‘Home is our pocket with a hole:’ émigré writer Yelena Moskovich on the problem of homecoming

'Home is our pocket with a hole:' émigré writer Yelena Moskovich on the problem of homecoming

While many of us crave to be with our family over the festive period, for others, the pressure to return "home" is a constant reminder of upheaval and conflicting identities. For The Calvert Journal, writer Yelena Moskovich talks about unravelling her own mixed emotions towards homecoming, and how home can be many things to many people.

21 December 2020
Text and Images: Yelena Moskovich

It must be slapstick to alien-life, this ritual of homecoming. Flora and fauna take their cue from the seasons. Making, leaving, coming home as a transformative act of life and rebirth. And perhaps once upon a time we followed this cycle ourselves, hairy upright creatures, pets to the moon and sun. But here we are, new millennium birds taking flight like clockwork to the designated times of the year we are sanctioned, coerced, pressured to go home for the holidays – not by any natural phenomenon so much as by the industrial pathos of family.

Home has been assigned to me, in the Soviet Union, in America. Home has been sold to me, by the West. I have been its narcoleptic consumer. I have been sick to my stomach for home. No, not homesick. Just gorged on geographical poetry and historical filth.

Home is where the hard is. Home is where the hurt is. My heart has learned the hard way.

Home is where the hard is. Home is where the hurt is. My heart has learned the hard way. Through exodus, through vanishing acts, through haircuts.

Some of us had souls that were put into bodies that didn’t feel right. Some of those bodies were put into families that didn’t feel safe. Some of those families were put into countries that never wanted us. Home is our pocket with a hole.

French is where I place my first step. No one birthed me into it. No one raised me on it. No one forced me to acquire it. It doesn’t taste of survival or integration. It doesn’t swell my tongue with inherited syntax. French is the language I speak because I have chosen to speak on my own terms. And having discovered my own language became a way to reconnect with my other languages. My smart-ass English. My dopey Russian. The crumbs of Hebrew. They become registers in one voice, a speaking that joins the flora and the fauna and all those wiry ancient hairs in the moonlight.

Yelena Moskovich as a child after immigrating to Milwaukee. Image courtesy of the author

French, my third language (or fourth, if you count my spotty Hebrew years), coats my tongue with something like home. Home cause I’m the piggy that built it. When I kiss the right person, I’m the piggy that welcomes its kind from the storm. Home is also kissing the right person.

My tongue otherwise is this: born in Soviet Ukraine, my family, Jewish mutts from Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, etc., live as “Jewish” nationals on their homeland, meaning that at the time, all Jews in the USSR were not considered natives of that territory. In my hand-written birth certificate, I am welcomed as: daughter of Jew and Jewess, nationality Jew, Yelena Valer’evna Moskovich. As all Jews, the adults are slighted, diminished, humiliated in the heartbreaking banality of the Soviet institution – access to work, school, cultural resources, and sense of humanity denied. Their kids, dark cursive faces, are collateral damage of the era.

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The fall of the Soviet Union releases us into the West like mice. In the words of poet Joseph Brodsky (fellow immigrant to America), “...and when ‘the future’ is uttered, swarms of mice / rush out of the Russian language and gnaw a piece / of ripened memory which is twice / as hole-ridden as real cheese.” We grow up cheesy.

As Jewish refugees to the American Midwest, I’m put into an Orthodox school at first. I howl like a cub for the likes of the Torah. Three years later, I’m taken out and put into a public school. I get my kicks off MTV and swear words. In the summers, I go to Israel to be with my grandparents who have immigrated there, unable to secure papers to America. I fold my budding homosexuality into tiny squares and tuck them away like wishes into the Wailing Wall.

At 18, my nose-in-the-books pays off, and I go as far as I can, to the east coast, on scholarships to study in Boston. Of course I study theatre (playwriting), because theatre is the safe house for queers, kicked out literally or emotionally, through action or neglect. By 23, I get my degree, work for a year to save up, and get the Hell out of America. I feel like Dante. I’m in love with the concept of a new life.

Matin et soir (2020), acrylic on canvas, 50 x 61cm

Our parents, raised on judgment and anxiety, stare at us, their liberal offspring, with awe at our strange desire for humanity. Humanity, to them, a Western tantrum. It is sci-fi and luxurious. Both my parents vote for Trump — twice. The first time, we argue on different sides of the ocean, bound by love and rage. The second, my mother is diagnosed with cancer; we make a pact to not speak of politics. I’m afraid that what I want to say will kill her. I’m afraid of wanting to kill her with my words.

On the last days of January, before the pandemic, I’m on the metro in Paris. I see a woman speaking Russian to her two small children as she gathers their winter hats in her hand. I don’t know yet what it’s like to lose a parent. But I know what it’s like to lose a country. It’s a pain like devotion. Bright blue and orange wool clutched in the mother’s hand.

I see a woman speaking Russian to her two small children as she gathers their winter hats in her hand. I don’t know yet what it’s like to lose a parent. But I know what it’s like to lose a country

I can’t speak for all my ancestors. Besides, they did not talk much. I was raised on generational reverence. But their history fatigues me. With their painstaking absolutes and severed inner world and defense mechanisms and premature child-rearing and monomyths. “‘Home’ is the primary connection between you and the rest of the world,” the psychologist Dr. Frank T. McAndrew says. Well, a whole diaspora of us would rather go online than go home. We want to be seen on a different topography. We want movement that is other than flight. We want connection that includes our darkest data. We run straight into the fire, because that messy heat is our closest kin. Raised on catastrophic scenarios, we reclaim that apocalypse that our parents used to discipline us with. To plunge my hand into my own history and borrow the words of the poet Anna Akhmatova: “I just can’t comprehend / Whether it is the end of the day, the end of the world, / Or the mystery of mysteries in me again.”

A series of identity photos taken by Yelena Moskovich for her residency paperwork in Paris, France

There was a time when fear was used to contain the household. Us, them. Family was once a barracks against the bleak world. But now, Home has its windows open. Ironically, my fear is now something that connects me deeper to this world. It is the mystery of my own mysteries – with so much room for the mystery of others.

In Talking to Myself about the Poetics of Space, the German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk describes humans as “animals who like to change rooms”. I am this animal. I’ve mulled around the great house of several continents, sniffing out my spot, moving on, moving on…

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Our past speaks in nations. But what are these borders we sacrificed so many lives and human decency for? How do they serve us today? What are the walls of nation states and what are the walls of “nuclear family” states. We are children committed to an unsound secret. But the truth is, we never wanted to be defined by a fixed territory, even if we inhabit it. As the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze so aptly captures, “territory doesn’t exist, what exists is the movement.” A state of mind, a way of the spirit, a chord in the heart – this is our geography.

The bond we make to space is the bond we make to history. Family is a wound. History is a wound. Acknowledging this is a way of coming home. I don’t want to be part of the holiday-jingle-mechanism. I refuse the culture of falsified territories of kinship. This is not how my love is felt and it’s not how my love is given. But I do not refuse family, nor history, nor home. As this season turns, I’m thinking about the possibility of us healing home – instead of heading home – for the holidays. Some of us can do this with our blood-family, others with our chosen family, and others with pets, or nature, or connected solitude. Home is a language that belongs to us and when you speak it, I hope the speaking brings a bit of your own mystery to the surface. A breeze. A new room. A luminous fire.

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