by Maureen Freely
I grew up with many privileges, but from the age of eight, citizenship ceased to be one of them. As an American child in Turkey, I was forever being reminded by well-meaning parents and teachers that I was a guest in this country and so at risk of outstaying my welcome. The consequences of outstaying played out before my eyes many times over the next decade, most notably in 1964, when a suddenly erupting Cyprus crisis led to the expulsion of most of Istanbul’s 100,000 Greeks. Almost overnight, tenth of the city’s inhabitants vanished. Four years later, it looked like it might be our turn. The US had 17 bases in Turkey, ostensibly to protect it from Communism, and the student left, seized by the spirit of 1968, took to the streets to demand their closure. Almost everyone at the American college where my father taught was in sympathy with these students, but we were assumed, nevertheless, to be cultural imperialists, in league with Washington’s darkest forces. Leaving the city at age 18, I rode past building after building draped with banners telling us Yankees to go home.
Of course, it didn’t feel like home when I got there. And even when I was safely ensconced in a fine university offering more privilege, more entitlement, I never quite got over my passport thing. It was not enough to know exactly where it was. I had to check it over, just to make sure. At the time I thought this might be because I’d grown up knowing just how dangerous it was, to be found by a soldier or a customs official to be without identity papers. But now, when I remember how it was never enough to see my passport safe and dry in its hiding place – how I also had to open it up to the picture page, to make sure it was me there, and not someone else – I can see how the thing I was constantly checking and rechecking was not my passport but my identity. Even to my eyes, the facts on that picture page were misleading. They obscured the parts of my life that mattered most. They made me a citizen of a country I no longer understood, and a foreigner everywhere else.
Writing was not an august calling but something you had to work at every day.
No accident, I think, that I chose to study literature. Lost inside a book, invisible to its author and its other readers, I never had to go through immigration or seek leave to remain. No accident, either, that I began to write. If you are made up of histories that refuse to fit together, your very life depends on imagining them into a story that feels like home.
Having grown up in a family of storytellers, I had a certain advantage. But I would never have dared to commit my own stories to paper as a young adult had I not gone to live in a village in Spain where there were a number of working writers. From them I learned that writing was not an august calling but something you had to work at every day, and that it took time and patience and many discarded drafts before you found the voice that was strong and true enough to say what you were trying to say. By working alongside these older writers, I came to love that process. The book I place into your hands at the end of the day might be clearly worded, but it comes into being as a question I cannot yet express, a walk through the fog to a point I cannot yet see. The important thing – the thing I learned from my older, wiser mentors – was to keep going, and keep faith.
To date I’ve published seven novels and translated many more. I’ve worked for three decades as a journalist and essayist. With my friends at English PEN, I’ve campaigned for writers across the world. With my friends at the Translators Association. I’ve plotted and conspired to create more space for world literature. In my day job at the University of Warwick I have worked with young and emerging writers from all over the world for more than twenty years now. Every penny I have earned in life, I have earned through the word. But I have only just begun to look back and wonder what it might mean to have lived like this. I have only just begun to ask what it might – and might not – mean to be a denizen of a world that can, despite the rules and exclusions imposed on it, still cut across space and time to create a vast yet intimate community of thought, or at least the illusion that such a thing might be possible.
In the beginning, I regret to say, other illusions burned brighter. Some were culturally inherited. Others were entirely my own. What overshadowed all of them was this image of a world-famous author smoking thoughtful cigarettes in a garret, gazing out over the rooftops of Paris as his (yes, his) imagination churned out visions of startling and autonomous originality. Every two years or so, he would send out a few hundred pages of finely chiselled sentences. His editors would receive them gratefully and get to work, returning the genius to the solitude that was his muse. I imagine that most of us writers have longed to live like this, and perhaps even pulled it off, if only now and again, but we sink and swim in the commercial world. It was economic necessity that propelled me into teaching, and reviewing, and column writing, and later on, into translation. And it was by leaving my beloved study to venture into these other domains that I came to understand how the world of letters fit together, more or less.
