“The Light Veil Of Alienation”


The literary critic James Wood moved to the States from Great Britain 18 years ago. In a long essay on “not going home,” he connects living abroad to the way he thinks and writes:

Edward Said says that it is no surprise that exiles are often novelists, chess players, intellectuals. ‘The exile’s new world, logically enough, is unnatural, and its unreality resembles fiction.’ He reminds us that Georg Lukács considered the novel the great form of what Lukács called ‘transcendental homelessness’. I am not an exile, but it is sometimes hard to shake the ‘unreality’ Said speaks of. I watch my children grow up as Americans in the same way that I might read about, or create, fictional characters. They are not fictional, of course, but their Americanism can sometimes seem unreal to me. ‘I have an American seventh-grader,’ I say to myself with amazement, as I watch my 12-year-old daughter perform at one of those dastardly school events always held in gymnasiums. Doubtless, amazement attends all the stages of a child’s growth – all is unexpected. But there is also that strange distance, the light veil of alienation thrown over everything.

And then there is the same light veil thrown over everything when I go back to Britain. When I was first photoliving in the States, I was eager to keep up with life ‘back at home’ – who was in the cabinet, the new music, what people were saying in the newspapers, how the schools were doing, the price of petrol, the shape of friends’ lives. It became harder to do so, because the meaning of these things grew less and less personal. For me, English reality has disappeared into memory, has ‘changed itself to past’, as Larkin has it. I know very little about modern daily life in London, or Edinburgh, or Durham. There’s a quality of masquerade when I return, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.

I feel a little of the same. It seems sometimes as if I have lived two entirely different lives – one for twenty-one years and another for the next twenty-nine. The two lives intersect and yet remain oddly distinct. For me, there was a different dynamic than James’: first there was emigrating almost accidentally (going to grad school), then simply not making a decision to return for a few years as I pursued a PhD, and then an active decision to become an American, as I tried my hand at Washington journalism, then the crushing realization in 1993 that I could never be a citizen, because of HIV. Where was home then? From then on, I lived in a nerve-wracking limbo for almost two decades,  becoming more and more rooted in my new country, but remaining an alien under constant threat of losing the right to stay here because I had survived an illness that was supposed to have killed me long ago.

So I was for a long time in a kind of double exile.

I was barred from travel to Britain without the real risk of never getting back in; and I was barred from permanent residence in the US. James talks of “homelooseness”. For me, it was more like the eradication of any idea of a home at all. When I got married, this hit me even more acutely. What else is a marital commitment but a commitment to a home? And yet, even then, I had none. If I had married a woman, such a marriage would have given me an automatic waiver from the HIV travel ban and I would have been able to live freely for ever after. But because I married a man, I was busily constructing a home that, at any point in my visa renewal process, could have been upended for life.

I once wrote that the challenge of the AIDS years was finding a place where the plague couldn’t get me. Even though I had the disease, I could find a place inside myself where it exercised no power over me and instilled no terror. That place became, in my consciousness, my only real home for decades. It wasn’t England or America. If it was anywhere, it was the tip of Cape Cod, where this continent beckons to Europe, where the dunes stretch out against the sky, and where the first Englishmen set foot on American sand. That utterly impermanent sandbar would be where I would pitch my tent. And, in many ways, it still is.

(Photos: Herring Cove tidal marshes near Provincetown, Massachusetts; and Saint Mary’s church in Reigate, Surrey, England, next to the school I attended from the age of 11 to 18.)