This week, Anthony Shadid’s memoir  House of Stone – which tells of the author’s attempts to rebuild his dilapidated family home in Marjayoun, Lebanon and in turn of a search for identity in a restless Middle East – was published in the UK. To celebrate, Granta is publishing a series of short meditations by writers including Teju Cole, Rawi Hage, Ha Jin, A.L. Kennedy, Yiyun Li and Santiago Roncagliolo on where we think of – if anywhere – when we think of going home.

As part of Anthony Shadid week, granta.com has also published an interview with the author, a travelogue by photographer Michael Robinson-Chavez on his time on assignment in Iraq with Shadid and a guide to Lebanese street food by Annia Ciezadlo.

 

Rabih Alameddine

Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, ageing, and forever drama-laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is.

In the early pages of his gorgeous novel Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina writes: ‘Only those of us who have left know what the city used to be like and are aware of how much it has changed; it’s the people who stayed who can’t remember, who seeing it day after day have been losing that memory, allowing it to be distorted, although they think they’re the ones who remained faithful, and that we, in a sense, are deserters.’

Certainly a beautiful sentence, and a lovely sentiment, but I respectfully yet strenuously disagree. There may be much I can’t remember, and my memory may have become distorted along the way, but Beirut and how she was, how she has changed through the years – her, I never forgot. I never forget, and I have never left her.

From Rabih Alameddine’s novel, An Unnecessary Woman.

 

Teju Cole

Children have only a shallow understanding of the places in which they live. Home, whatever its difficulties, is where life is. Simple. I grew up in Lagos, and moved to the U.S. after high school. I have lately been returning to Lagos, once or twice a year, returning with the elation, distress, fury, and curiosity of an adult, and when, one evening last November, a man came up to my car in stalled traffic, pointed a gun at me and threatened to shoot, I understood something new, something that had eluded me as a child: home can also be where you go to die.

Teju Cole’s novel Open City was published last year. He is at work on a non-fictional narrative of Lagos.

 

Rawi Hage

Marjayoun

In the Meadow of Springs one wonders
what stream quenched the thirst of Saladin.
What meadow the crusader king retreated to.
Old trees, defeated, watched from above the castle hill.
The hallow arches of the Byzantine church amplified calls.
Prayers of minarets, a blind man with the glare
of a politician on a poster, an inquisitive grocer
occupying the straw upholstery of a wooden chair,
men in ancient cars manoeuvering
the narrowness of stone houses, in an alley,
Moughtareb! the black robes shouted:
He is looking for the mason’s house.


*marj: a meadow
*ayoun: a spring or an eye (eyes)
* Moughtareb: an expat or an immigrant

Rawi Hage’s most recent novel is Cockroach.

 

V.V. Ganeshananthan

Some Sri Lankans consider a homely woman not one without beauty, but one with command of her space. When such a woman is displaced by war from the house she calls her own, she must make home again and again, in different places. As inventive and relentless as a sparrow, she will assemble what branches she finds into elegant and necessary devices of shelter. An old sari curtains the open air of her camp into a new room: she lays defiant wings over her children, seeks her vanished men, steels herself against thieves, waits for return. In Tamil, there is a word for the place of ancestral origin; this is a word more powerful than home.

V.V. Ganeshananthan’s novel Love Marriage was long-listed for the Orange Prize and you can read her essay on the Tamil massacre, ‘The Politics of Grief’, here.

 

Ha Jin

I haven’t returned to my native land, China, since I left in 1985.

That means I haven’t seen my mother for twenty-seven years. She has been hospitalized since last fall. I have tried many times to get a visa so I can go back to see her, but the Chinese government rejected my visa application time and again. I don’t know why the government is so barbarous. I served in the People’s Army at age thirteen and stayed on the north-eastern border to defend the country. Compared to some of the current national leaders, I have performed a greater service to China.

They deny me the right to go home, so I try to find solace in my work.

Ha Jin’s most recent novel Nanjing Requiem was published in 2011.

 

A.L. Kennedy

I come from a long line of drifters. My family is from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England, even Mesopotamia. My parents emmigrated from England to Australia and then, fairly arbitrarily, settled back to work in Dundee just before I was born. Perhaps as a result, I have never found ‘home’ in a place. It’s people who are home for me: my grandparents waiting for me on Wolverhampton station, having coffee with friends in the Kings Road, or Great Western Road, or Nicholson Street. It’s the touch of a hand, or a kiss. Much more portable than a house.

Twice a Granta Best of Young British Novelist, A.L. Kennedy’s most recent novel is The Blue Book.

 

Yiyun Li

Last Friday I went to take my civil exam and interview for naturalization. One question asked was if I was willing to take the oath of allegiance to the United States.

