1393 Yearning for a house in the hills
Return: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From
by Kamal Al-Solaylee
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 2021
$32.99 / 9781443456159
Reviewed by Theo Dombrowski
Some books take their readers across vast distances; some through sweeps of time. One of the most remarkable effects of Return, by journalist and author Kamal Al-Solaylee, currently Director of the School of Journalism, Writing and Media at UBC, is that it feels as if it does both. It is impossible to finish his fascinating look at movements of people around the globe and through history without having a stirring sense of rivers of people flowing in an almost never-ceasing quest for a true homeland. In the words of the author, the “stories draw on decades — centuries, even — of migration, mobility and dislocation.”
Al-Solaylee constructs what he calls an “ongoing multi-destination, multi-ethnic narrative” and, in the process, responds to the well-known narrative of peoples, in their hundreds, thousands, and millions leaving their homeland, with the comparatively underplayed “return to roots.” As he says, many of us who live in countries we consider to be desirable destinations can sometimes respond to stories of immigration with a whiff of self-congratulation. It should matter, therefore — and it does matter — that we hear the voices of people like Angela, one of the remarkable people whom the author interviews. Of all fellow Jamaicans she has met in the U.S., “not one of them ever said they like it. They all wanted to go home.” By creating a vehicle for many, diverse such voices, Al-Solaylee brings a corrective lens to his “underexplored” topic.
This accounts for the main title of the book, Return, but it is the subtitle of the book that channels much of the book’s emotional and intellectual energy: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From. The author’s attempts to understand “why” are partly reflected in substantial research. Some of this draws on the work of other writers, woven thoughtfully into Al-Solaylee’s own analysis. (Several pages of Notes at the end of the book, reflecting his knowledge of rafts of other writers, make a valuable source for further reading.) Most memorable, though, are his attempts to understand “why” by listening, really listening, to the personal voices and stories he has tracked down around the globe. Equally important is the fact that, in connecting with these voices, he draws out not just the stories themselves, but, more tellingly, underlying values and principles.
To appreciate fully what this “why” entails, readers will, of course, need to understand the whole book. A few details can suggest, however, the complexity and range of factors that play into the decision that so many have made to… “return.”
The why driving migration in the first place is, in bare outline at least, reasonably well-known. Though Al-Solaylee does not overlook the savagely dark role played by slavery in bringing millions to the Americas; as he points out, it is the “safe harbour narrative” of the “New World” that dominates.
Why return, though? Canadians will not be surprised to learn that many returnees want to escape Canada’s “inhospitable winters,” but may be saddened to discover that more turn their backs on a country that is proud of its “multiculturalism” simply because they cannot stomach the racism they experience. Even those who have spent their entire lives in North America, like one interviewee, now in Taiwan, can feel, “I never truly felt like America was my home” — and, all the more because, as many from Asia discover, their careers here have been perpetually blocked by a “Bamboo ceiling.” Says Jessica, an African American now living in Ghana, “That’s our number-one issue in America — being Black and dealing with racism…. It eats into every facet of our lives there.” Even many of those African Americans who are generations removed from their slave forebears, and, of course, with no idea from exactly where in Africa they originated, responded to the recent “Year of Return” promoted by Ghana, by making “a spiritual pilgrimage … seeking their roots in Africa.”
Some of those going to Ghana (and many other countries), looking for a positive rather than escaping a negative, want, above all, an “investment opportunity.” Other motives for finding life better in a home country can range from the “folkloric appeal of the land and the protective attitude toward the language that Basque returnees often displayed,” or what those from Northern Ireland might sum up as “family ties, quality of life, affordable housing,” or, more abstractly, “the depth, the warmth of the people” there. For Jamaicans, on the other hand (at least for those not forcibly deported back to Jamaica), the drive is often a “yearning for [owning] a home in the yard.” And these are just a few of the motives driving the quest for a homeland.
As Al-Solaylee makes all too clear, to recognize such different kinds of motivation is to understand only a small part of a complex interplay of countervailing forces. Indeed, it says a lot about the author’s subtlety of approach that he pulls into his analysis of diverse forces some that are genuinely problematic. Amongst the Taiwanese looking to profit from their returns, for example, he occasionally finds “the opportunism rankles.” In Basque Country, more disturbingly, he discovers “why some homeland longings contain a hateful streak of ardent nationalism.” Jamaica, though, provides some of the most difficult issues. For one thing, “Politicians want the diaspora to stay overseas and keep sending remittances.” Worse, a high proportion of those deported back to Jamaica face enormous stigma and end up homeless. And, to top it off, an alarming number encounter violence and are even murdered.
