Returns: On Diaspora
January 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
Visa interviews involve a nice little fiction: when I am done studying I will return to build my country. This is terrible violence. There is little or no sense of how knowledge economies become multiple and multiply located.
On my way here from Kenya—the first time—the airline lost my luggage. I arrived without my effects, symbolizing the loss of some materiality in transit between my old world and this new one. Languages useful there were met with blank stares here. My idioms proved too local, parochial. Translation promised a reach further than its grasp.
Osiris remains my symbol par excellence of return. Murdered by his brother Set, Osiris was dismembered and his mutilated parts dispersed across the land. His lover Isis searched for and found all his parts—except his phallus—put them together again and brought him back to life with a spell. What does it mean to return un-whole? The figure of the mutilated returnee is important. The damage is more often psychic than physical, insofar as the two can be separated. But the fiction of returning “whole,” by which is usually meant “unchanged” or “normative” is very powerful and disciplinary. And those who return as “changed” are then cast as “mutilated,” as “lost.”
In her poem “The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond,” Mary Oliver writes of how:
Osiris came home at last, on a clean
and powerful ship, over
the dangerous sea, as a tall
and beautiful stranger.
One returns from diaspora estranged, defamiliarized, unrecognizable, maybe even monstrous. As Keguro has written, diaspora is messy. And so is return. Diaspora un-makes and re-makes us. It fragments and puts us back together again in new permutations. We (be)come un-done. Fluencies we have gained here become babel there. Our bricolage-d accents raise eyebrows. We become illegible narratives that require elaboration, elucidation. One wonders if that figure floating back down the Nile on a boat is Osiris or just the un-dead, neither alive nor dead, but a copy of a copy. The same-difference.
In Aderrahmane Sissako’s 1998 film “Life on Earth,” a young man in Paris—away from his family in Mali—poses the following question in a letter to his father: is what I learn far from you worth what I forget about us?
I return to this question often because it is about cost. What is the cost of being here, the toll, the scars and keloids, both psychic and physiologic, material and phantasmic?
And if forgetting is the price one pays for being here, is forgetting a kind of (diasporic) intimacy? Can fiction be useful, if not indispensable, for filling the gaps and perforations in memory? Memory, after all, is best as an act of fiction.
I continue to wonder how home can become un-geographic, dispersed, dispersal, neither here nor there but rather the trajectory of leaving and arriving, the familiar affect of transit. The desire for home as the thing-itself.
Call me Mustafa Saeed.