The Global Soul and the Search for Home
As a twenty-year old in Italy, I once spoke four languages in the space of an hour. It began when an Englishwoman asked me where the bathroom was, in Spanish. I answered her in the same language, but as we walked to the bathroom we discovered that we had another language in common, which was English. Then, the woman in charge of the hotel where we were staying gave me further instructions, this time in Italian. When we wandered out, a Pakistani-Italian stallkeeper started chatting me up in Hindi in the Piazza Bra.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
His question—and that hour—recur to me at the 2013 Jaipur Literature Festival (tagline “the largest literary show on earth”) an enormous five-day festival of literature and ideas in Jaipur, a tourist city in the middle of the north Indian desert. In one of the sessions, Pico Iyer, Abraham Verghese, Laleh Khadivi, Akash Kapur and Sadakat Kadri are discussing “the global soul and the search for home” with Aminatta Forna.
The panelists are all exiles by choice, distant from the homes they once knew. The term they use, repeatedly, is “global soul”—which, based on the definition offered, makes a “global soul” sound a bit like the “Davos man’s” more literary cousin. Iyer is the senior statesman, and his book The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home gave this session at the Jaipur Lit Fest its name and its purpose. Much of Iyer’s writing—including Global Soul— attempts to examine a culture or a society from outside its conventional paradigm, and at the same time answer the overarching question of belonging.
Verghese, Indian-American, approaches literature through the language of a trained physician, a worldview of its own. Khadivi is Iranian-American but originally a Kurd, and a frequent documenter of displacements. Kapur is a former development consultant who now writes nonfiction about the challenges inherent in modern India’s rise. Kadri was once a lawyer who worked in both the United States and London. Forna, their moderator, traces her heritage to Scotland and Sierra Leone.
“[Language is] all I can hold to as I move from place to place,” Khadivi says. She refers to walking into a room and speaking the same language as the other occupants, “it was as if someone had built a house around us.”
Any immigrant would understand Khadivi’s sentiment, and it’s the same claim that the shopkeeper asserted over me in Italy years ago. The notion that language is intimate knowledge—and that a shared language confers familiality—is one of the reasons the Biblical story of Babel remains so disturbing.
Language is also one of the few elements of home that moves as easily as we do, as the panelists point out.
In literature, language can be a powerful tool for delineating the limits of community, but also for creating new communities. Like any building block, it can be used to construct places where people can come together. Khadivi references Junot Diaz, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao contained frequent uses of Spanish, and not just the Spanish found in textbooks but a raw and far more urban version. Much of Wao’s tension was illustrated by the permeable boundaries between languages, meant to indicate the permeable boundaries between the main character’s conflicting worlds. Wao’s linguistic shifts—and the wide acceptance the book found in the United States—indicated the power of innovative language to create new gathering places within existing cultures.
“Language is a very hopeful place,” Khadivi says of Diaz’s success.
Iyer is no stranger to the hopeful powers of language. In an interview several years ago with ascent, he referred to himself as “the beneficiary of exploded boundaries between East and West.” Language has been a critical part of that explosion, as English has expanded its territory ever more Eastward.
As the discussion draws to a close, one audience member asks how much of being a global soul is akin to being “homeless.” The panelists all laugh. Finally, they take a crack at it.
“I see it as being homeful, you construct home over and over again,” says Forna. This is what immigrants do, they construct home over and over again. And the act of writing—manipulating a familiar language—is the act of constructing a home as well, sometimes the only bulwark that exists against the wide unknown.
Guest blogger Anika Gupta is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi. Her travel writing has appeared in Smithsonian Magazine and the Literary Bohemian. She has covered the economy, technology and digital media for publications in the United States and India.