“One can say of language that it is potentially the only human home, the only dwelling place that cannot be hostile to man.”
– John Berger
Ode to Ironing
Poetry is white:
it comes from the water covered with drops,
it wrinkles and piles up,
the skin of this planet must be stretched,
the sea of its whiteness must be ironed,
and the hands move and move,
the holy surfaces are smoothed out,
and that is how things are made:
hands make the world each day,
fire becomes one with steel,
linen, canvas, and cotton arrive
from the combat of the laundries,
and out of light a dove is born:
chastity returns from the foam.
translated by Stephen Mitchell
How can a word simultaneously hold within it innumerable worlds and something as intimate as a single touch, many years ago? A sense of self and calm, several waking nightmares ago. Home is something that always exists, or we believe into existence, in some form, while always being under construction. Under a process of fabulation. A very real, material armour, a refuge. But one that is often and easily violated, as the outside becomes insatiable, and its demons follow us indoors, haunting us. And so, we turn to our very real but imagined armour, the homes found in the elsewheres of a world incessantly striving to leave us bare.
I yearn, or ache – as Maya Angelou describes it – for home, in whatever manifestation I can scramble within the confusion, the heaviness of daily life. And I have found that, for me, the one sanctuary of this world is its elsewheres. I find home – a continuous, repetitive pursuit – in language, in fiction. Though counterintuitive, these elsewheres are in many ways more tightly bound with the world than fleeting realities, and can support our tired bodies and limping minds better than remembrances of a certain person or a certain place at a certain time when a certain feeling that felt like home came over us, like an ambush that we are never prepared for.
Fiction is a safe space, perhaps because it is conscious of its constructedness, unlike those other imposed fictions we have been brought up to accept as valid spaces of belonging, such as national identity, religion, and more recently, the unflinching self. My fictional homes feel more like the gentle embrace of a self-aware lover. And so I throw myself into this embrace and lie there, not as an act of detachment from the hostility of the world, but as a way in which to fully exist in it, to comprehend, shape, and constitute it. My homes are in this sense counterfictions, pushing against the frontiers of reality and its myths, with the desperation of a child hungry for its parents’ love.
One of my favourite short stories is Salman Rushdie’s “At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers”, part of his collection East West. In an undefined, bleak future setting, people from all walks of life assemble at an auction where the prize lot is the pair of magic slippers worn by Judy Garland in the film rendition of The Wizard of Oz, in which Judy’s character, Dorothy, returns back home to Kansas by clicking the heels of her ruby slippers three times. In Rushdie’s story, the promise of returning home that the ruby slippers represent is extracted from the realm of fiction by force of sheer desperation, as the auctioneers – from movie stars to exiles, outcasts and even imaginary beings – all feel equally resolute to secure their magic ticket back home. All are ‘unhomed’ in their own way, with this sense of homelessness in some ways equalising the crowd, though the financial criterion central to the context of the auction means that the road home, even that found in fiction, is an uneven landscape.
In a sense, though, in the story this inequality becomes irrelevant. Home, in the minds of all attendees is somewhere, anywhere, other than where they are. But the anywhere of home easily slips into a nowhereness, with the narrator lamenting that home “has become such a scattered, damaged, various concept.” Dorothy’s ability to return home by clicking her ruby heels and repeating that ‘There’s no place like home’ now disintegrates under the weight of the realisation that there’s no place as home. I realise, therefore, that Dorothy’s return required not one but two forms of magical invention: the ruby slippers and concrete language where the sign harmoniously corresponds to a tangible, self-contained signifier. For Dorothy, home had a form, a body: Kansas. But now, all that remains of home is metaphor and abstraction, forms which the slippers, even if they are magical, are unlikely to comprehend. If home is anywhere “except the place from which we began”, as Rushdie says in his essay “Out of Kansas”, all that remains is the endless search, the point of arrival always melting away from the ground beneath our feet.
The Kansas we left behind can only be wished into existence on the overburdened back of memory; it is as much an elsewhere, a fiction, as is finding home within a dream. And yet we long for it, thirstily. Like the auctioneers, we are beautifully condemned to “create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands,” as Rushdie writes. I say beautifully condemned because here lies a blessing and a curse: finding a home in fiction allows for a form of solace in the face of the knowledge that we can never go home again, allowing us to continue constructing and re-constructing our own elsewheres, our Kansasses. To stretch the skin of this planet, as Neruda’s poem wonderfully goes, to make space for home.
By Lizzy Ioannidou