Originally published by The New Yorker
Was it after three years? Five? Fifteen?
I have a narrative in my mind that is teleological—I think the word for this, from my graduate-student days, is “Hegelian”—and it culminates in my becoming a writer. A writer of immigritude. I cannot put a date to it, but I suspect that the rawness of always feeling out of place, of not belonging—that fighting sense I had of forever being on edge—diminished or even disappeared once I reached the understanding that I no longer had a home to which I could return. This went hand in hand (and this is part of the Hegelian schema I’m inhabiting here) with my finding a home in literature.
I arrived in the U.S., for graduate study, in literature, in the fall of 1986. I was twenty-three. After a year, I began to paint, even though I had come to the U.S. intending to become a writer. I painted small canvases, abstract forms that sometimes had words, often in Hindi, written on them. Why did this happen? Maybe because one day, in the college bookstore, I had seen a coffee-table book that had the word “India” printed on it in large letters. It was an expensive book, but it was marked with a discount sticker, and I bought it. Inside were the expected photographs of the Taj Mahal, busy streets, people playing Holi, a Rajasthani shepherd wearing a bright turban. There was also a section on art. I saw the reproduction of a painting by S. H. Raza. On the left side of the canvas, at the bottom, were words in Hindi: “Ma lautkar jab aaonga kyaa laoonga?” (“Ma, when I come back, what will I bring?”) Abstract art had never pierced me like that.
The real change, which happened soon after that time, was that I began writing poems. My poems were about India; they were political and of little aesthetic value. But they allowed me to imagine scenes from the life and the landscape I had left behind. The moon, voices in the dark, a village path, a fire. Which is to say, I had carried my memories with me when I left home, and after a while they found expression on the page. I haven’t looked at these poems for a long time. They speak to me now of a missing wholeness. “I brought two bags from home, but I left a third behind. / Bags, passport, my shoes crossed the yellow lines, something was left behind. / Here I am, a sum of different parts. Travel agents sell ads for the parts left behind.”
In the poetry of immigrants, nostalgia is as common as confetti at parades or platitudes at political conventions. My nostalgia was simply the clear bottle in which I stored my explosive rage. This was a rage directed against the figure of the immigration official.
Other people, unluckier than me, have suffered definite traumas: famines, dictatorships, bombed cities, families wiped out. All I had experienced was ritual humiliation, at the American Embassy in Delhi, the immigration counters in several airports, and land crossings in the U.S. The poems I started writing after a few years in this country were accounts of such encounters. I wrote a series, “Poems for the I.N.S.”—the acronym stands for Immigration and Naturalization Service, a name that changed, in 2003, when the agency was subsumed by the newly created Department of Homeland Security—offering vignettes that staged imaginary conversations between the narrator and the official at the visa counter.
“You can’t trust them,” one officer says.
I’m prepared to bet he is from Brooklyn.
There is no response from the other one. He is not angry,
just sad that I now work in his country.
This quiet American has pasted a sheet with Hindi alphabets
on his left, on his right there is a proverb from Punjab.
“You just can’t trust them,” the first one repeats,
shaking his wrist to loosen his heavy watch.
The one sitting down now raises his weary eyes.
“Did you, the first time you went there,
intend to come back?”
“Wait a minute,” I say, “did you get a visa
when you first went to the moon? Fuck the moon,
tell me about Vietnam. Just how precise
were your plans there, you asshole?”
It was writing as revenge, fantasy in the purest form: fantasy tethered to the hurt of the real. Now, more than two decades later, I feel a distance from that rage. And I also feel some tenderness for the person who was trying so very hard to inscribe an idea of himself against nullity. How else to understand this desperate stance?
The cigarette smoke lingered
in the blue Minnesota chill
as my friend said, “I’d like to talk
to you of other things.
Not politics again but things like
whether you are lonely.”
“What could be more political
than the fact that I’m lonely,
that I am so far away
from everything I’ve known?”
I feel tenderness, also, for the humble inventory provided to the immigration official after the applicant is asked if he has any property in India, or relatives, anything. The list included the yellow of mustard blossoms stretching to the horizon, the old house with its damp walls and his sister’s laughter, the smell ofspices over a naked fire. But here’s the crucial thing: in drawing up this inventory, I was already moving away from who I was when I had arrived in the U.S. In remembering what I had lost, I was filling my mind with memories. These poems became the screen behind which my past receded.
