…com’è tutta la vita e il suo travaglio
in questo seguitare una muraglia
che ha in cima cocci aguzzi di bottiglia.
…how all life and its troubles
are in this going on a wall
with sharp bottle shards on top.
—Eugenio Montale, “Meriggiare pallido e assorto” (1916)
I ain’t got no home, ain’t got no shoes
Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class…
Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no name…
Yeah, what have I got
Nobody can take away?
I got my hair, got my head,
Got my brains, got my ears
Got my eyes, got my nose,
Got my mouth, I got my smile…
—Nina Simone, “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” (1968)
You ask: Is There Still No Place Like Home?
This body is my only home, and this body has been fed, medicated, transported, abandoned, beaten, molested, admired, kissed, criticized, compared, welcomed, fingerprinted, documented, measured, clothed, undressed, fucked, loved, rejected, shaved, shamed. I am in my body like a freak fetus in a womb. I control it from the inside. I have tried to put it in many different places to make it feel at home. First, I dragged it out of my mother’s smoke-filled cocoon only to find the place called world filled with the smoke of guns and prejudice. Then I hid it under beds and dining tables, threw it into a boy’s embrace, made it sit on tampons and bicycle seats, I took it far away from the place where they cut its umbilical cord (but I wouldn’t be surprised if there hadn’t been anything to cut at all). I’ve put this body in Yugoslavia, in Germany, in Italy, in Brazil, in Portugal, in the USA, in Chicago, in New Haven, in New Hampshire, and inside of planes, trains, cars, museums, concert halls, bathrooms, attics, living rooms, people’s arms, people’s bedsheets, once I put it inside a cave, and another time at the edge of an active volcano’s crater, and it is never cozy enough, it is never warm enough, it is never home enough. Is that how it feels to be a man, actually? The most at home that my body feels is in those moments when I bundle it up in warm clothes as the leaves in Chicago start turning yellow, and then when I undress it as they start turning green, in the moments I make it set a foot on the ground after a ten-hour flight, when it is running towards someone, when it is waking up from a detailed dream, when it is drinking water after a salty meal. In moments, that is, of transition. What most people call home is the place where they store their bodies, where they park them to recharge, like a Tesla car. In the absence of such a place, I have made my body a home, a self-sufficient machine always up and running. Does it run in the family? In the race? In the religion?
I see my better half run into his childhood room and into his father’s arms, into his sister’s arms, into his mother’s arms, into his niece’s arms, into his country’s arms, into his friends’ arms, into my arms, and he arrives and stops and does not know that he has. He ignores my body because he has been taught not to stare at women’s bodies and not to make comments on women’s bodies because they are just human bodies and deserve respect which means you don’t single them out, not even in bed, but he doesn’t know that my body is an entire home, so when he ignores my body he ignores windows, and doors, and shutters, and couches, and a fireplace, a huge warm fireplace, and a dark wooden closet, a cozy attic with cushions in front of round windows to sit and read in the winter bundled up in a blanket, he ignores a shed, and pipes, and dishes, and an entire library full of dictionaries and self-help books and fiction fiction fiction, worlds within a world, homes within a home, he ignores an entire universe that I’ve made my body internalize and order and store because the outside is a smoke-filled after-work wall-street bar in the 60s and it doesn’t feel like home. There is still such a thing as no place like home. The trouble is, however, that home is no longer a place and places are no longer homes.
Places in our times are political territories, public domains, and restricted areas. In places you cannot dispose of your personal trash; places are ruled by the tyranny of no smoking signs, places are where people meet for coffee and spend money, and travel to, come back from. We can no longer stay and feel at home in places because places are already something else and someone else’s. And that someone else is protecting them with a gun. They are the ultimate zone of un-dwelling, of violence even. The only place where home and place converge are nursing homes, as if the time when home was a place only exists at the brink of annihilation and in the minds of decomposing bodies gathered around a bingo machine. So, if not a place, then what exactly is a home?
But before we talk about home, I would like to ask a question that lurks behind my response to your question: in what language exactly can we write about home? What style does the topic require? What tone is appropriate? Should I write like an academic or like a soldier scribbling a letter from the front? Should I write like a woman or adopt an “objective” voice? Should I SHOUT and protest claim demand accuse or should I humbly employ the tone of a migrant preparing for a naturalization interview? Should I shift and add verbs and objects and nouns and forget commas and experiment and skip and go into a mind-numbing stream-of-consciousness monologue, or should I let the voices of others interfere, transcribed by my pen into sentences that convey my long indoctrination into the grammar of the English language? For English is only partially my language. It is the language of all the public spaces in the world and also of those places where foreigners marry for green cards and American passports, and of airports, of conferences, it is the language of many people who have a home and of all those people who don’t. All individuals without a home speak at least ten words of English. What does this say about English? Is English the language of homelessness?
