Exploring the Fringes of Familiarity

There is a difference between what it means to go and what it means to leave, and Liren Fu‘s essay this issue takes on the weighty task of exploring the deep gulfs in between the two. In examining how when ‘the anchor [is] lost, the anchor must also necessarily be lost sight of’, Liren considers the subtle nuance of the expatriate condition and what becomes forsaken in the void between home and abroad.

An “Ugly” “Expatriate Dream” implies the personal; it calls on the subjectivity of the “Dream”, of an experience tied to the dreamer, and yet is the process of expatriation ever a solitary experience? Shire and Mukul certainly do not seem to think so. In both poems, families and familiarity are placed as key parts of the narrative, foregrounding the “Ugly Expatriate Dream” as one that must be understood in relation to others; yet, ironically, family plays a role as only a prop in both poems, being understood only as much as is useful in advancing the personal narrative surrounding expatriation. This suggests that the ugliness of the “Expatriate Dream” is twofold; in both the experience overseas, and in the reduction of what was once familiar and fully fleshed to one-dimensional representations, becoming called upon only when one’s new narrative wants to.

In both “Ugly” and “Expatriate Dream”, maternal figures are front and center from the first verse; either directly called upon, as in “mother”, or indirectly so, as in “Your daughter”. Yet these maternal figures are also fundamentally sidelined; neither maternal figure is described or given a voice, merely described in relation to their children. Mukul’s mother figure exists to make “a cup of tea…Stirred to behold the redness of fresh tea leaves”, to let the speaker figure eat “happily/Payasa prepared by you”; maternity exists only to comfort the child, to “laugh[ed] at me in my black shirt/At my frizzy hair” and to give “a 20-taka note” to “fix it”.  While the spotlight is always on maternal actions, it is never on the maternal figure; everything is relational, in provision to the speaker figure, with no suggestion of individuality or personal motivations.

Shire’s maternal figure is perhaps even more reduced than Mukul’s; while Mukul’s is described affectionately, with the speaker figure pleading that “I remember you too much, mother”, Shire’s is invoked as inadequate. “You are her mother./Why did you not warn her,/hold her like a rotting boat/and tell her that men will not love her”? And while Mukul’s produces “A cup of hot tea”, “Payasa”, and “a 20-taka note” which are then received by the speaker figure, Shire’s produces nothing but her daughter, “taught her/how to tie her hair like rope”. Shire’s “made her gargle rosewater…said macaanto girls like you shouldn’t smell/of lonely or empty”; all actions relative to the child, and even when “voiced” describing nothing about the self.

Contrast that to what is evoked of the expatriate self: “Expatriate means dream-drenched agony/To exist without happiness/Everything a dream”, and “What man wants to lay down/and watch the world burn/in his bedroom?” While nothing is said of the maternal experience, of their emotional landscapes, Mukul’s expatriate is evoked in shadow and “dream-drenched agony” with “Everything a dream”; the two phrases feed into each other, the expatriate dream revealed to be both sheer pain, all-encompassing, and unescapable, being the essence of the new lived condition. Shire’s expatriate self is both richer and more tortured; her expatriate shows “the world burn”, being able to reflect a global condition when the maternal figures can’t even reveal a subjective condition.

Thus, while the maternal figures are in introduction the focal point of both poems, they exist only in relation to this evocative, layered expatriate self; “Now nothing waits for me/To receive it every dawn and dusk”, and “She was splintered wood and sea water…reminded them of the war.” Mukul’s maternal figure “waits”, observing, while his expatriate “receive[s] it every dawn and dusk”, actively engaged in a larger pattern. Shire’s only serve to be “reminded…of the war”, which is itself symbolic of her expatriate self that is “a small riot”, “a civil war”. Ironically, the conceit of focusing on maternal figures only serves to reduce and diminish them, twisting their memory to fit the narrative desired of the expatriate self.

The exploration of the expatriate condition then, while describing what was left behind, does anything but; in navigating the spatial and metaphorical voids in the expatriate condition, identities are reduced at convenience. Home and the maternal condition become one-dimensional portrayals, from Mukul’s “heaven” to Shire’s “war”; but why? In advancing the joint argument of the “Ugly Expatriate Dream”, that the self is broken “To exist without happiness”, “the world burn[ing]/in his bedroom”, impetus and priority must necessarily be given to the argument; the expatriate self must be shown “To exist without happiness”, to be “the world burn[ing]/in his bedroom”, and thus expanded and expounded on. However, in describing exactly how the expatriate self has become broken, the gap between the present and the past must be shown as unbridgeable; in losing the anchor of home, the expatriate condition is painted as lost at sea.

It is thus in the repurposing of home to fit the advanced narrative that another form of ugliness is revealed; the “Ugly Expatriate Dream” is ugly not only because the expatriate condition is destructive, but because home becomes reduced into a one-note statement in trying to explicate, and emphasize, exactly why the expatriate self is so horribly broken. In portraying the anchor as lost, the anchor must also necessarily be lost sight of; the expatriate dream becomes more evocative as the expatriates themselves are unable to flesh out home, with our focus pulled towards their experience, though the ugliness of the reduction is also revealed. The dreamer thus becomes both experiencer and source of ugliness, pulled taut and tense between realities and desires; stuck doing no justice to what was left behind in trying to explain the present, all the dreamer can do is navigate the voids that remain.


LIREN FU is a junior at Tufts University, pursuing a double major in English and Biology with a minor in Linguistics. In his spare time, he writes poetry, thinks about teaching and education policy, and rock climbs while ignoring a severe fear of heights.

Photo credit: Victoria Lee

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