A Perpetual Homecoming

Nyuol Tong’s story is a testament to unlikely outcomes and breathtaking possibility but, as he puts it, he’s in “a dark phase” today. A graduate of Duke University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently the inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, Nyuol was born in the South Sudanese village of Ayeit during a time of horror and chaos. In the 1990’s, armed militiamen came in search of his father and demanded that the six-year-old Nyuol tell them where he was. He has written about it: “When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in, and began to fire. Luckily I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence, and sent my mother, siblings, and me to Khartoum. From there we sought asylum in Egypt.”

For six years, Nyuol and his family lived a hard life as refugees in their own country, fleeing to Cairo in 2003. In Cairo, Nyuol met an American University professor who took an interest in him, recognized his ability and his yearning for education, and helped to maneuver a student visa and scholarship for him to attend high school at Dunn. Nyuol is acutely aware of his extraordinary good fortune and has sought to find ways of giving back. While a student at Dunn, he founded a nonprofit organization called SELFSudan that has built a school in his village. "I survived," he wrote in 2012, "but more than two million people were killed in the war, with more dying even today."

On this particular day, Nyuol has graciously agreed to sit down and talk to me (and one of his former teachers, Vickie Gill) for an oral history project called The Living Stories Collective, not so much to discuss the past, but to try to make sense of this very present moment in America, a time that for Nyuol evokes trauma, grief, and a sense of betrayal. With his thin frame, gentle manner, and elegant bearing, Nyuol seems almost too slight to carry the unimaginable burden of what he has witnessed and experienced, but it is with him always.  He’s distinctively soft-spoken, with a gentle demeanor and poetic kind of eloquence.  Part of it is a matter of linguistics, as he explains: 

NLT: My mother tongue, the Dinka language, works differently. It rises and falls, as opposed to English, where everything rises and keeps going up. Ours rises and then goes down, almost to a whisper, or even silence. When people talk, it’s beautiful. It goes quieter and quieter. So sometimes, I’m very soft-spoken, especially when I’m passionate. I feel like I’ve dissolved into the language, if that makes sense, and my body, my gestures, pauses and stutters, become my only words. 

CCW: You told me earlier that you feel comfortable in words. Maybe it's because your native language is so beautiful to hear...and wrap around you...like a cloak. 

NLT: It’s a monosyllabic language. Every syllable is a word. But it’s also a language that is resistant to abstraction. Abstract concepts, like freedom, for instance, don’t exist as words.  We need to use a metaphor to describe freedom, that is the experience or condition of being free or living in freedom. LääuNhom or NhomLääu, depending on your Dinka dialect, is the phrase for freedom or liberation. It literally means ‘spacious mind’ or ‘mind at ease.’ To be free is to have a mind that is un-crowded, a mind free of noise and distraction; it’s to live in a condition of relative autonomy, unencumbered by external pressures or forces. I also like that the notion of freedom relates to attitude, to feeling, to thinking, to our mental state, and to space.

CCW: It’s like poetry, a language of poetry.

NLT: Yes. Every word is packed with all manner of meanings and associations. The word Tak, which is my favorite word, means to think, to remember, to long, and to invent. In other words, the very definition of a human being. I like how time and space, history and memory, imagination and invention, all these things are housed in that one word. Everything is related, and that radical relationality of everything is suggested by that word.

CCW: Your story is truly amazing, Nyuol, and although we want to have a more contemporary conversation, maybe you can just re-cap for us how it is that you came to California.

NLT: The circumstances of my coming here say something about the American values that are being destroyed right now. A kind, generous, welcoming America.  I was a refugee in Cairo, Egypt, and a Dunn alumna, Brooke Comer, was living in Egypt and teaching at the American University in Cairo, and during breaks she would organize writing workshops for refugee children, and I was one of the kids that attended her writing workshop. I wrote a lot in Arabic, and we became friends, and somehow she managed to convince Dunn to give me a scholarship. I had no formal education or any credible academic background to speak of, but Dunn accepted me. So that’s how I came to be here. Brooke had her department at the American University raise money for my plane ticket, and she managed to find a family to host me in my first year, and then Dunn had me board for the last three years. I’ve been living in America since, and become a part of many American families and lives, just as many have become a part of mine.

It was very generous. And so when I say I feel betrayed, it’s that there is a generosity that is truly American that this administration doesn’t see, or appreciate. A refugee like me, found a home here. A sense of belonging. Let me explain: being a refugee is a perpetual kind of homecoming in which you move from place to place, each place holding the promise of some kind of security, stability, a community to which to belong at last, but of course that rarely happens, and so you start to look for another home again, prepare for another homecoming. That was my life as a refugee. But when I came to America, I felt like I had finally arrived, found that community in which I could begin anew. My arrival in America was not haunted by the usual specter of departure that attended all my arrivals in the past. For years I’ve been secure in the knowledge this country is my home, and since November, that sense of belonging is precarious.

Now it feels different. There’s a feeling of abandonment, of rejection, of departure. Even though the court has ruled against the ban, the idea itself, the gesture...for me it means that for all my trust and confidence in my belonging to America, I am being told that actually I don’t. My strangeness, my foreign-ness is being highlighted. There is this negative light shed on it. And even if I don’t get deported, I know now that I don’t belong to this society. The ban has re-inscribed the figure of the refugee onto me. It’s the way I am always going to be.

all this you knew,

but never guessed you’d come

to know there are homecomings without home

Derek Walcott’s words describe what I’ve known all my life. My life is nothing but a series of homecomings without home.

I know the symbolic importance of America to many refugees. There is a sense in which you feel that America is a horizon of possibility, a place for which you can long and endeavor to land eventually. This is an uncanny thing, but America is so familiar to everybody, that the desire to come to America, the want to come to America, is so familiar that it feels like nostalgia sometimes. Even when you’re in the refugee camps, it feels like nostalgia. You’re nostalgic for a country in which you’ve never lived, of which you know so little.

CCW: You're so articulate, Nyuol, and while you’re talking, my heart is breaking. We’re appalled that this is happening. I'm so ashamed. It’s mortifying.

VG: It is mortifying…but in some ways, this has been a cosmic kick in the butt for me. I haven’t been that politically active since college, and now every day, I’m writing letters, trying to be involved, mobilizing to help with children in families that are threatened. We see now how wrong things can go if people like us get lazy. So in that sense it's been a good thing. Maybe we needed this. It got our attention. But it's ugly. And there's so much fear.

NLT: There’s a sense of victimhood felt by white people because the pie is being shared. It’s not their exclusive privilege anymore.

CCW: So it's like if others can have it, they’re taking it away from me, there’s less for me.

NLT: The pie is being shared. We’re closer to equality than we’ve ever been in history. The piece is smaller because there are more people demanding their share, mostly people that white power has kept away from the table for a long time.

And if you look at the argument that the “others” are a threat to our way of life, or they are lazy, it’s just not true. No one works harder than those refugees and immigrants. They’re working really hard. They’ve been working hard all their lives.

Generally, the return to nationalism, especially in Europe and America, is not sustainable, and those who want to restore that kind of parochialism know it. You cannot keep the refugees away from your doors. It’s not sustainable.

As they say, nothing is more dangerous than a dying animal. That’s what Trump is. White power is dying, and the white establishment knows this, the Rest, as it were, are coming and are demanding their share, and the West is not dealing with this reality responsibly. In America, white power is using its wildest card, Trump, the bully of bullies. The racist, the sexist, the ignorant. The guy who doesn’t care about history, or the moral arc of history. He is the last white man standing in the name of white supremacy, and though he is doing damage he will not last, he will go down but he will not go down quietly. White supremacy will not die quietly.

And there is nothing more dangerous than a villain who knows he’s a villain. There’s no appealing to his conscience. You cannot bully him. You cannot shame him. You cannot appeal to the better of angels of his nature, because I dare say the angels of kindness and empathy and integrity have abandoned him, and he has none. That’s why when you share stories of refugees, photos of people dying, videos of people in poverty, it doesn’t affect him. Firing people, destroying jobs—he’s been doing that himself for years. He doesn’t care. He’s a villain who knows he’s a villain. You cannot hold him accountable using our basic common decency. Our sense of right and wrong doesn’t apply to him. How do you deal with someone like that?

It’s a vacuum of leadership. We basically don’t have a president, and what does that mean? I struggle making sense of the Republican Congress, both the Senate and the House. I don’t get how they could align themselves with him. Some of them are decent leaders, people with a sense of history, and yet they have aligned themselves with someone who in the long term will destroy the republic.  I don’t get that.

CCW: Craven desire to hang onto power, I guess, and pushing their own agenda. It's disgusting. You would think that at some point, a line would have been crossed, and integrity would kick in, a willingness to stand up for some greater value that's at stake. We have to turn things around somehow, but it’s terribly discouraging and overwhelming at times. You were saying earlier that your response right now is to be somewhat more introspective.

NLT: The America that elected Trump, I don’t know that America. I have no clue who they are.  A big part of this is that liberals enjoy this sense of moral high ground. It’s as though they’ve won the argument of history, if you will. And that has given them a certain confidence, where they’re not willing to even have a dialogue with those who oppose them.  For example, if we have never had a conversation with a truly racist person, that’s a problem. It means we live in a world that is truly bifurcated...that’s divided...that’s polarized. It means that our appreciation or our understanding of what is true and what is false is wrong, so it makes sense that there are alternative notions of what is a fact, because we live in different epistemologies, different spheres of thinking, feeling, relating, dreaming, policy-making. Even though we live in the same country, we live different political realities. There are two Americas, and they don’t like each other or talk to each other.

Trump doesn’t seem to understand history, and he doesn’t care about it, and he’s surrounded himself with people who don’t care about history either. Or perhaps his thoughts are foreign to us, because we don’t have the linguistic codebook, we don’t have the cipher--he speaks in codes. But he has validated ignorance and given it content. So we are talking about ignorance as being powerful and content-rich, not as something empty. And it’s not pretty. It’s dark.

