The Under-Explored Topic of Returning Home

Return: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From, by Kamal Al-Solaylee (HarperCollins, September 7, 2021)
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Immigrants, no matter our origins and skin tones, share a common delusion: we think we take pieces of our homelands with us and leave parts of ourselves behind whenever we choose or are forced to resettle elsewhere. The truth is that those homelands, lodged in our memories, in our brains and in our DNA, have been loosening and tightening their grip on us at will. Homelands dictate when we leave and predict when we return. Author Elif Shafak, a Turk by birth and a Brit by citizenship, describes homelands as castles made of glass. “It is easy to forget they are there… and go on with your life, your little ambitions and important plans, but at the slightest contact the shards will remind you of their presence. They will cut you deep.”

Canadian author Kamal Al-Solaylee became fascinated with the idea of return to one’s homeland after immigrating when he realized how strong his own pull to reconnect with his Yemeni roots was. This was especially curious considering Yemen’s unstable environment, fraught with war, poor economic conditions, and ever present threats of danger and violence. As a gay man who already struggled to find acceptance of his sexuality with his family members, its appeal for Al-Solaylee seems even more questionable, not to mention having established himself in comparatively safe, socially rich Canada.

And yet it remains. Visiting a family property, he wanted to experience living there, and the call of his roots only intensified, along with his desire to regain his skills in Arabic, his original language. Most strongly, there exists an overwhelming “human desire to spend the final chapter of life closer to the land that shaped its earlier stages.” He points out that although many disciplines, from politics to literature and everything in between, have extensively studied, explored, and created narratives and theories around the reasons for leaving one’s homeland, “Returns, however, remain unexplored.”

I wholeheartedly agree and have noticed the dearth of scholarship or even anecdotal writings on this subject myself, mainly because I also left my homeland and felt the strong pull to return. Now I live split between both, not really a long-term solution, but the best option when that desire became unbearable.

The question is why the call to home strengthens and intensifies with time, sometimes against logic and reason. Over a number of years Al-Solaylee interviewed returnees from a range of countries, with both different and similar reasons for leaving and returning. He focuses on the Basque region, Jamaica, Northern Ireland, Taiwan, Ghana, Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as well as pandemic returns and the Back to Africa movement.

I found it interesting that some “returnees” had never actually lived in their “home” countries to begin with, rather they were groups like ABC – American-born Chinese, whose connections to these lands were through parents who had immigrated. Of course this is an entirely valid exploration within this subject, but I hadn’t considered it as much. I guess that’s very self-centered because I want to better understand my own experience, and kudos to Al-Solaylee for incorporating such a wide range of experiences and motivations into this study.

I found these stories less compelling though, as I think the idea of doing the hard work of leaving your homeland, finally integrating in a strange country, then swimming upstream to go back is a much curiouser phenomenon than wanting to experience the land of your ancestral heritage which kind of makes more sense to me, but again, I’m viewing all this through the lens of my own experience and questions I want answered.

Interestingly, he also looks at the idea of return post-Covid, when going back to where you came from took on an urgent meaning, especially in light of places like the United States, with no universal healthcare and hole-riddled social safety nets.

For now, and in one hell of a silver lining, the expression “go back to where you came from” no longer sounds to me like a racist chant or a threat. It’s something that millions of people have done and will continue to do, by choice or as a last resort. I feel an urge to join them and to be part of an ongoing, multi-destination narrative about return to roots. Return encompasses and transcends race, geography, and history.

At a symposium on migration and integration, he “asserted that returns suggest defeat, failure, and exhaustion, while migrations reinforce agency, action, and resilience.” This is another element I find so fascinating; again, maybe because that was the narrative I framed so long for myself, but I think it hints strongly at why this is a less explored subject.

Although the conditions for both immigration and return were different for many of the returnees, I nevertheless found a lot of their interviews ran together and felt similar. Perhaps most compelling were the returning Jamaicans, who first had to fight against especially strong racism and discrimination when integrating abroad, particularly in the UK, then automatically became targets for robbery and murder when they returned to retire in Jamaica. Whole organizations exist to try and give advice to returning Jamaicans on how to not be victimized, and since targeting them has become its own business, it defied logic to understand why they’d do it anyway.

It all seems to come down to those couple of simple concepts: people want to be buried where they came from, and the desire to go back only grows stronger with time. This can feel unsatisfying though, because I wanted to better understand the reasoning behind these ideas, maybe the psychology of it, and that’s not really here. It’s the interviewees’ stories, much in their own words, set against the political, social, and economic contexts of their homelands.

It can read quite academic in tone and heavy on the politics, which led to me skimming sections that didn’t feel as relevant to me as the topic I wanted to read about. The writing that he does, including his own feelings about return, is lovely, but I can’t say I enjoyed or wanted to read something more politically or academically-focused.

But this is an excellent opening of the door into a very under-explored area of research, scholarship, and personal writing. As Al-Solaylee identifies, we consider successfully integrating and “making it” in another country as the success story, and going home as the tail-between-your-legs acknowledgement of failure, when there’s obviously something much more psychologically complex and nuanced at play. I hope this is the beginning and that other writers and researchers pick up on this topic.

