An Intellectual Desire
It had been during the Vietnam War, and the man had stared, meanly and righteously. "The United States-how can you live in that country?"
Agnes had shrugged. "A lot of my stuff is there."
- Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
Living in Chile during the conflict in Iraq, another American War drawing heated international response, I've confronted the same scrutiny as Agnes. Even in the American-style high school at which I teach, the students and teachers from around the world are highly critical of the United States. One of my students in Journalism eyed me warily, as if I represented a global empire, when he handed in an article condemning the battle on Iraqi soil.
But the first assignment for my class, before attempting political commentary, was a simple interview. And their subject was the new teacher-me. I answered the typical questions about Harvard, about my travels around the world, and about my work in journalism, publishing, and creative writing. The students proceeded to nod agreeably and take notes-until they asked about my future plans. I saw the entire class bristle when I answered plainly: law school in the United States.
They really couldn't understand why, at first. Why, as a writer and a traveller, would I want to spend the next three years cloistered in a law library? Why would I return to my roots when my homeland was the source of ambiguous moral debate? I could tell they saw my destination as a fallback and my career choice as a cop-out.
But words are not decorative art, I tried to explain, nor is writing a craft that exists for its own sake. So rather than a consolation prize for failed novelists, law is in fact the most immediate application of a desire to write the texts that shape our lives. As for travelling, this hardly creates emotional distance from my origins, I insisted; ultimately, a traveller is always seeking out the qualities abroad that truly hit home.
On one assignment for the Women's Heritage Project, I recalled, I interviewed a woman who had documented the personal tragedies of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. I told her story and that of these women who had lost descendants in the Argentinean Dirty War as a testimony to human rights atrocities, even as our government and theirs were attempting to smooth over former involvement. Later on, when I travelled to Buenos Aires, I was amazed to discover the lasting scars of past policy as I watched these women and their daughters [in a ] continuing weekly vigil in the city center.
I moved to London to study Shakespeare and European law, I told the class, both of which ultimately spoke to me as a New Yorker. I wrote a review of the female immigrant experience portrayed in A Yiddish Queen Lear for my Text and Theater course, and I compared the NYPD to the Elizabeth concept of justice in Measure for Measure. After interviewing a representative from the Collection of British Prostitutes for Criminology, I wrote a travelogue through Amsterdam about the red-light district's blurring of the boundary between sexual mores and personal freedom. I reflected not only on the Forty-second Street of my youth, but [also on] the models in Fifth Avenue windows today.
Even at work as an English teacher in Santiago, I've learned, words can carry the weight of social justice. Neither the anniversary of the Twin Tower attack nor the Pinochet coup was acknowledged at my school this September 11, as both issues involved not only victims of officially sanctioned "evil," but [also] political controversy on both sides. Despite the school's silent neutrality, however, I gave my own class a chance to discuss their emotional reactions to the events. And while I was many miles from Manhattan, I attended a tribute to Chile's mourning that week, listening to testimonies, songs, and poems in the same national stadium that had functioned as a torture chamber thirty years ago.
Writing is about addressing the human condition and giving form to collective values, I entreated my class. Meanwhile, travel stems from a desire to better understand these qualities, starting from the place one has left behind. And just as writing and travelling have taken me to distant lands, I reflected both are now calling me home. My stuff is there, I told the skeptical sixteen-years-olds-and this had nothing to do with CDs or shoes or clothes in my closet, but rather with the fabric of my life. For despite all the moral ambiguities of the United States, I find that all my ideals and principles, my loved ones and formative institutions, are located in the details of American life-either as it exists today, or [as] I hope to shape it with my own words.