Monday, February 13, 2017

Int'l Essayists: Toni Nealie on migration and cultural echoes

My Country, My Land

Before I could consider myself an American resident writer, I swam in an alphabet of visas and titles, alien, then alien on advance parole, then resident alien—such is the language of borders. To enter the country is an essai, a trial, an attempt to make sense. How does one understand the lexicon of immigration? Forms like traffic lights, amber, green. Which port did you leave? Which port do you drift toward? Boxes interrogating ethnicity and race don’t conform to a shimmering view of self. The ephemeral I wants to escape like smoke. Unfixed, impermanent, sliding under the doors of transit lounges and out across the clouds, the oceans, the air. Forms ask about nationality, but somewhere across dateline, across years, across skies, across borders, my nationhood blurred. Different-same.

In this time of bans, being an International writer means I struggle to write a narrative. My thinking is scattershot, my process in shards. In this time of bans written by executive order, not-bans, may-be-extended-bans, revoked-bans, watch-this-space-bans, I check the writing on my United States green card. Expiry date, 2023. Permanent resident since 2007. Below a gold-stamped eagle’s head, adjacent to images of the Lincoln Memorial and Lady Liberty’s Gallic gaze, I stare out at an immigration official, one anxious eye slightly wider than the other, my lips turned down tightly. It’s a replacement card for the first one, that took me six jagged years to secure after 9/11. In contrast, in my Uruwhenua Aotearoa/New Zealand Passport, my eyes smile at my photographer husband, my lips turn up. Inside its black and silver cover, the pages are decorated with sea birds and whales, colonial sailing ships and native canoes, navigators and travelers. The sky changes color from dawn to twilight, the Southern Cross gliding right to left as you flip the pages. This passport contains biometric data in a chip—hidden aspects of fingerprints and eyes, yet so little of me. Many visas and stamps patchwork my old documents, but this new one is pristine. The privilege accompanying this passport is fluke—the luck of geography and birth, of colonial ties and alliances. Under my country’s crest, in the name of the Queen of Great Britain, a request is made “to allow the holder to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful assistance and protection.” I have been granted safe passage in twenty countries, lived in three, worked in four—Aotearoa New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Singapore, the United States.

After arriving in the United States in 2001, I developed a fear of scrutiny, of the rules changing, of being separated from my loved ones. It springs from multiple airport inspections, the wand sliding up my legs, across my chest, under my sweating armpit. It arises because it took me years longer than my husband and children to achieve residency. My mother in New Zealand worries, angst leftover from her Indian-born father, who was tripped up by the white immigration movement of the early 1900s. When I planned to visit Pakistan my mother worried that my emails might be scrutinized, that the C.I.A was keeping tabs on visitors, that my re-entry to the U.S might be impeded. I laughed at her paranoia. “This is the United States, not a banana republic,” I told her.


“Where do you live?” I was asked while shopping last holiday season. “A few blocks east,” I replied. “But where are you from?” Every day I was asked, once, sometimes twice in a day by storekeepers and customers in the small town on the border of Chicago where I reside. Accustomed to the question—I get it less than I used to—I was surprised by its frequency in December. Each time I answered cheerfully, “I’m originally from New Zealand, but I’ve lived here fifteen years.” “But where are you really from?” was the follow-up. The day before Christmas, in a pop-up store, in a hurry, I felt disinclined to engage. The storekeeper, a woman with sharp eyes and a tight mouth, was not satisfied with “A few blocks east.” She persisted. I repeated, “A few blocks east.” “Oh, it’s a secret, is it?” she hissed. “I just wanted some socks,” I replied, as I shot out the door. When I’m with writers, they usually ask: “What are you working on?” not “where are you from?”


Nation—an idea I carry inside of me, a nesting doll set. Here, in the outer layer: Red cardinals in the viburnum. Red oaks and elms. Victorian and Prairie houses. Stars and Stripes fluttering two hundred yards from my kitchen window. There, in the inner layer: a volcanic cone looming over Waitemata Harbor in a squall. Little blue penguins inching from holiday house to inlet. Mother sitting in her rose-patterned chair drinking Lady Grey tea and nibbling on ginger slice. A snow peak viewed from a childhood garden. Sheep. The clacking song of the tui bird sucking at flax blooms. Snippets of chants, poems and stories and gossip drifting on to the page, unbidden, even though I have lived away for years. 

International can mean inter-national. If a homeland is “officially” bicultural, it can be bifurcated, two countries bundled together, yet kept apart between tribal gathering places, marae, and post-colonial cities. My Māori friends’ parents recall hands slapped in school, forbidden to speak the language of the tangata whenua, people of the land, the host culture. Ancestral stories and spiritual genealogies, absent without leave, were written and stacked in the myths and legends shelves of libraries when I was young. They were told and retold on marae, meeting places, until they breathed again in classrooms, in ceremonies, on television, on carvings in public places. 

As Pākehā, non-Māori, these stories have run in my bloodstream for only a few generations. They are part of the culture I was raised in, but they do not form my foundation, as recited genealogy does for Māori, who know all life is connected, created from Papatūānuku and Ranganui, earth mother and sky father. 

I was born under a mountain, Taranaki. Story has it that Taranaki used to live in the center of the island, with Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. He stormed off alone to the west coast when fleeing from a love triangle. My husband, who was born on the other side of the mountain, was told that Taranaki perpetually looked back over his shoulder, through a mist of tears. 


