Andre Aciman on the exile’s loss and wish to hold things still:
On a late spring morning in New York City four years ago, while walking on Broadway, I suddenly noticed that something terrible had happened to Straus Park. The small park, located just where Broadway intersects West End Avenue on West 106th Street, was being fenced off…
Why should anybody care? And why should I, a foreigner, of all people, care? This wasn’t even my city. Yet I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past. I wanted to rescue things everywhere, as though by restoring them here I might restore them elsewhere as well. Seeing one Greek restaurant disappear or an old Italian cobblers turn into a bodega, I was once again reminded that something was being taken away from the city and, therefore, from me—that even if I don’t disappear from a place, places disappear from me.
I wanted everything to remain the same. Because this, too, is typical of people who have lost everything, including their roots or their ability to grow new ones. They may be mobile, scattered, nomadic, dislodged, but in their jittery state of transience they are thoroughly stationary. It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change, that you’ll build on anything, rather than look for land. An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; he is someone who can’t find another, who can’t think of another. Some no longer even know what home means. They reinvent the concept with what they’ve got, the way we reinvent love with what’s left of it each time. Some people bring exile with them the way they bring it upon themselves wherever they go.
I hate it when stores change names, the way I hate any change of season, not because I like winter more than spring, or because I like old store X better than new store Y, but because, like all foreigners who settle here and who always have the sense that their time warp is not perfectly aligned to the city’s, and that they’ve docked, as it were, a few minutes ahead or a few minutes behind earth time, any change reminds me of how imperfectly I’ve connected to it. It reminds me of the thing I fear most: that my feet are never quite solidly on the ground, but also that the soil under me is equally weak, that the graft didn’t take. In the disappearance of small things, I read the tokens of my own dislocation, of my own transiency. An exile reads change the way he reads time, memory, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss.
False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory
Originally posted on Wednesday, February 6th, 2013