When I was six, my family moved from England to California, where I was cast as Paul Revere in the school play about the American Revolution. I had a strong British accent, and after riding my hobby horse down the aisle shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!” I found myself on stage delivering a speech to an audience of parents who were practically falling out of their chairs with laughter. I wasn’t quite sure what was funny. I laughed too, not wanting to be left out of the joke, but ruining the delivery of my speech in the process. On one hand, I was thrilled; apparently, I was quite funny. On the other hand, I was confused; what was funny about Paul Revere? And why was no one upset that I had messed up my lines?
I didn’t get the joke until almost twenty years later, when my father told the story, assuming that I had understood all along. A six-year-old with a heavy British accent playing Paul Revere in the early 1980s might as well have been a Monty Python sketch. By the time I was in on the joke, my British accent was long gone, and I even had a slight Baltimore twang from years of living in Maryland. Of course, no one’s accent is ever funny to themselves, so it was impossible for me to get the joke until I was so unequivocally American that I could look back and see myself as the adults in the room had seen me. I can still see the auditorium where I rode down the center aisle, but I can’t see myself, because I was looking out. To get what was funny, I have to imagine myself into the audience, and make a stranger of that little no-longer-English boy whose voice would have been more at home in a production of “Oliver Twist.”
All of us have stories of displacement. Some of those stories are as simple as being yanked from the comforts of home on the first day of school, and some of those stories are harrowing tales of catastrophic upheaval and radical reinvention. Displacement felt like a pressing theme to us at the Bellevue Literary Review because, like illness and healing, displacement is a universal experience that is unevenly distributed.
Displacement operates on local and global scales. Right now, the world has more refugees than at any time since the Second World War. To a large extent, this mass dislocation spiraled out from Syria, and was precipitated by a perfect storm of human failings: global warming, internal strife, new technologies of surveillance and communication, the struggle between democracy and dictatorship, religious fundamentalism, and the failures of a global order to address war crimes and to uphold ideals about the human rights of individuals. My own Reagan-era childhood was defined by the ways that repressive governments refused to let their beleaguered citizens leave. We’re now watching a catastrophe in which free and democratic societies are forcing people to face possible death in order to enter. Greece was a major entry point for Syrian refugees, and still has a significant population of stateless Syrians with lives in limbo. When I attended a conference in Athens last year, a tour guide told us that the going rate for sex with a Syrian teenager was roughly five dollars. At the same time, the human smugglers bringing Syrian refugees from France to England were making a profit of nearly $400,000 a month from their human cargo. Clearly we’re not getting this right.
The United States is a study in displacements. Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans were displaced to and from this country in ways that continue to cause suffering and demand redress. Immigrants who came to the United States by choice, along with their descendants, tend to carry their own story of displacement as a kind of origin myth, particularly those who thrived in the United States. And yet, many of those stories of arrival and hard work have served as narratives to keep more people from entering the US and attempting to achieve a similar success.
As we watched parents and children being separated at the southern US border this summer, I thought about my own grandmother. The youngest of nine sisters, she was the last of her family to escape Europe in the 1930s. She entered the United States illegally. Her mother, and three of her sisters, along with their families, died in the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s story is nearly universally known, but it’s often forgotten that her father Otto Frank applied for refugee status to the United States, and was denied legal entry. If Otto Frank had been as willing to disregard the law as my grandmother, Anne Frank might have had her own grandchildren editing journals like this one.
Displacement matters more in the particular than in the abstract, and the work in this issue of the BLR focuses on the human consequences of finding oneself in unfamiliar places and situations. Ha Jin’s essay explores how the concepts of exile and immigration have inflected his own identity, and considers them against two of his own displaced literary heroes. BLR board member Barron Lerner looks at how literal and figurative displacements shape the experience and understanding of mental illness. Mark Zimmerman’s “A Midnight Encounter” tells a story about working in a Kathmandu hospital that skirts the comic and the tragic, as different expectations collide.
The fiction in this issue is truly stunning. Mehdi M. Kashani’s story “Slight Turbulence Ahead,” makes Vancouver and Iran uncomfortably close, even as they remain half a world apart. Jennifer Solheim’s “We Knew a World,” is a compelling and disturbing account of a family’s sudden departure from the familiar as secrets are exposed and trusts violated. Dan Pope’s “Bon Voyage, Charlie” traces the physical and mental consequences of America’s recent foreign wars on the people who have fought them. All of these stories feature characters who move from one life into another, with varying degrees of trauma, force, and violence. The impacts ripple outward, a reminder of how each individual experience has communal consequences.
We have assembled an amazing selection of poetry for this issue. Alex Johansson’s “Sestina of Bad News” presents a formally innovative approach to the sestina. Jad Yassine’s “I want to talk about McDonald’s” is a brilliantly calibrated account of what it means to be displaced. Gaeton Sgro’s “Reasons for Admission” maps out the ways that hospitalization is a contradictory and fracturing experience. In all of these poems, a voice is struggling to find a way to make sense out of having been moved from one kind of life to another. Moving to the unfamiliar is always a profound experience, one which the poetic voice is uniquely positioned to capture.
This issue of the BLR will be my last as poetry editor. The incomparable Jen Hyde will assume that role starting with the next issue, and I will be putting more of a focus on my own writing. During my time at the Bellevue Literary Review, I have been amazed at the sophistication of the submissions we have received, and while I know that our acceptance rate, like many journals, hovers in the low single digits, please know that I am grateful for the energy and work of every poet who has sent us work in these last six years.
Displacement operates in ways that are both overwhelming and subtle, and in ways that both deeply personal and overtly cultural. Culture is something we learn through immersion and imitation. It’s a set of ideas and behaviors and tastes that are absorbed as much as they are taught. Cultures typically emphasize that their ideals are universal—independence, equality, hospitality, family, love, history—but the practice of these virtues seem much less universal when communities come into contact. When you live in a homogenous culture, much goes without saying. But when you’re the odd man out—as I learned at six—you have to work from a different script. Nothing goes without saying. When you have been displaced—geographically, bodily, economically, or culturally—you have to figure out how to adapt to this new place, while not letting go of what you loved from your home, until this new place can become home. If it ever can.
My own journey from England to the United States was a one-way ticket. After a few months, my parents stopped having to convert pounds to dollars for me, and I stopped using “Caw” as my exclamation of choice. But in other ways, I failed to adapt. I still prefer Cadbury’s to Hershey’s. I continue to find the unguarded friendliness of Californians a bit creepy. I’ve never quite embraced American optimism, even though I’m now put off by certain forms of European fatalism. Back in elementary school, in our social studies unit on the Industrial Revolution, I almost laughed to see all the British inventors I’d learned about in England replaced by American names. But that’s how displacement works. Some truths you take with you, and some truths you leave behind, and sometimes you just give the teacher the answers she expects on your history quiz—even if it makes you a bit cynical about how history works. This issue of the BLR offers a tapestry of displacements, each human thread weaving a larger picture of how movement affects the soul. Enjoy!