What if you don't have a tidy answer to "Where are you from?"
A misunderstanding stalks my life. It takes different forms on different occasions, yet its roots never alter. At a conference, a reading or a festival, I mention that I am an immigrant. With a hostile grimace, a writer who may be Canadian-born but who identifies as a member of a minority turns on me and barks: “Where from?” In a gentler form, this comedy plays itself out as a farce of mistaken identity. In one such case I was on a panel with a Canadian-born writer who had a southern European surname. He, who incarnated Canadian moderation, was peppered with questions about his immigrant customs; I, who sometimes offend the polite norms of my adopted land, was asked questions that took for granted that I was a seventh-generation Canadian. Our respective responses and careers ought to have made clear which of us had been born here, yet inevitably the guy with the foreign-sounding name was assumed to be the immigrant.
“Where from?” is the question I can never answer. Not long ago, when this challenge was hurled at me by a professor of immigrant literature, I replied: “Why do you think people have to come from somewhere? Lots of people come from nowhere.” Like many immigrants, I issue not from a place, but from a historical experience. To ask someone where he comes from offends not only in that it excludes the object of the question from his society, but also because it misconstrues the nature of immigration. Some people may pass from one conveniently narrow cultural enclave to another: from the Azores islands to Dundas Street in Toronto, from rural Haiti to the Pie-IX neighbourhood of Montreal, from Shanghai to Richmond, BC. Even these transits may conceal layers of contradiction which easy categorization fails to capture; but many of us were hybrid beings, enfolding multiple identities, before we arrived in Canada. Most partisans of “Where from?” are people who have invested in the immigrant experience as a narrative of cultural essentialism and dissidence from a Canadian society whose power structures remain dominated by old-stock Anglo-Saxons. The irony of this position is that by accepting this categorization, even from a posture of resistance, the would-be dissidents reinforce the mental divisions imposed by the colonial policies of the past.
A more fluid understanding of immigration would recognize that many of us have histories that arouse what might be referred to as “categorical anxiety.” Immigrants from nowhere provoke this anxiety in citizens who prefer to slot their neighbours into predigested niches. Throughout Canadian history, it has been the person whose identity cannot be neatly summarized who gets the frosty reception. During the migration of Eastern Europeans to the prairies under the government of Laurier in the early twentieth century, Canada’s predominantly British- and French-descended population was perturbed by the influx of people whom they referred to as “Ruthenians.” This name was reserved for people, most of whom spoke Slavic languages, who did not come from nation-states, but rather from the ill-defined borderlands where the overextended, crumbling Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires blurred together. The return to the map of vanished nation-states later in the twentieth century allowed these immigrants’ descendants to define themselves as inheritors of the Polish or Ukrainian nations, and to get a better reception. Jews in the mid-twentieth century, and Muslims in the early twenty-first century, faced exclusion and public opprobrium. Both groups issue from religions that are multi-linguistic and multi-national, complicating any reply they might make to a grunted, “Where from?” Many Jews came to Canada as survivors of a historical experience—a pogrom or the Holocaust—and recent Muslim immigrants are often escaping the vast realm of violent instability, in which national borders are shifting or dissolving, or are hotly contested, that now extends from the eastern Mediterranean to the frontiers of India and China. The murkiness of this region in the public mind, like that of “Ruthenia” in the early twentieth century, accentuates uncertainty and suspicion.
The historical experience of which, in a very mild way, I am a product is decolonization. Between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s, the closing down of European colonialism, particularly in Africa and South Asia, dispatched white settlers and middlemen of many ethnicities from the places where they had been born, or worked for decades, to a colonial centre that failed to welcome them, then on to third or fourth destinations. British settlers in India went “home” to England, found it cramped and grey, and moved on to Australia or South Africa. The Pieds-Noirs left North Africa for Nice or Marseille; finding themselves regarded as an underclass, they scattered around the world. East African Asians, after being expelled from Uganda or made unwelcome in Kenya or Tanzania, moved to England, then on to the United States or Canada. White Rhodesians or Kenyans followed a similar route. Portuguese settlers in Mozambique and Angola, as well as Africans who had collaborated with them, fled to a Portugal that most had never seen; derided in Lisbon, many left for New England, Canada or South Africa. On the fringes of these and other well-worn international pathways one hears thousands of individual stories of decolonization. Mine is that my English mother and first-generation American father met on a beach in Yemen in 1958, where their work—though they didn’t see it this way at the time—was preparing the ground to close down the British colony of Aden. I never lived in Aden, yet having been shown glowing photographs of white buildings around an extinct volcano since childhood, I winced in the spring of 2015, when warfare pulverized the city. I lived in three countries before I arrived in Canada. I feel certain connections to each, yet I do not come from any of them. I am not a product of a place, who can be relegated to a comfortable hyphenated identity, but of an amorphous historical experience. If, doubting my immigrant status, you challenge me with a grunted, “Where from?” I will tell you that I come from nowhere. But for me, as for millions of others, “nowhere” is a history and a conception of time.