When Your Home’s Land Isn’t Your Homeland
My family speaks one language, I was raised in another — and my heart and mind speak a third
A few months ago, I filled out a form that confirms that I will one day be buried in the Comoro Islands, my mother’s homeland, rather than France where I grew up — but I used the wrong Social Security number. On purpose. I miswrote the numbers because I don’t think I’ve ever belonged to my mother’s homeland. Honestly, I’ve never really felt like I belong anywhere.
In seventh grade, my math teacher asked if anyone spoke a language other than French or English. Some of my classmates said Turkish, and others said Arabic; sheepishly, from the back of the classroom, I said Comorian. My teacher had never heard of the language, but she was considerate enough not to prod. My classmates, not so much: Seconds after class ended, three classmates cornered me and asked, “Hey, how do you say ‘son of a bitch’ in your language?” I laughed nervously as I tried to think of words my father would say when he’d get angry. Eventually, I made stuff up. I wasn’t fluent in Comorian at all; I just wanted to find a way to fit in.
When my mom left Comoros to start a new life in France 24 years ago, she chose not to teach her kids her native language. Immigrant parents often think their kids will have it easier if they only speak the language of their new home, and elements of that are true: I’ve never experienced the discrimination some face when their French lilts with an African accent. But when you navigate the world as a Black person, discrimination is an inevitable part of the map, forcing you back to a place where you weren’t born — where, if you’re like me, never even set foot.
As a kid, I self-deprecated my way to try to blend with the French kids who’d call me “Black.” Not “Noir,” the French word for “Black,” but the actual English word. To make clear that I was different, they used a word that didn’t belong in their national vocabulary. (Ah, the mental gymnastics of casual racism.) Sadly, I played into the hands of the racial status quo. For instance, every time I would get a haircut, White boys would slap me on the back of the head — it was called a baptism! Fun! I only realized later that this “baptism” was only done to my classmates of color and me, never to the White kids.
For the longest time, I’d imagine what would happen if my parents had stayed in their homeland and I wasn’t born in France. So I channeled that energy into portraying myself as the “other” my peers believed I was.
Then my grandfather died.
We weren’t as close as I’d love to claim we were; there was a significant language barrier between us. My grandfather died in France, and his wake happened there as well. But then he was repatriated to his homeland, Comoros, so he could rest in the Earth whence he came. His death only comes up when my family tries to convince me to pray five times a day like I used to when I was younger (another part of the culture that I don’t connect with anymore). If my grandfather does have an epitaph, I wonder in which language it’s written.
English became a refuge in which I could express myself freely — without any interference from the French friends I knew in real life.
Thanks to Doctor Who and a few penpals, I learned English faster than my classmates who only interacted with the language through France’s education system. When I secretly set up my second Twitter account back in high school, English became a refuge in which I could express myself freely without any interference from the French friends I knew in real life. It was liberating. I discovered a version of myself that breathed joy and freedom like no other. I forged my strongest relationships with other English speakers. I learned about feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and other social justice movements by reading essays, articles, and activist accounts in English, which now makes me more fluent in and passionate about those subjects.
If I could separate the languages in my life, they’d be in three different families. French is the family I didn’t choose, the language in which I suffered the most. It’s the language that rejected me so much that when people ask me where I’m from, I say Comoros, only to watch them nod in fake geographical understanding. English is my found family, the one that supports me and upholds my wellbeing to a higher standard. It protects me; it gives me weapons to defend my opinions. It’s the language in which I feel the most and where my soul as a writer thrives. English awakened a new version of myself, and I wouldn’t live healthily without it.
Comorian is my estranged yet very close family. It orbits my life without ever touching me, representing the version of myself I could have been. It’s the language several family members shame me for not speaking. Ultimately, Comorian is my older brother who stayed behind when my mom left her homeland, foreign yet familiar.
Elise Ciregna, a religious studies professor at Harvard and the president of the Association for Gravestone Studies, told Atlas Obscura that most gravestone inscriptions reaffirm one’s membership in a group, and the beliefs that are part of that group’s culture. If my resting place were to be in my mom’s homeland, it would not only confirm that I belong there but that I share the beliefs that are part of the culture of that land. As far as I’m concerned, though, this would be a lie: Comoros is a predominantly Muslim country, and I no longer spiritually connect to the religion of my birth. It would be misleading for me to reflect this major cultural artifact after death. And that’s only scratching the surface of the implications that would result from my body lying there.
There’s no point in me challenging the cultural legacy of that land, but there might be a point in me challenging the soil on which I was born — right here, in France. Now I half-jokingly tell myself that if there’s any land in which my dead body ought to belong, it has to be the place that’s dying to identify me as foreign. If not in life, maybe I could belong here in death, my body itself a transgression upon a land that sees me as other, and with an epitaph that reads, in plain English, “I don’t belong here, yet here I am.”
An incredibly White National Assembly erased the word “race” from the French constitution because they think that race, even as a social construct, doesn’t exist. The French are infamously known for censoring the nation’s dark history: Bordeaux, the city in which I was born and still live in, was the second-largest slave-trading port in France. Many of the street plaques in the city’s center sport the names of slave traders. Sometimes I wonder why I so desperately want to be French.
It’s exhausting to realize that no matter how well things seem to go, people always question my identity in the back of their minds. But it hits me every time that this is why I so desperately want to be seen as French, why I want to make my mark here — in life and death — the same way Black folks in the U.S. rightfully claim to be America’s backbone — its resilience. As David Dennis Jr. wrote recently, “Blackness is a superhero origin story,” and this story transcends borders, touching every Black space compromised by Whiteness.
But I haven’t realized my full potential as a superhero yet, and this is why I still cave whenever I’m asked where I’m from. It’s why I sometimes find myself only listening from afar, earphones in with no music on, when some White friends are having a conversation about race—and why I still haven’t told my mom I don’t want to be buried in the Islands.
Perhaps that’s because while French might be the family I didn’t choose, the one in which I suffered and was rejected the most, it’s the one in which my mom has loved me the most. It’s the family in which she breathed love and joy during the good times as well as the harder times. There is no way my epitaph will even imply that I don’t belong here. Instead, I hope my life ends with no pen in hand, without my fingers itching to explain my identity a final time. Where I am finally free to just be.