from roots to routes
Making roots on the move
Travelling across the space of belonging
between Palermo (Italy) and Jaffna (Sri Lanka)
di Laura Lo Presti e Francesca Genduso

Where between is liminal, in-between is arterial;
where between is intermediate, in-between is midstream.
(Ingold, The life of Lines)

In a common-sense view, roots are often defined as oppositional to movement. They are conceived as fixed and vertical despite exhibiting movement through growth, superficial though such process may be. A deeper scrutiny reveals that nothing is settled in roots but a movement that always requires a kind of departure from an origin and a search for new attachments during growth. In a metaphorical sense, then, moving away and being home are not exclusionary categories. Whilst we move, we inhabit the world in a twofold manner, both carrying what we already have with us and connecting with other spaces of belonging. Considering the ‘rootedness of movement’ and ‘the movement of roots’ as peculiarly enmeshed in the experience of migration, we are especially interested in looking creatively into the crossroads of travelling and dwelling. This paper, hence, recounts our descriptions, ethnographic experimentations and reflections [1] on an ‘arterial’ journey with the Sri Lankan Tamils of Palermo.[2] Before clarifying what means for us to explore belonging and mobility in a creative way, we need to provide some historical coordinates to the subject of our journey.

The Tamil community is one of the largest diasporic presences in Italy, and it was torn and shattered by almost three decades of civil war (1983–2009) that caused a crude genocide. Tamils fled Sri Lanka because of a bloody conflict with the other ethnic group in the country, the Sinhalese, mostly over the politics of divide et impera that was previously promoted by the British Empire. For the Tamil, moving away from home has thus been a forced choice followed by an urgency to remake a home in other countries. The end of the conflict, however, has given rise to profound questions: is it possible to reimagine a moment of return after the diaspora? Is the ‘space’ ripe to go back? If so, for whom?
In an epoch in which the rise of xenophobic and fixed ideas of nationalism is bringing to the fore the notion of rootedness and what is associated with its semantic field as a truly exclusionary and static category, it might be – perhaps – counterintuitive to refer to a hypothetical time of return. More so, when the weight of roots and the politics of belonging assume either a nostalgic or a rancorous relevance. We are nonetheless aware that nationalistic discourses frequently project roots as ‘discovered’ through a process of inventing traditions to guarantee the historicity and purity of a group; conversely, such rhetoric has recently constructed movement as an uncontrollable and negative force that risks polluting the presumed ‘isomorphism’ of the nation-state. In truth, at the heart of the transformative enterprise of early postcolonial studies, migration was positively viewed as an ‘exceptional and extraordinary’ (Ahmed, 1999) force rightly because it could unsettle the very idea of national identity. Our unease, however, is that some radical literature on migration often constructs roots and migration as opposing categories, even if such terms are obviously differently valued by critical scholars compared to the use made by right-wing political parties. From the standpoint of the critical scholar, this dialectic compels a choice between a negative politics of identity (root) and a positive one of disidentification (movement). In this faltering narrative, people on the move risk to be seen as empty subjects without a story of belonging to tell, if not a hybrid one. This means that «the act of granting the migrant the status as a figure (of speech) erases and conceals the historical determination of experiences of migration, even though those experiences cannot be reduced to a referent» (Ahmed, 1999: 333).

We contend that, when referring to the experience of migration, we should not overlook the fact that migrants essentialise, as any other human, their identity. They do not come from nowhere as they are rooted elsewhere; as such, they endeavour to carry their home both on their backs and in their memories. Movement is much more corpuscular than we believe, and roots entail a process that is constantly in the making, thereby engendering different outcomes. Ultimately, we believe that roots are open and porous concepts that need to be alternatively explored in terms other than the return of a stable notion of identity.
To grasp the cruciality of this reasoning, we have become interested in the subjective experiences of individual migrants and how these experiences are shaped by and, in turn, mould their identities. This is what prompted us to recount a creative project that we realised in 2015 with the Tamil community of Palermo. We envisaged this theoretical and experiential journey as an instance of ‘making roots on the move’, with the aim of interrogating movement and rootedness as two faces of the same coin.

