“We have weathered so many journeys, and so many forms of love. Would it have been the same . . . had we stayed still, in the mill with the water running under us? There is no way of knowing.”
—Alastair Reid, from Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner
In Expository Writing, we read books that explore the feeling of being simultaneously a “resident” and an “alien” — to a place, to the people around us, to ourselves. Since the course is for first-year students, I thought it was a relevant theme: they’ve just left home for this new environment in which they’ll live and work and play under different rules of engagement. Early on they often feel alien to the daily rhythms, customs, and expectations, to new people, to the food in the dining commons, perhaps even to the peculiar flatness of Indiana’s topography, which made me uneasy when I came here four years ago. Those from faraway places may have language challenges alongside deeply embedded but unspoken cultural norms to navigate as well.
We examine the resident/alien theme as it’s expressed in Makoto Fujimura’s book of essays Refractions. We talk about how he inhabits an art world that doesn’t understand his faith, and a faith world that doesn’t understand his art. We see him painting and writing in part as a way to negotiate those displacements. We read Leslie Leyland Fields’ memoir Surviving the Island of Grace, where she grapples with, for example, what it means to be a woman in a salmon fishing operation run by men, or how to sustain the life of the mind while living on a remote island in the unforgiving waters of the Shelikof Strait. At one point, Fields writes of her early years in Alaska, “I wasn’t sure what I was, and neither was anyone else.”
I like to see students relate this theme to their own lives and begin to articulate moments when they’re unsure of their own identities. I like especially when they come to a place where it’s no longer a simple either-or, but an intricate both-and. Learning to navigate the idiosyncrasies of our resident/alien moments moves us toward greater wholeness, and ultimately allows us to love people better. As Parker Palmer has written, “If we can’t hold our inner complexities as both-and instead of either-or, we can’t possibly extend that kind of hospitality to another person.”
Sarah Lyons, a senior creative writing major from the Indianapolis area, has explored resident/alien themes in a notable range of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including some genre-bending speculative work that powerfully deconstructs the ways we can take identity for granted. One work of hers that stands out for me is temperamentally different from most of her writing: a flash CNF piece about watching a movie with her boyfriend, who is from Afghanistan.
Here at Taylor we use the phrase “intentional community” to describe reflective, deliberate ways that we who are all different can live and work peaceably together for the good of the whole. Done well, intentional community can help us hold the tensions of our resident/alien moments, wherever they come from. But if we are to have any success here, we need narrative — “both-and” stories — to be at the heart of our experience. Sarah’s cross-cultural account is a great example. I’m thankful for her journeys and happy to share one here.
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I notice it in small instances, like when we’re watching a movie and I have to read the subtitles but he doesn’t. He speaks six languages.
It’s a Bollywood film, artfully rendered without breaking conventional form. Some internal cavity of mine becomes satisfied watching the excessive family drama and ability of one person to seduce another through dance. With unnecessary irony, this one is staged not in India but in London. Not even the English speak English here; I have become further displaced. Still, I like the feeling of needing to read while I watch, the precise white text fireworking on and off screen. It leaves me straining to catch afterimages.
It leaves me a half-second behind.
That’s it, the entirety of the difference, the only thing separating us in that moment on the couch with a perfectly torn circle in the cushion on the right. That half second doesn’t change the smallness of the room, thin with skim-milk lighting, overpowered by the aroma of fresh coffee. Neither does it help to define the unknown space — it only points out that there is some.
Since we’re both light-skinned, it’s hard to know that we’re interracial.
The English-major side of me balks at that phrase, as it says more than it means but isn’t anything at all. Race is distinct from ethnicity, and nationality, and skin color and culture and place of origin . . . except it isn’t. There’s so much room in the word.
I’ll leave the term to itself. I have no desire to paint sand on my skin. I can’t afford to believe in something that’s in constant motion, that rubs off on everything it touches.
So I try to make us different in ways I can understand. Look, I tell him, and spread his fingers on the plasticked-wood table. My hands are so much narrower. He laughs because that’s obvious, because I’m a girl so maybe my hands aren’t unusual. I’m struck then by the pale translucency of my skin, tendons making visible stripes, veins lacing outward like skinny flower stems. But even that is slippery ground — my skin pales next to everyone’s, even my own brother who looks like cowhide after baseball season.
I look into our words. He gets a phone call in the afternoon while we’re watching sun light up the concrete. The ceiling seems to pull back as his voice changes to something else, some other person, until he suddenly holds the phone to my head.
Say something to them, and then I am alone with the difference and my glass heartbeat.
I hack out with none of the fluidity, barely listening to the reply over my own I’m sorry, I don’t know, but I don’t really speak well, it’s only a few words. What I say is intended to sound like except it comes out disinterested and broken. I’m too focused on making muddy hand gestures saying take the phone back, please.
The screen sticks to my face as it pulls away, a hot film muting the light from the call. Later he says good job and that was nice, and I hope it’s true but don’t know how it can be. After, when I’m by myself, I say the words clearly.
Language distinguishes us, but it’s still just empty space. Space I can see but not touch, and that’s not enough. I need to hold onto a meaning with texture, with a sharpness that cuts into my hands, gets in my blood.
If this is so important, why don’t I understand it, why isn’t it obvious?
By the middle of the movie I’m reading subtitles in the tones of the actors. I’ve forgotten the sound of my own voice — it’s lost in the back of my mind somewhere, useless. I do not get past this half second behind. But when the movie is over, the comments of the boy next to me are in English.
Daniel Bowman Jr. is the author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. He lives in Hartford City, Indiana, where he is Associate Professor of English at Taylor University and Editor-in-Chief of Relief Journal.
Sarah Lyons is a senior English major at Taylor University, which boasts of the beauty of burning sunsets over fields of corn and wildflowers. She grew up just outside Indianapolis, and recently interned at The Englewood Review of Books.