“Poetry is the art of economy and surprise.” I falsely attributed this pithy aphorism to my stepfather, a high school English teacher who, in my memory, passed jewels like these on to me, often in the car, with take-out coffees and buttered rolls, on long, wide roads of suburban America with the AM radio chattering in the background. My America largely consists of such car journeys and snippets of formative conversation, because I left the United States before I became what is usually referred to, without a whiff of European irony, as a fully formed adult.
Living abroad can be a confusing experience for everyone involved. As my British and Irish friends never tire of reminding me, my accent hasn’t gone away. Where it would go, I don’t quite understand. On the other hand, when I visit the US, people ask me what country I’m from. Nobody sets out to wear the dunce cap of a Transatlantic accent, for the simple reason that one sounds neither British nor American anymore but a freakish, uncanny cousin of both, without the respective charms of either. To Americans, you sound like William F. Buckley, Jr. and to Brits you sound like Lloyd Grossman.
“Poetry is the art of economy and surprise.” Recently, I reminded my stepfather of the time he gifted this nugget of wisdom to me, to which he responded, “I’ve never heard that before. Who said it?” Who said it, indeed? I have no idea, and neither does Google. Maybe I made it up. When I was younger and more certain of essential truths, I employed it glibly in a comparison between canonical writers and terrorists. The pairing went as well as you’d imagine. Being a foreigner, I struggled to recover from what I perceived as the handicap of my background, a common immigrant anxiety. What is an American, after all, but the genius of immigration? No American abroad likes to be reminded of the earnest and unself-conscious manner of his countrymen as they appear on TV, so I blithely quipped my way into the social conversation.
I left the US a short time before 9/11, and came of age in its aftermath. Before 9/11, the place where I grew up had seemed a decidedly dreary and boring place. Watching the Twin Towers fall in a sitting room 4,000 miles away, I thought back to the first time I ever ate curly fries, standing at the South Tower observation deck overlooking Manhattan and Long Island Sound. As the dust spread over downtown, everything took on new meaning: the country, the buildings, the city, me. Out of the mundane we derived a new potency, as in poetry. In two swift and horrible gestures the whole world changed around us, faster than a human can realistically form a narrative. You could argue that we’ve spent the past 15 years re-reading compulsively, trying to make sense of what Arundhati Roy calls ‘the terror of the mundane’, trying to work out how we fit into the story.
Narratives emerge like hashtags in a Twitter stream. Where they intersect, the language of social media fails us. Gun violence and terrorism, the US and the West, the US and the Middle East, the Middle East and the West, the Middle East and Islam, fundamentalism and Islam, fundamentalist Islam and the West, fundamentalism and homosexuality, homosexuality and the West, the West and gun violence and terrorism and homosexuality. This is not a story one person can tell, nor even one country. We are all foreigners in this conversation.We bring our countries, and our languages, with us.
When Omar Mateen walked into the LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando on Sunday with a handgun and an assault rifle, he spoke a gibberish language none of us understand. But it is clear to whom it was spoken. Whether you call it an issue of US gun violence, domestic or jihadi terrorism, it is an act of translation. Opportunistic politicians will translate it one way, lobbyists another. Media outlets will translate these translations. In all likelihood, we will grow to favour one translation over the others. But it’s worth remembering the original language of murder. What is language after all but a system of symbols? Let’s begin with this one: a Sig Sauer MCX “Black Mamba” civilian assault rifle firing 24 rounds in nine seconds at LGBT people. The Black Mamba is a brain with only one neural pathway. The Black Mamba is starving but is easily fed. The Black Mamba loves a fight. The Black Mamba doesn’t care about winning the argument. The Black Mamba has two parents like everyone else: Mother Hatred and Father Apathy. The Black Mamba gives nothing, not even a shit. The Black Mamba will always believe it is right. The Black Mamba is absolute certainty. The Black Mamba is the brother of fear. The Black Mamba sings GLORY BE with eyes and ears closed. The logical conclusion of the Black Mamba is the user turning it on himself.