Finding the Words

Derek Morris

In times like these, it is hard to find the words. For me, searching for the words help to give meaning to what I am feeling. Hiraeth is a Welsh word with a meaning that is hard to translate. It is said to have a meaning close to homesickness, but this doesn’t quite capture it, as a sort of hiraeth-lite explanation. Others have described it as a “longing for where your spirit lives”.[1] That is closer, maybe. It has a kinship with other words in different languages such as the Portuguese word saudade, which expresses its similarity as a longing for something that is not there. Another close word brings to mind my time in Istanbul: this is the Turkish word hüzün, the sense of melancholy and past that hiraeth can convey.[2] I am unsure as I don’t speak these languages with any fluency. But hiraeth and its kindred help to give some sense to these ungraspable moods, and may do the same for many people now in these times. These words are also often associated with immigration, and I am a migrant. I do know I certainly feel a sort of melancholy and longing for something, perhaps a place that no longer exists. These times feel a lot like that: losing the world we knew, wondering if it will ever return. Words help for what I feel, especially when I see my homeland in the news or talk to others, back there, in the United States. 

Being far from home has always been difficult, and now the virus makes everything more so. Although I am a migrant, my situation is quite comfortable compared to that of other migrants. Home, for me, is Oklahoma. My first journey to live abroad began with a year in Iraq in 2003 as a US army soldier. This period, like now, also required unfamiliar forms of communication with my loved ones. It was only letters home at first. Then, our entire company shared a phone. One hundred people. Eventually, there were call centers, a huge step-up from what past soldiers endured, but still difficult with the time zone difference amongst myriad other issues. In Iraq, spending time with Iraqis and also people from all around the US, my former beliefs were also challenged, and I returned home feeling somewhat like an outsider myself, something common amongst migrants that return home.

I eventually met someone who understood this aberrant feeling. My future partner had returned from France with the same sentiment. The wanderlust it produced in us both eventually returned us abroad. Zygmunt Bauman, a migrant himself, wrote on migrants being “rule-breakers,” breaking one of the biggest rules: the rule of staying put. Their countries of origin regarded it as “their original sin”.[3] We made the decision to live in Istanbul, Turkey, as sinners. 

C. Wright Mills once wrote, “in Europe an American discovers America”.[4] I agree. Again, my beliefs were challenged and in between Europe and Asia I discovered another America through fresh eyes and ears. I heard the critiques. I heard the praises. I read the love. I read the hatred. I tried to read and listen to all those in between. Next, the move was to Ireland. I again learned of new ideas from a different context and diverse views. Not only did a new country offer novel views, a master’s course on race, ethnicity, conflict made me even more aware of my country’s racist and colonial past. 

We returned home for a few years, but again pieces of us didn’t quite fit after those many years abroad. Those old feelings returned. We once again returned abroad where I find myself now, in Scotland. Here I am working on a PhD in a concentrated sociological study of my life through the method of autoethnography and the Documents of Life approach. Each time with each new place, it felt like our old world was lost. This does not mean we left that home behind though.   

Weeks ago, I had a 6+ hour phone conversation with one of my oldest and best friends from back home. He was having a crisis. The call ended early in the morning. There may have been drink involved. As mentioned, home is Oklahoma, which is about 5 time zones between us. He was having trouble in a long-term relationship where kids were involved. We have been having long conversations, for several weekends now, over the phone, that stretch well into my mornings. There tends to be lots of nostalgia to annoy my partner. In Covid-19 lockdown, this seems to be a much too common experience for us all. My partner and I spend a lot of time now on the phone and messaging with family, friends and friends that feel like family, back home, at our former homes and even in our new one. Over the years we formed a kinship with many who have a similar sense of hiraeth.

Back home, which is a terrible focus of the current outbreak and the dramatic failure of the Trump administration, my friends are in shock. It is a weird time where you see different countries having different responses: some hailed as good, some great, some bad, some infuriatingly bad. One of my friends mentioned to me how horrible the US response has been (as perceived from her perspective). She lives in a country with a suppressed media landscape. This left her wondering aloud in a WhatsApp recorded message if the response she was observing was partly to do with how it was portrayed to others abroad or if it was, in fact, that unbelievably bad. Had the US sunk to the level of the semi-dictatorial government she lived under now? There is a feeling to want to go to somewhere where things are better. Yet, if you keep moving, where will that place ever be? And there is the guilt you feel about those left behind.

Now, there is a new crisis in America. This piece was mostly written before the events succeeding the murder of George Floyd in the US. I hesitate to bring it up late in this piece of writing because a discussion on matters of race requires much more in-depth discussion, but I feel that not bringing it up would be a bigger error. In many ways it is not a ‘new’ crisis at all as the oppression and injustice wrought by what is considered ‘white’ in America on minorities has a long history. Much longer than America’s founding, it is a part of history than can be traced back across the Atlantic to the country I write in now, in the UK; it is a place that also shares a long history of oppression and injustice. It seems in the US, in 2020, the only people who are served proper justice are rich, white, heterosexual men and everyone else receives theirs in varying degrees to him. Something has to change.

Perhaps words such as hiraethhüzün and suadade do not do enough to bring what we are feeling “home”. Maybe words fail and action needs to take place. Maybe I am not missing a place, but a feeling. Maybe the words should be kept simple and in English: solidarity. 

Derek Morris is a PhD student in Socio-cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh and a former US Iraq War veteran with research interests in soldiers and their relation to society through autoethnography, narrative inquiry, and the Documents of Life approach


[1] Kielar, Samantha, ‘Hiraeth,’ Word of the Week, Sites at Penn State, April, 2016, https://sites.psu.edu/kielarpassionblog2/2016/04/02/hiraeth/

[2] Petro, Pamela, ‘Dreaming in Welsh,’ The Paris Review, September, 2012, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2012/09/18/dreaming-in-welsh/

[3] Bauman, Zygmunt, ‘On Writing Sociology,’ Theory, Culture and Society, Vol. 17 (1): 79-90, 2003. Page 83.

[4] Mills, K. and Pamela Mills, C.Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Page 208. 

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Liz Stanley

Liz Stanley is Professor of Sociology @ University of Edinburgh, email liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk. I’m a feminist sociologist who works on everyday documents of life, particularly letters, to research social change over time.

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