I started writing this essay on the Fourth of July. Here in Venice, California, celebrations were muted by news of a spike in COVID-19 cases. With the prospect of another lockdown looming many chose to stay indoors. Still, some things invisible you can just smell in the air, and gunpowder and barbeque smell like celebration.
I had just gotten off the phone with my parents. Snap elections had been called in Trinidad and Tobago. We were trying to find out whether an expatriate like me could vote by mail.
In truth I was wondering whether I should vote at all.
I have not lived in Trinidad and Tobago since my short pants days. I don’t follow the news. Apart from checking in on my family and ensuring that the government hasn’t been commandeered by lizard people, I pay little attention to local developments.
What could I have to say to 1.4 million people living in a country I barely know anymore?
Losing The Nation Is Losing Your Identity
My path to adulthood did not involve forming strong national ties. Trite as “gunpowder and barbeque“ may sound, there are meaningful bonds that I’ve given up in exchange for the freedom to roam.
You’ve got this center to your identity—the nation—around which orbit the objects of your daily reflection: specific values, beliefs, social ties, cultural artifacts, rituals, and traditions.
But, if you leave home at a young enough age, it’s like bringing this constellation into collision with another solar system. When it happens, you, the juvenile, in what is sure to be a gut-wrenching crisis of meaning, get to see which of your identity-objects fall into phase and which spin into the void.
In the limit this leads to being Without Nation.
You’re a veteran of the galactic shake-up. You’ve tasted many flavors of freedom and know that there is always another definition on offer. You understand that who you are and what you represent changes from place to place. You are a curiosity. Someone once described you as worldly. It was a very kind way of telling you that you have no home.
Freed of your original context you are a heap of parts looking for a compelling reason to be. Identity-objects take on an almost sacred dimension as dance, music, hair-style, accent, social ties, economic class, language, taste, religion, philosophical beliefs, and political views, become building blocks that you configure and reconfigure in a desperate search for a structure that represents you.
At a Canadian boarding school my multi-ethnic group of Caribbean friends decided that Black American would be our lingua franca, Jamaican Dancehall would be our preferred music, relationship norms were Canadian—easy decision—our television and literature was American and religious observance split between Anglican, non-observing, and the occasional nod to Rastafarianism.
Vybz Kartel was the man. Movado, too, though we had great fun pretending to have a preference between the two warring titans of dance. We could recite all the words to Tha Carter III. Someone introduced us to John Butler and, from then, we carried a guitar everywhere. Our free time was spent throwing tennis balls, smoking cannabis, and freestyle rapping.
And, barring an unfounded contempt we had for our Canadian counterparts—sorry, we were homesick, angsty teenagers—it was a great time.
But there’s a price to this freedom. Aside from the extreme loneliness, of course. People Without Nation lose their natural voice. They are viewed as unable to speak in true national conversations. Unable to speak as true representatives of anywhere. It’s a suspicion of sorts. That you did leave means that you always could leave. So your concerns are temporary, right? It’s not like you have roots here.
Finding My Place
All teenagers experiment with roles in order to find their voice in society. But these archetypes are usually shaped by a dominant cultural context. Leaving home at an early age complicates this process. It makes it much more difficult to see yourself as part of any one community.
Why were we such assholes to the Canadians? What made our experience of teenage angst any different to theirs? They sure did like smoking dope and vibing to Buju Banton as much as we did.
Maybe we knew that none of those cultural affects meant as much to them. That they had an accepted place in society to fall back on. This was something they could try on for some time. For us it was the flotsam of a fractured identity.
I wonder about this because, for me, boarding school was just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve gone on to live a few more places and, by and large, have accepted my status as an outsider. But recently this self-deprecating title has taken some moral significance.
The truth is I don’t really participate. Politically, socially, what have you. I have accepted that, as an outsider, the nation-state doesn’t really want my opinion and I don’t really want to give it. I’m a popcorn eater perched on a vantage point from where I can see only ironies and contradictions.
It is a maddening, aggrandizing, self-obsessed way to say that I prefer to be transient. That I’m afraid to step into the water.
But, unfortunately for the nationalists among us, I’ve come to see this as indefensible opportunism. As using my mobility to impose the cost of my existence without contributing anything.
I mean how unspeakably privileged is the thought, “Well, if things keep going this way, I’ll just move to another country”?
I have no illusions that the voice of a person Without Nation will be readily accepted by any country I choose to live in. And why should they? Their national sovereignty means something.
But I have a responsibility. I have a responsibility to contribute to the cultural canvas of the place I reside. And if not by birthright then it will be my job to appeal to the foundational values and commitments of any nation I live in and say,
“We may not agree on everything but I must be able to earn the right to contribute to our common good.”
It’s a bloody mess but that’s what we’re working on this week.