Home as Mythical Space

A Desh Pradesh Workshop.

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Pratibha Parmar

People have explored in very diverse, and sometimes quite contradictory ways, the meaning of home for artists, political activists, for women experiencing domestic violence, for lesbian and gay men, for people living with AIDS and HIV, and for all of us South Asians living in the diaspora. I want to read something from a book that I co-edited with a group of black women in England, and it was published in the early 1980s. What we wrote about 'home' at that time is still relevant today. The book is called Charting the Journey: Writings by Black and Third World Women. One of the sections in the book was called 'Alienations: Strangers at Home'...The introduction to that starts off with a quote from the black American poet and writer and political activist June Jordan She says, "But everybody needs a home, so at least you can have some place to leave, which is where most other folks will say that you must be coming from. Home is a funny thing. Home is where the heart is, home is where the hearth lies. Home is where you were born. Home is where you live. Home is where you can't live. Home is where you're safe. Home is where you're scared to be. Home is a place of mind. Home is a foreign land. Home is homeland. Home is a pavement stone Home is your blood and bone. Home is where you belong. Home is where you're dispossessed from. Home is your prison. Home is an institution. Home is forbidden. Home is your exile. Home is a smell. Home is a sound. Home is your joy. Home is your despair. Home is for the future. Home is for the past. A young woman loses her pass card in Soweto, or the West Bank, an old woman squats on a pavement in Bombay. A Chilean mother lives in Glasgow, longing for the sounds of Chile. For Palestinians who have been dispossessed and their land divided, home has a very different meaning. Artificially imposed boundaries separate families for decades. Dispossession is a shared reality in South Africa, as in Palestine. But if the land is stolen, the spirit is not. Homes continue to be created. Banishment of the designated homes of the Bantustans, is refused in favour of the corrugated iron huts. Refugee camps stand firm as part of the struggle and determination to remain."

For women of colour, for people of colour living in the west, there are inherent contradictions in the very word home. Can you call a country which has systematically colonized your countries of origin, one which refuses, through a thorough racism in its institutions, media, and culture, to even recognize your existence, and your rights to that existence—can you, can we, call this country home?...The attacks on some people of colour in the supposed security of their own homes further emphasizes the violent insecurity of home. And in the land where homes are supposed to be castles, petrol bombs can be hurled through your letter boxes, and police can smash down your front doors.

To return to June Jordan, when a white person asks a black woman where she comes from, the implicit assumption is that she does not belong here, wherever that is, be it Canada or Britain. The implicit threat is that she should go back to where she belongs. Even this returning, going back, dreaming of a country of origin, is beset with problems. Women who have never actually been home idealize it to such an extent that 'back home' fulfills all the emotional and ideological holes that this home does not. It becomes the ideal place, the true place. It is so romanticized that 'back home' itself becomes unreal, a dream.

Home is an emotional word, a political word. Many crimes have been carried out in its name. While recognizing our right to claim our various i homes as our own, we must be wary of the kind of nationalism and patriotism that only has reactionary roots. A home where we are unable to voice our criticisms is not a genuine home. Nor is a genuine home one where you assimilate, integrate, and then disappear. For being invisible is the same as not being at home. Not being at home enough to be precisely who you are, without any denials of language or culture. Until we can be both be visible and belong, the word home will remain for us ambiguous, ironic, and even sarcastic.

Chris Creighton-Kelly

Do Anglo-Indians have a home? Anglo-Indian. The very word, even the more pompous 'Eurasian' that some of my relatives sometimes prefer some of the time, conjures up the worst compromises. Please note, the Anglo comes first. Conjures up that we've always been the buffer. Somehow that...oversimplifies it, though, it gives it a kind of quiet, imperial identity. Anglo-Indian; please note, the Anglo comes first. It doesn't really reveal the mud past, the whole colonial mess, the Portuguese, theGoan, the Irish, the Hindu, the English, the Dutch.. .and who knows what else resides inside of me. Please note, the Anglo comes first.

So what's home? Home is a bridge, a bridge by definition, Anglo-Indian, between cultures, between white, not white, between straight, gay, lesbian, between men, women. Hopefully, home is a place where self-loathing has a place of becoming, has a hope of becoming self-love. Home is giving, not in some Christian 'turn the other cheek'.. .way of giving. But giving as peoples of colour, in humility, giving up, sharing power, facilitating, giving as resistance, resistance as pleasure. Home is hybrid, always. To be living as an ethnic with ethic in these postmodern times is always to be fragmented. Home is always negotiated. Never a refuge, never totally comfortable, always a little dis-ease.

So where to locate home, then? Well, anthropologists, bless their objective little hearts, have taught us that when ethnics lose their identity they first lose the way they d ress, then their culture, and their culture becomes atrophied and stale and ossified, and finally reified, so all they have are customs. They lose their customs, and then they lose their language. But always, there's always food. The last to go, food.

