Heart of Two Homes

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

Image Credit: Claire Pillsbury

It was at the Portland International Airport.

Ten ‘til midnight on a snowy evening in mid-December, and I sat curled around my laptop, breathing in pumpkin spice and black-bean coffee from the Starbucks next door. My fingers swiped over the keyboard, filling in a graduate school application due the next day, while I trapped my cell phone between my ear and shoulder and talked a frantic friend through his first time driving uphill on ice. My back to the frost-glazed window, pressed against it from head to hips so that the bite and the cool seeped in through the worn patches in my jacket – kept me awake.

Four hours of sleep had left me like a frayed nerve, twitchy and raw. Held loosely together by plans and necessities and what seemed like a god-ordained level of stress, all bloodshot eyes and shuddering fingers and–

I just wanted to go home.

South Carolina was about a five-and-a-half hour flight from Portland, as the crow flies. Eight-and-a-half if the crow had to make exchanges in Chicago and Atlanta to get there. It would be a long red-eye capping off an even longer day, but I was at my gate and on time, waiting to take off so I could touch down in my hometown by the time my dad woke up the next morning. So I could step right out of the airport and into the fold of his huge, warm arms, his dopey grin shining down on me, all white teeth and crinkles around his eyes. I hadn’t seen him in person since last January, and the two-thousand miles between us – the three hour time difference – ached in my chest, low and throbbing. I wanted to see him.

But, even so, I kept thinking about it: a half-woken daydream of dropping everything and making my way down to the bottom floor of the airport. Catching the last Red Line train out and hopping on the 57 bus back to campus. Shoving open my dorm door and stumbling through the dark and the warmth and the scent of stale sausage burnt into the carpets. Slumping down onto my bed, face-first and starfished. Sleeping for weeks. For months.

I just wanted to go home.

And that was the problem. Oregon was steamy soup and plastic Christmas trees, rainy naps and a caramel mocha melting the chill off my fingers. South Carolina was golden wheat fields and mist-cool air, sunset silhouettes and a step-family I loved and feared. Home and not, home and not. Caught so perfectly between them that, at times, I felt like I had no home at all. Just waypoints.

I swayed to the right, side pressing into the stiff, navy nylon of my suitcase. The yellow polyester of my laptop bag, sandwiched between. My life and living, distilled down to two carry-ons. I could tuck them under my arms and walk for miles, if I had to.

Packing wasn’t hard anymore. I’d learned how to do it at age sixteen, after my parents divorced and I split the days of the week between their houses. I made a system for hedging a life between two places and lived it, every day, until I had everything whittled down into four bags that I toted between two houses.

And I remember that late-summer afternoon, the sun on my back and warm dust brushing my cheeks as I hovered in the open door of my car’s backseat. As I stared down at those four bags, barely filling half the bench, and realized that I could take them anywhere. That whatever place I stopped in could be my home just as much as either parents’ house. That my real home amounted to an armful of items tucked in canvas bags and the waving hands of my family as I once again drove out of sight.

The woman at the counter came over the gate’s PA system then, calling for the pre-boards and first class. I saved the application file and shut my laptop, telling my phone-friend to pull over and call his dad to come pick him up and bring him the rest of the way home. He’d come far enough.

With trembling hands, I tucked my laptop into its bag and fastened it closed. The black canvas straps slid threadbare beneath my fingers, a touch more familiar than the down of an old quilt or the burnished handle of a favorite skillet. It pulled the breath from my lungs; one part solace and two parts longing.

I wanted to go home.

Throwing the strap of my laptop bag over my shoulder, I grasped the handle of my suitcase and stood up, stretching.

Time had passed since I was sixteen and empty. I’d distilled those four bags down into two now. My second home was across the country. I only moved between twice a year, and only ever on planes. I know now what a home was not: South Carolina, Oregon, and the two bags I carried with me. Not the place you lived, nor the people you loved.

Something more than all of that. Something deeper, or something else.

I stepped out into that drafty jet bridge at midnight, a suitcase at my side and a bag on my shoulder. Breathed in the crisp smell of frost that swept the sleepy haze away, steadied my shudders as I braced against the chill. I remember looking out through the bridge window to see the stars and snowflakes studding the sky and thinking to myself:

I didn’t know what home was, then or now. But I knew that I would step onto this plane. I would keep fighting and working and searching for home.

