For a while, I had been audacious enough to see a role model in James Baldwin. Who knows how I got my hands on a copy of Go Tell It on the Mountain, back in Kansas, but it certainly made an impression on me. Identifying the hypocrisy, the self-satisfied religious community. And drawing connections to my parents’ dabbling with evangelical congregations, even those featuring Pentecostal fervor. But more importantly, I found out where Baldwin was when he wrote it. In Paris, far away from home. And there was that battered copy of Portrait of the Artist. The passage toward the end, where Stephen Daedalus declares “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning,” heavily underlined, and later repeatedly scrawled out on note cards. In light of this, it’s far from surprising that I left, stayed away, and didn’t go back.
But how to define cunning? And what is silence, anyway? And what is actually gained by exile? What is lost?
And when I think about where I’m from, I catch myself vacillating between the urge to distance myself—not just geographically—from the backwater, podunk place hidden behind the wheat fields, and a kind of survivor’s guilt. To be perfectly clear: I am not equivocating growing up poor and later becoming a part of a different and socioeconomic class with having survived a natural disaster, genocide, or war. I frequently feel highly ambiguous about my identity, feel torn by conflicting loyalties. Whose story am I telling and for whom am I telling it? Although I feel a strong affinity for Grace Paley, I have felt inhibited, even unable to evoke my ancestors as she does, my rural past cast with a different sheen than stories from the Old Country. And I no longer inhabit the world I grew up in. In Reading Classes, the psychologist Barbara Jensen notes many class crossovers or class migrants sense that upward mobility of transitioning into the upper-middle class, hyper-educated milieus often leads to a devaluing of the people and the perspectives left behind. When individuals from my current cohort rant and rave about the ignorant people in the flyover states who vote against their own interests, they don’t know it, but they’re also railing against me. And I usually fall silent, say nothing. After all, who wants to be associated with those people? How could I own up to feeling a sense of loss for something I gladly cast off ?
Read the rest of Bradley Schmidt’s essay in Two Lines 30: The Future of Translation.