After ten or fifteen years, the confusion and loss had been replaced by a self-conscious construction of an immigrant self. I’m calling it a construction because it was an aesthetic and a textual idea. I was taking pictures of immigrant life; I was reporting on novels and nonfiction about immigrants; my own words were an edited record of what I was reading. An eclectic mix of writers: Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, June Jordan, Jamaica Kincaid, Hanif Kureishi, Salman Rushdie, Marguerite Duras, Guillermo Gómez-Peña. Reagan was still President when I came to the U.S. The Iran-Contra hearings were my introduction to televised spectacle. Gap-toothed Ollie North and his proclamations of innocence, the volume of hair on his secretary Fawn Hall, reports I read of Reagan declaring, “I am a Contra.” I had consumed all of this as an innocent—and by writing poems I began issuing my declarations of independence.
Recently, I was reading the lectures that the novelist James Salter delivered at age ninety, at the University of Virginia, shortly before his death. In one of them, he quoted the French writer and critic Paul Léautaud, who wrote, “Your language is your country.” Salter added, “I’ve thought about it a great deal, and I may have it backwards—your country is your language. In either case it has a simple meaning. Either that your true country is not geographical but lingual, or that you are really living in a language, presumably your mother tongue.” When I read those words, I thought of my grandmother, who died a few years after I came to America. She was the only person to whom I wrote letters in my mother tongue, Hindi. On pale blue aerograms, I sent her reports of my new life in an alien land. Although she could sign her own name, my grandmother was otherwise illiterate and would ask the man who brought her the mail in the village or a passing schoolchild to read her the words I had written. And when my grandmother died, I had no reason to write in Hindi again. Now it is a language that I use only in conversations, either on the phone, with my friends and relatives in India, or, on occasion, when I get into cabs in New York City.
At another point in his lectures, Salter told his audience that “style is the entire writer.” He said, “You can be said to have a style when a reader, after reading several lines or part of a page, can recognize who the writer is.” There you have it, another definition of home. In novels such as “A Sport and a Pastime” and “Light Years,” the sentences have a particular air, and the light slants through them in a way that announces Salter’s presence. All the writers I admire, each different from the other, erect structures that offer refuge. Consider Claudia Rankine. You are reading her description of a woman’s visit to a new therapist. The woman has arrived at the door, which is locked. She rings the bell. The therapist opens the door and yells, “Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?” The woman replies that she has an appointment. A pause. Then an apology that confirms that what just happened actually happened. If you have been left trembling by someone yelling racist epithets at you, Rankine’s detached, near-forensic writing provides you the comfort of clarity that the confusion of the therapist in the poem does not.
Thirty years have passed since I left India. I have continued to write journalism about the country of my birth. This has allowed me to cure, to some degree, the malady of distance. I’ve reflected a great deal on the literature that is suited to describing the conditions in the country of my birth. But I have also known for long that I no longer belonged there.
I haven’t reported in grand detail on rituals of American life, road journeys or malls or the death of steel-manufacturing towns. I think this is because I feel a degree of alienation that I cannot combat. I’ve immersed myself in reading more and more of American literature, but no editor has asked me to comment on Jonathan Franzen or Jennifer Egan. It is assumed I’m an expert on writers who need a little less suntan lotion at the beach. I don’t care. Removed from any intimate connection to a community or the long association with a single locale, my engagement with literature is now focussed on style. Do my sentences reveal once again the voice of the outsider, a mere observer?
In a cemetery that is only a few miles away from my home, in the Hudson Valley, is the gravestone of an Indian woman. The inscription reads, “Anandabai Joshee M.D. 1865-1887 First Brahmin Woman to Leave India to Obtain an Education.” Joshee was nine when she was married to a twenty-nine-year-old postal clerk in Maharashtra, and twenty-one when she received a medical degree in Pennsylvania. A few months later, following her return to India, she died, of tuberculosis, at the age of twenty-two. Her ashes were sent to the woman who had been her benefactor in the U.S., and that is how Joshee’s ashes found a place in Poughkeepsie. I’m aware that, when she died, Joshee was younger than I was when I left India for America. Involved in medical studies, and living in a world that must have felt immeasurably more distant than it does now, she probably didn’t have time to write poems or worry about style. I recently read that last year a crater on the planet Venus was named after her. It made me think that brave Anandabai Joshee now has a home that none of us will ever reach.
This piece has been adapted from an essay that will appear in the anthology “Go Home!,” which will be published in March, by the Feminist Press in partnership with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.