a fertile state] for me, but that’s been a slow realization. I think, being outside one’s familiar surroundings, I become more aware of what is at the core of myself and what is simply habitual. I think the habitual takes up an enormous part of our consciousness. Maybe the most important thing about being away, and for me that’s mostly been China, Cambodia, and Germany, is how humbling it is. I feel my smallness in the face of extraordinarily deep histories.
How often do you return “Home”? Do those trips feed your writing? Or does your foreign locale now feel like “Home” to you? (Note: I capitalize “Home” here as a reference to a recent James Wood article, “On Not Going Home,” in which Wood writes: “It is possible, I suppose, to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore, and refuse to go home, all at once…I have made a home in the United States, but it is not quite Home.”)
Preeta: I go back to Malaysia once or twice a year. Since I only write about Malaysia (this may change one day, but until now, I have no desire to write about any other place), feeding my writing is a very large part of the reason I go home often. I don’t go around explicitly looking for material or researching things, but everything in Malaysia feeds my writing. Every conversation, every car journey, every form I fill out, every queue I wait in, every newspaper article I read.
I’ve lived in France for nearly seven years, but no, it doesn’t feel like “Home,” and I don’t expect it ever to feel like home — not the outside world, anyway, beyond our front door. On another level, the inside of our house feels like my emotional/psychological home right now: this is where all my stuff is, all my books, the human beings I am closest to; this is where I become a mother, which has been such a large part of the person I am today. This is where I am comfortable expressing my emotions, making a mess (literal and figurative), doing whatever I need to do. The inside of my house.
Jeremy: [I return to] Singapore a couple of times a year. London, more often. I tend to have very localized homes now. Our apartment in Williamsburg feels like home, but New York doesn’t yet. And in some ways London has begun to feel foreign. All trips feed my writing, whether to “Home” or elsewhere. I thrive on dislocation.
Madeleine: I return to Canada for half the year usually; but home for me is the city where I was born, Vancouver, and which I left in 2002. I don’t return to Vancouver often. Actually, for 10 years, I rarely went back at all. I’m in Vancouver now, and the sense of well-being and familiarity has been incredibly powerful for me.
On the other hand, I felt extraordinarily at home in the many months I spent in Cambodia, and this is one of the reasons I kept returning there, and still do. Similarly with Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Berlin. Because my father is Malaysian and my mother from Hong Kong, I can often be taken for a foreigner in Canada (even though I’m a citizen, was born there, and have only ever held a Canadian passport), and taken for a local in Phnom Penh. The psychological feeling of “passing,” that is, being taken as someone who belongs, is profound. And it is strange when one cannot “pass” in the place one where was born.
Did you grow up moving around quite a bit?
Preeta: No. From babyhood until I left in Malaysia in my mid-teens, I lived in Ipoh.
Jeremy: No. My parents have lived in the same apartment for 38 years. I was fifteen years old when I had my first plane journey.
Madeleine: We moved every couple years, but within Vancouver and its suburbs, and for financial reasons. My parents started out with a house of their own, but the mortgage was beyond their means. We kept moving into smaller and smaller apartments. It was difficult but, at the same time, the city has so many pockets and neighborhoods in which I feel utterly at ease.
Are any of your favorite writers similarly displaced?
Preeta: These days I feel like I don’t have favorite writers, only favorite books. I would say that the writers by whom I was most influenced when I was first finding my feet (Dickens, Rushdie in his earlier years, Peter Carey) had a very strong sense of place; the way their understanding of geography and language and history and culture came through in their writing was much more important to me than whether they were expatriates or not. I didn’t think much about their biography.
Now, I’m very interested in writing in dialect, and I’m reading a lot of Caribbean and African writers who’ve worked in literary “dialect” – and I find that many of these writers were the opposite of displaced – they seem to have such a strong sense of their roots. I am drawn to that, too, to people who make the decision never to move, to know a hundred square feet of earth like the back of their hand rather than wandering all over the planet. I haven’t thought about this much until you asked this question, but it occurs to me now that the South Asian books/short stories I love best are not the ones that deal with physical displacement. I am generally bored by immigration-to-the-West stories. I tend to favor stories about identities that are fractured for reasons other than physical displacement. I can’t really say why this is the case!