In-between Pungudutivu-Nainativu (Sri Lanka). Photo of the authors

Plotting the Journey
In July 2015, we collected tips and stories from more than 20 Tamils, many of whom have been living in Palermo for more than 20 years. Such story collection was intended to serve as a foundation for planning a journey to Sri Lanka. We interviewed musicians, tailors, activists, domestic workers, shopkeepers and students, initiating conversations with a simple question: ‘If you were given the chance to go back to Sri Lanka, which place would you love to visit again?’

The main idea behind our experimental geography was for a journey to Sri Lanka to be entirely planned by the Tamils who live in Palermo and whose right to return is socially and legally limited for several reasons; although the civil war was officially over in 2009, there are still challenges to be afforded in the in-between space of here (Italy) and there (Sri Lanka). Some of the Tamils fear persecution in Sri Lanka; others cannot afford travel costs, and others more do not often feel the need to come back to their country of origin because they have family members scattered throughout a number of Western countries; most of the time, as well, the houses where they previously resided were destroyed during the war. We also interviewed second-generation Tamil-Italians who have never visited Sri Lanka but knew of some of the places there because of the stories narrated by their relatives. We even encountered interlocutors who could not remember anything of their country (or who were visibly interdicted from speaking about their past) and only showed us their hometowns on maps or suggested that we turn to other people for information. Essentially, we gave them the possibility to tell us what they pleased, without forcing their memory. Not by chance, the performance of an intimate story requires a sort of gestation and, above all, trust. It asks for a profound connection between the listener and the teller. Such empathic relation, we believe, can emerge only when the listener is willing to tell and to expose herself to the same vulnerability expressed by the interlocutor. When we found the conditions to create such a space of mutual exchange, our interlocutors eventually ‘donated’ us a place of special significance from Sri Lanka in return. For instance, they invited us to visit their native village, to go to their favourite beach and fish market, to take a picture of their elementary school, to bring back with us gadgets and objects from their country. Some of them also asked us to find old friends and relatives, to participate in a wedding and to visit harmful places related to war memories.

As the places that Tamils proposed us to visit on their behalf were tied to their flashbacks, trauma and desires, we inevitably came to disclose the intersections between their personal (and collective) memories and their ‘emotional geography’ (Anderson & Smith, 2001). We progressively realised that we were indirectly questioning the way in which displaced communities inhabit and make meaningful the diasporic space (of here and there) through practices of remembering that are condensed into imagination and everyday experiences of places (Fortier et al., 2003). Following the experience of diaspora through the trivial excuse of a trip organisation did not put ‘us’, as researchers, in the position of simple observers because, once arrived in Sri Lanka, we experienced first-hand their descriptions, feelings, reminiscences and claims. Moreover, as we were born in Palermo, we felt intimately involved in their daily story-telling of the city. Especially, we were interested in the fact that, depending on the context, many Tamils used the “we” in a twofold manner. Sometimes, to highlight the idea of a community, to be distinguished from Italians. In this narrative, they often explained some cultural traits that they considered to be peculiar of their ‘way of life’. In other occasions, for instance, when we met in Sri Lanka some Tamils from the city of Palermo, they often adopted the ‘we’ to underline their sense of belonging to Italy and to stress some divergence with their country of origin[3]. In truth, we approached the diasporic belonging as an endless process of identity negotiation that depended on the biographical background and the situation where our interlocutors were caught in.

One of the Tamils we met in a restaurant in Palermo draws a map of Sri Lanka. Photo of the authors.
This is the final map suggesting the places to visit during the trip. It shows touristic highlights as well as places related to the story-life of the interviewee. Photo of the authors.

