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Writing Home

This novelist's sense of where he belongs is not constrained by place.

Photo: Paulo Segadães

By Richard Zimler

My definition of home has changed a great deal—and become far less traditional—since I left Berkeley in 1990. Perhaps that's because I came to live in a foreign country, Portugal, and have traveled tens of thousands of miles over the past 20 years to promote my novels.

I first realized that my sense of home had altered in September 2004. I was giving a talk in Sydney, Australia, 11,000 miles from my apartment in Porto, when jetlag struck and a wave of stage fright washed over me. Was it odd to imagine a bowl of soup at that difficult moment? Probably. But trying to regain my composure, I promised to treat myself to dinner at my favorite Portuguese restaurant, with a bowl of its wonderful specialty—red bean soup with turnip greens. That did the trick, and I was able to finish my reading.

Such experiences have taught me that what we imagine to keep ourselves hopeful at distressing times are the same things that make us feel that we are exactly where we belong. And that feeling—of being at home—is key, I believe, to a sense of leading a purposeful life. Said another way, when we sense that we are far from where we want to be—geographically, spiritually, psychologically, sexually—we tend to become deeply depressed.

The soup that saved me in Sydney was a clue that Portugal had become something far more to me than a place to live and work—that it had, in fact, become my home. At that point, I'd been living in Porto for 14 years. In the 11 years since then, my sense of home has kept evolving and no longer has so much to do with geography—or with an intimately familiar setting—as with a particular person, a daily routine, intangible ideas and images.

Let me explain by going back to another time and place. Two years ago, I participated in the literary festival of Ribeirao Preto, a Brazilian city of 650,000 at the center of a lush and wealthy agricultural region that supplies much of the country's sugarcane. A festival representative drove my partner and me from the tiny airport to our downtown hotel, a rusting relic from the 1950s with stained carpeting in the lobby and an elevator that looked as if it might relish trapping us between floors. Our room was small and stuffy, with mix-and-match, garage-sale-style furniture. Since it was suppertime and no literary events were scheduled that evening, we went hunting for a place to eat.

Walking around the city, we realized that the profits of the sugarcane industry had largely eluded Ribeirao Preto's old neighborhoods, whose residents were living in near-squalor, amid potholed streets, boarded-up storefronts, littered sidewalks and sad-looking, empty restaurants that could have been lit and decorated by Edward Hopper. I began to feel that it was a big mistake to have come.

And yet, I didn't succumb to depression. In fact, I rebounded quickly and became eager to make the best of whatever the town had to offer. The reason for my turnaround? I was with the man with whom I've been in love for 37 years and whom I married five years ago. Corny? Not if you can appreciate that you want your best friend with you when you're in a foreign city that reminds you of the injustice of the world everywhere you look. Without him, I'd have been ready for tears. When I think back to the 24 hours we spent in Ribeirao Preto, what I remember most is sitting in the city's landmark pub, the Pinguim, and laughing together at the oddness of coming to a tropical city to be surrounded by statues and paintings of penguins. The older I get, the more I understand that the loving friendship that Alex and I have created over four decades has become my home.

So has my writing. Each novel for me is a parallel universe where I live for up to three years or more. Except for Alex, the book's characters are the only "people" with whom I interact for days—and sometimes weeks—at a time, summoning up their dreams, desires, regrets and secrets. While working to capture in words their hard-to-express emotions and inner conflicts, I try to discover where they want to take me. You see, when I start a novel, I know more or less what is going to happen in the first chapter, but the rest of the plot is a mystery. In the best of circumstances, it emerges naturally, out of the characters themselves. And it often seems magical. I sometimes have the impression that intangible ideas and images enter into me while I'm writing, and that—through my books—I have the privilege of giving them form in the physical world.

For the months and years when I'm struggling to discover who my characters are, I feel that I'm in a very familiar home—one whose door I open every time I sit down to write. In this sense, over the years, I've maintained homes in 16th-century Lisbon, Goa under the domination of the Inquisition, Porto and Charleston, S.C., at the height of the slave trade, Berlin in the 1930s, the Warsaw ghetto and, most recently, present-day Lisbon. In part, these fictional settings come to seem so comfortable because, while I'm inside them, I lose track of time in the "real" world. Thinking about this single-minded focus that I'm blessed to have brings to mind a wonderful verse by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi:

Knowing that conscious decisions
and personal memory
are much too small a place to live,
every human being streams at night
into the loving nowhere, or during the day,
in some absorbing work.

One risk, however, is becoming too absorbed in my work. After a few hours at my computer, when I finally take a break, I'm frequently struck by the fear that the story will fall apart in my absence—that my home will vanish. Still, I've learned it can be an advantage to gain some perspective on a novel, and in recent years I've forced myself to leave behind my writing for a few hours at a time or even a whole day. I'm lucky to have become a well-known author in Portugal, and I'm often invited to give talks at schools; such events allow me to spend time away from work in what I consider a valuable way.

As my own sense of home has evolved, I've become sensitive to the nontraditional ways in which other people define their places of comfort and security. For instance, while researching my novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, I learned that after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E., some Jewish mystics came to regard the Sabbath as their homeland. At the start of each Sabbath—at sundown on Friday—these kabbalists make their way home through prayer and other rituals, and they remain there until dusk on Saturday evening. Their homeland is a time and not a place.

Since moving to Portugal, I've also become aware that no matter how comfortable I become in the Portuguese language, English is an intimate landscape like no other; I feel as if I know every flower, bird and stone. In that regard, the most lauded Portuguese poet of the 20th century, Fernando Pessoa, once wrote: "A minha pátria é a lingua portuguesa"—"My homeland is the Portuguese language."

An ancient religious idea that I think of ever more often, now that both my parents have died, is of death as a return home. Here is how singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen puts it in "Going Home," a song he released when he was 78 years old:

Going home without my burden,
Going home behind the curtain,
Going home without this costume that I wore.

Unlike Cohen, I haven't reached the point where I see death as a way of shedding my "costume" and returning home. Indeed, while listening to his immensely moving, old man's voice, I realize there is still so much I don't understand—about myself and the world and everything in between. Still, I remain grateful every day for the homes in which I've flourished. And I plan to live inside them for as long as I can.

Richard Zimler, MA '82, has written 10 novels, published in 23 languages. His most recent books are The Seventh Gate, The Warsaw Anagrams and The Night Watchman.

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