Monday, February 25, 2013

On writing and words and roots

You know you're a writer when learning one new word kicks your writerly inspiration into high gear.

As many of you know, I love languages. My passion for writing is driven by my fascination with the beauty of words, and the way there are such infinite possibilities for the way we can combine them. But what I find more fascinating about other languages is when they have single words for concepts we can only describe in a sentence or phrase. I've been intending to write this post for a few days, and this morning on my Facebook I spotted a link to 15 Wonderful Words with No English Equivalent, if you want some examples.

One of my writing professors at Iowa, when I told him I was going to Wales, told me he'd heard of a Welsh word for a very particular kind of homesickness and nostalgia. I remembered this conversation recently and decided to do some investigating, and in light of that I bring you the word hiraeth. You can read a beautiful reflection on the word and its connection to Wales' history over on The Paris Review, and I suspect this may be the article my professor read and learned about this word.

In my research I've found different definitions for hiraeth. Some definitions refer to hiraeth as a yearning for Wales, and a specific Wales out of history which will never return, but others are more general.  My favorite (yes, I have a favorite definition): "a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past." Italicized because that last part slays me with how musical it is in sound and rhythm--read it out loud, please!

What I love most about the idea of hiraeth is this idea that you can be homesick for a time or place you may never have known, or may never have called home.  Good writers can capture a setting so well that you'll want to be there too, that you may find yourself missing it even if you've never been there or even if it isn't real. When I was about 14, my mother handed me a book called In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez. I've since devoured every one of her novels, managed to include references to her in various essays on completely different subjects or authors, and have just finished reading her book of poetry, The Woman I Kept to Myself. Next up is her book of essays, Something to Declare. Alvarez grew up in the Dominican Republic, and nearly all of her writing either occurs there or revolves around people in America who have come from there. Here's a poem of hers that I love and which seems to fit this post.

Family Tree

When I was born, my mother wrote me down
on the family tree, a second bough
dangling from her branch which was attached
to a great trunk which sunk down into roots
sprung from the seeds of Spain and Africa,
the latter never mentioned but expressed
by darker faces in the family clan.
We were on the up and up, "good" hair, light skin,
a foreign education for the men,
fine weddings for the guaranteed virgins.

Branch by branch, blossom by blossom, we grew:
our individual trees lost in the woods
of Alvarez and Tavares ancestors.
Until by emigration, seeds were cast
on foreign lands: a maternal great-aunt
married a German and our name was lost
in guttural patronymics, blond cousins
with year-round suntans. My sisters and I,
transported stateside in the sixties, turned
into tangle-haired hippies, slinging our English slang.
We clipped ourselves off from the family tree,
independent women! Or so we thought,
until our babies started to be born,
sporting Mamita's dimples, Tío's brows,
the voice of Tía Mariana, thick and sweet
like boiled-down sugarcane: the family tree
transplanted but not totally transformed.
Even I, the childless one, intend to write
New Yorker fiction in the Cheever style,
but all my stories tell where I came from.

-Julia Alvarez, The Woman I Kept To Myself

Since the first book of hers that I read, I've had a deep desire to travel to the Dominican Republic and learn more about what life is like there. I attribute Julia's stunning writing, combined with learning to speak Spanish and the ongoing process of transcribing and translating my grandfather's memories, which he recorded on audio tapes for me during his last year, to this ever-increasing pull I feel to go there. It's a journey I do hope to make someday, as a sort-of pilgrimage for my own curiosity and personal growth. I think this is my own form of hiraeth, yearning for a lost place that may not be of my individual past, but is a part of my family past, and has therefore shaped me.

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