Migrant, Refugee, Gay: You’re All Welcome at This Table

Migrant, Refugee, Gay: You’re All Welcome at This Table
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Masha Gessen Credit Naima Green for The New York Times

I went online in search of a picture of my mother — it was an anniversary of her death, and I was on the road somewhere, and I wanted a picture. My mother, a Russian-language literary critic, died in 1992. There were no pictures and very few of her pieces to be found, but here was one, a short essay on emigration:

How does a strange land become your home? I don’t know. It’s a mysterious and incomprehensible process. Yet, bit by bit, the streets of a strange city take on memories of their own and you stop wandering along them like a detached shadow — you become a traveler like all the others. “Absolute homelessness is unbearable,” writes Leszek Kolakowski, a Polish philosopher living in London. “It would mean a rejection of human existence.” So we build our home in a strange land, and then we can return home from travels to Paris, London, Amsterdam, or Jerusalem. Even when we had the unexpected, incredible chance to travel to Moscow, we left Moscow — to go home. There is a striking duality to émigré consciousness. We mix up our pronouns: we, they, ours, yours, who/where are we after all that? We are people who have built our home on American land and who have gained a home here.

I write this on the eve of the most American of holidays …

I caught my breath here: Was my mother about to mention the Fourth of July?

Thanksgiving, the holiday of the Pilgrims who marked the first anniversary of their arrival in the promised land and celebrated their triumph over the hurdles of early emigration. This will be my eleventh Thanksgiving in America. And though I have a persistent aversion to the very concept of patriotism, thanks to the forced lessons of “Soviet patriotism,” I find myself saying “thank you” to a world we have chosen and mastered, a world that has been kind to us. This is an imperfect world, a complicated one, at times impossible to understand and it has become our home.

I’ve reread this passage several times in the couple of years since I found it, and I keep discovering new things in it. I like how my mother uses the word “world” instead of “country,” “nation” or “land.” Immigration is different from simply moving, precisely because it feels like passing from one world to a different one. I like that the person who finds a home is, nonetheless, a “traveler” — the journey is never-ending. I like her measured, even skeptical embrace of the holiday, and the messy and sometimes infuriating country for which it stands. And the last time I reread it, I liked the focus on mixing up pronouns: I have been thinking of wandering among pronouns a lot lately.

My mother died less than a year after she wrote this piece, and soon after that I returned to live in Moscow, which seemed like the best place for a young journalist. I stayed more than 20 years, and came back to the United States a middle-aged person with a family. Here, one of the marks of adulthood is having your own Thanksgiving. So the first year, with renovations still unfinished, we opened our house in New York to L.G.B.T. refugees — most of them had come from Russia, fleeing Putin’s anti-gay campaign, but among the roughly 75 guests there were asylum seekers from other former Soviet republics and even from Iran.

Most of the guests had come to America within the last year: It was their first Thanksgiving. I asked Mark, who is an old friend, a new neighbor and a nonimmigrant American possessed of a booming voice, to give a speech that doubled as a mini-lecture on the holiday. He smoothed some corners in the telling; I translated.

Since then, the Thanksgiving for queer asylum seekers has become a tradition. Mark makes a turkey at home (he stuffs it with fruit) and brings it over; I make three (I stuff mine with celery and other vegetables — the juice-preserving effect is the same), plus a couple of vats of mashed potatoes and a pot of cranberry sauce. Guests bring everything else.

In the second year, friends started stopping by on the way to family celebrations to drop off food for the asylum-seeker Thanksgiving. Most of the guests each year are new, coming to their first Thanksgiving. Mark’s speech has grown more complicated with each passing year, attempting to include the violence that lurks behind the holiday myth — the “impossible to understand” part of this world.

This year will be tough and important. The United States continues to grant asylum, fairly reliably, to people who flee anti-gay persecution. At the same time, with the Muslim ban (among other things), some of the people who need protection most are less likely to receive it here. The Trump administration has also announced plans to make the path to asylum even more difficult. That makes our annual ritual of welcoming the stranger more important and more difficult. It will be hard not to strike a false note when celebrating Thanksgiving with new asylum seekers in Trump’s America.

As I prepare for the day, I keep thinking back to my mother’s essay. It’s been 25 years since she died — I have now lived half my life without her, and this is the first year that I am older than she ever was. By any measure, then, this is the most grown-up Thanksgiving I’ll have experienced. Mark and I will have to choose our words with special care, bearing in mind that we are all wanderers through different worlds — and that pronouns will, and should, get confusing.

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