That evening, as a bleak cold overtook Collingwood, we took refuge in an empty Thai restaurant. The stark emptiness inside made me indecisive over where to sit. I glanced at Jana to steer us to a table. She pointed to the one closest to the wall. I was glad—I never liked sitting in the middle like someone on display.
We ordered beers while flicking through the food menu. Jana is a fellow writer and current editor of Assemble Papers. We both studied creative writing at the University of Melbourne nine years ago and hadn’t seen each other since a chance encounter at a Lifted Brow party last year. Since then we’ve been seeing each other regularly. Being writers with migrant backgrounds isn’t the only thing we have in common though; we both stem from the same European region: the former Yugoslavia.
Our conversation began with chitchat, leading first into love, then the general nausea we feel with society, and then eventually our homelands. ‘I always get homesick for Croatia around this time,’ Jana said, and I realised I couldn’t remember the last time I felt homesick. What is home? I suddenly wondered as Jana began to tell me about her upcoming trip to Croatia. Our conversation continued but the thought stayed with me, and throughout the night I kept thinking what experiencing longing for one’s true home felt like, for I had been separated from my motherland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, since 1992 and couldn’t remember the last time I felt the intense emotional longing Jana spoke of.
The word ‘homesick’ entered the English language sometime in the eighteenth century, and up until the twentieth, homesickness was thought of as a potentially fatal illness. The yearning for the old country caused many people distress and depression during the great migrations to the west. In America, the immigrant population was particularly prone to this disease. Even newspapers reported on individual cases. An article in the San Francisco Evening Examiner (August 12, 1887) described the demise of one Father JM McHale under the headline ‘Victim of Nostalgia: A Priest Dies Craving for a Sight of His Motherland’.
Today, advanced technologies have brought the world closer together, seducing us into thinking displacement is painless—but it hasn’t cured the innate, human ache for our long-lost homes. My grandfather, who came to Australia twice in the 1970s, used to tell me how much he hated being here. ‘I miss my village and my horses,’ he’d say.
After Jana and I left each other shortly after eating dinner, I walked off towards the Collingwood train station. She may have been in Australia for more than 10 years, but she still called Croatia home. Her homesickness made her feel temporarily displaced and depressed. I’ve only ever had this feeling with cities, not countries. I left Bosnia when I was six years old. I spent a year in Croatia, five in Germany and since the age of 13, I’ve lived in Australia. My longing for a home has diminished.
Susan J Matt, author of Homesickness: An American History, writes:
The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates globalisation. This view envisions men and women easily separated from family, from home and from their pasts. But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.
While my thoughts of home are strong, I’ve always believed my displacement from a young age has connected me to individual places more than a specific motherland. As Tim Cresswell puts it in Place: A Critical Introduction: ‘To be human is to be in place.’
Australia isn’t linked to Jana’s ancestral, cultural identity. She’s an Australian with a Croatian background. I’m an Australian with a Bosnian background. Like Jana, I equally desire to see my homeland again, but I don’t pine for it with intense homesickness. I pine for one particular city, Sarajevo, because it extended my identity, allowing me to understand my history without making me feel inadequate about my Australian upbringing.
The yearning Jana feels for Croatia is both individual and universal. Research has shown our nostalgic aches for the past are likely to occur during transitions. Homesickness is a kind of distress caused by being away from home. But when we think of change in general, everything is transitional and impermanent. We long for simpler times when technology advances too fast. We long for the joy of childhood when we mature into adults. In fact, most moments of our lives elicit nostalgia and yearning for others, and they displace us from our present environment.
These transitional dispositions are all themes of displacement. In its most literal sense, displacement refers to the act of moving or being put out of the usual or original place. Be it psychological like homesickness, physical like exile or moral like denial, displacement is consistently present in our lives. This topic is also by no means new in literature. Exile, movement and displacement have been common themes since Homer’s Odyssey: the Greek epic poem of Odysseus’s return journey to the island of Ithaca following the war in Troy. Odyssey has for a long-time served as a primary literary model of exile in western history, evoking the long and dangerous journeys over land and water Odysseus took in hope of reuniting with his family.
Literature continually displays characters in situations unsuitable for their state of being. But since colonial literature, displacement as a literary theme has been associated with migrant writing. Today, migrant literature is more prevalent in the mainstream, both locally across Australia and globally. From The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad to Miss Ex-Yugoslavija by Sofija Stefanovic to These Wild Houses by Omar Sakr, the literary scene is inundated with stories underlining both physical displacement and a sense of being socially and/or culturally out of place.
Of late, I’ve been reading these books with keen interest. But the more I encounter writers of migrant backgrounds, the more I ask myself if all displaced writers are perennially returning to their motherland in their work. The literature I encounter (and write) often has a strong, subconscious longing to reclaim an original, cultural identity—but I wonder whether we are instead trying to create a new one through the remembrance of our homelands. Once displacement takes place, our crisis of identity begins. The possibility of reclaiming a singular identity comes to end.