So how should I talk to you about home in the language of homelessness? How should I talk to you about that place that I have never known but of which everyone speaks so highly and that I have tried to create inside this noisy body of mine that won’t stop moving around in the world, forgetting old languages, and learning new, because it thinks that home is in the world? Not the world. The word. My body is my home, but my body’s home is the word. I have found it to be very skilled at manipulating the word. And it just won’t shut up. It hears and it imitates, and, in imitating, it creates. I remember when my body was still very small, it successfully arranged muscles in such a way that it reproduced sounds whose meaning, at the time, I did not understand. People, amazed at my skills, then praised me for what they thought was excellent English. People who did not understand English and who did not know that, by learning how to speak it, I was beginning the process of de-domicilization. They watched me talk myself into homelessness. Later on, this flesh of mine absorbed Teutonic grunts and Italic glissandos and Lusophone nasals and Castilian lisps: like a sponge thrown into the water, it thought it was becoming water itself.
My body has made a living out of speaking and writing words. By forming vowels perfectly into words like shapeless clay into pots and jugs, open closed nasal, by seamlessly jumping over consonants and gutturals like an Olympic athlete, this body has been constructing, brick after brick, consonant after vowel, verb after noun, layers of mud and straw rising up into the sky to form a fortress of linguistic competence. Which has brought me to this page where I am wondering how you can ask such a question as “is there still no place like home?” in this twenty-first century of ours of boat-crossers border-jumpers barbed-wire-athletes competing with coastal guards and border patrols for what exactly? For the opportunity to become pilgrims to the sanctuary of the North? Bodies strolling down the yellow brick road of abandoned Mediterranean villages, northwards, northwards, northwards. I am angry at your question because it is a question already answered, so why pose it anew? What guilty consciousness or nostalgic impulse made you ask this yes-or-no question again in these in-your-face times when you must be aware that the only non-metaphorical answer that satisfies it is a categorial “no”? A scent of voyeurism envelopes your question for it must be clear by now that “no place like home” is nothing but a luxury commodity, a slogan for a Coca-Cola commercial. Surely it is a distraction from reality. Like that mythical pursuit of happiness, the pursuit of a home is the opium of the migrant. It is the belief in something that only exists for a handful of people. As for the rest of humanity, well, for them, or should I say, for “us,” home is a question of survival. If you are alive, you have a home. Your body is your home. The body is the lowest common denominator of any kind of physical or psychological sense of belonging in the twenty-first century. This view does not originate in some kind of naïve materialism, but has its roots in experience—mine and that of other, I’d like to call them, itinerant homebodies.
So here is my answer to the question concerning language: there is no syntax, no diachrony in the era of social networks and antisocial states. I can only write about the question you pose in a language that imperfectly follows restrictions and rules. In writing about home, I can only break open the borders of convention, genre, orthography, and punctuation because the times of the four walls are over and done with, replaced by internal organs, digestion, blood vessels, germs, and an entire nervous system bent on survival. If I am to write about home, I will have to write like an immigrant, like a woman, like a poor person, like a minority, because I am tired of writing about what matters to me like a citizen, a man, an affluent man, a majority, and because, in our day and age, only the migrant truly has the legitimacy to write about home, just as it is from the lunatic that we can truly learn something about sanity. What would the nature of the migrant’s writing about home be? A migrant writes from a rearviewmirror perspective. Everything that ever was fades away within the narrow scope of this rectangular reflecting surface where the past appears as a momentary part of the future. The occasional glances in the rearview mirror are cautionary. They are the over-the-shoulder glances of dollar-bill finders, and of a woman walking home at night down a badly lit and empty street. They are also the glances of minorities, brief excursions into history—limited and fleeting—that serve as reminders of a shared struggle. The twenty-first century migrant is an ever-forward-moving, rearviewmirror-glancing Angelus Novus. She glances backwards without ever turning back, eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. And this is how she writes: not from within the train of tradition, but from within a car trunk full of disparate mirror-shards, picked up here and there along the way, which, when arranged together, reflect back the Frankensteinian image of the homebody. “Got my hair, got my head,/ got my brains, got my ears/ got my eyes, got my nose/ got my mouth, I got my smile/….”