And someday, weeks or months or years in the future, I’d be standing under this sky again. Staring up at stars and snow – chest full, hands steady, eyes clear. Looking up at this very same sky, and knowing that I’d finally found it.

 

By: Claire Pillsbury

Interview with Sunil Yapa: Redefining Home

Sunil Yapa

 

Sunil Yapa visited Pacific University as part of the Visiting Writers Series hosted by the English Department. Mikelyn Rochford and Kristen Buehner sat down with Sunil and discussed his novel Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist and how it ties in with Silk Road’s theme of displacement and redefining home.

 

His debut novel, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, was released in 2016 and follows the narratives of seven characters during a day of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. His novel is the lead title for Lee Boudreaux’s eponymous new imprint at Little Brown & Company. Published in January 2016, the novel is a Time Magazine and an Amazon Best Books of the Year So Far, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, and an Indies Introduce and Indies Next Pick. The New Yorker writes, “Fast-paced and unflinching…Yapa vividly evokes rage and compassion.” And Ron Charles writes in The Washington Post, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist ultimately does for the WTO protests what Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night did for the 1967 March on the Pentagon, gathering that confrontation in competing visions of what happened and what it meant.” The Seattle Times writes, “Yapa’s melding of fact and fiction, human frailty and geopolitics, is a genuine tour-de-force.” Yapa holds an MFA from CUNY- Hunter College where he was a Hertog Fellow, and a BA from Penn State where he studied Economic Geography. The biracial son of a Sri Lankan father and a mother from Montana, Yapa has lived around the world, including time living in Greece, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, China, and India, as well as London, Montreal, and New York City, and has made a home of many of the places he has visited.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Could you speak to the theme of displacement through your book and experiences?

 

Sunil: I set out to write a book that wasn’t just about my experiences. I had been writing short stories before then that were bad Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Díaz experiences. I really set out in this novel to write about experiences that were not my own. The funny thing is that when I go back and reread the book I realize that the characters were all me—their interiority and experiences are all me. Even the cop. The other thing that I realize when I reread the book is that it is about loneliness and a desire to belong. The novel is also about tribes and who gets to decide the tribe. Is it the tribe who owns the city or the cops?

Victor is closest in experience to me—he’s biracial and living in Seattle and sells weed (a terrible idea I would have had at that age). He is so desperate to belong somewhere that he is willing to put himself in the most dangerous position—lockdown. In real life, no protestor would allow someone who wasn’t trained to be in that position to go into lockdown. But he is so desperate to belong to a family that he is willing to be vulnerable. It is all my experience. The novel is a lonely and alienated book, and on some level I have to make the connection that I am lonely and alienated: lonely in the deeper sense that I feel without a tribe or without a home. I don’t feel connected to a nation, which is a group of people who share a set of beliefs.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Do you feel that experience of loneliness and isolation comes from an experience of growing up between two cultures?

 

Sunil: It has a lot to do with growing up. I didn’t know that I wasn’t white until I was 21. Brown is a social indicator and indicator of tribe and belonging. I didn’t understand what it indicated. And I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. I genuinely think I have post-traumatic stress from growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

I feel safe in New York. I feel normal in New York. I genuinely own a camouflage hat that I have in my car that I wear when in Pennsylvania, and people are so much more comfortable around me. I’m a brown hillbilly so I can wear the hat.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: This goes along with Victor’s story—how he is trying to mold himself to find family, to redefine a home due to his displacement.

 

Sunil: I don’t have a physical place that feels like home, but I’m also a country boy, so I don’t feel rooted to New York City in a lot of ways. I have a white noise generator because I live on the corner of 57th and 10th, and it’s so loud. The white noise machine has a setting for “city noise” with taxis honking.

Redefining home has been my life project so far, and it also has to do with redefining family. Obviously home and family are intimately connected.

There is a huge chasm that happens on immigration. I don’t even think Jhumpa Lahiri captures it. I would compare it to colonialism—people escaping colonialism to come to the heart of the empire. It’s not just that my dad came from Sri Lanka and didn’t have a warm coat. My dad left Sri Lanka in 1964, not knowing if he would ever see his mother or father again. As Junot Díaz said, it would be the equivalent of writing science fiction. It is the equivalent of getting on a spaceship to leave an unlivable Earth and going to a prosperous colony on Mars and not knowing if you’d ever be able to come back.

It’s profound. There were basic American cultural skills that my father couldn’t teach me and didn’t understand. It would be the same as if I emigrated to France, and I couldn’t teach my daughter or son certain things.

