In 'Go Home,' Finding — Or Building — A Home In Words
"The beauty of a home in language is that it allows us to create a multiplicity of homes," writes Viet Thanh Nguyen in his introduction to Go Home!, an anthology of Asian diasporic writers edited by author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan.
Multiplicity describes the book as well, for while its stories, essays, and poems all center around the topic of home, there is no uniformity here. Asia, after all, is a vast continent; members of its diaspora are just as varied and complex as any of the countries they — and their parents and grandparents — once called home.
Home can be many places and people all at once, as in Kimiko Hahn's poem, "Things That Remind Me of Home" in which she remembers "moth balls / turpentine, curried chicken in the pressure cooker, / gardenia — " but also the words, "'Show me your green card.'" In Mahja Kahf's "My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears," the contentious and uncertain nature of what home to be loyal to is clear as the narrator tries to navigate between her grandmother and the Upper West Side women in Sears: "'You can't do that,' one of the women protests, / turning to me, 'Tell her she can't do that.' / 'We wash our feet five times a day,' / my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic. / 'My feet are cleaner than their sink. / Worried about their sink, are they? I / should worry about my feet!'" Instead of translating these words, however, the narrator hopes to placate everyone, and remains silent.
Silence is another theme here, amongst many children of immigrants who have either lost their mother tongues or never knew them very well. In Chang-Rae Lee's essay "The Faintest Echo of Our Language," he remembers becoming a prolific reader as a child in the United States, but at the same time losing his fluency in Korean. Years later, he served as his mother's caretaker when she lay dying of stomach cancer, giving her shots of morphine and using small, simple words to communicate: "This will be our language always. To me she speaks in a child's Korean, and for her I speak that same child's English." While it may seem at first glance that this infantilized language severs any chance at real connection, it is quite the opposite, their emotional bond tearing down the language barrier: "Neither of us has ever grown up or out of this language; by virtue of speech I am forever her perfect little boy, she my eternal righteous guide."
Language allows for many homes, and perhaps the writers — and readers of the anthology too — will succeed in returning home, or finding a home, through these words.
Home a deeply political theme as well. In the short story "Blue Tears" by Karissa Chen, a young soldier posted on an island yearns for the home he can see, another island only about two kilometers away from the shore he is protecting. The soldier serves in the army of the Kuomintang — locked in a civil war with Chinese Communist forces — and he is exhausted by a fight that is no fight: "The unexpected rounds of fire, the mines that go off by accident, the terrifying loom of a China that is both home and enemy... what is any of it for? They tell us and tell us but to be honest, I'm long past believing in the world my suffering is meant to build." He could be speaking for any member of the diaspora — their suffering will not build a better world. Their words, however, might be able to.
In her editor's note, Buchanan introduces readers to the Japanese verb "Kaerimasu," which refers specifically to traveling homeward: "Going or coming home is its own enterprise, distinct from traveling to any other destination." This concept is aptly reflected in the pieces she's selected for this anthology; the poems, stories, and essays here describe odysseys of sorts, starting out and ending in the same place — often in displacement rather than in a homecoming. But as Nguyen writes, language allows for many homes, and perhaps the writers — and readers of the anthology too — will succeed in returning home, or finding a home, through these words.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, essayist, and editor for hire.
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