Making home in a language, or not

Notes on belonging

Maria Lai, Passaggio al Vento, 1976 © Archivio Maria Lai

How does one belong? Does the word “belonging” bring with it a sense of stasis? A stability, a certainty. What happens if I am rarely certain, or mostly on the move; or if I am repulsed by, or denied stability? Maybe “be-longing” speaks more tongues than “belonging.”

‘’Be’’ and ‘’longing,’’ phrased as two words, placed beside each other, not run together, phrase a command that disrupts, and thus renders visible, the terms that inform ‘’belonging.’’ The command is to ‘’be’’ ‘’longing,’’ not to ‘’be still,’’ or ‘’be quiet,’’ but to be longing. (Aimee Carrillo Rowe)

I remember the towns we used to pass by to get to places. Those tiniest places that I thought only had lonely people in them. No one walking on the streets. Trees too stationary. The dust too grey. Or maybe it was the dust on the window of the back seat. My head against it, the smell of cigarettes coming with the strong wind from the front of the car. I would take the wind on my forehead, squint my eyes. And towns would become even foggier. The roads through tiny towns, they always ended, no matter how much I enjoyed looking out of that dusty window. No matter how familiar the feeling of leaving, and returning.

When the French writer Hélène Cixous writes about her troubling relation to Algeria (Oran), there is a sense of never arriving, but constantly wanting to arrive. Was that what I used to feel, sitting in the back seat of that car? Did I really want to arrive? One does not only yearn to belong to the present (wherever you are) but also to a past. A yearning for roots, maybe. Language can be the fabric of those roots.

Is the idea of home ever static? Isn’t home a sense -the sense of that car passing through tiny towns and there, there is always an unsettling motion. The anticipation of arriving some place and the knowledge of having left another. To me, remembering those drives means more “home” than the actual houses we lived in. And this is also because we, as a family, moved a lot. Seven times, to be exact. I didn’t grow up in a “family house” where there would be old marks on the walls, corners with dust from decades ago. The longest we live in a place was around five years — the house I was born in, the house I remember the least. The longest I lived in a town was nine years. All those houses, left, found, rented, inhabited, left again. The bittersweet nostalgia of old newspapers wrapped around thick glass ashtrays.

But next to all of those rentals, we had the B. A place to practice setting down roots — during summers and some weekends. B. offered a stability on its own terms, confusing my desire to belong further in the process. Growing up, that “summer house” was bricks and cement. Playing with broken pieces of those bricks, orange dust written into words on the unplastered walls. Rusty nails and we know what to play with and how. Inside the unfinished house, I played pretend by sorting pieces of wood, tiles, and leaves into furniture for a seashell shop, a café, a house of my own.

That construction spent years becoming the summer house. It was unfinished because it was secondary to our everyday living. There was always something to add or fix and yet, it was constant — unlike the houses we moved in and out of. It always welcomed us. But we always had to leave a place behind to arrive there.

Home has always been a troubling idea for me.

I have played evcilik in every possible way, I made “home” wherever place I went — for a few months, a year, a couple of years. I made home in small rooms, in corners of rooms, in nooks and unused, forgotten spaces, thresholds. It is in this perfectly real fantastical way that I make home in writing. I cover two opposing chairs with a blanket and crawl underneath. My writing is that dark, warm space, vulnerable to recklessness, or sharp lights seeping in from the outside. A magical little land that requires careful movements, a tender focus. My language never surrenders to me.

Cixous says “to write is to make a language foreign.” When I write I stand between alienation and belonging. The conflict paralyzes, numbs my tongue; and I want to pour like summer rain on heaps of hot sand in a construction site. Where the sun blinds and the air sticks on your skin so unhurried.

Writing is a constant reaching, like how home is not static. Both are active, slipping, coming, escaping, finding you. A home makes you lose another. Which language is the one lost to me? The tender, relentless continuity of belonging and be-longing, of leaving and staying.

Turkish literary critic Nurdan Gürbilek says “Her yazarın içinde az ya da çok bir yer yaratma, bütün yerleri geride bırakıp yazıya yerleşme isteği vardır. Bir yazınsal vatan.” (“Every writer carries a sense of desire to create a place, to leave all the places behind and dwell in writing. A literary homeland.”) Can I make home in a language that is not mine (English)? I belong to the Turkish language, maybe as much as I belong to English, but neither belongs to me ( Derrida’s ghost appears in my doorway). These languages made into a house I play evcilik in. These languages residing in the warmth of my mouth, seeping into my blood system whenever I bite my tongue.

Does writing provide a refuge from the pains of (not)belonging, despite the troubles of being in-between languages (plural)?

Writing pulls together the threads of the desire to belong, and the desire to go, to leave. I try to braid these scraps, blood-red, faded yellow, dusts of grey, as I look out from windows at passing roads, towns, cigarette smoke no more. There is a restlessness in the desire to belong; sometimes it simply turns into a wistful reverie, sometimes it burns the root of your tongue like hot milk.

The Turkish language is as much a home to me as that car whose back seat I belong to. It is a home that I feel I left behind, much like the actual land that I in fact left behind — tagging it with the words “nostalgia”, “memory”, “remembrance”, “past”. Sometimes it is a home simply because it reminds me of comfort. Sometimes it is a land that has forgotten me. Being at a threshold means a regular discomfort, so much so that it becomes your new normal.

Saying an “ayy” with a full breath bringing back a comfort that is not from your past but shaped because of your present — a present that is non-singular. Embodying that brief “ayy” that escapes my lips at home, a home where we speak our mother tongues only on the phone, grounds me momentarily. Is this a fictional ground I stand on, or is it real? The question fails to echo, but slides out from under an evcilik tent. Does it matter? This is a make-believe practice in belonging. And maybe belonging has always a taste of fiction.

Moving in and out of places, being on the road (simultaneously leaving and arriving) trouble the divide between fiction and reality. I yearn to feel at home in a language. But resisting to this singularity, to a monolingualism is tricky. I need to remind myself that I can belong to both reality and fiction. I can belong to these walls of our bedroom and to corners I take in this city, a city that only lets me live in it on multiple conditions. And I can belong to the memories of a homeland that now feels bittersweet. Those cigarette-smelling cars a thing of the past, along with the blinding summer sun shining on never-ending construction sites. But neither memories nor tongues are static. They are living organisms that continuously threaten your sense of belonging, as well as your sense of self.

Belonging can be multiple. “The point is not to be correct, consistent, or comfortable,” says Carillo Rowe.

My tongue twists, and pushes the confines of my teeth: Be longing.

This post was originally published at https://overthinkingrevised.substack.com.

To not miss another post, sign up for my newsletter here.