What Suitcases Taught Ana Menéndez About Art, Exile, and Poetry
The Author of The Apartment on Learning to Trust In Our Destinations
Many years ago, a troubled tenant left behind a suitcase in an apartment my husband owned. The young man had left in a hurry and had taken everything with him. Except, evidently, for the suitcase, which my husband discovered when he went to clean out the apartment.
My husband opened the case, expecting it to be empty. Instead, to his amazement, he found a time capsule overflowing with photographs, documents and personal letters.
I could never get the image of that lonely suitcase out of my mind. That tenant, like everyone in my own family going back three generations, was running from someplace else. And emigrants have a complicated relationship with their suitcases.
The emigré’s suitcase imposes a cruel constraint: In flight, you will forgo many of the things you care for, your possessions and the memories and value they carry; the documents and objects that shore up your identity: the diplomas, the wedding rings, the dress from the baptism, the graduation suit, grandfather’s holy book—all of it faces the final judgement of this terribly small container. What doesn’t fit in the suitcase stays behind.
When he left Lebanon in 1908, my great grandfather made room in his bag for a book of prayers, which he sang from every evening after he arrived in Cuba. My grandfather, escaping the poverty of Northern Spain, boarded a boat to Havana with a knapsack full of underwear and a single change of clothing.
My mother, fleeing Cuba in 1965, left her graduation ring behind with a friend. They were allowed no jewelry, or documents and just 60 pounds of clothing in their baggage. My mother and her family filled their suitcases with bolts of fabric, a hopeful act under the circumstances: We will make something of all this in the place we are going.The emigree’s suitcase imposes a cruel constraint: In flight, you will forgo many of the things you care for, your possessions and the memories and value they carry.
So far, I’ve been a lucky outlier in this family: I’ve yet been forced to flee the place of my birth. But in a wide-ranging life, the suitcase has become companion and conscious, a rolling vessel of memory.
There was the suitcase I packed for the trip to Amman, where my then husband and I visited as journalists. When we returned from dinner to our luxury suite, I found the suitcase opened, its lock cleanly cut.
And then, because life rhymes sometimes, there was also the suitcase I packed when I left that husband in Istanbul some years later. I abandoned not just him, but most of the objects I had accumulated in our decade together: the novels, the music, the art on the walls. I fit a few pairs of shoes, some pretty dresses, and my favorite books of poetry into a single bag—you can tell a lot about yourself by what you’d pack when you know you won’t be returning.
I closed the suitcase and snapped shut the lock. I was, of course, distracted and distraught. At the Istanbul airport, security took me aside and demanded I unlock my bag. I reached into my purse, but the keys weren’t there. I checked my pockets, nothing. The pockets of the suitcase were similarly empty.
Finally, my flight time drawing close, I told them to just cut the lock. When they unzipped the case, there were my keys, sitting on top of my clothes. I imagined them waiting there all that time, arms crossed in judgement.
As a symbol of loss, the suitcase teeters on the edge of cliché—featuring as it does in a long and venerable canon of exile poetry. What saves it again and again is its ability to simultaneously contain the metaphor and its object. In life, and in poetry, the suitcase is the thing waiting to be filled with the singular contents of a singular life, and it’s also the thing subject to the battering indignities of the Journey.
“I know the way—the far reaches of the earth call to me,” sings Ovid in the Tristia, “I will come to you, I will come bearing the small luggage of a determined exile.”
Some 2,000 years later, the Moroccan-born Israeli poet Mois Benarroch writes,
I always carry a suitcase
take it everywhere
waiting for the moment
when they chase me
from house to house
from town to town
from country to country…
Carolyn Forché begins her haunting poem “The Lost Suitcase” with these lines:
So it was with the suitcase left in front
of the hotel—cinched, broken-locked,
papered with world ports, carrying what
mattered until then, when turning your back
to cup a match it was taken, and the thief,
expecting valuables instead found books written
between wars, gold attic-light, mechanical birds singing
and the chronicle of your country’s final hours…
Our cinched and broken-locked suitcases sometimes contain room enough for even our clothes. James Longenbach’s “Suitcase” moves from the melancholy unknown ( No one can predict the size, the shape, or even the location / Of the room where you will live a long time….) into the comfort of the radically specific. The poem ends with these lines:
When I pack, I lay out every sock, each pair
Of shorts without a fold.
If my shirts are too large to lie down flat,
I tuck their arms beneath their sides to fill the suitcase perfectly.
A window, the desk, a lamp and a chair.
One of life’s greatest pleasures,
If I’m allowed the phrase,
Is packing a suitcase.
