The envelope is thin enough that I know what it will say. Still, I hope. My fingers are steady as I tear through the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stamp, as I withdraw the single sheet of paper informing me that my work visa renewal application has been denied, a letter reminding me that I should not have gotten comfortable here, that I cannot stay.
That night, I Skype my parents, text my brother, call my long-distance best friend. I am hungry for connection and belonging, to stand on stable ground. I open my journal to write and find no words. Instead, I am consumed by the blank page, unable to see beyond the most uncertain present.
– – –
Years later, in a village in Rajasthan, I stand amidst the rubble of what was once my family’s home. There are no walls, and the light of the setting sun falls across the crumbling alcove where my grandfather was born. The stones, the dust, the land all pulse as if alive, and I want to ask my brother, my mother if they feel it too. This is ancestry, I think, coming back to a place that is and isn’t mine.
As we drive away through miles of desert grit, I slide filters over my favorite photos of the village, write a caption that I hope will capture the weight of what I feel. For the last two weeks I have hardly spent a minute alone, the time I usually steal for writing consumed by family and weddings and family weddings. Instead, I escape to my phone, my reflections slipping out as quickly as my thumbs will allow. My ancestral village, I write. In writing, I make a claim to something. I put a name to the belonging I feel, to the generations of movement and migration that have allowed me, for the first time, to come back. When I share the image, I am aware that it is 4 A.M. back where my friends live, that few will be awake to receive it. Still, I send it out, needing this space of my own.
– – –
This why I write: to make a space for myself. To discover the boundaries of that space. To find the seams of the boundaries, and then push. In pushing, to cross borders.
– – –
The night I receive the letter, I place waterlogged chamomile tea bags over my eyes. I have never done this before, and I do not know if it will work. But I have come to understand that my first-grade students, five- and six-year-olds, notice things like swollen eyelids, a voice rusted from tiredness, a heavy heart. It is them that I think about as the leftover tea dribbles into my hair.
My classroom the next morning is alive as if a letter has not shifted the tilt of my world. At breakfast duty, I wipe milk spills and tear open pods of apple sauce and tell stories about my new kitten, as I do every day. Routine, too, is the warm melt that settles over my chest, watching crowds of black and brown faces eating, yelling, laughing. The school was founded by a group of parents who felt that the city’s public schools were not serving children of color adequately, pooling together to build their own space of focused support, care, and growth. This school is no haven; it is not sheltered from the realities facing racialized youth in Boston. Still, it is a space that is theirs, a community formed around common needs and dreams. For many, it is a space of survival.
– – –
I think of this as I walk into the principal’s office to tell her that the government has decided it no longer has space for me. I am devastated, but I understand my privilege in this: I can finish the school year, pack my apartment, and travel back to Canada, where my family migrated years ago. I can make choices, take things, settle back into a comfortable life. Still, I ache. The relationships, the places, the subway routes and daily details are fragments of a life that I cannot take with me. The principal, a woman with a wide smile and an endless well of care, says to me, You’re so cute, I can find you someone to marry. Then she opens her arms. A place for me between them. I laugh, tears leaking from my eyes.
– – –
I come from a long line of displacement. My grandmother, a Hindu born in Karachi, found herself on the wrong side of the border carved by the British during Partition; my family was one of millions displaced. A reality as violent as cleaving a country in two. My father’s side was settled in Uganda for generations before they were forced to flee a dictatorship, seeking asylum from a home they could no longer inhabit. These are histories I do not remember, though they live in my bones. Ancestry surpasses memory, I think, as I roll socks into neat piles, wipe the refrigerator clean. We have always moved; my body has always carried that truth.
I also come from a long line of choices. My grandfather’s choice to leave India for London, searching for an elusive place to build a better life. My parents’ choice to move to Canada, baby in tow, following the promise of a job. A series of calculated risks, perhaps, decisions under pressure, but decisions no less. When I write, I carry both the intention behind these choices and the trauma from when there were none. I am finding ways to hold both.
– – –
I do not say survival lightly. For many of us on the margins, survival means carving out a space for ourselves, swaddling our existence in community. As parents and educators, we build homes and schools where our children can be valued for their full selves. As a teacher, I worked to make my classroom safe and familiar, filling the shelves with storybooks by Edwidge Danticat and Yangsook Choi and Maya Angelou. As a writer I seek out communities that value voices from the periphery, communities founded on shared understandings, that choose to listen first, that strive to lift each other up, that thirst for more stories, our stories, ours. This is sustenance, nourishment. This is necessary.
– – –
My mother grew up with many mothers. In her family home in India, mothers, fathers, and siblings were fluid, interchangeable. She was raised with dozens of cousins who were never anything but brothers and sisters; tens of aunts and uncles who were all their parents, enough grandparents for the lot. At night the siblings would sleep up on the rooftop, and when it rained they threw their sleeping mats into the courtyard and, laughing, slipped down into the waiting soil. My mother grew up not knowing who her birth mother was, because that kind of claiming didn’t matter. Theirs was a borderless family and home. A space so much their own that it didn’t require walls, an innate knowing that each of them could exist in this family, without having to lay claim to someone, something, as solely theirs. A belonging so expansive it defied boundaries. I remind myself that this is where I come from. I imagine this is what it means to be free.
– – –
In Rajasthan, I catch a few bars of service and scroll eagerly through the comments on my photo, my chai growing a milky skin beside me. Thank you for sharing, they say, grateful for your insights. Can’t wait to hear more. I am reminded of how I feel each time I publish a story or an essay, every poem shuttled into the world. Each piece a mouth. Each a shoot, roots burrowing back and face unfurled to the sun. In this scene I am surrounded, a forest of us. There is no unity in our voices, but there is collectivity.
Sometimes, writing brings connection. An email sent to me from a woman across the city, who I later meet over coffee and cake. Sometimes, it brings reflection, invites others to share. Always, it feels naked, unready. Still I do it. It guides me back to my own histories, to understanding where I come from. It connects me to the present, to so many others who are telling their own stories, offering their truths. On the page, we reenact the agency that wasn’t always ours. In writing, we resist erasure, the forces that seek to define us. We find one another and press our heels into the soil, visible, loud, here.
– – –
Fault lines live close. My ancestry teaches me how everything can be undone in the space of a moment, a new border erected, a radio announcement from a dictator, a thin envelope arriving in the mail. To have a history of displacement means to hunger for belonging. My lineage tells me where I come from and I where I can no longer go. Each generation tells a story of uproot and resettle. Of choices, pressures, actions driven by survival. In the spaces between, we search for connection, for safety and validation, a space to fill and overflow. In telling our stories we resist the silence, we refuse to disappear.
– – –
Each time I write, I tell this story, even when I don’t. That is to say, I don’t write in order to tell this story, but this story informs all that I write. It is soil under forest and rain filling oceans. A cycle that moves without me, and yet, has made me. If these spaces exist for us, they also exist beyond borders, boundless, uninhibited by the confines we navigate every day. They defy the logic imposed on us, that we must split apart in order to thrive.
On the page, I continue. I write to belong; I write to endure. I write to stay.
Janika Oza is a writer based in Toronto. She is the winner of the 2020 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and has received fellowships from VONA, Tin House, and One Story. She is published in The Best Small Fictions 2019 Anthology, The Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Find her at www.janikaoza.com.