I’ve been living in exile for forty-two years now, about half of them away from home.
If that’s as good a line as I think, it’s because, as Lao Tzu has it, “The truest sayings are always paradoxical.” This one’s not really a paradox, of course, and the idea that one might be an exile in their own home probably requires little explanation in a literary journal. But let me try to explain anyway.
I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, left at twenty, and have since lived in Japan; Queens, New York; and, for the past fourteen years, Honolulu County. To be sure, I can’t really call any of these displacements “exile”—I was drawn to these places for various reasons and found opportunities to live and work in them. The part that bears some family resemblance to exile, though, is less to do with the pull-toward than the push-away.
Recently I was reading Steve Almond’s appreciation of Kurt Vonnegut, my first-ever favorite writer, when I found myself nodding at the following passage: “Vonnegut even seemed to intuit the emotional crises of my life: that I felt exiled by my family, simultaneously disgusted and humiliated by the world of men, desperate for human comfort. He [Vonnegut] characterized writers as people ‘who feel somehow marginal, somehow slightly off balance, all the time.’”
While I agree with Vonnegut, a chicken-and-egg problem rears its heads. Vonnegut says writers feel marginal. I wonder if, causally speaking, it isn’t more often the other way around: marginalized people, misfits of all stripes, are drawn to writing, the seductions of which are legion but can be roughly divided into what I’ll call the therapeutic and the escapist. On the one hand, the writer works through their problems—loneliness, depression, rage—on the page, however vicariously or symbolically, sentence by sentence. At the same time, writing taps into our utopian capacity, and our Platonic, beauty-seeking one, allowing us to design and inhabit worlds more suited to our individual temperaments than is the one we are met with. But writing alone can only take us so far.
On balance, I had a pretty wonderful childhood. My family was solidly middle class back in the days when that was more of a thing. I’m Italian on my father’s side and Irish on my mother’s—so white, more or less. I’m heterosexual. I’m not a refugee. So why was it so clear to me that, as soon as I was able, I needed to leave for other parts of the world?
Maybe it was the relatively anti-intellectual climate of my town. Or maybe, as a friend of mine once put it, it was the “culture of low expectations.” Maybe it was to try and distance myself from an ethos that seemed to narrowly equate success with money such that I was—and am—on a somewhat disappointing path. Maybe it was the Catholicism, which, after twelve years of Catholic schooling, I’d decided was mainly smoke and mirrors. Maybe it was the lack of diversity. Maybe it was just the cruddy winter weather, I don’t know. But when I went home on sabbatical a few years back, I have to admit it was largely the folksiness and the brisk temperatures I newly appreciated, having in some way missed them. And I love my family deeply, despite our differences. Still, when I beheld all the Trump signs that fall, and when, the day after Christmas, I got in a heated debate with my uncle, who doesn’t believe in climate change or evolution, I got those get-me-out-of-here willies all over again.
My fundamental problem was simply—and I suspect it’s one many writers can relate to—that I emerged from the womb sensitive and artsy into a hardscrabble, blue-collar world where such qualities were something of an embarrassment. I spent my adolescence doing tricks on my bike in parking lots and playing guitar in my room, sometimes with others who didn’t like football or cars as much as they were supposed to, but usually alone. And by late high school, via a copy of Cat’s Cradle one bodhisattva of an English teacher had plopped on my desk, I discovered reading and writing. I knew these passions of mine were very cool, just not around where I lived. So eventually, when I was old enough to move away, I did: first to study in France, that old expatriate mecca; then to live in Japan, where I found every day an exercise in defamiliarization; and then to New York—which is the US, yes, though I think I understand what Charlotte Perkins Gilman meant when she called it “that unnatural city where every one is an exile, none more so than the American”; and finally to Hawaiʻi, where I’ve been living these past fourteen years, and which exists in the quantum superposition of being both the US and not.
I’ve now mostly aged out of my wanderlust, and have come to accept that, as Tony Soprano once put it, “There’s no geographical solution to an emotional problem.” I love living in Hawaiʻi, and in my more self-absorbed moments, its flickering, liminal status feels like an objective correlative to my own, but always I’m hounded by that marginal, off-balance feeling Vonnegut spoke of, and a kind of constant, low-level guilt too, that I fell so far from the tree. I don’t know, maybe exile really is just an occupational hazard. As the great fiction writer James Salter once put it, “a writer is an exile, an outsider, always reporting on things, and it is part of his life to keep on the move.”
These days, my movements are restricted mainly to the page—the read one and the written one. My favorite writers for years were those arch-exiles James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, though in recent years I find myself drawn primarily to science fiction, which has always specialized in those inevitable métiers of the exile, estrangement and alienation. At no point did I ever decide that exile was going to be my grand overarching theme, and yet there it is on virtually every page I write. At the same time, the number 243 pops up in each of my books at least once. That number, my insider Easter egg, is the street address of the home I grew up in, and there it is in all these works about exile and alienation, like the still point around which my centrifugal imagination turns.
One of my very favorite writers, Ursula Le Guin, once wrote that “True pilgrimage consists in coming home”—another gnomic paradox I ought to like. I can’t pretend to understand what she meant by it exactly, nor do I imagine it feels true to more bona fide exiles than I’ll ever be. It does make me wonder what we mean when we say “home,” though. Is home just a bit of property? A community? A culture? Can language be our home? If so it’s a curious one, having been borrowed from others. But then what isn’t borrowed? Our bodies are made of recycled elements, after all. Indeed, without exception, everything around and inside of us is in flux. Science fiction writer George Alec Effinger has a story called “One,” in which this sanguine, exobiologist couple, armed with the Drake Equation predicting lots and lots of life out there, goes spacefaring in search of other worlds. After decades of fruitless searching and the death of his cat and his wife, the husband’s prospects are looking grim. But then at the very end of the story comes this satori moment when he realizes, “It made no difference at all where [he] was headed, what stars he would visit: wherever he went, he understood at last, he was going home.”
The truth is, that climax doesn’t work very well in the context of the story—it feels unearned—but I do wonder if maybe there’s a kernel of poetic truth in it. Like maybe, if we truly understood and accepted what we are—star stuff and all that—we’d know that the specter of exile simply doesn’t exist in any ultimate sense. Wherever we go, there we are—and like it or not, we’re going together.
Tom Gammarino‘s most recent novel is King of the Worlds.” Find him at mthomasgammarino.com.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.