By now I had two passports, having taken out Irish citizenship. When I went to Lunar House in Croydon to de-register as a US citizen, and re-register as Irish, I was surprised to discover that I would now be required by law to be on the electoral roll. I did not yet know the historical underpinnings of this strange requirement that made me eligible to vote in a country of which I was not actually a citizen, but I was moved by the welcome it implied. I did not have to be a British citizen subject to make England my home. Having made it my home, I stopped feeling like a foreigner. I began, instead, to make a life for myself. And wherever I went while trying to make that life, I met others whose sense of belonging was as tenuous as mine.
Where to go when you have nowhere to go, and everyone around you is telling you to leave?
These were the days of devolution. Scotland was forming a new idea of itself, Wales and Northern Ireland, too. All around me, people were asking, what is Englishness? No one seemed entirely sure. Sometimes it was because they were partly Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. Sometimes it was because their families had fled to this country from Nazi-held Europe. Sometimes it was because they’d begun their lives in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, or the islands of the Caribbean. Sometimes it was because their fathers and grandfathers had lived everywhere but here, in service to the British Empire. Sometimes it was because they had children who were half Brazilian, half Iraqi, or half Nigerian. Sometimes it was simply because they thought the North of England was another country, while they were stuck living in the South.
But just as frequently, and ever more frequently as we entered into the age of terrorist spectaculars, it was because they thought their streets and neighbourhoods had been taken over by foreigners who had not just outstayed their welcome, but who, by virtue of their religion or the colour of their skin, had no right to be here in the first place.
Where to go when you have nowhere to go, and everyone around you is telling you to leave? For me, it has always been the world of letters. This is where I go to be reminded of what we all share, regardless of where we live or where we come from.
We will never find the answer to our troubles in a book or a poem, but we may find out that there are others out there who have suffered as we are now, and who have nevertheless held their own, found allies, and prevailed. We may not be able to say everything we mean when we put pen to paper, but we may find we have voices that others wish to hear. The world of letters may not be strong or rich enough to save you or me from bigotry, exclusion, or (least of all) Brexit. The marketplace that lets some books in and most others out will continue to limit what we can and cannot read. But if literature is to offer the sort of refuge for the next generation of readers and writers that it once did for you and me, then there are things we can do – in classrooms and libraries, prisons and detention centres, book fairs and festivals, online, on the page, and in person – to bring together all of us who go to books to form some idea of who we are, and what we might become, and what we might do in the meantime to create that vast yet intimate community of thought, or at least the illusion that such a thing is possible.
Would doing that make us citizens? I’m still uncomfortable with the word. I cannot help but associate it with immigration queues and passport applications and the power of a state to bestow and then remove. I see danger, too, in the idea of writers having civic responsibilities in the eyes of the public or the state or even just the community of writers. What happens if we write something that is seen to break that social contract? For my many writer friends currently suffering in Turkish prisons, this is not a hypothetical question.
I prefer to think of writers not as citizens of the world but as free-moving, freethinking residents – denizens – of a shared imaginary space, living not by rules but by an ethos of reciprocity. If I’ve been able to live by my writing, it’s because other writers helped me on my way. Why wouldn’t I want to do the same? I do not need to think of myself as a citizen to remember how much I’ve learned from other writers – be they English or Moroccan, Turkish or Brazilian, young or old alive or dead – or to ask myself ,what I might do to give courage and guidance to those who have only just begun. We receive gifts, and we pass them on. That is how the world of letters has survived through the ages, and how it will prevail.
As for that garret I used to dream about – well, I still do. I couldn’t even dream of writing without long periods of uninterrupted solitude such as the one I am enjoying today, in a cottage that looks out over the hills of Bath. But if I have anything of worth to say, it is thanks to the time I’ve spent out in the world, working with others to make the most of the spaces that literature keeps open for those of us who fit nowhere else.
Maureen Freely: this piece was written in response to the Citizen: The New Story programme and commissioned jointly with the Norwich Writer’s Centre for the International Literature Showcase.