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12 thoughts on “The Under-Explored Topic of Returning Home

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  1. It sounds a fascinating but hard book to read. I returned to my home town for 20 years, but in the end left again, there were too many memories , the people I had gone back to be with had died or moved away, so I moved again to be with family and make new memories. My mil was from Greece, but with each return visit felt more and more out of place. A question of wanting to belong. A fascinating topic for sure.

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    1. It was a bit tough to read! When it was interesting it was great, but when it drifted I had trouble concentrating. It is a really fascinating topic though, and thanks for sharing your insight into it – I love hearing these kind of experiences! I can’t imagine living in my hometown again but my experience doing that would be exactly like yours, the people I cared about there are gone and the memories would be overbearing and stifling, even.

      I had the same experience of your MIL of feeling out of place when I returned home to the US, more and more each time, but still, nevertheless the drive to return kept growing. It’s such a bizarre, illogical but powerful thing, I would love to read more of peoples’ experiences with it!

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    1. That was my question exactly! It does seem there’s something stronger going on, especially considering certain similarities. Like I’ve never considered myself to be overly fixated on death, and yet I got this thought stuck in my head of not being able to die at home. It was so far from any rational thinking, I kind of thought I was crazy even considering it that seriously when I weighed options about moving back! Then he mentioned several times about that being something people bring up over and over again in wanting to return. Which just sounds so biological to me. I hope it’s an area we can eventually learn more about!

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  2. This sounds really interesting – I don’t think it’s something I would even thought about, as it’s so outside my experience, but now that you’ve reviewed it I’m definitely tempted. I have a collection of short stories on my TBR already about why people leave their home countries (This Way to Departures), so they might be quite interesting read in combination with each other.

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    1. I’m glad I could interest you in it! It really is a topic I find completely fascinating and I’d love to hear what you think of it if you do read it. I agree it sounds like a great one to read together with that short story collection, what a perfect combination. Would be so interested to hear your thoughts!

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  3. That does sound interesting – if flawed, unfortunately. I did come back to Birmingham after living in London for seven years and that did feel like the right thing to do, but even then, most people from the Before Times had left! But obviously a lot different doing it between countries. This is one I will look out for, though.

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    1. I think it’s still a good example though, because there can also be something of this feeling of being drawn back even between cities! There just seems to be a lot going on psychologically and even biologically with it. I know how hard it is to return to a place and the people who shaped it for you are gone…it’s surreal. You might like this one, it just got a bit academic for me but not wandering to subjects other than the promised one. It was still quite interesting.

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  4. As a permanent immigrant to the Netherlands, from England, I tend to home in on books about expats, immigrants and refugees. As such, I know I have books that tell the tale of people returning to their homelands, and there are certainly blogs and coaches who focus on the topic (just Google ‘expat’). I’ve been here my entire adult life so I don’t pine for British things, except Quavers crisps. I’m married to an Englishman, we celebrate our own traditions as well as Dutch ones, choosing the best bits from each. Of course, tbr two cultures aren’t that different and I’m not visibly an outsider. If I have any longing for Britain, it’s only as a holiday destination, for the trees and hills, neither of which are features of the area I grew up in. I think I’m a ‘wherever I lay my hat, that’s my home’ sort of person. Having said which, when we lived in Germany for three years, I was homesick for the Netherlands, not England. I’m would only be drawn to England if I could live in a cosy cottage with a big garden and hills to walk in, not for some romantic vision of ‘roots’ or ‘culture’ or ‘home’. I shall have to put that book on my wishlist.

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    1. I wouldn’t say that the majority of the returnees profiled here had a “romantic” idea of their homeplaces (and in my personal experience that’s certainly not the case — I wanted to return to a country where I can’t afford healthcare). In fact, quite the opposite: as I mentioned about the Jamaicans, they know full well they’re returning to a place where they could be murdered. For the author, there’s nothing romantic about a country experiencing ongoing civil war and all the economic problems that accompany that. These are just a few examples, but the book has many. I think it’s important to identify that whatever is going on here with those expats (of course I know this term! :)) who decide to repatriate, it’s rarely because of “romantic” ideals — that’s why this is such a curious question for us that I think deserves more research and scholarship.

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      1. Perhaps romantic isn’t the right word. I know that when I first moved abroad, I felt very uncomfortable, not speaking the language. I certainly idealised everything I thought ‘we’ did better in England. Now that experience has flipped. I think it has to do with a feeling of being accepted as normal and feeling comfortable where you are, without having to explain yourself. Nostalgia for childhood plays a big role, for the food and smells and scenery we grew up with, nog to mention the weather. People often want to go ‘home’, even when there are strong negative reasons not to do so, when their reason for staying abroad has gone: they retire or lose their job, a partner dies, etc., when they expect the discomfort of repatriation to feel less painful than the discomfort of staying as an immigrant. Though risking death to do so does seem irrational. I’m sure the pull of your own country is far greater if you feel judged or othered in the place you live. Then there’s also the complicating factor of children or grandchildren who have a stronger connection to the place they were brought up. I know plenty of people who would love to return ‘home’ but won’t because they want to see their grandchildren grow up. There’s also no guarantee that you won’t regret the decision to repatriate. I’m sure that is the case for some of the examples in the book. You’re right, it’s an interesting subject, endlessly fascinating.

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