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A Displaced Person

Aaron Guest

(Wikipedia image)
(Wikipedia image)

Flannery O’Connor changed my life. Her work located me. Sought me out from the top corner of a near empty shelf of a quickly-going-bankrupt mass-market bookstore. I read one story and knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in any and all words and places and ideas I could generate. I have never regretted it, even if the writing life has brought unsubtle revelations about who I really am and how far away I may be always from the person I see myself as.

My attention was drawn back to O’Connor after David Griffith’s article in The Paris Review about her “least anthologized” short story “The Displaced Person”. I urge you to read the piece, regardless of your political leanings. Then read the short story. Or vice versa. On display is the inherent power of fiction; how it can carry a “dark moral force without recourse to didacticism or sentimentality.”

The idea of displacement Griffith talks about in O’Connor’s story was reinforced just last week. Again from that high-on-a-shelf kind of unexpected angle: a trilogy of graphic novellas we picked up for the kids at the library. It’s called “Lost & Found” by Shaun Tan. These three short illustrated stories are immaculately drawn, layered with rewarding and minute details. There is an astounding force at work inside each frame.

The middle story in the collection, “The Lost Thing”, strikes at the heart of why I continue to feel displacement in my own life. How it continues to be a “question about belonging in the absence of any direct language”. The story illustrates the journey of a lost, voiceless creature and the narrator who tries to find a home for it somewhere in the city. After some missteps, a unique and unexpected home for the creature is uncovered. This placement of the creature, finally, reveals a startling idea: where a displaced thing ends up may in fact not be the place it actually belongs.

Exactly a year ago now my family and I intentionally displaced ourselves in hopes of finding a community to which we could belong. We had outgrown our home in a number of real ways and we couldn’t stay. We moved deeper into the midwest. A small town, still in Ohio. We have no business being here, outside of work. And yet here is where we are. Like the odd, eschewed characters of Tan’s story, we “are happy enough.” But still the irk of not belonging is persistent and indirect. It sweeps over us in quiet strokes on Sunday mornings, in silent nights on our unlit street.

Griffith points out that many of O’Connor’s stories deal with displaced persons. And how they are always subject to violence whether as the perpetrator—or, as “The Displaced Person” shows despite the faultless and hard-working Mr. Guizac—as the victim.

I know where I am. And here life is comfortable and cozy. I am happy enough, too. I do not openly wish for a change. After all, like O’Connor’s Astor says, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” But I know how a simple glint caught by the corner of the eye can violently change my life. So I merely hope I don’t become “too busy doing other things” to fail to notice. Because I am—and may always be—a lost thing.