Ping pong migrant


(James Wood, critic and writer)

I recently read a review by James Wood in the New Yorker about the book “My Struggle” by Knausgaard. I read that book last April and it was nice have a second opinion. After that, I looked up James Wood on youtube and found a nice video of him reading from one of his recent books at a bookstore (Politics and Prose in Washington DC). He mentions that he has been noticing a new kind of literature related to immigration and displacement, people who for different reasons have left their home countries, built a life in a new country, and then decided to go back to their homeland (and then maybe even return to their new land). What should we call these people? Ping pong migrants?

During his talk, Wood was asked a question by an Egyptian man (who has lived 10 years in the US, minute 31.20 on the youtube video) about the spiritual world of these people. Where is their spirit? In their homeland? In their new home? Or have they transferred it to literature? This whole discussion may sound a bit trite today, given the current immigration crisis in Europe and around the world. We’re talking about priviledged people (me included), who can choose to travel around freely, and have time to worry about their emotional states and maybe even how to control them. But they still are people, and probably quite a lot of people, who have undergone geographical and cultural displacement and most probably spiritual as well. Also, even though poorer immigrants may have other immediate concerns, like a place to sleep for the night and something to eat, they also have to deal with that kind of homeland problem as well.

The Egyptian man in the video mentions that we could also feel homeless at home to begin with. So actually, for some, changing countries is more of a symptom, not the cause of spiritual or mental strife. You have a longing that you carry with you, wherever you go, no matter the country. So do those people have a sense of belonging? Wood likes the idea of analyzing spritual loss or people that feel out of kilter with their home culture, but answers the question with a warning, “beware of the substitution narrative”. Although we can feel displaced spiritually, and we can transfer feelings to literature, literature is not the same as spirit.

I would like to apply those ideas to quantified self. Barring the important differences, there is a feeling of ping pong when looking at a life log. On the one hand there is the going back and forth between the past and the present, data accumulated in the past and how to use it now. For example, I spent 45 minutes this morning looking at all the photos from yesterday, and about 2 hours this weekend comparing some photos from different moments from summer vacation and a normal week in May. Just for fun. I can see changes in location clearly enough, but, as Wood and his Egyptian questionner mention, I think I’m more interested in the “spiritualness” of it.

Replaying the life log makes it seem like time is squeezed. The past days, hours and minutes cannot be recovered but they are a part of me. I could be in this present country reminiscing about the past country and my thoughts are more in between, playing ping pong. It is an intensely personal feeling that I think has to do with the sensation of now, being here in this moment. The distance with the past and even the distance from a homeland, give one a greater sense of being, right now. A second important emotion when reviewing the life log is that of pliableness. I could choose to forget or to recall or even make up a different story about the life log photos or log book entries. I have that information and I could play with it, dissect it. The life log does not capture all the information, there is room for improvisation, even in the past. That reminds me of work by Daniela Schiller who analyzes “how we can alter the emotional impact of a memory by adding new information to it or recalling it in a different context”). From yesterday’s photos I could focus on the time I spent working, or on my emotional ties to my son, and eliminate other things. I could indeed destroy the photos, log book entries and emails that are superfluous to my story. But not quite ready to do that yet.


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