By agreeing to take the oath of allegiance, I am aware I will put more distance between mother China and me. For those of us who live abroad, there is a point when ‘going back to China’ – a homecoming however brief and limited by the vacation time – is replaced by ‘going to visit China’.

Yet I am always dubious of homecoming. ‘Disloyalty’, Graham Greene said in his letter to V.S. Pritchett and Elizabeth Bowen, ‘is our privilege’. Claiming disloyalty – to a country, to a historical time – is one way to assert a distance between one and one’s subject in fiction. Homecoming, in my case, is only meaningful with the possibility leave-taking. A permanent homecoming is a resignation.

Yiyun Li’s most recent collection of stories is Gold Boy, Emerald Girl.

 

Alia Malek

With my parents’ native Syria much closer to the Holy Land than their adopted Baltimore, they waited until they could return home to baptize me, risking my soul’s salvation for a good many years.

When the day finally arrived in Damascus in 1980, the rite was remarkable only because I wore a bathing suit – in church – and because I was a six-year-old being dunked in a baptismal font designed for naked babies, who never have to remember the affair.

Yet what is notable and painful now was how ordinary it was for this Christian celebration to take place in a mostly Muslim country with several Jews in attendance.

But back then, everyone was just Syrian. Just friends, colleagues, neighbours.

In the photos, no one is self-conscious of that diversity, native like us, its cannibalism then silent, in us. Only I squirm, aware of my near nudity, under the onlooker’s scrutiny.

No one has realized we are a snapshot of a last gasp, of an extinct ordinary.

We are at home still.

Alia Malek is a Syrian-American journalist, and the author of A Country Called Amreeka: US History ReTold Through Arab American Lives.

 

Robert Olen Butler

Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon on the streets, February 1994: I took a xich lo up Tran Hung Dao and stood before the Hotel Metropole. I’d lived here twenty-three years earlier. It was from this place I emerged each midnight to walk the surrounding alleys and crouch with the many who were sleepless in their doorways. We spoke Vietnamese together. We talked of war and fish sauce, of politics and motorbikes, of families and the smell of wood fire. I walked the old path now and turned into an alley, and someone was cooking. I could smell wood fire and I could smell fish sauce and I knew I had returned to something that felt very much like home.

Robert Olen Butler’s most recent novel is The Hot Country.

 

Rajesh Parameswaran

The last time I was in the neighbourhood, I saw that my late grandparents’ ancient little house had been reduced to rubble – someone was building on top of it. This week I am searching for a new apartment in yet another city. It’s hell, but lucky me; there over 100 million homeless worldwide, I read somewhere. And I remember the family whose car got stuck in snow on a deserted road a few years ago (the man ventured for help and died, while his family stayed in the car and survived) – and the somehow startling advice the news people gave: that shelter is as primary as food, and therefore it’s often better to stay put.

Rajesh Parameswaran’s debut collection of short stories I Am An Executioner: Love Stories was published earlier this year and a story from that collection, ‘The Infamous Bengal Ming’ appeared in Granta 117: Horror.

 

Santiago Roncagliolo

I left Peru, my country, twelve years ago. It was a poor non-democratic country, so I went to Spain, where I still live. But now, the world is upside down.

Nowadays, Spain is a sad country. Newspapers talk every day about cutting healthcare, social benefits and earnings. Young people begin to run away, as I did twelve years ago.

Back in Peru, my old friends are rich: they used to be middle class, but now they own big fancy apartments with views to the sea, and armies of nannies for their children. The economy grows at eight per cent a year.

I realize it is my fault: whenever I live in any country, everything turns wrong. I see it as a gift. I have decided to offer my talent to fight for democracy in Syria or Sudan. I just need to be taken there. But I warn you: I want to travel in business class. I am Peruvian, I am a ‘new rich’.

A Granta Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelist Santiago Roncagiolo’s most recent novel is Red April. He also appeared in Granta 117: Horror.

 

Mirza Waheed

Many years ago, I went home in Kashmir and found our crumbling ancestral house gone and with it, the crayon scribbles on the door of an elegant cedar-wood cupboard. In place of the house stood a pretty, redbrick cottage without a smudge on its walls or doors, now inhabited by my uncle’s family. Also gone was my grandfather’s Chinar tree, forever trimmed, and now culled, lest it overtake the house. I used to climb up it to look at the army trucks and soldiers passing outside during the many curfews at home. I return every year, a nostalgist for the scribbles, and hopeful for a time when ‘the soldiers return the keys / and disappear’*.

*Agha Shahid Ali; A Pastoral; ‘The Country Without a Post Office’

Mirza Waheed’s debut novel The Collaborator was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award.

 

Anthony Shadid’s memoir House of Stone is published by Granta Books.

Photograph by Terissa Schor

Podcast: Edinburgh Book Festival Special
Interview: Henry Marsh