For instance, the question of what it means to be an American man has a different meaning than what being a man means in South Asia.

The book that most captures this for me is Maus by Art Spiegelman. It’s about how much his dad annoys him. His dad drives him crazy. The book talks about how Art reacts when his father doesn’t want him to throw away a match and he doesn’t understand it. But then he finds out that the reason his dad doesn’t want to throw it away is because he could have used it in a concentration camp.

It is a beautiful realization of how difficult it can be to relate to a parent that survived such displacement, and gaining compassion for the experience that they went through.

That is part of the recalibration of home—understanding new cultural norms but also finding a place to be authentic in a new way. If I were to operate under purely American norms, it wouldn’t feel right to me. If I were to operate under purely Sri-Lankan norms, I’d feel like a total fraud. My home is generally where my friends are. My home is usually where my girlfriend is. I end up making nations of two. I create a nation whose border is the boundary of a bed.

It is also very freeing to not feel confined by cultural norms. I am very comfortable traveling. I don’t feel alienated in Chile. I could be from a lot of places because of my skin color. I can carry my home on my back.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: You have traveled a lot, so how has this informed your home and your writing?

 

Sunil: I think we are all a mystery to ourselves, so I don’t totally understand why I travel. In some ways I traveled because it was cheaper to live in other countries than live in America. I also knew I wasn’t a writer who could work a 9-5 job and get up at 4 a.m. and write at Dunkin’ Donuts.

In the last three months, I’ve been in Australia, South Africa, Montana, and the Standing Rock reservation.

The first reason I started traveling was financial. I wanted to write. I’d work as a traveling salesman and take my money, $10,000, and go to Chile to write.

What a luxury of time and money to be able to write in the dark without the pressure of money and competition, without anyone of judging the quality of the work aside from myself.

That is the foundation of my writing practice. The years I spent writing by myself without needing to make money.

But when I was writing this book, it became an example of writing coinciding with my real identity in the world and the two exploding. When I realized that I wanted to write about the WTO, it exploded and I realized I could write about all the feelings when I was traveling. All of that could be articulated in the form of the novel. When I started writing this in 2009, this was before Ferguson, Garner, and Black Lives Matter, so I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the reaction. I’ve toured the world for this book. This has less to do about protest and more to do with the theme of redefining home.

One of the reasons we are starving to redefine home is that we are starting to realize that our lives intersect with people across the world. I care about people I met in South Africa like they are my family.

We are starting to realize that our lives are very different from the lives of 90 percent in the world. Even here, middle class life is materially rich. All of us are aware of that now. I am aware that the shirt I am wearing right now was made in a sweatshop.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: We like the phrase you used earlier about the whole world being at this WTO protest.

 

Sunil: I was really interested in the protest itself, but all the countries in the world were there for the meetings, and I realized I can use that as a jumping-off point. The protests were window-dressing for what I really wanted to talk about—globalization. The world is so much smaller these days but also much bigger too.

We know more about other people’s lives all over the globe and it is much bigger because the topography of lived experience is very uneven.

One of the things that really struck me when I was traveling is that we don’t just live in different countries—we live on different planets.

People living in Guatemala in shacks made out of salvaged wood might as well be living on another planet. This is profoundly different in other ways than mine. The other thing that is exciting is the commonalities.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: We were wondering that since you wrote and lost 600 pages—

 

Sunil: 604 pages.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: What was your process with that? What was your process in rewriting? Did you build on your previous draft or was it like starting anew from a clean slate?

 

Sunil: When I lost it, I spent three months just watching TV and numbing myself out. And then it started bubbling up in my head again. My first reaction was: Fuck—I am going to write it again. I can’t get away from it!

I started recreating it from notes. That was the most boring and painful experience I ever had. Not only had I written it, but I knew how long it would take to rewrite it. I tore up the notes and started again. That was the best gift I ever had. It allowed me to reimagine the decisions I’d made about that book.

It was a very postmodern pastiche type of book.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: What do you feel that you lost or kept?

 

Sunil: What can you do? I remember this scene with Madeline Albright eating cereal. But what can you do?

 

Keya: What kind of cereal was she eating?

 

Sunil: Corn Flakes.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Was the first draft book more fitting in terms of your style?

 

Sunil: I feel this book is more my style, more mature.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: More authentic.

