Does your national identity influence you?

M.E. Walsh, in her Creativity Series interview, asked if my national identity influences me. As I’m in the middle of an interview now for NYC’s Brooklyn Rail magazine – in which we examine the contentious concepts of exile and liminality – it dawned on me that the idea of national identity is integral to this discussion and bridges both interviews together. These issues are at the heart of my memoir.

After living overseas for over twenty years I don’t feel that I have a national identity. I envy writers and artists of place who have roots in a specific culture or tradition. I’d give anything to feel rooted in that way, to have my voice be a product of the terroir, like wine. To be the voice of a specific place and time in history. To speak for my ancestors.

But instead, my itinerant lifestyle makes me feel that I’m a perpetual visitor in other people’s cultures. Last year when I was homeless I went on a solo pilgrimage across Europe from Canterbury to Rome, alternating walking, hiking and train travel. This journey was the pinnacle of my peripatetic lifestyle and my rebellion against exile. If I couldn’t have a home, I would live in monasteries, hostels, and on church floors. I’m writing a sort of nomad’s poetic travelogue called Vagabond Reverie– a pillow book of poems, journal entries, texts, emails, travel lore, saints’ miracles, and mythology that recounts my journey.

At Canterbury cathedral as I was receiving my pilgrim’s blessing, the Deacon told me not to expect any pillow softer than stone on my trek. These were the words given to The Archbishop Sigeric who started the via Francigena pilgrim route in the year 990. So, I decided to make my own pillow – a “pillow book” filled with scraps, brochures, receipts, musings, and poems. The makura no soshi literary genre brings me back to Japanese culture – Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book as well as Basho and his search for underglimmer on his pilgrimage through northern Japan.

My cultural identity is tied up with being a wanderer and being in exile. There is strength in numbers and in heritage, without which I often feel alone. But I like to think that my writing addresses this issue and that maybe it can give a voice to other uprooted people such as myself, people who long for a home they once had, or long for a home they’ve never had. The German concept of Sehnsucht, a longing for something that may or may not exist – similar to a nostalgia for home – is at once bittersweet and vicious.

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For a sense of my peripatetic lifestyle, and the memoir that it inspired, check out Goldilocks on Pilgrimage and A Geography of the Heavens. 

Mhyana - Books

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