In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

America and I, two lovers in an out-of-town motel

It's always good to take a step back. To take a step back from one's life, like from a canvas, just a step or two to see the whole. The result is always surprising.

The moment I walk through the passport control at my hometown airport, I'm already gone. I sit behind a glass wall, still able to see those who saw me off, but I'm gone. All focused on experiences ahead of me. Because I’ve set off on a journey.

America and I have a gentle love affair, like two people who meet in an out-of-town motel, without any long-term expectations, but inevitably bringing out the passion in each other. I'm excited about coming again. There are so many familiar things about it, but again so many surprisingly new. The first couple of hours after arrival I feel like I've entered my avatar who's not fully functioning yet. Words fail me. Unknown things disturb me. I'm confused by proverbial American talkativeness, small talk at the airport, in restaurants, on the street. I look aside, quietly passing by people, not addressing anyone unless I have to, wearing dark glasses. You look so European, my American friends tease me sometimes.

This time I'm first greeted by a friend from Sarajevo, Dada. My country, and its people are devastated by war, and the only good thing that came out of this cataclysm is that today I have friends and relatives living all around the world. That's why I feel at home even in a small Philadelphia studio apartment I enter for the first time, designed in an industrial chic style, as I unpack my bag to take out the Bosnian gifts: music, cookies from our childhood, books in mother tongue…

America has once again surprised me with its well-known enormousness. The kitchen sink is as big as a baby tub or a shower bath in a small Mediterranean town. A parking lot I see from the train is huge, vast, the massiveness of the scene reminds of reality multiplied by special effects. Coffee mugs are so big I have to hold them with both hands, food packaging and the fridge are so big that I see myself as Alice who has taken the magic mushroom and suddenly become small.

The distances here are also huge. My friend says that something is within walking distance, and then we go walking for two hours. By the end of the day we've spent so much time walking through parks, cafes and museums that I feel tired in American proportions. Enormously. I say, If I had spent so much time walking back at home, I would have reached the end of the state, and I would certainly need to have a passport on me.

I'm looking forward to meeting other writers that I'll set off on a journey today. Socializing with writers always makes me happy as it is a kind of a membership in a club for eccentrics: I'm excited about a possibility of sharing thoughts with people who look on the world somewhat askew. We speak different languages, we have different physiognomies, our lives back home are completely different, but when we meet together the magic usually works and we recognize one another’s similarities.

In the days to follow, America and I will show each other our vulnerable sides, we'll talk about the things that hurt. I hope we'll also share stories of fall and recovery. A song from my childhood comes to my mind: Someone dreams of having a horse/Someone has a horse/Someone dreams of riding a horse/Someone rides a horse/Someone dreams of falling off a horse/Someone falls off a horse/Someone wakes up on falling/Someone gets up and rides again.


I'm in transit now, somewhere over northeastern United States. Arrival in Baltimore is still up ahead, as is New Orleans and the Atchafalaya Basin, and Birmingham, which held such sway and sadness over my imagination when I was a teenager studying the American civil rights movement.

I'm hoping to find "the things which no chart can tell us," as James Baldwin so beautifully wrote. For me, a Canadian, America arrives like a step-brother, a worldly-wise, belligerent young man with Harvard dreams, who calls you late at night and speaks wistfully of all that is slipping from his grasp but, in the morning, forgets to wish you happy birthday. We know him like our own (he sends a great many letters, his certificates hang on our walls) and yet he isn't. But that hasn't stopped us from reinventing his late night stories, and being proud of the home we've made which is also free, also grand. Like Vicente, I, too, find my thoughts pulled away to events in Japan and Libya, and I know those images and histories will continue to impose themselves on the places we experience over the next two weeks. It's Baldwin, I think, who is my beginning guide, who understood that "we must find the terms of our connection, without which we will perish." Through fiction and the imagination, he tried to examine the lives of others, and through this examination, this proximity, express something about the meaning of what we are living.