 

Sunil: Yes, more authentic. It’s much closer to what I really feel. One of the blocks we as writers experience is the psychological block. It took me a long time to get past the sensor that made me feel it should be funny. There is a line in the book: “Care too much and the world will kill you cold.” It took me a year of drafts to finally understand that the sarcasm and satire in the first draft were a defense for me, in that situation. So the novel moved into a place that risks sentimentality but one of raw emotion. I’m proud of that, to be honest. I don’t think we get a lot of books that have that. I tried to leave that in there, even though it is embarrassing at times.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Your style sounds very lyrical. It kept connecting with spoken-word poetry and that rawness, presence, and ferocity and engagement with the audience. I think that sincerity really rings through.

 

Sunil: I didn’t mean to do that, and I actually realized recently that my roommate in New York was a slam poet. I found a reel with his slam poetry. We were sitting there watching slam poetry, and I realized that this is what I was doing in the novel. I did write this book to be read. I read it out loud at least five times all the way through. I used an app that would read it to me. I edited more by listening to it out loud than I did by reading it. It all made sense. I wouldn’t necessarily do that with another book, but this is a book that is about protest and moves into a book about love. That should be shouted and lyrical.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Yes, and stick in your ear the way music does.

 

Sunil: With rhythm and repetition. And it’s all because it’s very oral.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Even our society’s preference for the written word over the oral word is a white phenomenon, and you subvert that.

 

Sunil: I had a very deep sense of anti-respectability politics. In respectability politics only some voices in a certain tone in a certain language can speak, and other voices aren’t respected. That is true for political discourse, for protesters, and it’s certainly true for writers. I didn’t realize that I would actually get published. I wrote this in my room. I was just banging the keys. I didn’t realize I would be talking about this with you all!

I think that is why a second book might be so terrifying. You lose your absolute anonymity.

What is the Beckett quotation? “Fail better.”

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: I was really curious about the Standing Rock protest, especially in relation to the content of your novel. Can you describe your experience there? How do those two experiences speak to each other? Did learning from that help you understand this experience?

 

Sunil: I went to the reservation and the water protectors, and my friend wrote me and said, “Does it feel familiar?”

I said, “Yeah, how did you know? Why would it feel familiar?”

He said, “Remember you wrote a book about that?”

I remember coming over the hill into camp and seeing the campfires spreading all the way down from the Cannonball all the way to the Missouri River. You are coming across the largest gathering of Native Americans since Wounded Knee, which is profound. But what was familiar was the vibe of what it means to be in a protester and activist camp.

The book gave me a newfound respect for people who are willing to put their bodies on the line—quite literally in front of the tanks of capitalism. There was a photo that inspired the whole book that I found when I was doing research. I found a photo of a woman on her knees with blood on her head. I wondered what would cause her to go into the streets and get tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed for the rights of people she doesn’t know.

Before that I was cynical about protest. I still have doubts about protest and whether it is effective and about the liberal white protest. I can have those intellectual reservations and still feel the courage that it takes to go do that.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: That definitely comes from a place of empathy.

 

Sunil: I was called to go to Standing Rock, and they are a very brave people. It will become an absolute national issue about what is the future of energy in our country. I totally respect that and love that it is happening.

I am more invested in a pro-active political approach. I think urban gardens are revolutionary. I think alternative medicine and bicycles are revolutionary. I can think of ten thousand examples. I think not celebrating your love for your boyfriend or girlfriend on Valentine’s Day by buying a bear is revolutionary. That is why I am a novelist and not an activist.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Going back to empathy, I love how multidimensional each character is and how the narratives overlap. Bishop and Victor show an overlap.

 

Sunil: It was an accident. There were ten characters. When I first sent this out to agents, there were ten characters. Victor and Bishop were characters. Bishop had a dilemma of whether to teargas these 50,000 protestors.

Victor had a father named Miles, who had a great emotional story, but he had no plotline and just stood in the intersection and cried about his son.

In edits, I realized that I was getting in my own way. It is so obvious the father and Bishop were one character, but I thought it would be a cliché to have a father and son who were police chief and protester. The father and Bishop each had half of a story, so it was an easy edit to bring them together.

So much of the time, I was getting in my own way. The other secret of writing a novel is that you sit down at your desk six days a week, 52 weeks a year, for six years, and it’s only 300 pages, so you spend a lot of time with that thing.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Do you have anything you are working on now?