From a broader perspective, though — and it is for such broad perspectives the author constantly reaches — underlying so many individual and problematic cases are not individual choices but “geopolitical forces.” And nowhere does the author make this fact more striking than in the last chapter. Probably no other country has been so shot through with difficult issues of homeland return than Israel, penetrated simultaneously by Jewish Zionism on the one hand, and, on the other — incompatible — hand, the Palestinian Right of Return. It is clearly no accident that the author puts this chapter last.
While the harsh facts entangled in the situation of Israel might be reasonably well known, many other facts in the book are less well known. Indeed, it is one of the deeply satisfying pleasures of Return that it can leave the average reader feeling richly educated. Though Al-Solaylee’s touch with statistics is light, the statistics themselves are not. Many readers at least will be surprised to learn “nearly 272 million people do not live in their country of birth and mostly function in a second language. ” Yet, as surprisingly perhaps, the author tells us that they are not necessarily cut adrift from their home country: “At least half of United Nations member states have established public authorities to connect with the diaspora…”.
More specific statistics are equally startling. Reaching back through history, the author reveals, for example, that, between 1944 and 1950, when 12 million Germans were expelled from various eastern European countries, their migration back to Germany “claimed the lives of between half a million and two million ethnic Germans….” Contemporary realities likewise can entail huge numbers of people in migration: 255,000 Venezuelans have recently fled to Spain, 60 percent with some sort of Spanish documents. Some of the surprising numbers reflect economic realities: in Jamaica, for example, remittances from the diaspora “accounted for …17.31% in 2016” of the country’s GDP while “five million returning entrepreneurs account for two-thirds of all new businesses in rural China.” Other large numbers might be driven by ideology: underpinned by Zionistic ideals, an Israeli programme called Taglit has financed more than 750,000 trips to Israel. And so on. Reaching the end of Return, most readers will feel their eyes thoroughly opened.
For even more readers, no doubt, it will not be such big numbers that most stir their understanding of what it means to “return.” It will be the individual stories. Somehow the author has managed to find his way into the inner lives of dozens and dozens of lives from around the globe. His account of the difficulty of winning the trust of a group of Jamaican men is, in itself, a memorable insight into complex feelings and thoughts. Thus, for example, at one point his empathetic analysis leads him to conclude, “There’s something deeply rational and inherently irrational about returns, and their essence lies in that friction between the two.”
And this is where an appreciation of what Al-Solaylee has accomplished in this book takes a different turn. That turn begins with his own cast of mind: after all, he is our interpreter. At times, he has no hesitation about assuming the voice of authority, reporting his conclusions without equivocation. “The truth is that those homelands, lodged in our memories, in our brains and in our DNA, have been loosening and tightening their grip on us at will. Homelands dictate when we leave and predict when we return.” Clearly, such claims — ringing with a sense of truth — arise from the author’s own thoughts and feelings.
In fact, although the author is generally steady in reporting his material, when he infuses his writing with emotion, the results can be especially striking. Sometimes, for example, he can be drily ironic. Describing an evening in Toronto geared to marketing a housing estate in Jamaica to well-heeled ex-Jamaicans, he speaks, witheringly, of the attempt to “package that desire [to return to homeland] into nostalgia-driven bite sizes and sips.” Other times, he can be angry: using the word “crowed” to describe the xenophobic patriotism of a Basque leader of the Vox party, he cannot refrain from snarling coolly: “No wonder Steve Bannon has endorsed his party.”
What makes the author’s own upwellings of emotion especially affecting is the fact that they clearly arise from a mind deeply infused with humane and progressive values. It is difficult not to be touched with his indignation about the gross injustices poisoning the infamous “Windrush” deportation of Jamaicans from Britain. It is likewise difficult not to be stirred, at another point, by his deep concern with the exclusively economic perspective often given to many homeland returns (especially prominent in narratives of Northern Ireland and Taiwan):
Seeing return through an economic lens raises two major concerns. First, it reduces varied and complex human experiences and mobilities to a formula. Second, it inadvertently elevates the contributions of men over those of women…. Measuring return and diasporic worth by business practices and their effect on GDP is an exclusionary act.
Just as tellingly, his progressive values can lead to deeply felt appeals to his readers’ own humane values: reflecting on the lives of the poorest Venezuelans, he asks, “If you lived in a country where food and medication were in short supply, prices doubled every nineteen days, and the annual inflation rate had soared to 1.3 million percent, wouldn’t you do whatever possible to get away?”
