“I write — and talk — in order to find out what I think,” says Susan Sontag. I find myself often coming back to that concept as I continue to explore my sense of identity as someone born and bred in England, but living for nearly 10 years in the American Midwest. When first asked about missing England, and the differences inherent in living in Nebraska, I was at a loss for words. It isn’t that I was blind to tangible instances that distinguished one place from the other, but I could not grasp let alone articulate why simultaneously it felt so similar and dissimilar.
As a result, for the last 10 years I have been in a perpetual cultural conversation, with myself and others. The cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, asserted that culture is communication and communication is culture. Squishtalks was motivated by many factors, but among them was that quintessential human desire to ascertain individual meaning and identity. During the time that I have been examining the dislocation of geography and sense of self, I also have been living a process of increasing absorption within the context of my American life. Such dynamic circumstances have the effect of altering my frame of reference just as I am attempting to focus upon it. “Culture hides more than it reveals,” said Hall and, moreover, “It hides most effectively from its own participants.” Hall’s opinion was that, “The real job is not to understand foreign culture but to understand our own.”
Perhaps it is not surprising that I am able to perceive more clearly from afar the current discussion among the Scots, and across the United Kingdom, for an independent existence for Scotland outside of the United Kingdom. As the Scots have a keener sense of nationhood, so too from this American vantage, does my sense of Englishness have an acuity that was absent when I lived in England. Of course, some sentimentality infuses this vision, but I perceive a nation characterized by exuberance, eclecticism, natural beauty, intellectualism and individualism, flourishing on a bedrock of equitable rights, pragmatism and fairness.
Maybe it is ironic that a year ago I was naturalized as an American citizen, starting the next chapter of cultural examination. It troubles me, for example, to consider that I may no longer “qualify,” whatever that may mean, as English. I am anxious when England communicates a new version of jingoistic antagonism, from Caribbean immigrants before to either Muslims now, or eastern Europeans. Am I now too the “other”?
As far as cultural identity is concerned, my American naturalization was less a rejection of England or separation between old and new than it is a bifurcation. Naturally, I have developed a more considered observation on the divergence and convergence of my cultural identity, but life remains full of questions. Fortunately, I have the advice of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” And so my conversation continues…