Place and Displacement, some thoughts about identity

MoiraToday, the fabulous Moira Young joins us for some musings about identity and writing. Moira is from Vancouver, BC and now lives in the UK. A former actor and opera singer, her debut novel, Blood Red Road, first in the Dustlands trilogy, was published in 2011 to international acclaim and awards. The last part of the Dustlands trilogy was released last year.

I’ve spent most of my life exploring and developing my identity.

That would be the subtext I’d play in any conversation about my years as an actor and opera singer; my colourful, ramshackle, marginal careers. I’ve done this! I’ve done that! Another story! This is me! But here’s the thing: I’ve got an irritating little inner critic. She’s always on the alert, a real nosy parker. The moment I began, she’d be shaking her head and snorting, “Oh please! Not that again! When are you going to get down to the real business?” and I’d have to imagine up a giant thumb to squash her into silence. This went on for wearisome years until, in 2006, I got sick of myself and began to write a book. Despite an impressive campaign of self-sabotage, I managed to stick with it. Eight years on I’ve written three books, the Dustlands trilogy: Blood Red Road, Rebel Heart and Raging Star.

My identity powers this story, fills every page; spilling, bursting out, all my shifting, contradictory, multi-layered, many selves. It’s about many things including land and landscape, place and displacement, and leaving home to find yourself. Place and displacement. This dichotomy is a strong, very particular element of my identity. I’ve ignored, brushed aside, even feared it for many years. Now I see it as something like a faultline running through me. Faultlines are both a weakness and a source of great power. And to ignore or brush aside or fear this ever-present tension within me, this ever-shifting energy is to deny one of the main sources of my creativity.

My Canadian identity has been confirmed and strengthened by writing these books. I’ve always been deeply attached to my family and friends there, but now I know how deeply I’m attached to the place, how fundamentally it’s made me who I am: the land itself and its spirits and its people. Yet I’ve lived in the UK for half my life, attached as I am to its landscape, and its people and its spirits. I’m drawn both ways at once; wanting to be here, wanting to be there, here but not here, there but not there. Place and displacement. My inheritance. Passed down to me on both sides of the family.

My mother’s father was a Cornishman. His people were sailors and landworkers, a family with roots running deep into the land and life of Cornwall over hundreds of years. They were seldom prosperous, scraping by, sometimes achingly poor. By the age of sixteen my grandfather was the main support of his sister and widowed mother. They faced a meagre future on his carpenter’s wage. So he sailed from Liverpool to build them a new home on a quarter parcel of land in northern Alberta. It was free land; gratis: a gift to a poor young man from a rich old Queen, anxious to settle the edges of her Empire. He returned to Cornwall only once. It was 1963. My grandmother put on her travelling suit and a smart hat with a feather and got on a plane to take him back to Looe, the fishing village he’d left a lifetime ago. In accordance with his wishes she buried his ashes in Cornish soil, in a hilltop cemetery with a fine sea view over the straggling rooftops.

My father is a Scot, born in Thurso and bred. The son of a Scotsman and an English rose, who dreamed of home as she did time north of the border, awaiting  her retirement reward of Worthing and palm trees and daily confab with her sisters. Gwen and Billie and Dolly and Mamie, the Potter girls together again, all a-twitter around the tea trolley. Who was then the exile? My Scottish grandfather, that’s who. There’s always one in this story. Or two. Or three. Or more. As he dug and planted his temperate English garden, did he dream of other skies, of other seas? Of the northern kingdoms he’d lived in and known? Galloway, Fife and Caithness. Those towns and villages, rivers and glens, isles and lochs and bens. Dream on, grandfather. He came home in the end; his ashes scattered on Scottish waters, the River Tweed at Coldstream in the Borders, where he’d spent happy summers as a boy.

My dad shook off Scotland with relative ease. At 27 – almost on a whim – he plane-hopped to Vancouver, got himself a sales job and roamed the western roads in a ’57 Olds, with his sample case of laundry soap in the trunk. Big land, big roads, big car; he was big dreams away from the place he came from. He’s returned to the UK many times over the years, but always for the people, not the land, not the place. If he’s pined for Scotland, he’s kept it to himself. And so far as I know, he’ll leave no instruction for his ashes to be returned to his birthplace on the north coast of the Highlands, for an eternal view over Pentland Firth.

I knew their stories before, of course. But I’ve only started making these connections, started to pull some of them together, the threads of place and displacement that web through my family and weave us together down the years. No wonder I’m both here and there at the same time. Where should my ashes go, I wonder? The soil and waters of all these places call to me so strongly: the Pacific Northwest of Canada, Cornwall, Scotland. Perhaps I belong in the mid-Atlantic. 

Identity is an expansive, embracing, fluid thing. Bits come to the fore when they’re needed, then retreat again till the next time. Which bits of me will come forward for the next book? I’m making a start now, so we’ll see.

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