On Leaving Home

James Wood, who teaches literary criticism at Harvard and on occasion reviews books for the New Yorker, was born in Durham, England. He has lived in the United States for 18 years and says he never expected to stay this long. He writes about his ambivalence at living here, on what it means to return to his home that still feels like Durham, and the strange sense of exile he feels in this country. (Times Literary Supplement 2/20/14)

When he came to the United States, he had no sense of what might be lost. To lose a country or a home is “an acute world-historical event, forcibly meted out on the victim, lamented and canonized in literature and theory as exile or displacement…It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”

While I have often written about my search for a home, a Querencia in the Spanish sense of the world, I’ve never experienced anything like the sense of exile Wood describes or the more extreme exile that a person must feel when they leave the country of their birth, either intentionally or by force, for a place where they don’t know the language or a single person.

And I’ve always known I would return to the place I left, even if it didn’t feel like home or the home I was searching for. And I never felt the sense of homesickness discussed by Wood when he says he is sometimes homesick as he longs for Britain. “It is possible, I suppose to miss home terribly, not know what home really is anymore and refuse to go home, all at once. Such a tangle of feelings…”

He says he has made a home in the United States “but it is not quite Home.” Wood says so much has disappeared from his life, the English reality that he craves, the English voice, the peculiar English phrases and puns. All of that is but a memory and he confesses he knows little anymore about modern life in England. “There’s a quality of masquerade when I return, as if I were putting on my wedding suit, to see if it still fits.”

After reviewing the works of authors who have written about exile—Edward Said, Geoff Dyer, W. G. Sebald, Teju Cole—Woods concludes by returning to the time, 18 years ago, when he left England. Then he had no idea how it would “obliterate return.” “What is peculiar, even a little bitter, about living for so many years away from the country of my birth, is the slow revelation that I made a large choice a long time ago that did not resemble a large choice at the time…”

Isn’t this true of many of the decisions we have made throughout our life? We are woefully deficient in predicting how we will feel about the decisions we make and often only become aware of what we have done long after the choice was made, when it’s too late to do anything about it, should we wish.