In The Lebs, protagonist Bani Adam is a young Lebanese-Australian with an identity stretched between two cultural pillars. He’s struggling to be who he is: a young Lebanese man; and who he’s trying to become: a Lebanese-Australian different to the stereotypical Lebs around him. This reminded me of how much place yields character. His internal displacement comes from place, i.e. Western Sydney, and the book oscillates beautifully between Bani’s moral, physical and psychological displacement in Australia. Deep within, as he reminisces about his motherland Egypt, the longing evokes a desire for reconnection. But as the story moves forward, we see that while attempting to connect with something culturally authentic, Bani isn’t trying to return to Egypt. He is trying to clarify himself by better understanding his own history. This, in essence, redefines him as a new, Arab-Australian.
This strenuous, psychological displacement is something I’m very familiar with. Recently, while I’ve been observing changes within myself, I’ve come to understand that I never really long for a specific place. A homeland. I just long. I pine, ache and yearn for something unspecific, undefined and without region. Like Bani and Jana, my heart also aches for a particular place. When I see photos of my childhood, I yearn for the green, hilly fields of my village, Suhača, where I spent the first six years of my life. When I see images of my life in Mainz, Germany, I long for the long-lost friendships I made in my neighbourhood. And when I talk about my past here in Melbourne, I reminisce about my days in St. Albans where I grew up. But each memory, recollection or object triggering a moment of yearning or nostalgia is only brief, temporary. My longing oscillates between varied cultures, societies and places I’ve existed in, but it never fully forms into an astute, clear desire for a single place or origin. So I’m not convinced I’m trying to return to an idea of a single, cultural identity—instead, my internal explorations are more about constantly forging a new one, deciphering what I’ve become from consistent displacement throughout in my life.
The question I ask myself more is: why am I? not what am I? For me, the Ennis exiled from Bosnia in 1992 stayed in the village he was brought up in. I took what I required from that existence and moved on to fashioning another iteration of myself. In Germany, where we were refugees for five years, I became an excitable, culturally-ingrained child obsessed with hip hop music. When I left for Australia in 1997, I left behind a certain self I could’ve become in Germany.
Here in Australia is where I shaped a completely new identity. I may be considered displaced, but I’m grateful for it. The things I left, the places I lost and the languages I abandoned have developed me into a confident, modern, ethnic hybrid that longs more for answers to my existential humanity than my cultural past.
Maybe others, those more deeply connected with their motherland, pine to return to their ancestral home and identity. But I no longer pine for these sentimental joys of the past. I yearn, I pine, but what I pine for is to solidify an identity fashioned from multiple cultural influences—not a die-hard patriot of my old self. I don’t feel unsettled by this. The more distance I put between me and my past, the stronger is my yearning for inner discovery. In the same way Jim Jarmusch speaks of creativity—‘Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination’—I use the frequent forces of loss, alienation and disorientation to experiment with these newly gained powers and freedom. In my case, my displaced self undergoes a process of transformation that, periodically, like the cells in our bodies, renews itself.
I’ve seen this idea demonstrated in These Wild Houses by the poet Omar Sakr. He invites us into his world as a ‘queer Muslim Arab Australian’, guiding us through many references and metaphors of houses, articulating the complexities of being displaced. But further into his poetry, we begin to hear the voice of a writer who, although displaced, has made a new identity out of a concoction of many, not a single static one eager to return to their original state.
I’m deeply proud of my upbringing. I no longer feel tense telling people I’m a wog from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I used to because I was afraid of being judged or questioned. I also no longer feel afraid telling people I was brought up Muslim. This was inherently difficult because of Islamophobia, but I’ve learnt that my ancestral and religious roots aren’t the end of my identity. My transnational past shaped by displacement has given me new ways to characterise my identity. I know my history: my Slavic roots define an enormous aspect of me, but they are not my entirety. Today, I experience myself as a being divided into many despite being individual.
Displacement suggest that migrants belong neither here nor there, forever uprooted and displaced—but this isn’t so; I’m grateful for my displacement. My displacement discards the diasporic connotation of absence and loss that, in its classical definition, implies all migrants want to return to their homeland. And I believe there are others like me too. It has spurred a hybridisation of eclectic cultural thinking, understanding and human empathy and compassion. It’s adapted our identities and shaken off these old assumptions of not belonging, of disconnection to who and where we are.
It’s true that we are displaced. But in this world, we’ll never be without place.
Ennis Cehic is a writer and creative from Melbourne. Ennis writes fiction, poetry and essays. He’s been published in The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, The Age, Overland and has also recorded poetry with All The Best Radio. He’s a former member of the West Writers Group from Footscray Arts and is currently working on his first short story collection.