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Home is Where

Home is Where

Kwame Dawes

My biography, on the surface of things, should suggest that at some level the question of home would be a somewhat complicated thing. Here are the raw facts: born in Ghana, lived in England, raised in Jamaica, lived in Canada, and live now in the United States. This kind of moving around is not extraordinary in our modern world of extensive migration, but the range of places should indicate at least that the answer to the question, “Where, then, is home?” would be a fraught one for me. I can complicate this more since home is often defined not by places of birth and residence, but by matters of origins and roots and cultural affinities. So it should matter that my mother was born in Cape Coast, Ghana, to a father from Lome in Togo and a mother from the Fanti people of Cape Coast. On the other hand, my father’s parents were both Jamaicans, but he himself was born in Nigeria while his parents served there as missionaries and teachers. And given the Marxist commitments of my father and the fact of our economic condition while growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, I cannot point to a physical estate, village, or house that I can refer to as home—where, in other words, I can return, and where my children can return. There is no such place in Ghana, in Jamaica, or even here in the United States.

I have understood the nature of migration and the experience of being a migrant on at least four occasions. But given these quite involved circumstances, I have found that I have been freed to try to define self through the idea of home. There are many ways to describe this idea of home: home is where people welcome you home. In other words, if I land in Ghana and someone says to me, “Welcome home,” then Ghana would be home. This has happened. If I land in Jamaica and someone says, “When did you get home?” then Jamaica is home. This happens all the time. I have never been welcomed home on my trips to Canada, yet I have been welcomed home in South Carolina and the folks at customs in the United States always tell me, “Welcome home!” now that I have a U.S. passport.

I once imagined a conversation with a woman who told me, “Home is where you want to be buried.” I found that idea compelling. For me, death is a terribly lonely prospect—that is the grand fear of it. And while I have made arrangements for safe landing in heaven, I must admit that I am faced with a significant challenge of turning that prospect into something that makes sense to my mortal flesh. I have never met an angel, as far as I can tell, and given the notion that Peter or Paul might be at the gate of heaven, I have a feeling that at some profound level of culture, I will feel a bit like an alien in heaven. This does not worry me in and of itself, but it does leave me finding the more earthy and reasonable mythos of death and the afterlife that shapes ancestral belief almost attractive. There has to be something comforting about knowing that no matter how despicable or troubled some people’s lives may have been on this earth, they will somehow find their way into the afterlife. Christianity is not so assuring. One of the great spectator sports that no doubt will be played out at the pearly gates will be to see who made it. No such troubling complications will accompany those who expect the structure of ancestral belief to operate at the end of things. And, for me, my idea about home being where one would like to be buried has everything to do with that tradition.

When I think of being buried in the United States, and especially in Nebraska, I have to say that I am filled with a terrible sense of disquiet at the prospect that this will be the conversation I will hear:

Dead Nebraskan: You are new here.
Dead Me: By here you mean in the world of the dead or in Nebraska?
Dead Nebraskan: Both, I guess.
Dead Me: Yes, I guess.
Dead Nebraskan: Okay. So does anyone know you here?
Dead Me: I don’t think so. Not around here, anyway.
Dead Nebraskan: We are friendly here.
Dead Me: So I am going to have to make friends again. I hoped I would be able to avoid this when I am dead.
Dead Nebraskan: Well, you have to at least try.

This scenario strikes me as a nightmare. I want to be buried where folks will say, “Hey, that is Neville’s son, or Winston’s nephew, or Augustus’ grandson, or Levi’s great grandson—go and get the old man, he will have to see how far his big nose has traveled.” That is the kind of thing I would prefer to hear, and so the thought of home as a place that will allow me to feel at home may seem like a simplistic truism, but it is at the heart of my idea of home.

But this matter is more complicated, and I am struck that in the work of the poets collected in this special Fusion, there is an interesting counter articulation that even if home is where one wants to be buried, home is not necessarily where one wants to live. In poem after poem, home is a place of trauma, uncertainty, and unpredictability, even when home as a geographical location, as a place that contains the familiar indices of “home,” abound. Home involves the presumption of land, the presumption of a collective sense of stable presence over an extended period, and home manages to transcend the expectations of emotional affinity by producing a more troubling concept that has greater affinity to the idea of ownership—a sense that we cannot shake our homes. If home is defined by the nuclear family as a place in which the self is defined and shaped, it remains an unreliable and troubled place—one in which security, assurance, and welcome are all contested again and again.

The poems in this issue of Fusion remind us that if, as some have said, all poetry and all writing is fundamentally autobiographical, it is possible to conceive all poetry as work seeking to make sense of home whether as a psychic space or as a geographical and physical space.

And helping us to think of the way in which so many immigrants to the United States have come to engage the promise of redefinition and reimagination of self that is promised in the myth of America is the artwork of Jave Yoshimoto, who reveals that even as new landscapes and new emotional connections become part of the bread and butter of the migrant, the persistence of homes left behind, and homes dreamed of, remains a shaping creative force in his understanding of self. None of this, as it happens, is easy. But the challenges of these considerations manage to generate fascinating work.

This Fusion’s focus on home offers a rich opportunity for us to think about questions of international engagement—one of the core intentions of the Fusion project. By creating a dialogue between a part of the world where the matter of home has been a troubled and deeply complex matter—namely the Balkans, a place with monumental conceptions of home as a constructed and defended political and cultural idea—and the United States, Fusion effectively supplies us with a very complex and satisfying reflection on the meaning of home in many of its iterations.