You were born without a country, my mother told me once. Perhaps I imagined those words, said in her quiet way, for she is immensely soft-spoken (unless angry or excited, whereupon volume increases in direct proportion to the intensity of her exasperation). I don't remember what we were discussing, but those words - if they were indeed spoken - have stayed with me for all the years since. Now I feel that despite my American passport and education and my Taiwanese parents (who have returned to the country where they were born and raised after a distance of thirty years), I have no country of my own except that piece of the planet that is my body, or even smaller, the size of a fist, like my own heart. I am my own country.
Not too long ago I came across A Man Without a Country, by Kurt Vonnegut, who died this past week at the age of 84. It was the title that caught my eye and made my heart jump. I have not read Vonnegut since high school, in those days when I would make my way alphabetically through nearly every book in the fiction section of our library. (It is quite possible I began at the beginning and end, and worked my way to the middle, but I can't remember for sure). I had read Vonnegut and Joseph Heller at the same time, those Americans who wrote about war and what it makes us become, writers whose words embedded themselves in our culture. After that I found I was still searching for something, restlessly moving away from the American and British literature that shaped my mind in the beginning of the time I was aware that literature meant everything to me. I have crossed continents and learned languages and while those continents and languages will always be part of me, now I find myself returning to the beginning.
Let me tell you, Vonnegut is a lot funnier than I remember, even as he writes about how we our leaders are "power-drunk chimpazees," how we are "all addicts of fossil fuels in a state of denial" and in the name of advanced technology we "have squandered our planet's resources, including air and water, as though there were no tomorrow, so now there isn't going to be one." By now (at the time of writing) he is no longer the kid who came back from war (having miraculously survived the bombing of Dresden), but a grumpy old man deriding the state of his country, who fears that we have begun to live "as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough," without thought for the generations to come. But there is humor to his words, and irony, a tenderness, and I feel a sense that that his disappointment and disenchantment with the modern world and his country and our future - or what is left of it - is born out of love, and a connection to the country that the title says he is without, and which indeed he is not.
This may be the first post I have ever written without using semi-colons. This is in honor of Vonnegut, who tells us not to use them because semi-colons are "transvestite hermaphrodites representing nothing." I myself love semi-colons and use them profusely. But I will refrain for once, because Vonnegut tells me to.
Vonnegut, Kurt. A Man Without A Country. Seven Stories Press, 2005. pp 72, 42, 44-45, 71, 23.