This essay first appeared in audio form in the Slovak original on the program “Esej” (Essay) of Rádio Devín, on May 16, 2023. Translation courtesy of yours truly, reprinted by permission.
Where are you from?
A seemingly simple question that, due to my accent, I have heard a thousand times during 20 years of my life in the United States. And that’s exactly how many times I lied by answering that I was from Slovakia.
Some know where the country is located, but in general I get two reactions: the person either brags they have been to Prague or hesitantly asks, “Czechoslovakia?”
In both cases, I refrain from further explanation, lest it would generate unnecessary followup questions, and revert to Slovakia—as well as the familiar feeling that I am a liar.
My American friends tell me to forget about it because the person asking won’t remember it anyway; those in Slovakia advise to forget about it because it was a long time ago.
But how do you ignore the foundation of your identity?
I’m from a country that doesn’t exist. I have been from there my entire adult life.
On New Year’s Eve 1992, I stood in my parents’ kitchen and my tears reflected the fireworks launched from neighboring apartment buildings, heralding the end of an era. Since then, absence has been the center of the continent of my being.
How do I explain that in a single word?
Patrick Rothfuss says that if you want to know the truth about who you are, go where no one knows your name. In my case it’s where the locals immediately place me off their mental map and wonder where I come from.
To paraphrase the American poet Robert Frost, I conclude that one day I will be able to say where I’m from; that same day I will also discover who I am.
And I will conform to the verse of the Sri Lankan, Jean Arasanayagama, who writes, “I have no country, only myself.”
In design, negative space is the void that surrounds the subject of the image; more skilled graphic artists reverse the order of perception and define the target subject with precisely that negative space.
Similarly, ancient maps defined the boundaries of the known world with blank areas depicting undiscovered landmass. An explanation supplemented them: “Here be monsters.”
Phantom pain is the experience of pain in a part of the body, usually a limb, that has been removed in some way. Although sometimes the question, “Where are you from” reminds me of the amputation of my native country, my phantom pain subsided relatively quickly. It was replaced by the melancholy of exile.
In the essay “Reflections on Exile,” the Palestinian professor Edward Said argues that the grief an exile experiences is a symptom of an incurable rift between him and his place of origin, his true home. That crippling grief of alienation in exile can never be overcome. Exiled from the country of my childhood, I thus live a diasporic existence without the possibility of return, either in time or in space.
Trauma includes feelings that overwhelm one’s being, everything that together forms personal identity. The disintegration of the identity in which I grew up brought with it a loss of control over my own destiny, a loss of power over my life. The reaction is a continuous struggle to regain them.
Everyone finds a different solution to their trauma. Mine is another vanished country, which I had never visited during its existence to boot. Studying Yugoslavia, the other country that has long been absent from the maps, is, among other things, therapy for me. I talk to people from there, we swap stories and we are united by the experience of lives erased from atlases. If our countries are not on the map, they are at least on the web—and in our souls.
Those from the map ask me: What is it like to be from a country that does not exist? I answer: If all states and borders and maps are human inventions, what’s it like not to?
Self-aware and without a place on the map, I will finally be able to answer the question of where I’m from with determination and truthfully, if not a little mysteriously: I am from a country that no longer exists.
Are you from a country that no longer exists? What’s it like? Share your story in writing below or send us an audio message.
* Art: Peter Korchnak. “Vanished Countries: Yugoslavia, No. 1,” & “Vanished Countries: Czechoslovakia, No. 1,” 2020. Hardcover atlas, gel medium, acrylic paint, archival varnish. Buy here ›
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