The book I have reread most is The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I think I’ve read it about twenty or so times. It’s the story of an Indian boy who is born in America and gets given the pet name ‘Gogol’, in honour of his father’s favourite author. Beyond the surface, the story is about being caught between two cultures, between rejection and acceptance, and a name being only one criterion for understanding where you come from. Gogol (or Nikhil, the name he later adopts) is a man who doesn’t understand his place in the world and often finds himself distanced from his family, especially as he begins to assimilate into American culture. For him, part of that involves rejecting his past, imbued with those strange, ritualistic practices he didn’t enjoy.
Yet, as Nikhil grows older, he finds himself drawn to those strands of culture that make him acknowledge how he became himself. He marries an Indian girl (at the behest of his mother) and he partakes in an Indian wedding. I won’t spoil it, but at the very end of the book, so often after finishing it, I have wondered why the ending was left so open-ended. It’s left up to the reader to share in Nikhil’s displacement and cultural dissociation to really understand the choices he made.
In ‘The Custom-House’, an introductory essay to The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne says, ‘human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.’ I think I may have loved The Namesake because it reminded me that the roots you put down can just as easily be replanted in ‘fresh’ soil. From there onwards, your roots remind you of where you come from and provide you with the context for understanding how you do (or do not belong).
The world is getting smaller. You can see where anybody is, who anybody is and where they are going. Going backwards is sometimes the way you begin to move forwards – at least, that’s the way it seems to be with telling a story. Knowing where someone came from is part of that story. Being ‘of’ and ‘from’, is a way of showing where you belong. A place or space where you originated from, but also a place you can ‘replant’.
Home has an elastic definition. You can stretch it as far and wide as you need to feel like you are attached to somewhere. I have found this to be the case recently, personally identifying more with my Polish ancestry than my Australian one, despite citizenship. Sometimes I feel I cling to the myth of Poland – a country I have traveled to once – to save myself from the displacement I feel in Australia. What’s pulling me towards Poland? It’s not pride nor patriotism nor even nostalgia. Perhaps it is a question of what is pushing me away from Australia – what am I looking for, and how do I know I haven’t found it here? There’s an insatiable persistence within me that believes I will belong there, in Poland. It’s a strange yearning for a transformation of my self, not necessarily a rejection of the one living in Australia, but more a desire to settle in what I believe to be my ‘true’ motherland.
The meaning of the word ‘motherland’ becomes relevant here. Its modern meaning has become paradoxical – we care less about the place that birthed us than we do about the place we currently inhabit. I think it’s because language, in its many layers, can retire words, put them to bed. Sometimes their meaning becomes circumvented to fit their application into a modern context. These words, ‘fatherland’ and ‘motherland’, maybe even ‘homeland’, seem to fall into this category, leading me to believe that we don’t really have a shared language to describe the place(s) where we come from.
The fancy terms for this process – ‘assimilation’, ‘cultural adjustment’, ‘conformity’ – don’t necessarily describe the essence of belonging either. There are socio-political movements that aspire to define through exclusion, such as ‘Alternative Right’ groups who espouse their specific brand of white nationalism, or racism, in this era of nationalistic angst. As these movements allege that they act in the national interest, I am reminded of the way the words ‘motherland’ and ‘fatherland’ were historically used to justify a way of showing devotion to one’s nation. Yet by alluding indirectly to the myth of nation-state, similar nationalistic movements end up spreading dissipation more than anything else, fragmenting the nation they claim to hold dear.
Similarly, in Slavic tradition, the words ‘motherland’ and ‘fatherland’ have such strong connotations with national pride that it is often hard to separate one’s identity from country. There’s an extensive literature of nationalism sitting in the Slavic tradition which shows this. Most of Eastern European ethnicity rests in a mixed cultural-political prism, tipping its hat to its Catholic roots. In Poland, religion and national identity are closely intertwined, despite the atheist overcoat during its communist era. With such a cohesive religious unit in the country, it’s easier to identify as ‘truly Polish’ if you also identify as religiously Catholic. Around 85% of Poland citizens today identify as Catholic which can give an indication of the strength of its nationalistic fervor still pervasive in the country.
I’ve not heard anybody refer to Australia as ‘the motherland’, and even though politically we debate the practice of home ownership, calling Australia home is still a strange notion to me. I don’t think it’s too foreign a feeling; many people consider where they came from, their literal birth, to be their homeland, while others might travel unceasingly between places, and never know the meaning of home. It seems more natural to exist in stasis, having a fragmented understanding of where I come and go, my identity morphing and changing.
Again, Hawthorne springs to mind: ‘My children have had other birthplaces, and so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.’ All I seem to be asking, yearning for, is a place to belong. I have no homeland, it seems, but when I move, the things that move with me are what I know to be home.
This is not a lonely sentiment. Warsaw Shire said, ‘at the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.’ Home is the world I created when I was growing up, and I find that world in songs, books and films. In the journals of stories I carry with me. I feel it in a cup of traditional lemon tea. Home is also the promise of tomorrow, a discovery of new intimacies that feel natural. The world is getting smaller, but I don’t mind so long as I can still nestle in it.
Image: Roman Kraft