At the same time, though, the author realizes his own emotional connection with his subject matter can create difficulties. He is aware, occasionally, that his own values may interfere with his ability to see the facts clearly, in the complex case of Taiwan because of his “desire to see grand narratives in return stories.” Of a Jamaican woman’s experiences with violence in Jamaica, at another point, he admits being puzzled by his own emotions: “I don’t know why, but I want her to say that she never wanted to live there [Jamaica] again.” And, at some points, such emotions, especially when combined with his own principles, threaten to overwhelm him completely: in Northern Ireland, “The extremes of wealth and destitution, hope and despair, war and peace in this return story left me exhausted….”
And yet such personal moments are really just a small part of the most important personal aspect of the book. Arguably, the best subtitle of the book would reflect the statement he makes in his Introduction, “Tucked among all these stories, you’ll find fragments of mine.”
Indeed, although the book is about a world of returnees, it is also very much about the author himself. Admitting that his fascination with return stories is an “obsession,” he makes his own deeply personal story the fulcrum of almost the whole book. In his first book, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes, and in his second book, Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone), he likewise drew on a potent blend of autobiography and social observation. The autobiographical information he gives at the beginning of Return might, at first, seem largely just a framing device. Certainly, his reasons for leaving Yemen as a young man give rise to many of the key concerns of the book: his fear of persecution, in his case for being gay, his desire to abandon his home language, Arabic, on the grounds that it is the language in which the Koran, with its denunciation of gays, is written, his relieved participation in the liberal cultural of a British education and, finally, his happiness with the (formerly) secure and tolerant world of Toronto.
Like every one of the people he interviews, though, the author wishes to return … home. His evocation of a small family house in the mountains of Yemen recurs in his narrative as the lodestone of what he calls, repeatedly, “yearning.” The triple barriers between him and his dream add poignancy to the impossibility of satisfying this yearning: the war in Yemen, the continuing antipathy to his sexual identity, and, currently, the Covid 19 pandemic.
As with so much in the book, though, Al-Solaylee’s exploration of his own feelings about his homeland never resolve into simplicity. In the “fragments” of which he speaks in the introduction, he puts his finger on the pulse of his complicated desire to return to Yemen. Beginning with the sad confession, “There’s something broken in my sense of belonging….”, he considers the simple proposition, “Maybe I’m at a stage where a return to roots is natural and inevitable….”
Yet in chapter after chapter, his own story, his sense of his own life, inflects his commentary on the parallel lives of others. Writing about a man from Basque country, a man with a successful and full life in Illinois, he turns to also writing – implicitly — about himself: “If our hearts and minds remain in the places we left behind, does that turn our lives in our adopted countries into phases or mere stops on a travel itinerary … that ends back where we came from?”
Perhaps more than with most returnees, though, with the author, language becomes an especially raw and disturbing part of his sense of separation from home: “For me, there can be no physical return without a linguistic one.” His deeply personal “sense of loss” is reflected in language that could hardly be more personal. He describes himself, simply, as a “deeply troubled soul.” The days before he flies to Egypt to connect with family, he is so disturbed he cannot sleep.
It is impossible not to feel deeply moved by the “troubled soul” who is sharing his personal story with his readers, the man who, in his exile, can instil in all his readers a deep sense of what home truly means: “I have an uncontrollable desire to ‘return’ to the house [in the hills], to live in it for however long I can…. I want to feel close to my beginnings, to my great-grandmothers, who died before I was born; to the memory of aunts and uncles, now all gone, whose faces stare at me from family photos.”
And it is this image of old family photos that, for many readers, will provide the sense that this is not just a book about the desire of migrants to return to their roots, but about something more. It is, in a deep sense, a book about the human condition, that condition in which Al-Solaylee provides a way into the complex tangle of forces that penetrate all human beings, everywhere: history, geopolitics, family affection, private yearnings, uncertain identity, and … a longing for home.
Born on Vancouver Island, Theo Dombrowski grew up in Port Alberni and studied at the University of Victoria and later in Nova Scotia and London, England. With a doctorate in English literature, he returned to teach at Royal Roads, the University of Victoria, and finally at Lester Pearson College at Metchosin. He also studied painting and drawing at the Banff School of Fine Arts and at UVic. Visit his website here. Editor’s note: Theo has written and illustrated several coastal walking and hiking guides, including Secret Beaches of the Salish Sea (Heritage House, 2012), Seaside Walks of Vancouver Island (Rocky Mountain Books, 2016), Family Walks and Hikes of Vancouver Island (RMB, 2018, reviewed by Chris Fink-Jensen), as well as When Baby Boomers Retire. He has recently reviewed books by Bruce Baugh, Rahela Nayebzadah, Genki Ferguson, Keath Fraser, Matthew Soules, Karen Hofmann, and Barry Kennedy. Theo Dombrowski lives at Nanoose Bay.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster