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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Home is not a Place

Always the Guest by Wendy Marijnessen is a delightful but curious book. It's a mix of text, archival images, and photographs from Pakistan, with some from the particular the Koohi Goth Women's Hospital, a place Marjinessen advocates and fund raises for (5 euros from each book sold goes to the hospital).

The text kickstarts the story, bridging from one kind of domestic to another, mixing the personal image with the photojournalistic, mixing genre and voice as she goes. Marijnissen tells the story of her childhood, of her mother's struggle with cancer, her death, and that of her father some years later. It's a hammer blow to her heart, one that leaves her lost and reeling.

Where, she wonders, is home.

Faded snapshots of a distant life punctuate these thoughts, a dreamlike reverie of what once was - though even here the cracks appear, her mother and father standing together, united in life as they became in death, as a child (even Wendy or her younger sister) stand back to the camera to one side.

Confusion reigns in her life until she crosses the border from India into Pakistan and makes her way to the Women's Hospital. There she witnesses birth, she experiences death at close-quarters, in the vacuum of cultural expectations she finds herself again. The flow of life in Karachi, the food, the smells, the easy familiarity create a space for her. Even the crows become symbols of life.

And amidst that explosion of life, she finds a little corner of herself.

It's a story of rebirth, of finding a place in a country where she has no place, which is a vacuum to her, but where life, with all its celebrations, its sufferings, its failings, is all around.

It could go wrong in all kinds of ways here but it doesn't, there is a genuine sense of Marijnissen grappling to express her loss, her self, her idea of being through the images she makes, the images that have been bequeathed to her, the way and the roles those images play in the defining of who you are. That's a very unusual thing to do.

The family photos are mixed with what look like polaroids from Pakistan, parallel images that make the case for this new life morphing into the old, so that genre is serving a purpose and is part of the narrative in itself - not explicitly, but embedded into the story telling.. Also mixed in are larger black and white images, the realities, both harsh and pleasurable, of life folded in the visual flow.

I don't know if it's always successful (what book is?) in the telling of the story, but who cares? It's tells a personal story and it doesn't  follow all the conventions that you get in the telling of those stories. It's a bit odd in other words.

And that fits the theme of the story, an idea of never finding home that is common to so many yet never really expressed. For Marijnissen, the question of whether it's in Karachi or in Antwerp is never quite answered. In Always a Guest, Home is an emotional state where emotion happens, where human contact happens, where you are a person.

Or perhaps, as James Baldwin states at the beginning of the book, it's not a place at all, it's an irrevocable condition.

Buy the Book here.

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