Moyez Vassanji

If I have to give a shape to home I would put it maybe round. But even that would be two dimensional. So home for me, thinking back on it now and talking to friends when they talk about home, it meant a certain familiarity, an ease or a comfort, a place in which to be. A place in which you are, and in which you are not conscious that you are. Once that home or state of being or existence is lost, for whatever reason, or is perceived to be lost, which may be the same thing, then there's a struggle for being. A search for that comfort. A search to attain the state of being as natural as possible. And I suppose that is what one is doing here.

Well, what does this all mean? What is home to me? If I think about it, it seems to me that my writing is in fact a search for home. The home that I lost and the home that I am seeking. I don't believe in the simple process of leaving and arrival. I've not arrived, I may have unpacked, but I don't think I have arrived. The antithesis of that is Bharati Mukherjee when she says in her New York Times article, "I have arrived." But I have not felt like I have arrived. I have been in many places. Home for me is a constant process. It is the search, the homelessness. It's like being in a train, where there's the thrill of the motion, the rhythm. Arrival would be disappointing, it would be an anticlimax. And in fact, a betrayal. You see, home is a tremendous guilt. So at best, writing is a home.

I suppose, to make a strength out of this, homelessness comes naturally to me. This is again a kind of analysis after the fact because I come from a migrating peoples. I come from families in Gujerat and Kutch. My families have been in Zanzibar, in Kenya, in Tanganyika. I have lived in the United States, in Canada. And we are also a people of cultural transitions. In fact, we rather perversely take pleasure in moving with the times. So there was Hinduism; those memories still distinct. There was Islam. There was Africa. There was Britain and colonialism, which is a very real presence even now. There was the US and there is Canada, and I don't know what else. So this homelessness comes quite naturally. And writing is a way of making a strength out of it.

For this reason, and I want to contradict myself, I feel most at home in cities...You lose yourself in a city. They are not claustrophobic, at least not the cities that I would like to live in. You can become faceless, change neighbourhoods, you can create your private space in a city. In fact, a city is a world. And counter to that, nationhood is, in fact, meaningless to me. It is abstract, it is artificial. It is more constraining than a city. A city to me is the antithesis of a nation. I once had a sense of nation but that's because nationhood was defined and was being defined as I was growing up. And I was part of that defining process and that definition was in response to tangibles. Those tangibles were colonialism, racism, signs on toilets which said, 'Europeans only' or 'Asians only.' It was in response to that reality, which I still remember, that one defined a new nationhood... If that sense has been broadened now, into a sensibility that I would call, for want of a better phrase, 'a Third World identity.' I don't want to argue about the usage of that phrase, but I think people know what I mean, and many people that I feel comfortable with know what that means. So home is, in fact, now a big place.. .Boundaries are broken not to be replaced by other boundaries. I was pushed out by whatever reason, and I am perpetually out. Thank you.

From the audience

I'm troubled at this use of the word 'home,' and I wonder why none of you problematize the concept? I should lift out what I'm thinking here. We have homeless people, which is associated with poverty, and if you walk the streets of Toronto, they are indeed 'home-less.' Then I think of Palestine, the people of Palestinian origin fighting for a homeland, and I think 'home' there is different. And I think that being in India, one feels homeless sometimes. And you think about sexism, abuse and misogyny. I'm wondering exactly what is the symbolic value of 'home'? I'm wondering in terms of colonialism and the religious moral value placed on the family as a heterosexual couple, and home, why do we keep on using this very troubling and dangerous concept? I hope the project is to fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and I'm just wondering why, indeed, we are using this problematic and dangerous category?

Pratibha Parmar

I think that there is an acknowledgement on the panel that 'home' is a very contradictory term and it's a contradictory term for all different groups of people... I think that when we talk about home and the contradiction of that term home for women who are systematically abused within the family by their husbands or their male partners, we also have to acknowledge women who are incest survivors, so where home is actually not a safe place at all. And I think that those are some of the things that we need to begin to talk about when we're talking about this problematic term 'home.' And also try and move beyond our kind of subjectivities, that yes, we do inhabit radical subjectivities, where if we are on the margins and on the periphery and in the kind of marginal identities that we inhabit, we need to move beyond that and begin to make connections across those differences and across our subjectivities. Really, if we get caught up just within our own authentic experiential identities, then we're not actually going to be doing anything towards making any kind of change, or creating any kind of challenge to the status quo.
Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
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Pratibha Parmar
Pratibha Parmar's many film and video documentaries include the award winning Khush, A Place of Rage, Sari Red, Warrior Marks, The Colour of Britain, and most recently her first drama, Memsahib Rita.
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Chris Creighton-Kelly
Chris Creighton-Kelly is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and cultural critic born in the UK with South Asian/British roots. His artworks have been presented across Canada and in India, Europe & the USA.
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Moyez Vassanji
M.G. Vassanji is the author of eight novels, most recently A Delhi Obsession.
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