Lockdown on the Move

by Nina Ellis

Lockdown is meant to be about staying inside, in one place. The New York Times Style Magazine recently ran an article on Tehching Hsieh’s ‘One Year Performance’, in which he locked himself in a wooden cage in his studio for a year. The London Magazine published a supplement in June about the experience of being ‘cooped up’ during coronavirus. But I missed the memo: since the middle of March, I’ve moved house four times (in a mask, of course) — from Cambridge to join my partner in Pakistan, and then to North Wales, to London, and back to Cambridge. I hope to return to Islamabad soon, if I’m given permission to do my PhD remotely and my visa comes through.

For me, the pandemic has been a period of movement instead of stasis, instability instead of confinement. We were locked down in Pakistan, but I spent that time worrying about when I would have to leave, and hoping to be allowed to stay. Month by month, British tourist visas were extended, giving me a few more weeks with my partner, and a then few more weeks — until August, when I finally had to go ‘home’, wherever that was. Re-reading du Maurier’s Rebecca in transit, Chapter Six made my cry: ‘Packing up,’ says the narrator. ‘Lost keys, unwritten labels, tissue paper lying on the floor. I hate it all. Even now, when I have done so much of it, when I live, as the saying goes, in my boxes.’ I live ‘in my boxes’ too, except my boxes are an enormous wheelie suitcase from a Rhode Island Walmart.

My frequent moves are a function of privilege: my transience is (mostly) a choice. I could afford to buy last-minute flights to Islamabad, and I stayed with family friends in London while I waited for my Cambridge college to reopen. I’m what Sara Ahmed calls a ‘global nomad’ — someone ‘who has chosen to be homeless, rather than is homeless due to the contingency of “external” circumstances.’ By ‘refusing to belong to a particular place, the world becomes the global nomad's home,’ Ahmed writes. That’s me.

Global nomadism means having choices, but it also means often being tired and stressed, and always longing for someone or somewhere far away. Life on the move is bittersweet. I think that’s why I write fiction: to capture the places I can’t seem to hold onto in real life. When they’re on the page, I can take them with me. Besides, writing gives me the continuity I lack geographically. Wherever I am, I can get up early in the morning and sit at my computer and try to sound like myself, or like someone else. I spent my twenties focused on short stories, but last year I started a novel, and I’m still working on it now, and that feels good. I’ve never managed to ‘settle down’ in one place like I was supposed to, but I am settling into this longer narrative, and it’s becoming a home.

My PhD is on the American short story writer Lucia Berlin, whose transience puts mine to shame. She lived in more than 200 different houses, apartments and mobile homes between her birth in 1936 and her death in 2004. When asked why she wrote, she explained that ‘I’m always looking, looking for home.’ We’re often told that writers are quiet, introverted observers — and as someone who loves to talk, dance, go to parties and wear leopard print, I’ve often felt like I’m doing it all wrong. Berlin’s understanding of writing as looking for home, rather than looking at home, is a relief. I think many of us are searching right now: for truth, meaning, belonging, control. Whether we’re on the move or stuck inside, it’s liberating to know that we can look for those things in literature, even when we can’t find them in the world.