It’s not like building a fire,
When you want to leave space for air.
It would be facile and unkind to suggest that for many, packing is not the source of life’s greatest pleasure, but the ordering of terrible losses. Longenbach’s suitcase is not the exile’s suitcase. But neither does it enclose simple privilege. For me, the poem holds open the suggestion that it’s possible—even in terrified flight—to pack with, if not outright pleasure, at least a hope approaching joy.
I think of those bolts of fabric in my mother’s suitcase. The promise of better times. The opportunity to literally stitch together a new life. This may, in fact, be the greatest privilege of all: the privilege of leaving the past behind.
In his charming Confessions of a Young Novelist (written when he was seventy-seven) the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco introduces the idea of a “seminal image” that gives birth to a novel.As a symbol of loss, the suitcase teeters on the edge of cliché—featuring as it does in a long and venerable canon of exile poetry.
Eco relates that all his novels had their genesis in a seminal idea or image. In The Name of the Rose, it was the image of a monk being poisoned as he read a book. Foucault’s Pendulum originated with two images, the first was Leon Foucault’s pendulum, which he saw in Paris thirty years earlier and the second was a memory of himself playing the trumpet at a funeral for members of the Italian Resistance.
“How to get from the pendulum to the trumpet?” he asks. “To answer this question took me eight years, and the answer was the novel.”
I wasn’t thinking of Eco when I began the novel that eventually became The Apartment. But I realize now that it, too, was born in a “seminal image”: The image of a suitcase in an abandoned apartment.
Whose suitcase? Why abandon it? What’s in it? Who finds it? Why this apartment? Why these rooms, in this city? In my experience, all writing starts with a question. And, as Eco suggests, the novel becomes a problem-solving machine that attempts to posit an answer or, more precisely, several answers, some of them contradictory.
It took me more than a decade to work out the history of that suitcase, that apartment, that troubled young man who leaves it all behind. And in the process, I discovered other travelers who arrived, unpacked, lived in the same apartment for a short while, and then fled again. To speak grandly, it’s the history of the twentieth century.
But it’s also the history of a place like Miami Beach, where the novel takes place. And it is, of course, my own personal and family history, where the past is a series of rooms where someone is always coming and going, a seemingly endless shuffle right up to the moment when we enter that final, dimly lit room of permanent exile.
In “A Suit or a Suitcase” by Maggie Smith, the speaker asks what she will miss of this life:
….My soul? My self?
I don’t know what to call it, and besides,
my body hasn’t traveled with me.
I’ve traveled inside it. Do I wear it
or does it carry me? Is the body a suit
or a suitcase?….
I fantasize now and then of traveling with no suitcase. I imagine this is the dream of all frequent travelers: To simply board a plane with a small backpack and disembark, unburdened, in a new place. The airlines certainly seem to be herding us toward that vision: every year, the overhead spaces seem to shrink, the price of baggage becomes ever more burdensome.
Some companies—I’m looking at you Austrian Airlines—orchestrate humiliating tableaus where your unassuming bag is subjected to a weigh-in at check in, or worse, before passing to security. Should your carry-on be deemed too heavy, you will be forced to disgorge its contents in full public view—the impractical high-heeled shoes, the extra pair of pants, the two hardcovers you thought you could squeeze in at the last minute—and move them to another container that will also be weighed and—for a fee—put on…the same plane.
This is part farcical re-enactment of moribund capitalism and part the infantilizing impulses of a tyrannical industry. And yet, each time this happens to me, I’m overcome by a certain wistfulness: If only all our excess baggage could be so monetized.I grow older. It gets harder to shoulder heavy burdens. And more and more I trust that everything I need will be available wherever I’m going.
When I moved to Cairo in 2008 I had a lot of baggage: mostly books, but also steel cut oats, face creams, clothing to last me the year I planned to live there. My divorce had just gone through. At the airport I paid $600 in baggage fees.
I’ve traveled far from that time. I met my new husband that fall. We moved to The Netherlands. We had a son. We moved again to Miami. We changed jobs a few times. We still travel every summer. And each year, my suitcase grows lighter.
It’s not just that I’ve come to dread the entire performance: the removing of the shoes, the shouting of the ground-down TSA workers, the hundreds of us dragging our sad little compliant bags behind us. And it’s not that I’m ready to abandon my suitcase in an empty apartment just yet. It’s that I have some experience now.
I grow older. It gets harder to shoulder heavy burdens. And more and more I trust that everything I need will be available wherever I’m going.
The Apartment by Ana Menéndez is available via Counterpoint.