An international migrant may write of exile, of fleeing from or running toward. They may describe themselves as nomad, water lily drifting, rooted in water not land, a ball hurled high in the air, or, as I have, seedling, mangrove, pōhutukawa clinging to crevice. It is difficult to not look back, to draw on the once and always familiar. Sometimes memories trap the writer in nostalgia, a desperation to cling to the sustenance of home. The essay becomes a shell from which to explore identity and place, a protective carapace to poke one’s head from while questioning heritage and new environment. It is a suitable form to seek power and voice, to explore identity, question authority and subvert the status quo. I can ponder and interrogate, meander and digress, knowing that I have the space to change my mind or allow for nuance. I like that the essay isn't binary, it doesn't force the writer or the reader into a position or a singular way of being. It allows for my plurality.

I find myself listening closely to sounds and rhythms to find a way forward. I reach towards oratory from “home,” as a guide to the communal, the global, the body politic, our ecosystem. My earliest specific essay influences came from countries not my own. The first I remember were by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley (I wrote a speech at high school based on Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception"). Then American essayists including Alice Walker, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Angela Davis shaped my views on race, gender and power. The first local essays I registered were by New Zealand women writing for the feminist magazine Broadsheet. That included a pivotal essay by Māori writer Donna Awatere, called “Māori Sovereignty”— probably the first essay that made me question my world view. 

New Zealand lacks a tradition of reflective essays, although there exists reportage, anecdote, memoir, narrative nonfiction. Prose poetry and cross genre pieces are emerging. 

The closest I’ve come to experiencing “essai”—in the fullness of prose that expands and magnifies, digresses, and sometimes lyric—is in oral form. It is found in the wharenui or meeting houses, on marae, which are traditional Māori tribal gathering places or contemporary urban spaces open to all. Any manuhiri, guest, is first welcomed on the marae grounds in a ritual consisting of challenge, tribute to the dead, and mihi, welcome, that includes a poetic chant, a eulogy to the ancestors, a greeting to the living, followed by a song and formal reply from the guests. Inside the meeting house, discussions and disputes (perhaps about legislation, land use, other community concerns) are amalgamated with traditional stories, aphorisms, songs, riddles, responses, echoes from ancestors, in a blend of contemporary, historical, ancient and imagined. In Māori, the rhythms, open vowels and allusions speak of ancestors and the natural world—waves, waterfalls, birds flying, fish, light on water, and stars. 


Constellations change when you slip hemispheres. Te Punga, anchor, also known as Southern Cross, stayed south, but Te Marama, Moon, traveled with me. Looking into the garden from my night bed in New Zealand, I would watch the spring moon rise over the hill, sliding silver streaks across the camellia blooms. My husband buried the placenta, whenua, of our second-born son under that tree. Whenua, as written in my passport, also means my country, my land. The same silent bluish light washed the bed where our first child was born. We told our boy that he was brought to us on those moonbeams. 

In the first years of living in the United States, I woke nightly, watching the quadrilateral of stripes cast through the blinds, wondering if it was the same light that visited my homeland on the other side of a dateline, seventeen hours earlier. In my midnight aloneness, I fought tightening throat and temple and chest and fist. The words that bubbled my drowsy mind were from the ancient Māori tale of emergence, in which the world comes into being from Te Kore, the dimension beyond light and dark. The chant charts the changes from Te Pō to Te Ao, dark to light—from nothingness, to the void to nights great, long, deep, intense, dark, where nothing is seen, the darkest dark. Then the beginning of feeling, of restlessness, of turning, to the glimmer of dawn, until finally, Ki Te Ao Mārama, the light of day. Unbidden, the sound of the words comforted me. I was reassured of my connectedness, by knowing that darkness was unchanged, the light of the moon had followed me. Same-same.

Here on my desk in Illinois, a starfish floats in a drawing my son made in our homeland when he was six. Brown and black crayon lines imitate tapa cloth, siapo, Samoan bark cloth beaten and rubbed or imprinted with dyes. Amid the lines—nets for catching turtles or the pattern on a coconut leaf—he drew fa'a'ali'ao, trochus shell; fa'a'aveau, starfish; and something that looks like an upside-down sheep, but is probably a pandanus flower. The symbols are a visual language of the Pacific, passed from family to family, taken to Aotearoa New Zealand during the migrations of the 1950s, and into the language of elementary school children. Now, in a Virginia research facility, my freshly adult son writes the language of neuroscience, deciphering the conversation of one neuron to another. Different-same.

Then, on my Auckland dining table, words : Mercury Energy Bill, New Zealand Herald, card from my mother: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face.”

Now, here, in the United States, on a different table: Com-ed bill, New York Times, card from my mother: “Family ties are precious threads, no matter where we roam. They draw us close to those we love and pull our hearts toward home.” Same-same.

Toni Nealie is the author of The Miles Between Me, an essay collection about borders, homeland, dispersal, heritage and family, published by Curbside Splendor. Her essays have appeared in Guernica, Hobart, The Offing, The Rumpus, Entropy, Midwestern Gothic, The Prague Revue and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and shortlisted for a Chicago Review of Books nonfiction award. Originally from New Zealand, she holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. She currently teaches and writes in Chicago, is Literary Editor of Newcity and co-editor of The Sunday Rumpus.

Craig Reinbold is a regular contributor to Essay Daily and curates this Int'l Essayists column. Send suggestions, thoughts, comments to @craigreinbold @essayingdaily

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