Atopos

 [Image description: photograph of a ship run aground, lying on its side. The tide of pale water is coming in. People are sitting on the raised side of the ship, and standing in the water and on the beach.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: photograph of a ship run aground, lying on its side. The tide of pale water is coming in. People are sitting on the raised side of the ship, and standing in the water and on the beach.]

Nanette Thiam

Between two sips of a London Fog, she blurted it out with a purpose close to relief. “I’m leaving for the Philippines this summer, for half a year. It’ll be so amazing. I think it’ll be such a wonderful way to finally find what it is I needed all these years. You know, since that whole thing? I’ve done my research, and I’m ready. I think it might be like coming home.”

 [Image description: black and white photograph of an old wooden house. There is a dark crack running horizontally across the front of the house, and a worn stone pathway leading up to the front door.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: black and white photograph of an old wooden house. There is a dark crack running horizontally across the front of the house, and a worn stone pathway leading up to the front door.]

Nanette Thiam

She looked fervent, resolute; scared. It intrigued me. It stirred something formerly settled in my ribs, constantly peeking from behind a door, whispering.

home.

There was that word again, and I was discomfited by the recognition.

 [Image description: photograph taken from the back seat of a moving car. The person sitting in the front passenger seat is visible in profile. Desert scenery and a cloudless sky can be seen through the windshield and front passenger window.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: photograph taken from the back seat of a moving car. The person sitting in the front passenger seat is visible in profile. Desert scenery and a cloudless sky can be seen through the windshield and front passenger window.]

Nanette Thiam

The truth is that I have no home.

It puzzles me - the concept of belonging has always filled me with some combination of dread and hope. The ghost of this thought follows me everywhere with her bloody feet, persistent and quiet, save for one word:

where?

And I in turn stay silent, with the same question in mind.

 [Image description: black and white photograph of a river bridge under construction. A single piece of machinery can be seen toward the left side of the image.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: black and white photograph of a river bridge under construction. A single piece of machinery can be seen toward the left side of the image.]

Nanette Thiam

My friend chatters away, the excitement of her upcoming adventure lighting her eyes bright with excitement and anticipation.

“What do you expect to find there?” I interrupt her. She shrugs.

“I don’t know. Clearly it’s something that doesn’t live here. Novelty? Change of scenery? Someplace new to call my own? Anything that isn’t the usual disconnect. And the boredom. And loneliness, I guess.”

“Won’t these things follow you?”

“That’s the point! I’m hoping to leave them behind.”

“So how far do you need to go to outrun them?”

She gnaws at a lip I’ve too often wanted to kiss. Eyes flicker and lower. And I keep mercilessly sipping on my cold tea.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

 [Image description: photograph of brightly and intricately decorated boats lined up in a dock on on a beach. A person is bending over one of the boats in the centre of the image.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: photograph of brightly and intricately decorated boats lined up in a dock on on a beach. A person is bending over one of the boats in the centre of the image.]

Nanette Thiam

Travel is my pain and pleasure, and the permanent thread sewn through my life.  From the moment I was born to a mother fleeing civil unrest between my two home countries, to my recent departure from Nairobi, my life has been defined by other places. It could be attributed to my parents’ jobs, which required hopping from country to country every couple of years, but even small displacements are always tinged with that stubborn uncertainty of “where?”

Sometimes it’s for a night, sometimes longer than a year. Some of these places are made of warm meals, incense and soft arms. Other places are made of urgency, hushed voices, and worry. Each one of these places traveled to offered me both fleeting security and guaranteed impermanence. So I became the Other - here for a fleeting moment, gone the next. Always wandering, and always wondering.

 [Image description: photograph of a single wide, leafy shrub in the middle of a sandy landscape.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: photograph of a single wide, leafy shrub in the middle of a sandy landscape.]

Nanette Thiam

To my surprise, photography welcomed me from the first day we crossed paths. Initially a hobby carefully approached, it has become my only certainty during this endless search for home. There is something quite magical about collecting a mirror of a person or a place to call my own, but nostalgia always pokes its maudlin head in to remind me that my presence anywhere always has an expiration date.

 [Image description: black and white photograph of trees growing out of a lake. Their reflection shines on the water's surface. There are birds perched in their upper branches.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: black and white photograph of trees growing out of a lake. Their reflection shines on the water's surface. There are birds perched in their upper branches.]

Nanette Thiam

To say I’ve never felt at home anywhere would be slanderous. I’ve found home whilst digging my heels into the sand of a stormy beach in Gabon. Home in the darkest hour of the night, alone, in the Sahara desert. Home within the arms of a lover deeply asleep in the stillness of midnight. 

Home is love. Security. Connection. No longer feeling the need for distraction, or to take off running. Touch, care, pause: these moments are elusive to me.

I tend to trust these places, but calling any one of them “home” is a risk I have yet to run. They reek of rest, and peace, and comfort.

 [Image description: photograph of plant pots, of varying size and colour, stacked together along the side of a street. There is a single person passing by, an a large, dark-leafed plant in the centre of the image.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: photograph of plant pots, of varying size and colour, stacked together along the side of a street. There is a single person passing by, an a large, dark-leafed plant in the centre of the image.]

Nanette Thiam

No man is an island, they say. I disagree. But I learned fairly early in life that building homes in people was like building a sanctuary on muddy land - it slips, it sinks, it crumbles.

Eventually. I don’t blame people; it’s their inner gravity that I blame. Perhaps it is always hope, or delusion, that makes me such a willing visitor to those islands made flesh.

Still I wander, camera in hand, in the hope that someday I will be less of an escape artist, and I think I’ve done a wonderful job at convincing myself of this possibility.

 [Image description: black and white photograph of two people in profile, both of whom are wearing scarves around their necks. They are standing inside, by a brightly lit window with a thick white curtain tied to the side.]  Nanette Thiam

[Image description: black and white photograph of two people in profile, both of whom are wearing scarves around their necks. They are standing inside, by a brightly lit window with a thick white curtain tied to the side.]

Nanette Thiam

I look back at her eyes, heavy with that cruel question of mine; I know why she’s leaving. I remember how the sudden loss of our common friend tore her to pieces too small ever to put back together. Running away is a gamble, whether to heal or to find home, but there really is only one way to find out.

“Hey. It’ll be amazing, and you will have a wonderful time - I might be a nomad when it comes to people, but I know you’re on your way to something good. Just trust in what you find along the way; I’ll make sure you know where to find me when you return.”

“Yeah. Hey, unless you’ve managed to head for outer space, I’ll find you. Even you’re not that good,” she said with a small smile.

The waitress picked up our bill, and for a moment we just settled in the quiet, her head turned to the street sleek with rain.

I looked at her, trying not to feel her slip further away, drinking in so much of her that, for a moment, I thought I might drown.


Nanette Thiam is a visual artist and performer who landed in DC after hopping around the globe. You can find their work on Instagram, here and here.