Where Do We Belong?

A writer “leaves herself behind” to explore her place in the world

In his book, My Country and My People, the Chinese writer Lin Yutang argues that the way to examine a foreign nation “is by searching, not for the exotic but for the common human values, by penetrating beneath the superficial quaintness of manners … by observing the boys’ naughtiness and the girls’ daydreams and the ring of children’s laughter and the patter of children’s feet and the weeping of women and the sorrows of men—they are all alike.”

Lin was writing about the world outside China and, having witnessed the end of the Qing dynasty and the birth of the republic, he understood that a country is an extremely malleable thing. Even if its borders stay put for a century (and what few countries, existing now, still have the same borders as a hundred years ago?) almost all the people who called it home will have passed on and been replaced by others, by new generations, new arrivals and altered definitions of citizenship. If the borders of a country, as well as the people within it, have changed, is it really still the same place? Given that our human ancestors began their migrations more than 100,000 years ago, “home” must always have been an idea as well as a physical location, “where we come from, and where we are,” as Esi Edugyan writes in her new book. Home is “the actual and the possible.”

Dreaming of Elsewhere: Observations on Home is Edugyan’s contribution to the annual Henry Kreisel Memorial Lecture, organized by the Canadian Literature Centre in Edmonton. At 31 pages, the essay is both concise and open ended. Divided into three sections, it gives three very different openings into a thorny topic; both topic and essay resist definition or closure.

Edugyan begins with a story: a child, born in West Africa, is kidnapped in 1707 and sold into slavery. However, rather than being sent to America, he is taken to Europe where he is christened Anthony Wilhelm Rudolph Amo. Over the next 20 years, he studies, among other subjects, medicine, physiology and psychology at three of Prussia’s most respected institutions; he masters five languages and attains his doctorate. Eventually Amo is “invited to act as counsel to the court of Berlin.” Edugyan writes: “Surely if belonging could be taught, Amo must have learned it.”

But segments of Prussian society began to struggle with the idea of a person like Amo. In 1747, he found himself humiliated, publicly, at a theatre in Halles. He turned his back on Europe and returned to West Africa, present-day Ghana, and the home from which he had been stolen. He reunited with his father and sister. But in 1757, Dutch colonial authorities, determined to stop the spread of Amo’s “dangerous ideas” on slavery and ­education, forcibly removed him from his home. They transported him to their base in Fort San Sebastien where he lived in isolation until his death.

Given Amo’s story, Edugyan knows that home, whether a physical location or an idea, is never static. Where we belong—or, more painfully, are forbidden from belonging—alters. As James Baldwin noted in his documentary film, Take This Hammer, belonging is not always up to the individual: “You can’t pretend that you’re not despised if you are.” Baldwin was commenting on the double-edged sword of home for African Americans: “I could be fooled, and be glad about having a whatever it is, a terrace, a garage. But, my kid won’t be. It’s my kids who are being destroyed by this fantastic democracy.”

Seeking to “leave myself behind,” Edugyan goes abroad—both in her fiction and in her personal life. “In Budapest,” she confides, “I became that most outlandish of strangers, an apparition so dark and odd people in the street sometimes paused to watch me pass.” It is a devastatingly understated line. But she knows that travel necessitates an un-grounding; travel for her is “a desire to disorient myself, rather than an attempt to comprehend the world.” Where might such a disorientation lead? Can we shake loose the idea of home or the longing for it?

But why seek to end the longing? Perhaps to protect oneself. That a true home will remain forever out of reach floats in the background of Edugyan’s essay, particularly as she leaves Europe and arrives in Ghana, the country where her parents were born. Her extended family embraces her, but she is troubled and uneasy. The impossibility of belonging comes to the fore again in the last section, when she notes a peculiar criticism in the Canadian press of her acclaimed novel, Half-Blood Blues: reviewers suggested that by writing about jazz musicians in 1940s Berlin and Paris, she “had refused to engage with what it meant to be a contemporary Canadian.” Indeed, she met a response that writers of colour invariably face: the insinuation that a) she is not Canadian enough or b) she is not authentically ethnic enough.

Edugyan’s response is a measured and beautiful one. Over the last pages of her essay, she traces the stories of the first person of African descent to set foot on Canadian soil—Mathieu da Costa was a freeman who arrived with Samuel de Champlain in 1607—and the first slave—Olivier le Jeune was born in Madagascar and arrived in Quebec in 1629. By Confederation in 1867, there were 40,000 blacks in Canada, and “they were Confederated, just like the land was, though they too had no vote in the outcome.” Confronted by the question of whether North America has reached a post-racial age and a colour-blind society, Edugyan answers simply and courageously: “I confess I find the notion ridiculous.”

The necessity of citizenship, and also its betrayals, recurs. If a country denies civil and political rights to its inhabitants—as has happened in Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, to the First Nations and Japanese Canadians in Canada, to African Americans in the United States, among so many others—what home, actual or otherwise, is left to them? As Edugyan says, human beings must first be denied before they can be eradicated. Home, therefore, is not simply a personal matter; it is political in the most profound ways.

Like Lin Yutang, Edugyan is concerned with how to make concrete the idea that “what we owe to ourselves we owe to others,” and she points to close observation as necessary both to society and to art. Home, she observes, is “a way of thinking.” If we are interested in merely holding the mirror up to ourselves, we will inevitably lose the capacity to see, realistically, our own reflections. The elsewhere, with its capacity to unsettle our minds, allows us to renew our seeing, challenge our thinking, and perceive the systems in which we live. “What I knew,” Edugyan writes, “was that I did not know.” The essay feels like an interstice between her novels, a clearing away of the brambles before returning to imaginative fiction that, by its very nature, is a voyage away from the self and from narcissism. “Such journeys,” she concludes, “are more necessary than ever in this world.”