Thursday, December 11, 2008

What James Joyce and I have in common (in case you were wondering)

Dear Readers,

The heading quote from this blog may lead you to think I have delusions of grandeur, that I--gasp!--put myself on par with Joyce. Please do not think that--I am but a humble scribe. However, like Joyce, I am an exile.

I have had what I can only call the yearning for exile since I was in high school, if not earlier, when I first read Joyce in Mrs. Ferency's (god bless her!) English class: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These books deeply impressed me, and I kept coming back to them in the years that followed. Joyce haunted my undergraduate years, eventually leading me to Dublin to study, and Ulysses became the subject of my Masters' Thesis. So he and I have, you could say, a history together.

He was Irish to the bone; all his fiction is set in Ireland, though he himself left it, never to return, at a young age. So when you consider Joyce, you have to consider exile. What does it truly mean to be in exile? For him it seems to have been necessary, painful, rich with possibilities, yet debilitating--in short, full of paradox. The above quote from Portrait shows all the teenage Joyce's bravado, yet it holds a key: silence, exile, cunning. Three words that crystallize his intellectual rebellion, that name his tools for survival, that map his future, that proclaim him free. The thing is, he was never really free from who he was--the nature of rebellion requiring connection always to the thing one rebels from.

And so, I cannot help but draw parallels between his life and my own--as it has turned out, spurred on by my own youthful rebellions, my moving ever-larger distances from my home, my having to always cope with exile in various forms: physical, emotional, psychological. I think I am more restless, though, than Joyce ever was, and not as cunning, and in some ways not silent enough.

When you leave the place where you are from, everything shifts, like tectonic plates deep under the earth's crust. No matter your personal comfort level, you are never on as firm a ground as your native soil. Depending on where you go, you are in varying degrees out of your element. For example, a Westerner who lands in the chaos of Old Delhi is probably in a larger degree out of his element than say, a Westerner who goes to London. But the point is is that you are out of your element. This can be a good thing, an exciting, even exhilarating thing. I often feel this.

But at times it's like wearing clothes that just don't quite fit properly--the geographical equivalent of flood pants or a visible panty-line. There are built-in frustrations at not knowing how everything works, at not picking up on all the cultural clues, at having to jettison some of your expectations and tailor your hopes and dreams. (Example: I always dreamed of having a spacious Craftsman's bungalow, wide tree-shaded lawn and all that; now I live like a monk in a cell). Then, at some point, there is a ripening awareness of the reality of the place you are in as opposed to the place that existed in your imagination before you got there. Naturally, there are as many ways of reacting to all of this as there are individual characters. Joyce reacted by recreating in his mind an Ireland so true and vivid that when it spilled out onto the page it seemed as if he had never left, that he had remained in the thick of it. He seemed untouched.

I, however, find it difficult not to be affected by my surroundings and to shake the feeling that I will always be an outsider looking in. In this blog, you, Dear Readers, will see that my observations are at times colored by rancor, by amusement, by amazement, by profound frustration, maybe even by passion--by whatever mood possesses me and by whatever boon or bane Italy bestows upon me.



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