Don’t ask me where I’m from. Ask where I’m a local

Last night I had a debate with a housemate about nationality. Someone asked me where I was from, so I replied that I was from Colombia, defending myself with the words of Colombian president, Trujillo, who said ‘Those who’ve been to Colombia will be forever Colombians.” My housemate told me that it was wrong to do. But then, should I reply to such question with my passport country, where also restricts me from who I am as if I were a foreign person anyway? And today this morning, as the Big Data knows what desirable information to feed me, this post came up to me as a notification. I watched it, and I felt identified. So here I wanted to rephrase what she said to remind it for later. All words are hers, and I don’t have any to add up, as if she speaks of me. The script comes following:

I’m not multinational. I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept?… What we call countries are actually various expressions of sovereign statehood, an idea that came into fashion only 400 years ago… History was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented.

I’d fallen into the limiting trap that the language of coming from countries sets — the privileging of a fiction, the singular country, over reality: human experience. Speaking with Colum McCann that day, the penny finally dropped. “All experience is local,” he said. “All identity is experience,” I thought. “I’m not a national,” I proclaimed onstage. “I’m a local. I’m multi-local.”

The difference between “Where are you from?” and “Where are you a local?” isn’t the specificity of the answer; it’s the intention of the question. Replacing the language of nationality with the language of locality asks us to shift our focus to where real life occurs. Even that most glorious expression of countryhood, the World Cup, gives us national teams comprised mostly of multilocal players. As a unit of measurement for human experience, the country doesn’t quite work.

You can take away my passport, but you can’t take away my experience. That I carry within me. Where I’m from comes wherever I go.

There’s much to be said for national history, more for the sovereign state. Culture exists in community, and community exists in context. Geography, tradition, collective memory: these things are important. What I’m questioning is primacy. All of those introductions on tour began with reference to nation, as if knowing what country I came from would tell my audience who I was. What are we really seeking, though, when we ask where someone comes from? And what are we really seeing when we hear an answer?

Basically, countries represent power… It’s possible that without realizing it, we’re playing a power game, especially in the context of multi-ethnic countries. As any recent immigrant knows, the question “Where are you from?” or “Where are you really from?” is often code for “Why are you here?”

Then we have the scholar William Deresiewicz’s writing of elite American colleges. “Students think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan — never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.” I’m with him. To call one student American, another Pakistani, then triumphantly claim student body diversity ignores the fact that these students are locals of the same milieu. The same holds true on the other end of the economic spectrum. A Mexican gardener in Los Angeles and a Nepali housekeeper in Delhi have more in common in terms of rituals and restrictions than nationality implies.

Perhaps my biggest problem with coming from countries is the myth of going back to them. I’m often asked if I plan to “go back” to Ghana. I go to Accra every year, but I can’t “go back” to Ghana. It’s not because I wasn’t born there. My father can’t go back, either. The country in which he was born, that country no longer exists. We can never go back to a place and find it exactly where we left it. Something, somewhere will always have changed, most of all, ourselves. People.

Finally, What we’re talking about is human experience. This notoriously and gloriously disorderly affair. In creative writing, locality bespeaks humanity. The more we know about where a story is set, the more local color and texture, the more human the characters start to feel, the more relatable, not less. The myth of national identity and the vocabulary of coming from confuses us into placing ourselves into mutually exclusive categories. In fact, all of us are multi– multi-local, multi-layered. To begin our conversations with an acknowledgement of this complexity brings us closer together, I think, not further apart. So the next time that I’m introduced, I’d love to hear the truth: “Taiye Selasi is a human being, like everybody here. She isn’t a citizen of the world, but a citizen of Worlds…”

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