For many writers, the need to experience the places where their stories are set and study them closely and purposefully seems essential before sitting down to write. The prime example of this is Iain Sinclair who stalked across London in order to collect anecdotes, faces, fragments of imagery and notes on buildings. Another such writer is Edward Thomas, who observed and absorbed the countryside he loved so dearly before setting it into poetry.
However, for other writers, the necessity to leave is just as present as the necessity to stay was for Sinclair and Thomas. This does not mean that the places they leave are absent from their fiction. Instead, the homes they no longer inhabit seem just as vibrant and alive as in the descriptions of the writer who stayed put. James Joyce departed from Dublin in 1904, on a self-imposed exile to the continent with his wife Nora Barnacle beside him. They spent the rest of their lives moving around Europe: “Trieste – Zurich – Paris” are the final words of Ulysses. Yet, one of the most striking accomplishments of that novel is the reconstruction in prose of the city of Dublin. Joyce himself said, speaking of Ulysses, that if Dublin “one day suddenly disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.” This attention to the minutia of space and the importance of detail stand out against what might be seen as voluntary rootlessness.
A voluntary rootlessness, moving from place to place, allows Wicomb’s character a form of liberation.
More recently, we might think of the South African writer Zoë Wicomb who, like Marion in Wicomb’s novel Playing in the Light (2006), alternates most of her time between South Africa and Britain. In Playing in the Light the will to move away from one’s home serves to allow Marion an opportunity to escape from the race-laden language of South Africa. All words Marion speaks there contain connotations which she finds it hard to untangle from her speech. She fears saying even the most ordinary statements – to hoteliers, to her friends and family – lest there was “another layer of meaning… that others have the right to probe.”
A voluntary rootlessness, moving from place to place, allows Wicomb’s character a form of liberation. Wicomb wrote the novel whilst in Glasgow and it’s interesting to note that her description of her original homeland, like in Joyce’s case, offers insight and a sense of freedom through her distance from it. It might be said that rootlessness allows for outstanding creative possibilities. Sometimes a writer needs distance from their home to continue to write about it with clarity and vibrancy.