I was an exile before I had time to reason.
I was an exile before I understood the feeling of banishment.
I was an exile before I could gain insight into the morphology of political systems that are always already expelling one’s consciousness.
Exile first arrived, unannounced, quiet like a lion in the bush after his prey, through family – a father out for weeks making napalm, a mother ironing the family clothes with a revolver strapped to her side, a machine gun parked in the front yard, gun fire, deafening rockets overhead, sleepless nights, whispers and apprehensive glances.
To a small boy hiding beneath stairs the powerful surge to push him out and away is not that; it’s more immediate, more frightening, more resolute. Textured hostility. A bully in the schoolyard. The authoritative forces that expel a person from his place are far from one’s life; they are nebulous and foggy and distant from one’s dreams and desires. Which is why exile is so profound.
Exile, says Edward Said, “is a condition of terminal loss.” In the modern age exile has become a “motif of modern culture,” he says. “Even enriching.” Listen: “We have become accustomed to thinking of the modern period itself as spiritually orphaned and alienated, the age of anxiety and estrangement.”
My anxiety and estrangement began in 1960. My family came to the United States, on this first trip, because my father was stricken with poliomyelitis, a virus that left him paralyzed from the neck down. No one could help in backwater Argentina. My father was 31 years old. He passed away at 82. He spent 51 years in a wheelchair – and he was highly accomplished. He spent 50 of those years in the United States – as we did.
Our anxious and estranged, final move to the States came in 1966 – there was no hope in Argentina.(Ten years later, Argentina experienced a Military Dictatorship that lasted until 1983 and a Dirty War, which was part of Operation Condor – there would be nothing left, eventually, and the country has yet to recover.) My father and mother were hedging. History says they were right. Our age, says Said, “with its modern warfare, imperialism, and the quasi-theological ambitions of totalitarianism rulers – is indeed the age of the refugee, the displaced person, mass immigration.” We were just that, my family.
I became intimate with displacement – sensually, instinctively – before I knew of the concept. It happened the day my father was brought home from the hospital, after spending time in an iron lung, and the nearly lifeless man stretched out in a green hospital bed was no one I recognized, not intimately.
In an instant, I lost my home, I lost my country. Displacement is very real, a life-force, an elaborate gild. It leaves a scar – and you leave something behind, too. I was 6 when my father took ill. I was 11, almost 12 when the displacement was complete.
I had to learn how to adjust, how to adapt to survive. I didn’t have a guide – and I was lost, though I can honestly say I didn’t know what loss meant. (And I have learned, over time, that loss is a permanent condition, something I’ve embraced and find acceptable and where I find creativity.) I had to begin a process by which I learned to adjust to what was far away, pushing what was near far – as Solnit says in her second, of three, “The Blue of Distance” chapters. This was an instinct. And in this instinct, there is a cost that lies dormant, waiting its due. Again using Solnit’s helpful language: I did not imagine myself like this, “in this way”; I had to “lose [my] past to join the present, and this abandonment of memory, of old ties, is the steep cost of adaptation.”
In Solnit’s second “The Blue of Distance” chapter, which happens before the fourth chapter, “Abandon,” I’m beginning to understand how essential being lost is to identity formation – and in my case, how being lost in exile begins, first, by a strange and complex mechanism of denial about one’s identity followed, in time and with much experience, with acceptance.
Exile takes a person’s dignity away, says Said. In Solnit’s hands, using the history of the conquest of the New World and the biography of Cabeza de Vaca, we learn how castaways, “strays and captives,” feeling (my italics) that “they were far from home, distant from their desires, and then at some point, in a stunning reversal, they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted.” I feel this. I am this. Solnit continues:
For some, perhaps there was a moment when they realized the old longings had become little more than habit and that they were not yearning to go home but had been home for some time; for others the dreams of home must have faded by stages among the increasingly familiar details of their surroundings. They must have learned their surroundings like a language and one day woken up fluent in them. Somehow, for these castaways the far became near and the near far.
I have laid awake at night longing for the habit of stepping out of my home, at Segunda La Valleja 1120, to meet friends to play soccer on the quiet streets. I’ve experienced liquored moments where I’m fighting to go home, un-accepting of this gringo life. And it all began to fade and I became a stranger to two places – in two places.
Ten years ago, on my 50th birthday, I returned to this now foreign land, Argentina. Immediately the people saw me as un porteño, a person from Buenos Aires. I’m not. I was born in Córdoba – but the Córdobes has a specific accent, very specific tones to his castellano. I lost that when I woke up one day and I was fluent in another language. When I went to Córdoba, I could hardly understand the language. And when I made an emotional walk up the hill to Segunda La Valleja 1120, it looked smaller, less than what I remembered – the palace of my dreams no more. I felt the same displacement as when I first saw my new father in his hospital bed that displaced his own bed.
I felt the exile. I was there, en el barrio Cofico, but not. I was born here, on one of the hottest days, approaching midnight, but I’m not from here. I live in the almighty States but there, according to my NATURALIZATION PAPERS, I was an alien.
The loss I feel is because I’ve had to learn to live in the shadows – an alien, sometimes even to myself. And what I’ve done – and continue to do, I suppose – is to make the shadows, the edges and boundaries of our tenebrous life significant. That’s something, I guess.