Imagining an Expat Aesthetic

by James McGirk

Marco-polo-1-sized I was born beside Sigmund Freud’s London townhome, and spent the next eighteen years ferried between Europe and Asia. Nominally American, it was not until I was seventeen-years-old that I could actually call the U.S. home, and even then I was so jangled from the shock of moving from India to a mountainous midwestern state, that I felt as if I had arrived from another planet. This was more than mere discomfort, I was so confused and unsure of who I was and what my role was meant to be I lost the ability to speak for months. Many years later – as a freshly minted Master of the Fine Art of fiction writing – one of my deepest anxieties stems from this dislocation and lack of authority. I lack a homeland to plunder for deep, meaningful memories from. Flannery O’Connor had Savannah, Georgia and generations of roots feeding her creations, Saul Bellow had Chicago, and Alice Munro has Southwestern Ontario. My own memories seem too fragmented and distant for the deep aesthetic dives they take, unless there is such a thing as expatriate literature. Could there be such a thing?

Immigrant fiction has a long, rich tradition that is not quite the same as expatriate fiction. Perhaps the difference has to do with authority. Migration has always been part of the human experience. For millennia we have been herded about and forcibly relocated. Immigration is active. To uproot your home and set it down elsewhere is a story. There is conflict and action built into this experience, so it lends itself to fictionalization. But being an expatriate is a completely different level of engagement than being immigrant. You either arrive as an agent or you arrive as a tourist. Either way you remain aloof; tethered elsewhere, staying at the whim of a foreign government, in a role where any intervention on your part is an imposition of some sort. Expatriate action either lacks agency, or is pure adventure and thus politically moot. What authority can an expatriate writer possibly have when compared to a national or an immigrant’s perspective? Outside of nationalist chauvinism, their only claim to some sort of special authority would be data based, such as technical expertise – the expatriate as consultant or mercenary; or as a gleaner of information – the expatriate as a journalist or spy.

Marco Polo, the great 13th Century Venetian traveler, was all of the above. He was a representative in the court of Kublai Khan and an agent of his family business concern.

His account of his voyages through Iran, China, India and beyond – The Travels of Marco Polo – was as much intelligence briefing as it was aesthetic creation. Travels is a collection of descriptions, bordering on the anecdotal, others architectural, others merely practical. Farming practices share the page with improbable descriptions of local customs. Much of it was impossible and had to have been invented or at least embellished. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities imagined Marco Polo keeping the emperor Kublai Khan entertained, telling him story after story describing the cities he had traveled to, all of which were simply different facets of Venice. The idea of cities existing as layers upon layers overlain has a sort resonance with the expatriate experience; there is something undeniably architectural about it. The projection of home onto a foreign substrate. Or conversely finding and assembling traces of some far away place (that may never have existed at all) in a foreign city.

An unfamiliar skyline is a vivid reminder that you are not home. If a postcard is an index, physical proof of your presence in another city, it cannot be coincidence that architectural detail is among the most popular choice for an image sent home. And to find home you have to superimpose the familiar onto an alien architecture.

Marco Polo may have been the original expatriate author, but if there were a patron saint of the genre, it would be J.G. Ballard. Ballard was born and grew up in China, as the son of a British manufacturing executive. He lived a cloistered, comfortable life in Shanghai until about the age of 13, when the Japanese invaded China and he was sent to a Japanese interment camp. Later Ballard studied medicine and flew in the Royal Air Force. His stories are science fiction, set in dystopian ruined worlds, scientific outposts, vacation complexes and non-spaces like airports and freeway overpasses. To the true rootless cosmopolitan like Ballard – who was born a Briton in the ‘Shanghai International Settlement,’ a foreign enclave that has completely ceased to exist – those non-spaces might seem like home, or at least version of it. And perhaps this was true for Ballard. He eventually, and rather notoriously given his reputation as a strange, transgressive thinker, settled in Shepperton, a middle class suburb in Surrey (England).

That non-space is what I remember most, what I felt the most emotion recalling: the chubby shape of a jetliner, fins swirling within a cone of turbine, the jolt of connection when I heard English spoken by an American or Briton. There were also the brands, the international megabrands that at the time felt so reassuring, as if they were secret messages sent from home. But those memories don’t actually have the same punch as I can imagine a physical place having. For one they are constantly in flux, and also, as I came to actually living in the developed world, where my home supposedly is; I have seen so many of my idols humbled and desecrated. In the United States McDonalds is not the lusted after status symbol as it was in my junior high school in New Delhi (where the richest students would buy frozen McDonalds burgers by the gross in Singapore and have their cooks fry them up for parties back home); and even back then I understood that these symbols were never really mine.

What lies beneath all of that non-space is a sort of geometry, one I seek out instinctively. I can navigate a foreign city cold most of the time, sensing the diplomatic enclaves and bureaucratic zones that once contained my version of home. And I guess the gap where that geometry comes undone and things start to become sinister and broken is what I am most drawn to writing about. That would make the patron saint of expatriate writing Paul Bowles.