a citizen of nowhere

I’ve kept a journal all my life, or at least since I was eight, when I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first of many times. I should amend that verb tense, that “I have,” to just “I,” though, because the “have” implies that I still do so. Sometime in the last few years, though, I got sick of the sound of my own voice in that particular form. I’ve made a few stabs at restarting, but they haven’t come to much.

Since I woke up on November 9 to the results of the U.S. presidential election, that urge to start chronicling my thoughts returned. I didn’t recognize it as such immediately. I only knew that I was using Facebook a lot more to talk about what I was feeling and to try to understand what was happening around me. I kept reading pieces like this one by Masha Gessen in The New York Review of Books on how to survive an authoritarian state, or this powerful piece by Sarah Kendzior, who is an expert in authoritarian states, that urged me to do that very thing, write it all down:

Write down what you value; what standards you hold for yourself and for others. Write about your dreams for the future and your hopes for your children. Write about the struggle of your ancestors and how the hardship they overcame shaped the person you are today.

Write your biography, write down your memories. Because if you do not do it now, you may forget.

Write a list of things you would never do. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will do them.

Write a list of things you would never believe. Because it is possible that in the next year, you will either believe them or be forced to say you believe them.

This was something I did instinctively for a few years after 9/11. That was the first time in my life that I had a through-the-looking-glass feeling about my country, when words stopped meaning what they had always meant and practices like surveillance of ordinary citizens, indefinite detention and torture began to be talked about by normal citizens as practices that were necessary and good. It was also the first time that I felt I was seeing history being rewritten before my eyes, in which events would shift and be described differently in the space of only a year. I wrote about how strange and paranoid and disorienting it all felt.

I never dreamed how much worse it was going to get.

Yet I still find I have no desire to return to those journals of old. Instead, what I have is a need to reach outwardly instead of inwardly.

I keep writing and saying that words can save us. I repeat this the way someone struggling with their faith might repeat a familiar prayer; I am no longer sure that I believe it, but I have to believe it. If I do not believe it then all will be lost.

But social media, and Facebook in particular, is a hermetic environment. And frankly it’s annoying on Facebook when anyone bangs on and on about just about any topic (except for your cat. You can talk about your cat until the death of the sun and I wouldn’t get tired of it. But I digress.) Plus, it just isn’t the right platform for what I now realize I’ve been reaching toward.

And I have this blog here, and I haven’t really been doing anything with it. So here we are.

I’ve long had a policy about not talking much about politics online, not talking much about anything of substance really. It’s not for a lack of opinions–I have a lot of opinions, very strong ones–and it’s not because I am one of those writers who is terrified of “alienating” readers because of actually being a human who thinks things. (“All art is inherently political anyway” is a topic for another day.) It’s simply because the internet is such a toxic environment–especially for women–and so devoid of nuance, that it always just seemed pointless. And I am all about the nuance, the shades of grey.

I feel like that’s a luxury I no longer have. And it’s not just my country that is hurtling toward a right-wing authoritarian nationalism; it’s happening in the UK, it’s stirring all over Europe. I think it’s incumbent upon ordinary people like me to start speaking up, to beat that drum that says this is not normal and I will not accept this.

But it’s more than that. There is a smallness, a meanness of spirit in the Trumps, the Farages, the Le Pens of the world. As the writer Nina Allan put it so brilliantly in a blog post that you should go and read immediately:

..it also makes me want to weep, for the vile shortsightedness of a political culture that seeks to drive us away from Europe and into the arms of the US, a direction of travel precipitated by Thatcher but accelerated by Blair and all driven by a flag-waving, proud philistinism that is always going to value the politics of the so-called ‘free’ market over philosophy, sustainability, indigenous culture, creative endeavour and abstract thought, all the social and artistic values inherent in being human.

I want to celebrate those things here. I want to write about books and film and art and music and stories and travel and all the glorious things in the world that these small mean grubby minds, these pathetic, paltry imaginations, do not value, would like to crush out of existence. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” said Theresa May, apparently thinking this was some sort of insult. I will proudly take up the badge of citizen of nowhere; that sounds to me like a person of courage, someone who is unafraid of borders and differences, of crossing over, of discovery. But I also want to remind people: Dissent is an American value. Because I criticize my country and my government and hold them to higher standards, I am no less a “real American” than anyone else. You would think this would not be in question, and yet it is.

As I write this, we have two days left. I feel like Lewis Barnavelt in The House With a Clock In Its Walls, that tick-tock-tick-tock to doomsday following me everywhere I go. And I think about the world that could have been, the future we could be heading toward–should be, because I feel like that future has been stolen from us, I really do–had things gone just a little bit differently in the U.K. and the U.S. Instead of heading into a glorious, humanist future, it feels like we’re going to repeat all the horrors of the twentieth century again, only with different players this time. And the only way I know to not give into despair is to just keep writing. So here we are, and here I will be.

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7 thoughts on “a citizen of nowhere

  1. I too feel like a citizen of nowhere, but then I always have. The events of the last year or so have made me remember a few things I had forgotten or tried to not remember. There’s a lesson for me there too and I might blog about that myself.

    People countered May’s ‘Citizen of nowhere’ quote with the quote attributed to Socrates. Here’s a more contemporary one from Einstein: “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

    It’s not easy but I think readers (who can also be writers) want the writers they read to be bold. It’s not easy, I don’t find it easy, but that is how we should be with our words. Forthright not anodyne, our characters saying and doing the things we usually only get to think and running with it.

  2. Carolyn Rucker

    So sad but so beautifully expressing the same despair I and many others feel right now. Every day I wake up with the realization that the world as we know it is ending in just a few hours. My grief is a real and my tears stain every day with the same dread of what is to come.

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