Portable Countries

Tomorrow April 25th at 12 pm, I will participate in a panel at UCLA at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. The panels is titled “Exiles and Outsiders”  While I was preparing my bit, I ran across this piece I wrote in 2003 and thought I would share it with you.

To me exile is a feeling. The feeling of a vacuum. I experience it in my stomach every time that the plane that carries me away from my country takes off. In that precise moment, I know that my body, the body of that woman sitting on an aisle seat in the pressurized cabin of the aircraft, has ceased to be whole. It has become a torn body. I know I have become an incomplete self.

When I get off the plane, usually at Houston International Airport, I feel different, physically transformed. I am smaller, weaker, tongue-tied.

In the throng of people going through immigration and customs, I disappear behind a document, a photograph. I am looked up in a computer. I speak only if spoken to; the ease to joke, to make light belongs to my Spanish personality; in English I am humorless, clumsy. Without my language, I am disempowered. I mumble.“The instant I leave my country I begin to die” wrote the Colombian writer, Alvaro Mutis. I understand that. I understand why death is often referred to as a journey, a trip. Death is the ultimate exile.

But exile is not always death. I come out of the airport alive. My exiled, amputated self is an inner landscape nobody else but me can see. In all appearances, I am whole, in good health. I am not even worthy of compassion. Often I am expected to feel lucky for having left my small, ragged country to join a richer, cleaner, more orderly world; a world of unlimited possibilities, a civilized world. Moreover, I am supposed to hit the ground running, to settle in, adjust, and stop whining. In a country of immigrants, there is little room to be homesick. Home is here, now. Home is where our bodies are. So one recomposes oneself.One reasons with the heart, tries to make it face up to the facts. And my survival instinct is powerful. I have survived the worst of exiles, the political one. In the time of the Somoza dictatorship, my country was banned for me for several years. I could not go back unless I was willing to risk jail and torture. In comparison, my current exile seems utterly benign. I travel to Nicaragua whenever I want, but still, my family is here and I am always juggling my loves: my man, my children, and my country. I am always choosing between those and that.

So I have settled for the idea of a portable country. I have convinced myself Nicaragua, small as it is, can fit in my luggage wherever I go. The same way that during my political exile in the seventies –I lived in Costa Rica then- I lived my life like a moth around the light of the Sandinista struggle; nowadays I am tied to Nicaragua by an invisible life line sustained by electricity, satellites, computers, the internet and electronic mail. I am a frequent flier, a commuter between two cultures, two worlds.

Am I crazy to submit myself to this continuos displacement, this half-being there or here? Or is my experience more common than I imagine it to be? Do all exiles carry with them their own portable countries, geographies shifting and tumbling out of their briefcases or handbags? Isn’t Paradise the dream of merging lands, cutting and pasting cities and landscapes, bringing together what has been forced to be apart? Isn’t that an impossible dream? Is that why we pursue it?

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