How Alienation Became My Superpower

In May of 2020, my 95-year-old grandmother came down with pneumonia. If I wanted to say goodbye, I was told, this would be my only chance. I drove down I-80 to Lorain, Ohio, where my grandparents settled in the 1950s, after emigrating from Puerto Rico, and raised 13 children, my father the eighth in line. Nearby family assembled into a small, masked audience. When my sisters and I arrived, a few people were departing. In the clamor of hellos and farewells, I missed being introduced to the man — not much taller than me, gray-haired — I assumed was a family friend. Afterward, my sister murmured, “You ignored Daddy perfectly.”

With effort, I could find traces of the man my mind summons at the word “father.” The nose, yes, and the manner of walking. The clearer image was of a stranger in a doorway, half-turned away. It’s been 12 years since I severed contact with my father, after a long history of his abuse. “We are estranged,” I tell people. But I’d imagined estrangement as the man who stands arms-out to separate two fighters; I never anticipated seeing my father as a stranger would.

Reflecting on this meeting, which happened only in retrospect, I can’t help thinking that the two meanings of “estrangement” converge. Artistic estrangement — originally ostranenie, a word coined by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky — is sometimes translated as “defamiliarization.” A good writer, for example, makes unfamiliar what they depict — jealousy, or a tree, or a siren’s sound — to free it from clichés or preconceptions, forcing us to encounter it as if for the first time, though we have probably been jealous, seen a tree, heard a siren. Estrangement revives perception. For Shklovsky, ostranenie occurs when a writer creates “a special way of experiencing an object, to make one not ‘recognize’ it but ‘see’ it.” The stakes are high. Life, otherwise “automatized,” can pass as if we are unconscious — even as if we never lived at all.

In the Yale lecture hall where I learned about Shklovsky, it was easy to see estrangement stretching beyond art. I thought about the constant shocks of perception, bouts of disorientation, that I — child of a diasporic family, poor in a rich institution — had experienced. How automatic could life be if it must be continually decoded? If hardly anything is recognizable? If I did see more accurately than those who instinctively belonged, then I wished I didn’t. At the freshman holiday dinner, I couldn’t delight in the cornucopias and ice sculptures paraded before us by predominantly Black workers. We gorged ourselves, then left the wreckage for them to remove. The scene did strike me as art: Who wrote this parody of America? But I was powerless to change the picture, in which I saw myself as both inferior and traitor. Estrangement, necessary in art, seemed painful in life; perception and pain were twins.

In 2016, I moved to Poland to study and write poetry on a Fulbright arts fellowship. Doing so required stripping myself of fluency and the cloak of native understanding. With each failure of action or speech, I squelched around in touristic self-pity. “I live on Smutna Street,” I told someone, momentarily forgetting “Smolna” was my street’s actual name; her laughter reminded me that smutna means “sad.” I was often sad during that first, dark autumn, dealing with a disintegrating marriage and the parched loneliness of the unlanguaged. When I read the weather journals of Gerard Manley Hopkins, full of riverine descriptions of cloud architecture, I envied his ebullient noticing, his passionate benevolence toward everything he saw. I started a weather journal, hoping, I wrote, that it “might make me love the world more.” I remained a melancholic American struggling with Polish grammar, but attention did render the world entrancing. Trips to the post office and supermarket became exhilarating; paying attention to the oddities and ironies of even my dullest routines reminded me that I lived, I perceived and I contained a startling range of feelings: humiliation, pain, self-hatred, yes, but also wonder. Wonder that depended on nothing but my own willingness to find it.

Once, in Warsaw, I saw the facade of an abandoned prewar building fall, cleanly, like drapery slipping from a statue. Dust plumed, but no one was injured. Onlookers gathered to watch the rituals of aftermath: trucks sirening up, the clatter of officialdom. From the sidewalk opposite I studied the ordinary rooms estranged by exposure — as we all would be if our interiors could be revealed. I was a stranger in this land, but I no longer minded. “Help me create ever-enduring love,” the great Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote, “from my persistent dissonance with the world.”

At a party in Brooklyn, after I say something like the above, a woman challenges me: “But what is the value of feeling like a stranger if you could learn to belong?” I say, “You never forget there are other strangers.” If I’d had more time to think, or been less tipsy, I’d have added, “You never forget that we are all strangers in the world.”

“Art is the means to live through the making of the thing,” Shklovsky writes, and in the margins of the book I see that I’ve written, “Estrangement is the means to live through the making of life.” My grandmother, against expectations, survived. When I return to that image of my father on the threshold, I feel lucky: At least once in my life, I saw him without fear, and I could love him as much as I love any stranger. The picture I hold in my head I hold like a work of art.

Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, essayist and fiction writer. Her work appears in The New Yorker and elsewhere.

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