To write from a place of permanent exile | Daily News

To write from a place of permanent exile

Only travel can teach us anything. Only travel can move us out of our staid lives into a fresh perspective, to see before us what has not been before us. It is travel that moves us and allows us to see others in their lives, how they live as well as how we live.

It’s no wonder my life was changed by reading Art as Technique, by Viktor Shklovsky, who woke me to the deadening of habitualisation: “. . . as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.”

As a child, I had been forced to travel—by birth, by circumstance, by world event. Bilingual (formerly multilingual), from the island of Patmos, Greece, I was born on an American Air Force base in England, was raised in Greece, England, Wales, Turkey, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Yugoslavia, Jerusalem, lived in a tent on an Italian beach and was then evacuated out of Italy, and viewed my childhood as a succession of insecurities I hoped my adulthood would make stable.

When I was thirteen, Greece’s political coup of the military generals overthrew the royal government, forcing families to either be assimilated, purged, or escape into exile if they had an “out.” Thus, America (because of my birth status on that American military base) and my next succession of living in thirteen American states (not the original ones). I became the child other children made fun of, because of my accent. I was “that kid who wasn’t here last year.” I stood in the background, at the edge of all the class photos. I became “that kid who used to be there last year.” Eventually, I lost my French and German, the other briefer languages and phrases, retained the Greek, hid the accents, kept the British spelling, and became a writer who writes from a place of permanent exile.

I became the child other children made fun of, because of my accent. I was “that kid who wasn’t here last year.” I stood in the background, at the edge of all the class photos.

Still, a writer has to write in the world. I chose to write for the world, in spite of the world, wanting to stay in contact with the people, the land, the cultures, even if in only memory. It was about redemption. Teenaged years brought me to adoption and that furtive stability I prayed for. But the nature of writing (specialising in poetry) kept me forever in the status of the outsider, the observer held at a distance. Everywhere I went, I was socially viewed and marked by subliminal difference. “Where are you from?” is the worst question anyone could ever have asked me as a child. Perhaps all this is why I now most identify with issues of identities and citizenship, with refugees and exiles, the same others who only strive to also find their places in this world, who only wish to live beyond politics and the manmade constructions of borders.

I chose to write for the world, in spite of the world, wanting to stay in contact with the people, the land, the cultures, even if in only memory. It was about redemption.

As a young adult, I moved back to Greece and lived on Patmos again, in Thessaloniki, in southern Turkey. Back in America, my job after college at Columbia was with the old airline, TWA, where I found myself on pairings all over Europe, Egypt, the Middle East. Because my father now is a Greek Orthodox priest, I became adept at smuggling medicines past border control and customs inspections into Greece for sick people, for sick monastics in remote monasteries. It was about helping people and subverting both politics and import laws. I had become proficient at adapting to any nuance of local culture, custom, or flavour, quickly blending in, whichever the country.

But the wars kept coming—Afghanistan, the Gulf, Libya, Egypt, Syria—on our televisions, the flood-lines of human bodies walking to borders, clamouring to get in, to escape and live. The juggling of governments accepting and refusing to accept the refugees and exiles.

My adoptive mother’s family had survived early-century pogroms in Alatsata, Turkey, escaping to the Greek island of Chios and, then, to America. And now, how circuitously had current circumstances given me several opportunities to return to Bavaria, to Turkey and Greece. In 2016, at the height of the Syrian refugee marches to European countries, I found myself back there, witnessing the reality of humans facing the same old evacuations and constant, unstable moving I knew well.

What I’ve always hated is how “trendy” wars can be. After the fever of media reportage, what happens to the exiles and refugees when the frenzy of cameras has moved on to the next “trendy” global trauma? Why does nobody stay and follow the stories of the people a year after? What happens after the “popularity” of the story dwindles?

On top of the mountain fragranced by pine and distance, the height of green cypress, the dizzying blue port of entry leagues below, Markos and Kalliope led me into rooms housing the silence of charity: a room of shoes standing at attention, an alcove of hung shirts with sleeves outreaching, rooms of coats, even a room of wedding dresses—I was stunned by that vision of whiteness and lace—histories of donated clothing to be of use again, waiting for bodies to fill them.

- World Literature Today


 

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