Just under a year ago I lost my father. I know, it happens all the time – the inevitable consequence of living is dying, and it happens every day, every moment, all the time. But I still miss my father: he was my last parent and an anchor in my mother country.
My father once compared my immigration from Denmark to Australia to his own move 30 km north from his childhood home to the bigger town. He spoke of a culture shock of moving from a small farming community where he was related to or knew everyone else to the bustling metropolis where he had to create new relationships from scratch. 50 years later he still felt a deep connection to the place he grew up and a longing for it, even though he could read about it in his local paper and it took him just 20 minutes to get there if he needed to. “It was big for me to move away from my home town”. I believe him. Through his whole life he would, only half joking, judge people on how far away from his home town they grew up. He had strong networks reaching back into his childhood and his substantial extended family, most of whom still live in the place he so identified with. Somehow, my father always understood the importance of family and place in a way that only in the past few years has become clear to me.
A person whom I admire in the Brisbane writing community took me out for coffee to discuss a passing mention I had made to wanting to write. I told her that I wanted to write stories about place and belonging. For a migrant like me, chasing down and understanding belonging to place, people and culture can become an obsession, perhaps because that sense of home can be so elusive and dual, sometime almost schizoid, when you have left one place for another.
My writer friend recommended that I read a book by a fellow migrant and Brisbanite, Kári Gíslason’s The Promise of Iceland. So I did. And I liked it. A lot. The outcome of an affair between a British woman and Icelandic man, Kári migrated to Australia with his mother as a child and his story is about breaking the promise his mother made to keep his father’s identity concealed. This promise makes for a whole lot of holes in Kári’s identity and this book is about how he plugs them. By going back, again and again, to the place where he was born.
Kári’s story is of course so very different from mine. My decision to migrate was my own as a young adult, I was not an accompanying child with a restless single mother and the only promise affecting my migration was the promise to marry my sweet Mick. What Kári and I do have in common is the desire to find home: for him it takes him back to Iceland again and again, circling closer and closer to the resolution that must be: public acknowledgement that he is the son of his father. In the end Kári wisely concludes that home “is not a moment in the past to which one returns, or a revision. It isn’t even the feeling of being settled in the place you love the most … it is the knowlege that one day you will be back”. And so we leave the author settled in Brisbane with his wife, two young boys and an academic career in medieval Icelandic literature, and with close links to Iceland – enough for an annual visit at least.
As I ponder what this book means for my self understanding and my writing, I think about how migrants often become split – it takes at least a generation, if not two, to overcome the sadness of always being away from one part of yourself. There is forever a part of you that dreams of being in the other place, being the other person. I have certainly experienced a perpetual duality of identity that I could ignore for some time, but which resurfaced and consumed me in unexpected ways at unexpected times. For so long did I try to suppress this duality – my project to become Australian succeeded better than I could have hoped. But then I started to feel unwhole, broken, apart – and sad. So terribly sad for no apparent reason. Something was missing. Denmark and Danishness was missing.
Luckily for me the Promise of Denmark is not founded on a secret, but an expectation that I can reclaim my Danishness and repair those broken bits again. And come and go in my mother country as I decide.
This is what our sabbattical in Copenhagen is all about. The knowledge that I can – and will – be back. Just like my father could.