CCW: Do you want to share some thoughts about literature in this time of Trump?

NLT: The election of Trump has made me reconsider my reading priorities or how I invest my attention. There is a filtering that has happened to my bookshelf, what matters, what is worth reading, and what is not. But also stylistically and formally. Fiction has enjoyed relative autonomy, a distance from reality for some time, especially with MFAs, and it being this veritable industry. You can just write your novel about whatever you want. There are countless novels published every year. So many books. But there are few books about real things coming out these days. Many of the so-called literary works are metaphors about metaphors, metaphors within metaphors, and for all their technical virtuosity, all their literariness, all their knowingness, most of them barely offer any solace now.

I think literature has to be direct. The artifice has to go away. I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin these days. His essays in particular, how he eloquently engages, and articulates very complex things, not just about his own issues with America and what America means to him as a black man, as a black gay man, but also about challenges in the black community. All Baldwin’s writing is self-indicting. And that I think is a beautiful thing, and literature can teach us that.

In Trump’s era, we need to find a new kind of eloquence, an eloquence that registers this frustration, this anarchy, this so-called post-truth world. We need to find ways. How do we write in a world in which truth is absent? We need to find ways to restore truth, summon the power of truth in our politics.  

Otherwise what will be the lasting impact of this madness on our grammar? There’s a lot of fracturing that’s happening. On the one hand, we need to read great literature, we need to read a lot, we need to share books, we need to find books that comfort us, but also, literature has to own up to some of this. We need to find a way. As a writer, I don’t want to have the kind of confidence I once had in grammar. There’s something ungrammatical about what’s happening in America, and we need to understand it. We need to “get” that. We need to understand it. We need to make sense of bigly and majorly. And deal with it.

CW: So it’s not that the literature should replicate this, but that literature should acknowledge it somehow?

NLT: And deal with it. That’s the only way we can break through it. We shouldn’t try to correct or impose any coherence or grammar on this incoherence, this mumbo-jumbo that’s happening. We need to actually find a way to evoke it as well. Because I think literature provides a safe space where you can inhabit even chaos and not be destroyed by it. And we can do that. I’d like someone to write a book from the point of view of Trump, try at least. What would that look like? That would be interesting. That’s what literature can do.

CCW: And I think you mentioned earlier you are working on a novel...?

NLT: For the last four years. I’m always going through different drafts. South Sudan became a country in 2011, then in 2013 it disintegrated into a civil war, and that of course impacted my own family. I haven’t been home since because of instability. I have a sense of disillusionment, and that of course impacts my writing too. And now with America also, the two places I call home are pretty much places I don’t want to be associated with. So, intellectually, I’m kind of lost, there’s no narrative, there is no history to which I can appeal and make sense of things. Or there is history, but it’s so dark, so unpredictable, so devastating, that it’s almost impossible to find any stable ground from which to start.

CCW: I know we need to wrap up, but you told me earlier that you were mourning, and that these feelings of devastation and grief were difficult to overcome. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your current frame of mind, and how you’re dealing with things?

NLT: It’s a very dark phase I am in these days. Death. Death. Death. To survive death, we assume what comes next is life. But it’s not. It’s something else. It’s another kind of death. It’s as though there are no narratives anymore. This is where I find myself these days. There are no stories. Every narrative feels fraudulent right now. I’ve told my story to raise money for the school, but there’s a part of it that feels fraudulent, something feels wrong. It’s a betrayal of sorts, to narrate and make sense, it’s a cheapening of sort, but of what, I don’t know.

Death, in many philosophical traditions and religions, is regarded as the ultimate consummation of creation, a mediating force that gives our existence a kind of plot, a storyline, a trajectory of sorts. But when you are well acquainted with death, when you live with death, when death in your life is already arrived, when death has made permanent residence in your home, it’s quite difficult to discern the contours of your life. Especially when something in the present evokes the past, like this fear mongering and hatred and bigotry and cynicism that Trump has occasioned, this darkness that is not too dissimilar to what has been happening in Sudan for many decades, it’s hard not to despair.

VG: You’re grappling with the unknowable.

CCW: But what steadies you? What gives you strength?

NLT: I don’t know. There’s not a lot of intentionality in it. Of all the sufferings that one endures as a refugee, hope is the most difficult. It’s not willed. It’s not you saying, “I’m going to be hopeful.” It just happens. Hope is often borne out of hopelessness. Refugees are the few survivors, at least in the case of South Sudan during its protracted wars, they are the ones who have made it out, the ones whom death has given a pass, to whom death has shown kindness. When you have been avoided by death – not avoided death, but avoided by death – you learn that it has nothing to do with your will.

So, to answer your question, I keep going because I have to, because there’s nothing else to do. Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” There’s nothing intentional, or heroic, or poetic about it. If anything, what you feel is probably embarrassment, a bit of shame too, that you were spared, ignored by death. And there is nothing heavier to bear than death’s mercy, but I suppose that’s what you have to bear and come to terms with, every day, the debt you have to pay, the reason you have to carry on, and carry on we must.