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Relation Between Memory and Migration in Imaginary Homelands

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Memory, in all its forms, is a significant component within the contexts of migration, immigration, resettlement, and diasporas and it offers continuity to the disconnections of individual and social identity. There is a special relationship between place and memory in the various practices that set out to locate the past through objects and spatial traces. Individuals visit memorials, look at photo albums, read through old diaries, hold on to material and travel to locations of past experiences. Migration involves people moving from their native home to another place and also returning back, time and again. Individuals settle and assimilate into a new life in a different nation and take on a new identity, however, they never stop remembering their roots and search for their identity in the mirrors of the past. As a migrant writer himself, Michael Ondaatje, through his work Running In The Family, searches for his roots, his family, the socio-cultural, political and economic relationships of his family tree. Running in the family is more than an autobiography for Ondaatje. In contrast, the author uses it as a way of self-discovery through his writing. The quest for his history is in fact, a quest for his identity through the novel. Moreover, Running In The Family serves as an account of his journeys to Sri Lanka in 1978 and 1980, and it demonstrates that it analyses colonial identity and culture. Running In The Family not only serves as an account of Ondaatje’s family history but also as a way to travel through the historical origins and internal cultural divisions of modern Sri Lanka. Drawing upon Ondaatje’s second published prose work Running In The Family, in this essay I will set out to explore how memory and migration intersect.

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Having left Ceylon for England and then Canada at the age of 11, and after his parents’ separation, Ondaatje in Running In The Family writes down his two journeys back to Ceylon after 25 years. Ondaatje stayed in Sri Lanka for a few months gathering stories, rumours, memories of relatives, archival evidence, oral and recorded history, photographs and news material to find out more about his genealogy. Therefore, it is an attempt to learn more about Sri Lanka which he remembered vaguely throughout his early childhood. Accompanied by his own family, the author tried to recapture the world of his parents, and more particularly Ondaatje is on a quest to understand his father, Mervyn Ondaatje. While doing so, Ondaatje struggles with issues around his identity, origin as well as native country. It may be enticing to present this work as autobiographical, however it is far from a straight forward life narrative. Formed by randomly placed and without a structure vignettes, presented with poetry, images of life in Ceylon and snapshots from the family album, the work is filled with narratives and first-person voices other than the author. Moreover, there are also some abrupt changes from the narrator’s first to the third-person narration which can imply that the book is written by a community instead of a single author. As part of the introduction, the narrator calls himself into existence, placing himself as a writer at the centre when coming up with the conclusion that: “Half a page - and the morning is already ancient.” Furthermore, in the first chapter, the reader finds out that the topic of Ondaatje’s story is in fact his father, which is concerning his father’s land - about the history of Ceylon as part of his identity. The author is now the missing protagonist of his story. At the end of the novel, the author himself acknowledges that the book is the outcome of “a communal act…not a history but a portrait or ‘gesture’”, which was the result of help received from a lot of people. The idea that a whole community contributes to writing the book, is not an original, postmodern finding. When the author establishes a sympathetic association with its environment permitting a variety of perspectives to be heard, the work then turns into a product of a communal act. According to a contemporary critic: “Artistic expression is never perfectly self-contained and abstract, nor can it be derived satisfactorily from the subjective consciousness of an isolated creator. Collective actions, ritual gestures, paradigms of relationship, and shared images of authority penetrate the work of art and shape it from within.” The collective side of the work of art is what makes possible for it to live through the disappearance of its enabling social state and also be accepted by audiences in the long run.

Ondaatje’s raw materials emerge mainly from the stories which are accumulated from family members as well as friends throughout his trip. While recollecting and recovering his memories, the author incorporates a fictional aspect in the episodes. The real experiences intersect with imagination in order to fill the missing gaps and document the truths of the time as well as the people. As Ondaatje encounters his family and relatives as a foreigner, he wants to learn more about it but also trying to escape from it. By creating some distance between himself and his family, he desires to retrieve his lost identity and roots. As a migrant writer, he writes as an outsider but also as a native. He acknowledges, “ I am the foreigner. I am the prodigal who hates the foreigner.” Although Ondaatje wishes to recover his past and battles to grasp his sense of belonging, the author still believes he is the exile. Salman Rushdie also refers to this marginal and contradictory position of writers in his Imaginary Homelands: “It may be the writers in my position, exiles or immigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back,…But even if we look back, we must also do so in knowledge— which gives rise to profound uncertainties— that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or village, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.” 

