the literary life 8/6/09
I was born in Pakistan, grew up in America, and still make a home in America. Both Pakistan and the U.S. are meaningful to me in different ways and inform my sense of self in different ways. I often write about being in this hyphen space between cultures. This is natural for me. I suppose I will always write about this. But as writers, I also think it can be beneficial to "adopt" a country for our writing. It can extend our sense of self. The country we choose to adopt may change, but it is wise to choose something we feel romantically drawn to. A country which intuitively reflects some part of ourselves. Maybe we have never even visited this country, just seen pictures. Maybe we know little about this location, but we feel a spiritual or intellectual connection at the thought of it. Maybe we actually know this country fairly well, but we've never thought of "adopting" it for our creative work. It is better we choose a country somewhere outside of where we were born, or where our birth family is from, or where we live. Think back to your teen years: what country would you have chosen to adopt back then? I think the teen years, for all the angst and confusion, are also magical--a place of spark and first discoveries.
Thinking back to my teen years, I feel an intuitive sense of connection to England. As a high school freshman I read Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and I loved it. I read the British Romantic poets in school--Keats, Byron, and Shelley--and saw something of my spiritual sense in them. I've always been fascinated by British tradition and customs. I like stories and movies set in London, the English countryside, in British schools or universities. I loved Agatha Christie mysteries as a teen and I still do. I love teaching British literature at the high school. I'm an avid Jane Austen fan. And maybe there is something familiar about England because of British colonialism (for better or worse). My family in Pakistan was influenced by British culture, has been educated in British-style Pakistani schools.
When I was thirteen, I remember my parents took my sister and I shopping for furniture after we moved into a new home. We could each choose a furniture set for our bedroom, which would be our set for years to come. It felt like a serious decision. But when I saw the dark wood dresser set, reminiscent of something you might find in an English country cottage, I immediately knew it was what I wanted. The furniture was kind of old-fashioned and a strange choice for someone thirteen, but it felt perfect. Later I got a framed poster of England, which I hung up on the wall across from my bed. I had, without realizing it, adopted a country.
Growing up, my family would visit Pakistan often, and sometimes we'd stop in London to catch our connecting flight to Lahore. But I really didn't visit England until the summer after my sophomore year in college when I went with a friend on a ten day backpacking adventure through England. We toured London, took the train to Oxford, York, and Bath. I loved staring out the train windows at the lush English countryside. In Stratford-Upon-Avon, I spent the day alone touring Shakespeare's birthplace and home. Some time during that solitary day, drifting beneath a cloud heavy sky, I felt an overwhelming sense of my calling: I wanted to devote my life to writing, teaching, and the pursuit of literature. I had a sense of this before, but I can't describe how intense the feeling was. I was joyously affirmed. That fall when I returned to college, it was with a renewed clarity of interest, which ignited passionate immersion.
Even a couple of summers ago, when I returned to Stratford-Upon-Avon, this time with my husband (who happens to be English), I had a flash of inspiration. My relationship to writing, teaching, and literature was once again renewed. I can't explain this either except to say that somehow being in the home of the most recognized author of the English language was humbling and affirming. I was able to drift beneath the clamor of my ordinary thoughts and connect with a younger person inside me, a person that's always been in awe of literature. We also went to Oxford on this trip, and walking through the university I felt the presence of history in the buildings across campus. The sun was reverentially bright. The romantic in me felt alive. My inner-poet felt spiritually consoled. There are other countries I have felt drawn to study and explore: France, Japan, and Iran, for instance. But for many years, England has been my adopted country. There are still so many places I have yet to visit in England. I look to its writers for inspiration, its countryside for breathing space, and its colorful literary history for affirmation. I drink English tea and eat English chocolates. My love for the place seems almost genetic, but it is still an outsider's love--a spirited teenager's love. Think about a country that's fascinated you, even if you haven't ever visited it. Write about what draws you to this place. Research the country a bit, read its literature. Think about how the essence of this place can expand your own writing, either with new settings or with new metaphors. Let it be your adopted geographic writing totem. See if it sparks your inner teen.