I came to wish I hadn’t let him off so easily, as five years later his ashes still sat in their brown plastic box, prompting me to embark on a 2,000-mile journey across the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains to find the place where my father’s ashes belonged.
Coming home, I set out on a different kind of journey, writing about my experience as a white man with Norwegian and English lineage exploring both America and the question of belonging to a place whose history holds the continuing legacy of the displacement, dispossession, and genocide of Native peoples.
The result is Not from Here, a memoir that has just been published by Temple University Press.
More than a personal narrative, Not from Here tries to illuminate the national silence around unresolved questions of accountability, race, and identity politics, and the dilemma of how to take responsibility for a past we did not create. It is a story about the past living in the present; of redemption, fate, family, tribe, and nation; of love and grief, that raises disturbing questions about belonging, identity, and place.
Here is a sampling of what reviewers have to say:
Those undergoing their own grief journey will find their thoughts given poignant expression in Johnson’s musings on his father’s life and their too-distant relationship. The best part of this book, though, and why it should be widely read, is its thoughtful examination of the workings of privilege in immigrant experiences.”
“What it means to be white, what it means to be American, and what it means to be from a place and to belong to it are questions that Johnson raises throughout the book. He is painfully aware that as a descendant of those who took the land from others, dispossessing and displacing them, he is today the beneficiary of acts he did not perform. . . . [T]hose expecting a son’s gentle memoir will be in for a surprise.”
“Not from Here is a fascinating journey into filiality, heritage, and the heart of this American land. It is a journey worth taking and a story well told.”
—Kent Nerburn, author of Letters to My Son, Neither Wolf nor Dog, and Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce
“The extraordinary achievement of Not from Here, and the stunning gift it offers to my own self-understanding, lies in the mirror it holds to white American culture. Seeking a resting place for his father’s ashes, the son is gradually faced with the essential rootlessness of his—and my own—people. In the process of conquering and commodifying our world, we have been losing what it means to belong.”
—Joanna Macy, author of Coming Back to Life
“If those two great existential questions—Who am I? and Where am I from?—are linked, how are those with transient upbringings in our amnesiatic, immigrant-settled society to answer them? In Not from Here, Allan Johnson takes a road trip on the American plains to try to find out, haunted by his globe-trotting father’s ashes in the trunk and the legacy of Euro-American conquest staring at him through the windshield.”
—Colin Woodard, author of American Nations and The Lobster Coast
“‘This package contains the cremated body of / Valdemar N. L. Johnson / Cremated December 7, 2005, ID Number 20051912.’ A nondescript package of gray ash triggers a passionate engagement with American history as the author’s need to find a meaningful place for his father’s remains becomes a poignant quest for his own identity: the ancestral identity that originates in majestic Norwegian fjords and flees, improbably, to the rich wind-blown alluvium of America’s heartland—a Promised Land being ruthlessly cleansed of Native American tribes to make way for sturdy Lutherans and a nation’s dream of Manifest Destiny. Johnson comes to terms with the ricocheting ironies in a tender, wistful narrative reminiscent of N. Scott Momaday’s classic journey of tribal ancestral discovery in The Way to Rainy Mountain. Not from Here is a truly lovely book.”
—Calvin Luther Martin, author of The Way of the Human Being
“This is not only an exquisitely crafted memoir of a son seeking a place for his father’s ashes. This is not only an exploration of the right relationship between the living and the dead, the ethical and emotional responsibilities we have to each other. This is also a heartbreaking and exact investigation of the ways our ancestors call us into the vortex of history, demanding that we confront and respond to the deeds done, the harm wreaked on the land and the Native people who were here before us. How we bury our dead requires us also to unearth the harm done and to bring healing to the line that must recognize and include all our relations. A profound text from a beautiful soul.”
—Deena Metzger author of Y Blanca Y Negra and Entering the Ghost River
Not from Here is available in hardcover and Kindle editions. Order from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, or your local bookstore. To read the Prologue, click here. And do ask your local library to add it to their collection.