The first days of January tempt us to pivot between past and future. As we begin to come back to our routines and think about where we want to go to, we also pause to recall where we’ve been. At the end of 2018 we lost Amos Oz. Thankfully, WBFO took the time to sit down with him in 2011 when Oz was a guest at BABEL.
On October 3rd, Just Buffalo Literary Center played host to Mohsin Hamid, the first author in the 2018-2019 BABEL speaker series lineup. Arriving in Buffalo, Hamid said, felt in a way like coming home. Upon taking the stage he made note of the parallels between Buffalo and his native Lahore, cities whose best days are thought to be behind them and yet suddenly seem to have more to look forward to than others proclaimed. From the beginning, Hamid established himself as a “familiar stranger”, and the rest of his talk he spent telling that we all share that identity. For almost two hours, Hamid engaged the audience with anecdotes of his own personal history, the rationale behind the use of portals in his novel, the portals we use in real life, and the commitment to the use of imagination in adult life. There are several ways in which Exit West can be construed and analyzed as a piece of fiction, but Hamid clarifies this is a story about first love. It’s important to make the distinction: first love, because by definition, there must be a second or third. Otherwise, it would just be called love. “We find [meaning] in the context of things that end. Of first loves. I thought it would be important to reconnect the idea of transits. Of the fact that everything changes, and that actually a human life consists of having enough courage in the face of the fact that we lose everything, to still live as well as we can imagine.” Hamid’s own life served as a lens through which to write the novel, having roots in Pakistan, California and Princeton throughout his early childhood and young adulthood. It was a jarring experience at times, according to Hamid, which left him moments of insecurity. He shared with the audience that as a young child he did not utter a word for an entire month. After arriving in California and hearing another young child asked: “Why does he speak like that?”, terrifying his parents. Thankfully, for his family, and for us, Hamid spoke again. By the end of that month he was speaking complete English sentences, and found a voice in his silence. Yet despite this victory, language itself was a journey for Hamid. Upon his return to Pakistan as a nine-year-old he realized his fluency in Urdu suffered through his adoption of English. Once again his authenticity as someone who “belonged” was questioned. Hamid came off as a cultural enigma to some, a hybrid of language and places that were difficult, if not impossible, to separate. Yet feeling out of place was not an experience that was unique to him, he realized, and for that, there must be a good reason. Hamid argued that the sensation of strangeness, of being estranged from oneself and one’s surroundings, is universal. It is a bridge between the experiences of those forced from their native lands and those who have lived in the same house their entire lives. We are all migrants
Do you have any second parts in your life? Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Points of Departure (see WBFO's coverage here) opened with the above question posed by Bishnu Adhikari. It was question that did not require a response but demanded some thought, much like everything else that morning. In collaboration with Journey’s End Refugee Services and Just Buffalo’s Words on the Street initiative, immigrants and refugees took the stage to share poems about their experiences in making America and Buffalo a new home. Drawing inspiration from the portals in Mohsin Hamid’s novel Exit West, three doors stood as the backdrop for the presenters. The doors brought about curious onlookers visiting or exiting the library. The doors did not merely merit a glance, like Adhikari's question, it demanded more: a closer look. One door was inscribed with a collaborative poem written by teens who attend the Just Buffalo Writing Center: Dear new neighbors Welcome to our city Make yourself at home I hope each step you Take upon Buffalo Soil makes a sound like When palms meet in a Handshake. Another door, created by artist Paris Henderson, featured abstract black and white patterns. The last door was plastered with the word “journey” in various languages, the native tongues of those who were encouraged to go up and write it. Soon enough it became clear how much of everything felt like an invitation, or, more pointedly, an open door. Do you have any second parts in your life? Bishnu, a Buffalo resident since 2009, pulled everyone out of the trance of anticipation waiting for something, anything, to let us know things have begun. It was the first brisk morning in months, and attendees were in a type of shock from the cold that doesn’t escape you until something more stimulating takes hold. Bishnu’s opening helped bridge a connection of our relationship with time and place. Initially from Bhutan, Bishnu arrived at many second comings in his own life. They cam in the form of studies that led him to India; an eviction that led him to Nepal; and then as a Buffalonian and translator for Journey’s End. It was the wind, he said, that carried him from place to place. So he spoke to it. Oh beautiful wind in the sky, flying so fast and so high Seeing the grassy meadows, green mountains and hills Sit before rivers and valleys above my birthplace Where I endured my young age And kicked me out of my home Forcing me to leave everything that I loved. Dragging me away from the position. I sobbed. I was so worried and sad. But now I am with real human beings Who are great supporters To start enjoying my life again Oh wind in the sky Please fly there and share my story. Despite the many roles and various homes Bishnu had, he always considered himself to be a writer and lyricist. The Notes app on his phone wis filled with Nepali writing, which he later translates for an English-speaking audience. One thing you notice about Bishnu is his attention to his surroundings. He mentioned Buffalo’s beauty to me twice in our conversation. But he made sure to