As we argued in the beginning, nothing is settled in roots but a movement that ‘always requires a kind of departure from an origin and a search for new attachments during growth’. It is precisely in the knot between dwelling and travelling (Clifford, 1997) that we attempted to activate the space of belonging in an alternative way, that is as an event of mobility where practically—though temporarily—we concretely sewed up the double space of here and there, by travelling across two spaces of belonging. This way, we unfolded the multiple, fragmented and unknown stories, spatial synchronicities and (dis)similarities of two cities—Palermo and Jaffna—respectively the Sicilian chief town and the ‘cultural capital’ of the Sri Lankan Tamils [4]. In particular, the encounters we had in Palermo with the Tamil community gave us the chance to scrape the surface of a dense human meshwork. As a result of the chain migration, there are several family ties enweaving the various interlocutors we interviewed; yet we also found a dense web of relations binding our daily lives to them. For instance, we got in touch with Francesca’s neighbour; another Tamil guy was a university colleague, another more a restaurateur…Like us, any of Palermo’s citizens could come into contact with Tamils by walking in the street, by going to buy something in their shop, by exchanging a few words with neighbours, or by seeing them work as cleaners (often as cheap labour). Living a city means to weave relations, by expanding roots and wondering about the parts which constitute them. And then, most crucially of all, it is important to interrogate the power asymmetries that shape such relationships.

Our journey was articulated by a continuous and negotiated movement of back and forth not with an implied aim to tell or fetishize the ‘Otherness’ but rather to re-articulate positively a term as ‘root’ in a world where movements, encounters, contacts endlessly rearticulate any stable idea of identity and origin. Yet, we also live in a world where the movement is considered a privilege rather than a right. In this respect, from one hand, we approached the travel as a narrative and performative medium through which Tamils’ personal memories and feelings can emerge. On the other hand, it proved to be also a political tool to highlight the pitfalls and constraints of immobility (Cresswell, 2006). Substantially, the movement reverberates as a very semantically tortuous term. It can be related to the semantic field of emotion, a term that etymologically means ‘to move outside’, as well as of commotion, ‘a moving together’ (Bruno, 2002). In travelling materially ‘outside’—toward Sri Lanka—and figuratively ‘outside’ the familiar routine of our hometown we acknowledged our privilege of mobility as Europeans; however, to exploit this restrictive right to travel creatively and critically we stepped ‘nearby’ the Tamil community of Palermo in order to activate a space of resonance between our sense of place and their own, placing relationality and interaction as the performative frames of our encounters.

Mapping the routes of roots
Since this was a journey literally shaped by several Tamils from the city of Palermo, we also decided to create an interactive and open map [5]. The issue of participatory digital mapping has recently received considerable critical attention by geographers and activists for two main reasons. First, because it engraves a quiet tyranny of orientation that erases the possibility for disoriented discovery (Kurgan, 2013) and, second, because it raises doubts about the extent to which these practices of collaboration are really open to all (Graham et al., 2013). Yet, in our small way, we realised that the online mapping was an important opportunity for our interlocutors to add independently and anonymously the landmark on the places they recommended us to visit with the chance to explain why they mattered to them. It also allowed us to take note of more places and events suggested by Tamils during our informal conversations. Therefore, in an immediate way, we plotted and shared our journey ‘in the making’ with a larger audience. Most of the suggested places are located in the North of the Island, the disputed Tamil Eelam, but other localities are just part of the touristic imaginary of the Tamils we interviewed. Indeed, our interlocutors even recommended us sites where they dreamed to go but they never had the chance to visit due to the war but also locations that they considered attractive for Western tourists. This way, we actively used the crowdsourced map to partially remap and explore Sri Lanka through the personal geography of Tamils’ reminiscences, political revindications and feelings which led us to travel and learn about the fractures of their materially imagined homeland in a time of important transition caused by the end of the civil war.

On the left, a screenshot of the participatory map. It shows the request made by a Tamil student to visit Mullaitivu, where the final battle between the Tamils and the Sri Lankan army took place. On the right, there is a picture of the lagoon of Mullaitivu that we took on August 18, 2015.

Sri Lanka: encounters, crossings and deviations
Using the map created by Tamils, we travelled around the country. Firstly, we visited the archaeological sites, situated in the Sinhalese area. Those places were suggested by several people we met in Palermo, even though most of them never really had the chance to get there. Then, we moved to the east part of the country where the Tamil area begins. More specifically, the supposed ‘Tamil Eelam’ includes the north and the northeast side of the country. During the first part of our journey, randomly and unexpectedly, we met many Sinhaleses and Tamils working and living together: fishermen, drivers, hosts in the guesthouses we went to, or just people having the chance to visit their country with their family. Every single encounter gave us a story, an anecdote about the place we visited, or an opinion about the two different ethnic groups that were in conflict during the long civil war as well as about the different religious groups present in the country. ‘I’m Hindu, he is Muslim, he is Buddhist and there are Burghers [6] as well. We are all friends; we are like a big family!’ said to us a fisherman that we met in a hidden beach near Trincomalee (in the east side of the country), talking about his small fisherman community.

In this sense, our travel was a progressive and sensitive approach to the ‘moving roots’ of the Tamil culture and its entanglements with the Sinhalese one, before arriving in Jaffna, which is considered the political and cultural capital of the Tamil community. Once there, we met two of our contacts from Palermo who had returned to Jaffna for summer holydays. This way, they engaged us in a double re/discovering of the country, sharing their feelings in returning after a long period away. It was exciting to mutually experience the sincere and emotional reaction of this return, that was previously only imagined in their home in Palermo.
The first one, T., [7] returned in Jaffna after 26 years of forced absence, due to his political claims in favour of the Tamil cause. He involved us in several trips with his family and invited us to his Canadian nephew’s wedding. More significantly, he shared with us the excitement to visit for the first time many places he had previously seen ‘only through Google Images’. In particular, we visited with his family the Dutch Fort, where thousands of Tamils were imprisoned during the war. T.’s brother-in-law, who was now attaining the place as a ‘tourist’ like us, was actually imprisoned there in the late ‘80s. He decided to whisper the story beneath that place, while T., afraid of the massive presence of the Army that still controls the Fort told us: ‘You don’t know my story, I can’t speak here, I’ll tell you everything once we will return in Palermo’.
S. is the other Tamil guy from Palermo who guided us in Jaffna. Since the end of the war, he has the chance to come back to Sri Lanka almost every two years, with the hope to move permanently to Jaffna as the conflict is over. ‘I’d like to work in Palermo for a further three years, that is the time needed to save some money and then I’d like to come back here (in Jaffna) with my wife. I can find a job as a flautist (in Palermo he is a caregiver, but he is also an appreciated musician)’. While we were walking on Casuarina Beach (in the surroundings of Jaffna), a place that reminded him (and also us) of a famous beach in Palermo, he shared with us his future dreams but also his fears regarding the current political scenario. Yet, we were touched to find out how familiar and, in some way, similar to our ‘native’ places those people and sites were. Perhaps, this happened because we were now accustomed to look at those spaces through the lens that Tamils ​​had prepared us to wear. However, we also discovered many affinities between Jaffna and Palermo (regarding food, habits and architecture) due to the material exchange between the two places.

‘Thanks to your journey I went to and came back from my country’, said us one of the Tamils once we met again after our return from Sri Lanka. Indeed, when we came back to Palermo, we began to share with Tamils our experiences. We aimed to make them rediscover and virtually live a journey to their country of origin through our movements, now materialised in photographic, video and oral records. Therefore, we showed to the Tamils, who were unable to come back for the reasons discussed before, how those places and people look like now, so as to get a better understanding of the way in which they have been transformed after the civil war. They were especially anxious and curious about the current political situation, now that the North East is opening up to a military-controlled tourism and the process of reconciliation between Tamil and Sinhalese people is slowly starting. Most importantly, we saw their emotional reactions in seeing after a long time their childhood places (schools, houses, festivals, landscapes they asked to photograph). In so doing, we connected our experience of travelling to their remembering of dwelling. Living their spaces of memory and sharing our feelings with them made us connected in a deeper way with our Tamil interlocutors. This means that, the recognition of story of belonging behind the vacuity of the figure of the migrant, brought us closer to our interlocutors. Most of them felt more comfortable and more entitled to continue sharing with us their personal stories and their experiences concerning the diaspora. This way, we began to reason on a crucial point: the event of our home return in Palermo coincided, at the same time, with the return in Sri Lanka of all those who have travelled, even though just virtually, nearby us: the movement became a genuine emotion, or better, a com-motion: a moving together.

On the left, a photo of the school where Francesca’s neighbour used to go before the beginning of the civil war. He returned there in 2001, during a war truce. On the right, a picture of the same school that we took on August 20, 2015.

Conclusion: untangling the knot between travelling and dwelling
The threefold journey (first, the organisation of the trip in Palermo, second, the journey in Sri Lanka and third, the return in Palermo) meant for us to practice different geographies of travelling and dwelling. We embodied memories, suggestions, political claims and the autonomous mapping of our interlocutors in order to build our itinerary and visualise the hidden connection between Palermo and Jaffna. This way, we had the chance to experience some theorisations about diasporic communities and transnational spaces (Blunt, 2005; Brah, 1996; Fortier et al., 2003), avoiding to merely theorise. We were, rather, ready to be open to the surprise and experimentation of what displacement might do and create. Certainly, we came to recognize our privileged position in the research process and the different asymmetries that shaped, each time, our contact with the subject of our activity. Yet, this did not prevent us from living the sensitive and genuine experiences of ‘togetherness’. In other words, travelling nearby, the same as a ‘speaking nearby’ (T. Min Ha, 1989), means to unfold the texture of an intricate dialogue and a relational game of looks, where we are mutually tied, though not identically matched, with each of our interlocutors; it suggests that the fragments of our thought and action can be intertwined in different ways with those of our former interlocutors in Palermo but also with those people with whom we have shared the experience of arrival in Sri Lanka. More importantly, this project taught us that is crucial to understand that roots are not oppositional to movement. Even though the age of migration, multiculturalism and hybridity has suddenly been twisted into the space of walls, we do not want to miss the chance to live in harmony in the midstream of belonging. For this, we need to endlessly cultivate and multiply spaces of mutual listening and intervention.

[1] The creative project has been conducted between July and October 2015 by Laura Lo Presti, Francesca Genduso and Giuseppe Calajò. Although the project is the result of the ongoing collaboration and exchange between the three authors, Laura Lo Presti and Francesca Genduso wrote the present essay.
[2] The initiative was partly funded by FuoriRotta, an Italian non-profit organisation founded by the film-maker Andrea Segre.
[3] As we were invited to a wedding during our trip in Sri Lanka, a Tamil guy who currently lives in Palermo told us: ‘We, “the people from Palermo”, really care about the contact with people. My father always says, when he returns to Palermo to escape the harsh Canadian winter: I am finally coming back to my country!’
[4] You can read more about these connections on the website:
[5] The map is available here:
[6] This is the way in which Sri Lankan descendants of Portuguese, Dutch and English colonisers are called.
[7] To respect our interlocutors’ privacy, we have decided to refer to them through their initials.

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Laura Lo Presti holds a Ph.D. in European Cultural Studies from the University of Palermo. Her research interests regard mapping, migration and visual culture. She is currently doing research support activities at the University of Padova on the everyday cartographies of multiculturalism and post-nationality in Italy and Europe. Her most recent publications are “Extroverting Cartography. ‘Seensing’ maps and data through art” in J-Reading and “Haunted Cartographies: towards a postcolonial ‘gynealogy’ of map making” for Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Francesca Genduso obtained the Ph.D. in European Cultural Studies at the University of Palermo in the field of cultural geography. From January to July 2015 she was a visiting PhD student at the Géo-cités laboratory (Paris Diderot University – Paris 7), and from January to July 2016 she visited the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Utrecht. For roots§routes, she has already published “Heimlich e unheimlich: il riconoscimento del mondo-in-casa” and “Mediterraneità in bilico: la costruzione dell’italianità attraverso la conquista dell’oltremare”.