In this essay author, Kabu Okai-Davies, explores the notion of nostalgia, drawing his background as a migrant in Australia.
Last year I self-published a collection of short stories under the title of Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Stories. Since then the idea of nostalgia continues to linger in my thoughts as I write new stories and plot future novels. The more I research on the subject of nostalgia in literature, the more I realise that most creative endeavors—novels, poems, memoirs, autobiography, museums, theatre, galleries etc—are mostly driven by the desire to capture the nostalgic moments of our lives through history.
Too often, novelists turn to make the claim that what they write is essentially rooted within the context of fiction, without any link to the autobiographical or personal experience. However, there is hardly a writer alive or dead who can deny that behind the fictional characters are the real lives of people they have known, come across or heard about in the past. As writers we are the product of our lived experiences, dreams, imagining, desires and ambitions which are all borne out of our circumstances, upbringing, education, race, gender, social or professional conditioning, which eventually become infused into the lives of the fictional characters we create.
In essence nostalgia is not just by definition ‘a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s homeland, or to family and friends’. It is not just a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time, but rather, nostalgia drives our creative impulses as an artist. As writers we strive to unravel the persistent yearning for things past. Like Marcel Proust, Karl Ove Knaugaard or Elena Ferrante, we are all engaging in the exercise of remembering the past. It is our way to envisioning a future that resembles the ideal past, reinvented, redefined and reframed. Whether we like it or not, all writers are reimagining the future through the nostalgic lens of memory, especially in the case of migrant or exiled writers.
Nostalgia may seem to be a throwback to a sentimental or an elusive attachment to the past. But as humans, we are driven by a romantic desire to recapture, remember and readdress or reexamine the past. We continuously return to myths and fantasies that empower and uplift our spirits as imaginary heroes facing the challenges, demons and dragons of life. In essences our autobiographical lives become metaphors for fiction within the realm of the imagination. As a writer, I have come to realise that nostalgia plays a central role in world literature, especially in the writings of migrants who have left their home land, to make another country their home away from home.
As the cultural and social history of Australia evolves, nostalgia would play a significant part in the writing of new literatures, memoirs and autobiographies that speak to the immigrant, refugee and migrant experience. These new stories about migration and exile, experiences of refugees and asylum seekers would serve as the source and inspiration for many writers who want to tell their stories and to contribute to the cannon of the Australian literary narrative.
Exile creates the condition of duality within the mind of every migrant, brewing with desires that hanker for the past and yet, trapped within the ambivalent state of reality living in the present condition of a new land. As a writer I rely on nostalgia not only to anchor me to the past, but to enable me to determine and find within myself the new and familiar things in the adopted country I now inhabit.
There is something amazing about Australia that is akin to Africa. Even though Australia is populated by people from around the world, with a different history, the uniqueness of the landscape and its shores evokes in me memories of Africa. Every time I visit the South Coast of New South Wales or Victoria I am transported to the shores of Africa in my imagination. Driving to the coast or flying to Melbourne or Sydney or to Queensland, I become transfixed by the picturesque beauty of the Australian landscape. I am mystified by its grasslands, enchanted by the mountains, hills and open fields which cast a spell on my imagination. Australia’s rivers and creeks, cattle grazing in the fields, goats and sheep camouflaged into the open dry grass evokes in my imagination the landscape of the Africa, I left behind.
Nostalgia therefore serves as the fragile, yet complex link between where I come from and where I now find myself. It has become a condition of an existential thread to the past and serves as the means to make sense of my present life in Australia. Hence nostalgia inspires contemplation and provides me with the resilience I need as an immigrant to overcome the transient challenges of living in a new country and to overcome the cultural shock of being in exile. Nostalgia provides the ingredients for constructing our futures through the remnants of our past lives. It serves as a muse to inspire creative writing and the collective attachment to a lost past and a means to reclaim within ourselves a sense of hope as floating cultural entities in a foreign land. Gazing into the past to gain access to the future provides the migrant writer a double glimpse into the melancholy of time. This is why nostalgia allows us to rearrange our lives according to the new circumstances and conditions inherit in the adopted country; while it serves as a medium by which we undertake the archeology of memory.
In a world masked by the subtle disguises of social, racial, gender and economic differences, veiled by the subterfuge of complex human behaviors, intrigues, deceptions, invisible social hierarchies, those who have and many who live in lack; nostalgia provides the only refuge of escape, security and comfort to navigate the labyrinth of life in a new country.
Even though many migrants have left behind old countries caught within the throes of war, conflict, famine, floods, the dogma of religious oppression and stifling cultures, under the grip of tyrannical regimes; there is a common feeling of nostalgia that grips the heart in times of loneliness and homesickness, to yearn for the families and friends left behind before arriving in Australia.
It is therefore through the prism of nostalgia that I create my stories and conceive the plot of novels and create the characters in my stories. As an African-Australian writer I am constantly seeking to find a way to recapture the past to serve as a connection to the future, returning to nostalgia moments, through memory, to help me write my stories.
I am proud that nostalgia serves as my muse, inspiration and motivation as a writer. Now that Australia has become my home away from home, I am compelled to believe that it is by bridging my past and present that I would be able to find meaning in life as a forge new visions of myself as a migrant writer. Nostalgia is a comfort zone and therefore I hope that Australia embraces my nostalgic dreams of Africa, as I infuse into the river of Australian stories my vision what I want to become as an African writer in Australia.
Kabu Okai-Davies is an African-Australian playwright, novelist and poet from Ghana. He is the author of Long Road to Africa, Curfew’s Children and Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Stories. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing – UC. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in Writing – School of Arts and Humanities at ANU and the 2015 Alumni Award Winner for Excellence, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra.