It’s six years this week since I first arrived in the UK. On reflection, it was kind of like an awkward first date, where you think you’re all into each other but then why did you tell that story about the cat, and it’s exhilarating but a bit frightening, really. I was with a tour group—we were the stereotype: loud Americans rushing around too fast in a very large bus—and it wasn’t a happy time, to be honest. Except for those moments when, I could clandestinely wander away from the main group and just roam around whatever village or city I found myself in.
That was when I learned how easy it is to get lost anywhere in Britain. And that was when I found myself in coat and tie, wandering through a cobbled church square beside the river. A mum and a wee girl were standing on the medieval bridge—the kind that’s been charmingly marred with Victorian iron railings—throwing bread to the ducks and pigeons. And I thought, suddenly and unexpectedly, that I had been born for Europe.
Sometimes I envy folks who have rooted comfortably and long to a certain place—folks like my hog-farmer friends in East Kentucky, whose family have been raising hogs on that land for two hundred years. And I grew up with a sense of rootedness, certainly—sixteen years in the same house. But even then I felt sense of displacement, which of course makes more sense now: my American roots are pure Chicago, and living in rural Wisconsin would be somewhat equivalent of moving from Scotland to France. Another country, another culture. Another world, maybe.
I think there is a literature of displacement—something that emerges from liminal places in cultures. I don’t mean immigrant or minority literature: those involve whole cultural groups, usually, while what I’m thinking of is particular to the individual. I have a colleague who actually has a fully-articulated theory about this, and I might get him to guest post here at some point. But the basic idea is that we turn to literature for different reasons, and write in a somewhat different way, when, in the words of a French travel-writer whose name I forget, we embrace life as ‘a stranger, a passer-by, a man without place or fire.’