Misplacement in Kelly Joseph’s “Transient”

Short story: Kelly Joseph – “Transient” (Huia Short Stories 5, 2003)

Belonging and misplacement are well-known feelings, I believe. At some point in life everyone has experienced the sense of being in the right or wrong place, even if it is just at a party or a friend’s house, where you don´t feel comfortable or, on the contrary, almost like being at home. In the context of our seminar Indigenous Literature from New Zealand – Roots and Routes, we read several secondary texts and other works which discuss misplacement in Māori literature. However, one short story was especially fitting in my opinion for this seminar. “Transient”, written by Kelly Joseph, draws connections between the two main topics of roots and routes. The story specifies those concepts by pointing out that roots do not only refer to your origin but also may highlight a sense of misplacement at the same time.

Misplacement was one of the subtopics in our seminar, yet I must admit that, until we read “Transient”, I never really understood the extent of feeling lost or out of place. Kelly Joseph manages to convey the importance of belonging and roots as anchors within three short pages. She describes the journey of a young woman from Taranaki, wandering through the streets of Manhattan. On her way to the Metropolitan Museum, she encounters a homeless man and gives him some change. Inside the museum she wanders around without a map and comes across an empty waka huia. The protagonist cries for the ‘lost treasure’, which is “out of place in this foreign land” (p. 149). After the same homeless man from the beginning hands her a handkerchief, she makes the deliberate decision of booking a one-way ticket home.

When I started reading the short story, I found it quite sombre. As the first-person narrator describes the “thick humidity” and how “oppressive and disorientating” (p. 147) the setting of Manhattan seems, the reader is able to imagine what the protagonist means with the description of being crushed (cf. p. 147). However, the feeling of misplacement is especially noticeable on page 147, when the protagonist acknowledges: “Now I’m lost.” Further into the story, the protagonist emphasizes a lack of belonging or identification in the context of the “displaced objects” which appear “out of place in this foreign land” (p. 149).

As a teen, I always enjoyed trips to museums since they provided new insights to other cultures and historical periods which we did not experience ourselves. However, based on my undergraduate studies and particularly this seminar, I started to understand more and more that exhibiting objects of foreign cultures is an issue worth investigating further. I started to ponder: “Where do these objects come from?”, “Who gave the museum the right to exhibit it and not return it to its rightful place where it belongs?”. Even though these questions are not answered in the short story, it nevertheeless does provide us with enough insights to understand why we should look upon exhibited cultural objects with more care and consideration.

The perception of the protagonist is that the waka huia (like other exhibited objects) is “lost to its people” (p. 149). They belong to the culture of their people and are out of place in the foreign museum in which they are exhibited. This sense of belonging to a community is also highlighted earlier when she says: “[H]omesickness is not just a longing for a place; it’s a yearning for people” (p. 147). She herself feels like she does not belong where she is right now. As the protagonist and a human being, she has the choice of where she locates herself, even though it has taken her several years to realise the necessary actions she must take to feel at home again. The objects in the exhibition do not have the same sort of agency, which might be a reason for her tears when she grieves for the ‘lost objects’.

As I mentioned earlier, a homeless man hands her a handkerchief as she cries in front of the empty waka huia. This emptiness of the cultural object, which traditionally symbolizes relationships, can be seen as a mirror of the protagonist’s feeling of emptiness and misplacement. The homeless man is the only one who acknowledges her crying and takes action to ease her loneliness. Both characters are seen as outsiders to society, which leads to isolation and a lack of interactions with others. This isolation finds relief when the protagonist acknowledges her unwellness in the last sentence: “The following day I book a one-way ticket home.” Since it is a one-way ticket, it is clear that she does not have any intentions of straying too far from her roots any time soon again.

In the light of what I wrote earlier, more specifically the fact that I was not aware of the range which the sense of misplacement could reach, it is remarkable how thoroughly “Transient” points out and highlights the depth of feelings associated with misplacement and still offers me as the reader to interpret the short story based on my own individual experiences. Disorientating, lost, homesickness are all words that I now associate with this short story. Those words remind me that we belong somewhere, even if the process of realising takes us five years, just as the protagonist of Joseph’s story. However, just like the girl from Taranaki, we have the agency to lead our routes back to our roots. Towards the place where we feel like we belong.