Jeremy: Oh yes. Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ma Jian. There is something about being in-between, and the lack of certainty that comes with that, which appeals to me.
Madeleine: Cees Nooteboom is a writer whose work has sustained me, intellectually, artistically, and emotionally. He writes overtly about his travels in Nomad’s Hotel: Travels in Time and Space, and indirectly about displacement in his great works of fiction, All Souls Day, The Foxes Come at Night, The Following Story, and others. I also feel this way about Shirley Hazzard. She’s written memoir and non-fiction about Capri and Naples, but like Nooteboom, the multiple selves that come into being in different places is very evident in her novels, The Transit of Venus, The Great Fire, and others.
Aside from these thematic connections between us, I admire them most of all because I think they are both incredibly perceptive novelists who have an astonishing facility with language and story.
Where is your creative work set?
Preeta: In Malaysia.
Jeremy: In the short story collection I am working on now, stories are set in: Singapore, Beijing, the Baltic Coast of Germany, Zurich, a Norwegian train, New York, Connecticut, Bangkok. I’ve written plays set in: Fukuoka, Scotland, Los Angeles, Middlesbrough, London, and Singapore. (A shorter answer: it’s set anywhere I’ve been, and some places I haven’t.)
Madeleine: Always, so far, between Canada and elsewhere. Cambodia, China, Malaysia. I do a lot of my work in Berlin, but processing is slow for me, and I imagine Berlin will show up in my fiction in about a decade.
Is “Home” a cloying term for you? An irrelevant/outdated notion? Or is there something throbbing and unsolved about it for you? Do you write from this place of irritation/cosmopolitanism/discomfort?
Preeta: It is a sentimental term for me, but not cloying. I am a big fan of genuine sentimentality, nostalgia, emotion — sometimes I find that contemporary writers, especially in the West, approach everything with irony, question all of these elemental states that sometimes need to be felt more and questioned less, if you know what I mean. That longing for “Home” is one of those states. I don’t think it’s something to be mocked or scorned. I don’t thinking belonging in and of itself, or the desire to belong in some way, is irrelevant or outdated, and why should it be irrelevant or outdated to feel like you belong to a place? If you can belong in a subculture, a community, a relationship, then I think you can also belong in a place. Though I said we always felt we didn’t belong in Malaysia, I also have a sharp, painful longing for the Ipoh of the 1980s. I think of it as my home, but it doesn’t exist anymore. I long for the house of my childhood and for specific material objects that were the landmarks of my small world: a pink plastic drawer pull in my brother’s closet, for example; a faux leather ottoman; a tiny Santa Claus candle. I think I write from a place of longing for home, not from a place of discomfort with the notion. But I don’t mean by this that it’s okay to romanticize home. I think you can long for something while still acknowledging its dark side, while still facing up to all that was painful or ugly or disappointing about it.
Jeremy: It’s difficult to define for me, but I think not in a problematic way. Or it means different things in different contexts. See also “family.”
Madeleine: No, [I don’t think of “home” as] cloying. I like to think of home as a verb, something we keep re-creating. A person who has lived on the same streets for 80 years can also come to moment when the streets don’t feel like home; and a person who has suddenly arrived in another place might feel suddenly, inexplicably at home. This open-endedness is in keeping with the human condition. Human beings have always migrated, have always followed resources and food, have always kept pushing into unfamiliar territory. My discomfort comes from witnessing politically motivated and divisive policies that seek to elevate certain citizens above others, based on race, religion, class, or chauvinism of any kind. I think this is when home becomes a political weapon, and the consequences are never good.
Image Credit: Pexels/Andrew Neel.