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Arts & Life

'Home Is Not A Country' Imagines The Lives We Could Have Led

Home is Not a Country, by Safia Elhillo

Home is Not a Country was absolutely a book I read for the title. It spoke to me as a third culture kid who has lived around the world, in constant search of what home could mean and how I could create it for myself. But it also felt like a love letter to anyone who has ever been an outsider, or searched to understand their history, no matter where they come from.

Nima is a first-generation Muslim teenager who feels caught between her life in America and her dreams of her homeland (which is unnamed, but hints at being Sudan). Having lost her father before she was born, Nima is preoccupied with the life she feels was taken from her. She can't help but think of her home country, and when she is bullied and called a terrorist in school, she tries to get as close to that old world as she can. Her story captures a familiar wistfulness for the places we come from but have never truly known. It's a tapestry of life in small moments, and the revelations we have about our pasts over time.

[Nima's] story captures a familiar wistfulness for the places we come from but have never truly known. It's a tapestry of life in small moments, and the revelations we have about our pasts over time.

Safia Elhillo wrote Home is Not a Country as a novel in verse, with poems that let you sink your toes into being 14, feeling invisible, and desperately wishing for another life. Nima feels a strong connection to the spirit world; she constantly thinks of Yasmeen, the name her father wanted to give her, and that she sees as representing a more graceful and confident version of herself. As Nima aches for her other half, she feels resentful towards the life she was given, and loses herself in the search for Yasmeen and the old world.

Growing up outside of my own country, the book felt endearingly familiar. Nima's story reminded me of my younger self, of how I also felt frustrated about not belonging to either world, investigated my family history for answers, and slowly realized that I couldn't change the life I was given — but I could choose to belong to myself and feel complete with who I am.

It took me some time to get into the narrative, which slowly introduces the characters through vignettes from Nima's life. It felt like a poetry chapbook, collecting moments that seemed to be stuck in time, so I carefully savored every detail and observation. But then the story quickly changed tone, leaving me delighted by the adventure that unfolded and making me rush through the pages.

From the beginning, Elhillo introduces elements of magical realism that quickly take over the story, pulling the reader into a completely different world. They took me by surprise, as they revealed what would happen if Nima's dreams did come true. It helped me reflect on how, when we are young, we feel so certain that one decision or twist of fate would solve all our problems. But in reality, what we desire usually doesn't turn up in the way we expected it. Home is Not a Country felt most memorable because of how it explored this tension between our fascination with the what-ifs, and how they distract us from enjoying where we are right now.

More than anything, the book exquisitely captures how the questions about where we come from can take over our life. It's a portrait of perspective, which holds up a mirror to show that ultimately, we are telling our own stories, and we can choose to see them differently. With my eyes heavy from reading late into the night, I finished Home is Not a Country with the feeling of walking out of a movie theater into the sunshine, where the world feels brighter and inexplicably more hopeful than when you last left it.

Nayantara Dutta is a freelance writer, poet and strategist. You can find her @nayantaradutta.

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