 

Sunil: I am writing essays, and I am also working on a TV project. Producers are interested, and it is exciting to me, because it is working the same character and plot and story muscles. TV is so much more about character interactions than a novel is. I am growing as a writer without having to write sentences because I think I may have broken the bone that writes sentences. I don’t know if I can write those sentences again.

I think the subject dictates what the sentences are going to look like. I can write in different registers and in different voices, and I think the next time I write a novel it will be in a different voice with different syntax and diction than this. I have different registers, but I don’t hear the next one yet.

 

Kristen and Mikelyn: Your style is so sound-based and even the way you describe writing sounds so musical. Do you play musical instruments?

 

Sunil: I play the piano and guitar. I think that art and language drive most writers.

I love images, and I love film, but I have black marks on paper.

For me, the absolute truth is that I find my home in my writing.

 

By: Kristen Buehner and Mikelyn Rochford with Keya Mitra

Displacement in America and Art

From the inception of America, displacement has been a rampant force that has affected our citizens. Our country was founded by people that were uprooted from their original homes in Europe and forced to attempt to create a new space for themselves. Most Americans today, while born in America, had ancestors that were from Europe who immigrated to America in the late 16th century and 17th century. Despite not having many written accounts of this time to truly know what the early American colonists were feeling, it is very easy to assume that they were burdened with feelings of loneliness and loss in their new environment. Although the original colonists were dislocated from their European homelands and knew the negative feelings that this produced, once they reached America they continued to displace others, the natives, from their homelands.

Ever since the European immigrants came into contact with the native tribes that resided on the American continent, the tribes have been killed, jeered at, commoditized, and forced off of their lands all in the name of the creation of a new nation. In America, they were the first to be displaced, and their displacement was inevitable given the mindset of the colonists and early settlers who wanted to build a new nation on their ancestral lands. We forced the native tribes off of their lands and removed them from their physical homelands. But we took it a step further; we displaced them from their culture and forced them to abandon their traditions and beliefs in favor of our newly developing ones. The call in the 19th century became either “extermination or assimilation;” either we were going to eradicate the native tribes for want of their land, or we were going to physically remove them from it and force them to adopt our new beliefs and traditions.

This displacement and treatment of the Native tribes can be clearly seen in some of the art produced by the Native tribes during the 19th century. Cohoe was a prisoner at Fort Marion after a battle between his tribe, the Cheyenne, and the Americans and he produced several pencil drawings of different aspects of life at the fort. These pencil drawings present how the native warriors were forced off of their homelands and were being forced to adapt to the new “American” culture. Cohoe’s drawing Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists is a prime example of the treatment of Natives by the Americans (Figure 1). The image is a rather crude image of a group of native prisoners dancing; surrounding the dancing natives are modernly dressed American tourists who are being entertained by the dancing. Cohoe, in depicting a normal event that occurred at the fort, was in reality trying to comment on how him and his people were not only physically removed and displaced from their homes, but their cultures and traditions were no longer their own and were turned into a commodity to be consumed by the civilized Americans. Their tribes’ traditions of dances and other ceremonies were turned into a form of entertainment for the Americans.

Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists

Figure 1: Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists, Cohoe, Cheyenne, 1875-1877, pencil and colored pencil on paper. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Library

Another example of this displacement can be seen in a photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston titled Class in American History (Figure 2). As a photograph, this image is irrefutable evidence of how the natives were removed from their homes and cultures. The photograph shows a group of native children in a modern classroom being shown a grown native man dressed in traditional warrior’s clothes. The children are dressed not in their native and customary clothing, but are dressed in contemporary European clothes and their hair has been cut short. They have literally been stripped of their culture and are now being forced to look on it as “history,” rather than as a part of who they are. The older native man is dressed in his tribe’s traditional warrior’s garb, but is essentially not being honored the way he would have been in his own tribe. He, like his tribe and the whole Native American culture, has been turned into a teaching tool, a museum artifact, an item of the past that is used not to honor the culture it represents, but to educate and, more or less brainwash the younger generations into seeing their cultures as inferior to America’s and therefore assimilate easier into it.

Class in American History

Figure 2: Class in American History, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899-1900, photograph. Credit: Artnet

Despite what some Americans would say, America was built, founded, and expanded to the detriment and displacement of others, specifically the Native tribes. This action is still extremely prevalent in the country, and as a nation we need to acknowledge how deeply seeded it is in our country; we need to look at history and the images that recorded it, in order to move away and stop removing people from their cultures and homes.

By: Erin Rothweiler