As a short-timer, I am out of control with my teaching. Next week I am teaching my students a Stephen King story (Shawshank Redemption), and this week I showed them a movie based on a graphic novel (Persepolis). Before you know it, I will be giving them nap time and candy. Anyway, Persepolis is a lovely movie, a powerful memoir told in a striking visual style. There was one aspect of Marjane Satrapi’s experience I related to, and that is being moved across the world as a teenager. It is a very particular immigrant experience. An adult who immigrates, as happy as she may become in her new country, will always be a person formed in her native land, and her interpretive filters will always be those of her first culture. A child who immigrates, as a person still unformed, will adapt to her new home so fast and so fluidly that she will essentially adopt a new country and come to identify with it primarily. An adolescent, as an in-between person already partially formed by her native culture but still in flux, will be caught in a peculiar bind. She is too old to forget and too young to remember. She is started in one place and finished in another, like a book that abruptly switches languages halfway in. She will be one culture overlaid over an other like a palimpsest. She will be no one from nowhere, everyone from everywhere.
It’s a strange combination of insider and outsider. When I moved to the United States at 13 I wasn’t unfamiliar with being an outsider: a hypersensitive brainy kid is almost never popular. Still, my transplant across the world was a whole new level of alienation–as a highly verbal person I suddenly found myself unable to express my thoughts to the people around me. It was like being in linguistic prison. The speed with which I learned English was a survival mechanism: I had to acquire language or fall apart. There was a delay between my understanding English and my speaking it, however. For some reason, I did not wish to speak English until I could do so well.
(It’s funny what people will say in front of you when they’re not aware that you understand them. I related to that aspect of Chief Bromden’s character in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)
I didn’t get to go back to France until I was in college, when I enrolled in the Overseas Studies program in Paris. The experience was intensely emotional. I remember walking around my old neighborhood the day after I landed with my hand over my mouth to keep from bursting into tears. It seemed miraculous and unfathomable that the place still existed, what’s more almost entirely unchanged. But it was not a homecoming. I was, by then, too American. I knew it even when I was affectionately told by my former neighbor, “don’t be silly, you are French.” I was twenty years old but it was already too late. I would always be as foreign to my native land as I was to my adopted one.
While there, I went out a couple of times with a graduate student in literature named Jean-François (he had books about Satan all over his apartment because he was writing his dissertation about representations of the devil). He told me that I was not at all what he expected of an American, and I laughed. I think this must have been why he was attracted to me: I was foreign but not really. I was both home and away. I was somehow exotic yet safe. This is what I am: a liminal person. Both in French and in English I speak with a tiny accent that no one can identify. Je suis l’Un et l’Autre.
I will always carry in my heart the bewildered pain of a 13 year old girl suddenly torn away from everything she has ever known. But this uprooting has made me into a more resilient plant that can survive in various climates, different types of soil. What is more beneficial to the growth of a writer than silent observation of people who do not know they are being understood?
One thing is certain: a teenage immigrant can never, never go home again–but she can sharpen her gaze into the finest of scalpels.