• For Diasporic Writers, Nostalgia is a Powerful Tool For Engaging Home

    Rosa Boshier: So Stop Calling It "Sentimental"

    The summer before my freshman year, a kind family friend gave me a crash course in cultural awakening. She loaded me up with Fuentes, Martí, and Cortázar—all names tethered to any Latin American literature syllabus worth its salt. But it was the works of Gabriel García Márquez that stood out to me, his words reverberating with collective reminiscence and social critique. I recovered the brilliant golds of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, the highlands’ heartstopping, relentless green. By providing me with a repertoire of settings in which to place my family, rose-tinted as they might have been, Marquez’s words helped me shape my identity as a somewhat rootless Latina.

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    As a child growing up in a conservative Southern California suburb, far away from my mother’s coastal Colombia, I needed these images. Snippets of cultural understanding had come so far either from family myth or the images of shrouded mouths, hungry eyes, and violent jungles that comprised the media’s coverage of Colombia in the 1990s; oil coated local rivers as a result of guerilla retaliation, trees chopped down and splayed across balding rainforests like broccoli stems on a cutting board. I missed what I had never experienced: the bleeding peach of a Palomino sunset, Cartagena’s aqua waters and cobblestone streets. Most of what my sister and I knew of Colombia was that we could never go back.

    After two cross-continental moves, my family ended up outside of Los Angeles, in a brown, parched, unincorporated valley no one would admit was a valley, choosing instead to call it “the foothills.” By the time we got there, our accents were marbled with the imprints of three countries. The town was blue collar fading into white, with strip mall after strip mall dotting the dusty backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. Its major claims to fame were a 50s-style diner in the tiny downtown and a park where the Klu Klux Klan frequently met.

    My classmates were mostly slack-jawed sandy blondes who traded social status on shared Anglo-American reference points. They didn’t understand my accent, my visible lack of Lip Smackers, my disinterest in N’Sync. Even my teacher—who looked like a live-action Miss Piggy, all peroxide curls, pink silk blouses, and animal figurines shellacked to every surface of her classroom—could only thinly veil her disdainful bewilderment. The sting of isolation drew me towards everything counterculture, from punk to poetry, yet it wasn’t until I read Marquez that I truly understood the source of all that homing activity, that grasping towards some already-changing sense of origin.

    In today’s literary landscape of millennial ennui and technological takeover, the use of nostalgia and cultural memory is often written off as sentimental. Critics, mostly white, tell writers that readers are no longer interested in the past, and can only be provoked by the post-human possibilities of the future. Nostalgia is seen as a disease that deforms the present.

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    When used by diasporic writers, nostalgia becomes a tool for cultural resiliency and restoration.

    But when it comes to diasporic narratives, nostalgia is not simply the act of remembering, scholar Farzana Akhter tells us. If my preteen passage to the US taught me anything, it was that nostalgia is a response to the conditions of the present. Rather than an impediment to living in the present, nostalgia is a necessary tool to survive it. In America, we are told to assimilate or go. So, then, nostalgia comes to symbolize a free zone, an autonomous imaginary where we can reclaim a sense of non-stigmatizing specificity.

    A new generation of contemporary writers has taken on the legacy of nostalgia in literature and complicated it. Authors like Elaine Castillo, Luiza Sauma, and Safia Elhillo send vital lifelines out to diasporic folks disconnected from their ancestral lands. They address nostalgia in the present tense, counteracting reductive notions that remembering amounts to a simple sentimentality. Their nuanced use of nostalgia and cultural memory resists contemporary xenophobia and attempts to erase marginalized communities. When used by diasporic writers, nostalgia becomes a tool for cultural resiliency and restoration.

    Books like Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart, a novel about a Filipino community in Milpitas, California, and Luiza Sauma’s Flesh and Bone and Water, which addresses the collateral of Brazilian class privilege across two continents, work the nexus of nostalgia and culture, pointing to nostalgia as a collective power rather than an individual feeling. For better or for worse, the past activates the present. Safia Elhillo’s poetry collection The January Children anchors memory with historical reckoning, expressing a deep commitment to community without shying away from its blind spots. After reading Castillo, Elhillo, and Sauma, I began to understand the past not as a greener pastures to wistfully look back upon, but as vital earth to which we must continually till and tend.

    Through adolescence, my desire to “return” to Colombia overcame me. I yearned for the fertile provinces I felt sure I was inherently connected to. Of course, my family—the beating heart of it all—was now spread out through the US, England, and France, as well as Colombia—but my back-to-the-land naïveté still insisted that there was something waiting for me over there, on the other side of the Caribbean. My grandmother, partly pitying my curiosity and partly fearing where it might lead me, organized a trip to my family’s native Cartagena. With the clouds of civil war parted and Western media decided that it was no longer newsworthy, we got on a plane.

    This was not the return to my roots I had imagined. From the airport we snaked through Cartagena’s clogged streets, air more sulfur than salt. Rather than the coastal gem I had envisioned, Cartagena was a sleeping tourist conglomerate waking up to reopen its coffers. My great-grandmother’s house, where my mother grew up, had been leveled to make way for high rises. Bright red signs warning of toxic waste haloed the lagoon where she swam as a child. Even with my large Colombian family in tow, we were outsiders. We watched bambuco dancers in full yellow, red, and blue skirts in the middle of Cartagena’s overcrowded plaza. We raided the souvenir kiosks of Cartagena’s Las Bóvedas with abandon. We were what I had always feared—Europeans on vacation.

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    As I sulked in my great aunt’s condo, splayed out on white sheets under the icy breath of the air conditioner, my grandmother sat on the bed next to me and wearily asked if I was satisfied. It was only then that I realized I had dragged her down a treacherous memory lane, along it a complexity of family history, political strife, and irreparable ecological damage. Each item brought with it a dizzying list of reasons to both stay and go.

    Earlier in the trip, I had watched my grandmother dance in Plaza Santo Domingo: the pure joy of her body as it sunk into well-known routes, hand loose in her dance partner’s, hips tracing back time, back to when she was a girl and the song was new, when she was a part of this place. But then the song stopped. Cartagena converted from a secluded square back into an adult Disneyland of giant cocktails and mass-produced Panama hats. She became my grandmother again—tight-lipped and pristine in the Caribbean heat, re-entering the Western mannerisms she had learned over the last 50 years. The culture she adopted had already bled into her being; there was no extracting the English from her.

    My sister, cousins, and I marked the place where my parents were furthest from Colombia. We were their most radical act of migration, their most definitive decision to adopt these new countries. Was it fair for me to schlep them to the place they had had to give up? Had I, through my need to understand my ancestral roots, taken away their right to remember home the way they wanted to? As Uruguayan artist Luis Camnitzer once wrote, “My country doesn’t exist anymore except in my memory.”

    rosa boshier colombia Photo by Rosa Boshier.

    For diasporic folks, nostalgia is always there, twitching just under the surface of the skin—but it can be so easily punctured by the realities of the present. As Castillo and Saumas imply, remembering doesn’t happen in a silo; we have to be careful with our memories.

    How can we get to the heart of remembering without forgetting the greater body of the community? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2016 Nobel Prize speech, he speaks about setting his first two books in Japan in order to preserve his mental image of home, one that was rapidly fading: “It was my wish to re-build my Japan in fiction, to make it safe, so that I could thereafter point to a book and say: ‘Yes, there’s my Japan, inside there.’”

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    Having written my first two novels in Colombia without setting foot in the country for several years, I identify with this urge to write towards home in order to pull it closer to you, to protect a place that isn’t there anymore. I still grapple with the fractured memories that war, greed, and environmental degradation have ensured I won’t ever uncover. Though Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, it has been irreversibly changed by urbanization and gold mining. The wetlands have been drained and forests hacked down. 2,697 animal and plant species are now classified as endangered, 31 extinct. According to Luis Germán Narango, World Wildlife Fund for Nature’s Director of Conservation, “we have lost many things from huge regions of the country that we don’t even have documented.” I will never see the stoney faces of San Agustin or the coastal regions of Chocó the way my family did decades ago. There’s a part of me that still needs to imagine them that way, to preserve an integrity in the past in order to move forward.

    In college, I was fortunate to meet people who also struggled with the same challenges of belonging. Led by professors who understood the need to scaffold the academic with lived experience, myself and other Latin American Studies majors learned to embrace the jigsaw puzzle of diasporic existence. I began working at a Latinx cultural center in San Francisco, where I could easily slip into the everyday Spanglish of my upbringing. My involvement at the center shaped a sense of community that did not hinge upon outdated fantasy or far-off kin but rather personal connection. I developed a deep appreciation for the multi-faceted experiences of Latinx folks in the United States that fueled a decade-long career in community development. With my chosen Latinx family in the US, we carved out a niche that could hold our multiplying versions of latinidad. But it was memory, nostalgia, and that from-neither-there-nor-here-ness that catalyzed a search for a sense of place here. If I hadn’t gone back—in more ways than one—I wouldn’t have known what I was looking for at home.

    Through these alternative readings of nostalgia, I learned to let go of my own stale memories—the “disease” of nostalgia finding its own balm through recognition.

    When used in diasporic literature, nostalgia presents a prismatic understanding of shared culture, making us feel momentarily whole while also reminding us of the impossibility of gathering our myriad selves. There is a lot about my family’s migration story that my family doesn’t talk about, can’t talk about. That silence fills my veins. Now that I’ve been both a student and educator of Latinx Studies, I can begin to grasp why. My institutional understanding of Latinx Studies gave me language such as “colonial aftermath” and “generational trauma” but it was works such as Elhillo’s that shook me out of binary thinking around my own cultural identity and legacy. Through them, I came to terms with the double-sidedness of diasporic life—the weight of unlived experience we carry.

    We are both our family’s memories and not. There are ways of honoring them without feeling fully of them. Through these alternative readings of nostalgia, I learned to let go of my own stale memories—the “disease” of nostalgia finding its own balm through recognition. We cannot ignore the gaps in our cultural understanding, but nor should we rush to fill them in. Maybe sometimes, like pressing a shell to our ears, we should just listen to the wind rushing through, the sound of time passing.

    Writers like Elhillo, Sauma, and Castillo prove it is possible to complicate nostalgia beyond singular, racialized notions of sentimentality. In their work, nostalgia is vicious, redemptive, funny, tongue-tied. Memory is perpetually molting. At times it welds itself to community touchstones, at others it reminds us, despite shared cultural lineage, how far away from each other we actually are. Drawing on countless yet shared memories, nostalgia can help us to embrace this multiplicity. It gives us a way, however faulty, back home—a crooked path through a world constantly in flight.

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    This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

    Rosa Boshier
    Rosa Boshier
    Rosa Boshier is a writer whose work can be found in The Rumpus, The Offing, Joyland Magazine, The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She teaches at Otis College of Art and Design and is finishing a novel on latinidad and London punk. Find her retweeting @Rosa Boshier

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