Nov 112014

A case could be made that they would have been better off melting into the landscape as no doubt many now forgotten did, adopting native tongues, stories, places to love, ceasing to be exiles by ceasing to remember the country they were exiled from so that they could wholly embrace the country they were in. Only by losing that past would they lose the condition of exile, for the place they were exiled from no longer existed, and they were no longer the people who had left it. —Rebecca […] Continue reading >

Oct 092014

Memory is potent…for almost any immigrant. As you scramble to piece together your future in an unknown environment, you only have the past and its customs to guide you. But the past and its customs are increasingly murky and useless. Faced with an unknown future, we retreat to the past for its safety. An inability to assimilate to their new homes—to abandon memories, language, traditions is the charge most often lobbed at immigrant communities. For immigrants, solitude and the trap of memory are central conditions. If our memories are […] Continue reading >

Oct 032014

The newcomers make themselves at home; they adapt themselves easily and gladly to the material environment, and make a moral environment of their own on that solid basis, ignoring or positively condemning the religion and culture of the elder Americans. Perhaps the elder Americans are assimilated in spirit to the new ones more readily that the new Americans to the old. I do not mean that any positively German, Italian, Jewish, or Irish ingredients are incorporated into American traditions: on the contrary, the more recent immigrants are quick—much quicker […] Continue reading >

Jun 112013

[A]s a psychological choice, the exilic position may become not only too arduous but too easy. Perhaps the chief risk of privileging the exilic narrative is a psychic split—living in a story in which one’s past becomes radically different from the present and in which the lost homeland becomes sequestered in the imagination as a mythic, static realm. That realm can be idealized or demonized, but the past can all to easily become not only “another country” but a space of projections and fantasies. Some people decide to abandon […] Continue reading >

Aug 112012
On the Peripheries of Imagination

Until now, Poland has covered an area in my head coeval with the dimensions of reality, and all other places on the globe have been measured by their distance from it. Now, simultaneously, I see it as a distant spot, somewhere on the peripheries of the imagination, crowded together with countless other hard to remember places of equal insignificance. The reference points inside my head are beginning to do a flickering dance. I suppose this is the most palpable meaning of displacement. I have been dislocated from my own […] Continue reading >

Jul 312012
The River Before Me

[T]he problem is that the signifier has become severed from the signified. The words I learn now don’t stand for things in the same unquestioned way they did in my native tongue. “River” in Polish was a vital sound, energized with the essence of riverhood, of my rivers, of my being immersed in rivers. “River” in English is cold—a word without an aura. It has no accumulated associations for me, and it does not give off the radiating haze of connotation. It does not evoke. The process, alas, works […] Continue reading >

Jun 092012

When men are scattered in a strange country, the ‘consciousness of kind’ with fellow countrymen has a very special significance….To many an immigrant the idea of nationality first becomes real after he has left his native country; at home the contrast was between village and village, and between peasants as a class and landlords as a class. In America he finds a vast world of people, all speaking unintelligible tongues, and for the first time he has a vivid sense of oneness with those who speak his own language, […] Continue reading >

Jun 052012
Homesickness and the Dream of Return: The Problem With Going Home

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this review of “Immigrants and the Dream of Return”, a chapter in Susan Matt’s “Homesickness: An American History” about the impact of homesickness on immigrants between 1870 and 1920. Though the nature of immigration in that period differed from later ones, several of its characteristics apply to this day. Shifting from Homesickness to Nostalgia Even after they decided to stay stateside, a significant portion of immigrants continued to want to return. The longer they stayed, the more difficult the return. Matt writes, Despite the fact that they […] Continue reading >

May 272012
Facing Forward, Looking Backward

Yet, in reality, most immigrants did not completely shed their pasts or free themselves from homesickness. They faced forward but also looked backward, gradually integrating themselves and their families into American culture while still holding on to Old World traditions, customs, and connections. Many felt homesick their whole lives, and for most [the emotion] served a useful psychological purpose. Feeling homesick allowed immigrants to express fidelity to old lifeways and family relationships even as they sought new social statuses and opportunities. It was a bridge that connected their old […] Continue reading >

Mar 032012
Emigration and Its Weighty Obstacles

Emigration is hardest when it’s involuntary and when you cannot return to your country of origin. Alexandar Hemon, a native of Bosnia and now a Chicagoan, has based his career as a fiction writer on this theme. When he was visiting the States in the early 1990’s with a journalism education program, the war broke out in the former Yugoslavia, his hometown Sarajevo came under siege, and he was unable to return. The theme carries the short stories in "Love and Obstacles", tracing a single protagonist’s journey through childhood, immigration, […] Continue reading >

Feb 252012
Speaking of Home and Homeland

When we are home, we don’t need to talk about it. To feel at home is to know that things are in their places and so are you; it is a state of mind that doesn’t depend on an actual location. The object of [nostalgic] longing, then, is not really a place called home but this sense of intimacy with the world; it is not the past in general, but that imaginary moment when we had time and didn’t know the temptation of nostalgia. When we start speaking of […] Continue reading >

Feb 232012
The Ghostbusters of Central Europe

Anna Porter’s The Ghosts of Europe explores the state of affairs in Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, 20 years after the end of state socialism. In each country she discovers that the historical triumphs and, more frequently, traumas remain far from being settled history. Two decades of free speech and free market may actually have intensified the debates among competing versions of history. To paraphrase Jan Gross, whom Porter quotes, “In order to reclaim its past, [insert Central European country’s name here] will have to tell its past anew.” […] Continue reading >