Diasporic BodiesSerbal Vidrio diaspora despair hope escape
There’s a word in Arabic, ghurbah, that one dictionary defines as “a feeling of longing for one’s native land, of being a stranger.” I think that feeling approximates what it is to live a diasporic being, but we diasporic bodies have no homeland.
Mine is the history of the Jews, my ancestors who, through exile and diaspora, learned to live with uncertainty and placelessness. Not like my friends among the Kamëntsá, whose ethnonym supposedly means “people of this place with our own thought and language.” It could be said that what drew me to them was their emplacement, so firm and immutable. The Kamëntsá say that the body is the first territory. Maybe so. But what happens when you lose the map?
The alluvium of the past, time’s sediment, grows ever skyward, piled like ruins built on ruins. Caked to the knees in mud and clay, I live wading through it. Thinking tries to thin the morass, to free the legs for running—running to outrun. I just didn’t realize then that you can’t think yourself out of the mud but must drag yourself out inch by inch.
The feeling of going nowhere fast. The feeling of moving to Alabama, or to what seemed a desert wasteland over the mountains shielding the valley of childhood, at six years old, and feeling horror under the weighty veil of a humid night. We’re stopped on a roadside, the highway is abandoned, there is a void where there was once, impossibly, a landscape. Only a gas station store with fluorescent lights that make for an artificially white interior. The clerk is undead. We step back outside, hear crickets in the cornfield, there is no wind and one would wonder (if one knew enough to wonder then) if the Earth were still turning.
There is a night that lives in memory, a night nestled deep in summers past. I remembered falling off my bike in the middle of a field, sprawled in the tilled dirt under the stars, and I wept—for I was unhappy in life, but loved and affirmed it all the same. There were orchards around and all was inscrutable. I wonder if I was changed by that night, whether something then took hold in me that has never left. Of course, change is always possible, ever happening, though one doesn’t always observe it in oneself. But on nights such as these, possessed by familiar moods, that night lost to remembered summers always enjoys a renaissance.
Running to outrun, running so as not to be outrun, the fear of being outrun, of having been outrun. It makes me want to pick up and leave, to turn away, to show my back, to challenge what has been prescribed, to defy the foretold, to deny the future. My life is my own. Spare the present the past. Free the future—or abolish it.
I take shelter in teen dreams, in memory, in nostalgia. I return to summer nights in fields and orchards under the stars—weeping, dirt under my fingernails, blessing life.
We must learn to take joy in the small mundanities of life. The cool wind through the window and its sound among the leaves of the trees and those on the ground, the moss on trees’ bark, the colors of the world, the feeling of embodiment, of being beings of flesh, blood, and bone. Even pain is a reminder and a blessing of the diversity and promise of life.
On the horizon is a desert, its face engoldened by the light of a sun rising or setting. I am leaving the primordial forest of the past and treading now upon its liminal sands. Beyond the crest of a sloping dune which I am beginning to ascend stretches a vague world of formless forms and imagined possibilities infinite in number. Clarity will come with the descent of the other side. In the ascent I choose optimism.
Yet we cannot avoid following our seasonal migratory routes, which alter little and always return us to the source, to the beginning, where our various journeys start and end. Or so it has been with me, and so, I expect, it will continue to be. As far afield as we may wander, some mysterious force draws us back to the point of departure: emotionally, psychically, if not physically—but physically too, as when I come over the familiar verdant hills on the approach to the prison of my childhood. And it is not always good to return, but perhaps it is necessary, though I have sometimes wished that it weren’t, that I could establish myself in permanent difference, that I myself could be other than I am. And to borrow another cliché—but one of which I am always reminding myself—it is a fact that wherever you go, there you are.
I’m learning to live with that. With a new year comes a new promise: wherever you are, take stock of the ground beneath your feet. Even diasporic bodies can find solace in ceaseless motion.