Ondaatje reflects a similar orientation in his writing. He seems to be retrieving the past as well as remaking the numerous images of his past. While trying to reclaim the past, the author also seems like he is reconstructing, recollecting the pieces, altered, “imagined” and recovered via collective familial memories. By drawing a distinct line between his book and history, Ondaatje points out the extent to which the rational, experiential and practical view has destroyed all other ways of experiential reality; the imaginative - that is, the visionary and creative - has been diminished to the imaginary - that is, the untrue and the unreal. Opposed to the historian who obliges one to regard as true literally everything that they say, yet ironically based on fiction in historiographic practices, the writer does not restrict the readers imagination; the writer offers a broader vision built upon what individuals see and comprehend, but also upon what they desire and do not desire, hence improve moral awareness as well as discrimination.

Ondaatje writes from the perspective of a lived duality- from the position of those individuals who are “born in one place and choose to live elsewhere. Fighting to get back to or get away from our homelands all our lives,” and therefore, the author suits modern theoretical bodies in terms of the content and theme of his fictionalised memoir. The past is a foreign country to everyone, however, the pastness of the past - the experience of loss - is particularly intense in an immigrant, who is far away in space and time, removed from the country and out of language. To remake the land and family one abandoned years ago is automatically connected with failure to get to any objective truth since the distances of time and space alter facts, and memories are shaped by insufficient truths, the only material that the dual writer can document. As mentioned previously, Ondaatje is conscious of his duality. The author’s narrative will, consequently, spring from his consciousness of his at once double and partial identity. Regardless of the initial disconnection and fragmentation, Ondaatje highlights that the past is his home and that this duality does not obstruct him from understanding his past through imagination. Ondaatje constructs an “imaginary country” and attempts to enforce it on the existing one. Throughout the process of the fictional remake of the land, he unavoidably has to put up with the issue of history: what to maintain, what to reject, how to hold on what memory insists on giving up, how to get around his divided subjectivity and how to reconcile the past with the present. Ondaatje’s dedication in writing the book that connects fiction and autobiography is obviously to come to terms with a past that is personal as well as cultural. Travelling back to Sri Lanka, to his birthplace is an inviting challenge for the writer to construct a novel about his homeland based on memory as well as a compelling need for him who realised that “during certain hours, at certain years in our lives, we see ourselves as remnants from the earlier generations that were destroyed. So our jobs become(…) to write histories.” Not knowing or belonging to a family or playing a role in history is to be refused the basis of identity. Therefore, Ondaatje is longing to create a niche for himself in Sri Lanka and to recreate his family narrative. Once established, the story can be used as a touchstone for constructing identity and meaning. The place to which the author “runs” is constructed by layers of memories, accumulated upon memories that do not seem to solidify. Having to deal with the fear of displaying false memories as facts and idealised recollections as proof and yet determined to see over what may be just the appearance of authenticity, Ondaatje is determined to create mythical truths that may even document the more intense realities of the time and his family. The truth value Ondaatje’s story is based on oral history, perceptions and imaginary experience which in way proposes a magical realism. Ondaatje’s main discursive method in constructing his history is the accumulation of data on both Sri Lankan history and that of his people, when reality fails to speak, turning to the myth to answer questions and fill in the gaps.

In conclusion, Ondaatje in Running In The Family draws intensively from his personal experiences. The book reflects his quest to find and retrieve lost identity by following traces to his family, ancestry, culture and, history. The determination to associate with his father encourages him to recreate his family’s past as enclosed within memories of his childhood as well as from accumulating facts, rumours, and gossips from his friends and relatives. His effort to reconnect take him on a journey back to his homeland in order to have a better understanding of his own identity. Taking into consideration that Ondaatje is a migrant writer, the author writes from a dual perspective, as an insider and foreigner, merging facts and fiction facing the dilemma of belonging yet feeling distant. He understands the division within identity which he attempts to reconcile. The novel demonstrates the complexity of Ondaatje’s mind as he recreates images emerging from a variety of impressions, and narrated by different people in order to come to terms with his sense of dislocation and eventually embrace his family without any illusions. The ultimate goal of the author’s quest, the sense of identity with his homeland and his family has been achieved through memory, imagination as well as gossip, rumours, stories, language and, photographs. Ondaatje created an “imaginary” family and homeland which can be seen as a nostalgic reconstruction of Sri Lanka as well as the self-construction of a writer creating a whole world with his pen. 

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