Wednesday, May 17, 2006


The last year of my senior year of college, I did an independent project with my poetry prof. 10 poems and a 10 page introduction, but it was the introduction to the poems that ended up exciting me the most. Here is an excerpt:

Perhaps more than any other place, I have felt at home on airplanes. There, I do not have to claim one piece of soil but rather every place we fly over. Sometimes, at night, I wake up and crave being on an airplane, any airplane, but specifically a transatlantic one: the familiar feel of take off, being pressed into the cushions, my suddenly sleepy eyes seeing through an oval pane of plastic the land stretched out beneath me. The rain forest of Lagos, the desert of Kano, the lights of New York or Atlanta, the misty clouds of London or Amsterdam slowly drop away and look like maps, or aerial photographs. I love to fly through the clouds which make odd airy sculptures or at night to press my cheek against the cold window and with a blanket over my head gaze up at the stars: constellations which can be seen from two different continents. Orion, I can see in America, England and Nigeria. But somehow from a plane, the patterns are even more brilliant, closer, larger, and almost tangible through the frosty pane.

Salman Rushdie in his book, The Wizard of Oz, uses the film The Wizard of Oz as a metaphor for discussing the displaced person. Dorothy “immigrates” from the monotony of Kansas “over the rainbow” into a Technicolor world, yet while in Oz searches for a way to get back to Kansas. She finally repeats, “there is no place like home; there is no place like home; there is no place like home” and is whisked back to black and white. Yet what was her home but her own imagination? As Rushdie points out, Frank Baum returns Dorothy to Oz over and over in subsequent books, so that Oz ultimately becomes the “home.” Rushdie writes: “[O]nce we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives. . . there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us” (TWOO 57).

Writers are often driven by the impulse to define themselves, and often their homes play into this identification. However, when there is no distinguishable home, the writer “makes” her home out of memories. My life, I look back upon as a book, with dramatic irony, ambiguity. I read my memories as if they were a literary text. And they often are: a written record of diaries shared with Ruth, more recent letters and emails. Sometimes, I spend hours reading back over my words, reliving the moments I captured, the thoughts I wrote down. The book of my life becomes my home. And in reading my life as a text, the writing becomes a metaphor for the way I live it. I am continually making myself through my words--constantly discovering more about me as I communicate with my dearest friends.

As I prepared to leave Nigeria, I wrote, on May 4, 1995, in my diary of my regret
in leaving. We were riding back home from our senior trip, a few weeks before high
school graduation at the missionary school.

"I stared out the window at the setting sun and the scenery whizzing past. I thought of last weekend as our van plowed through the rain and mist, past the fantasy hobbit like landscape of green misty mountains and groves and boulders. And I cried then. I cried for my class and how we will be leaving each other, and never being together again.

I thought of this as I sat at the window today with dry eyed resignation. . . [When] the song on Matt’s tape said “I don’t want to live to say goodbye” . . . I made a
strangled sound and met Ruth’s eyes. I think she was feeling that way too."
I don’t want to grow up--I don’t want to leave. I want to stop the van--stop the
sun....This afternoon I wanted the van to have a flat tire or for us to all be shipwrecked on some island so we’d never have to leave--an island of time. "

The “truth” is in writing those words, I created my island of time. My life has progressed from that moment, but I can always go back and read; I can remember who I was. Now I realize that I am not alone in my struggle, but indeed a member of a certain community of writers. I find this community with Rushdie, who writes in “Imaginary Homelands:”

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge--which gives rise to profound uncertainties--that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. . . . (Rushdie 10)

Now back in Madison, 2006 time.... there was more to my intro, but those are the words I need to read again right now. To live in between worlds, to get onto the plane to proceed towards something new and exciting also means that we are always leaving something behind. Those are the moments I remember now, the dull ache of leaving New York, of leaving Nigeria. Throwing the airline issue blanket over my face and crying as I flew out of JFK two weeks after September 11 onwards to a Jos shaken with violence that had erupted the same time. These strong currents of connection underly so many things. At that time, it felt like platelets in the earth were shifting, that the world was exploding. I did not want to leave New York. I wanted to stay and watch the city heal. But I thought that if I stayed, if I changed my plans (as the administrators of my fellowship said i was welcome to do) that that would be giving in to the terrorists, giving in to those who seek to control through fear, and that the best way to fight what Soyinka calls (in Climate of Fear) those quasi-state forces was to continue as planned. We move forward, we go on with life, we discover all the new and beautiful and exciting things exploding with potential around us.

We move forward, but it does not mean we do not look back and sigh a little.

I'm glad to read Rushdie again now. Glad to think about those pulsing moments of time that become little mythic centres (to use Harold Scheub's terminology). Or like Derridean time--moments webbed together in a dance--not the blasting steaming railroad car of Progress, but a more meandering, rippling, cycling around sort of time--that means multiple moments can exist in one place, layer on top of eachother.

That's what I need to think about tonight, dizzy with dehydration and thoughts of the 35 something hours I have before I get onto the next flight. I drink water and eat food and smile because it is good to go to Kano and exciting to think of being Talatu again and speaking Hausa full time and learning so many new and amazing things, but sigh because Carmen must finish packing herself up and finish twaddling around with the first two chapters of her thesis, when what she really wants to do is lie down on her comforter and think and think and think.

She is very happy that Ruth has just called. Life is so good. It's worth all the hard bits.

1 comment:

Lisa Blyth Gertz, Crest '94 said...

Carmen, thank you for putting into words what I've somehow felt all my life. I, too, have been a traveler, a 'homeless' one, in terms of 'place.' I also have written since I was young, and always felt my writing was unduly precious to me. But now that I read your blog entry, I think I understand why my diaries, letters (unfinished and unsent), and poetry mean so much to me. They are a record of my real 'home.'