The Comforts of Clutter

The Look 2020

Objects saved and accumulated can be a balm for uncertain times.

Photographs by Leonard Suryajaya

Text by Laila Lalami

Except for my writing desk, where books, manuscripts, index cards and journals are piled in random fashion, I have always disliked clutter. I grew up in a large, chaotic household; at any time of day or night, someone was entertaining a friend or watching television or fixing a snack or hammering at a woodworking project.

The bubbles of activity generated a lot of clutter, which I associated with noise and turbulence. So when I moved out of my parents’ house, I sought out quiet, spare spaces.

This impulse, it turned out, is well-suited for the immigrant’s life. Over the last 30 years, I have lived in a dozen homes in London, Casablanca and Los Angeles, in rented rooms and attic apartments and rambling houses with huge basements. The homes grew or shrank depending on the amount of money in my bank account, my personal entanglements, and my creative or scholarly work, but into and from each of these places I’ve also carried objects that are meaningful to me, markers of a life lived in between countries and cultures.

The accumulation started with small items, whether practical or sentimental, that could fit into the single suitcase I packed when I left home: family photographs; a pair of Moroccan slippers; a hot water bottle; a plaster pot I made in the second grade; my collection of paperbacks from Heinemann’s African Writers Series; a folder filled with every official document I might ever need in order to keep my student visa in good standing.

Over time, the collection grew to include more intimate or more valuable pieces that required careful handling. On my dresser, for instance, I keep my grandmother’s beaded choker, adorned in her tribe’s idiosyncratic patterns; a silver khamsa necklace my mother brought for me on one of her visits; a gold chain with a pearl pendant my sister gave me as a gift the year I graduated from college. Each time I wear one of these pieces, I’m reminded that I come from a long line of powerful women, who’ve met and survived struggles far bigger than my own.

Because I’m a writer, I’ve been particularly drawn to objects that connect me to family stories: My grandfather’s prayer beads, made of polished cedar wood, sit in a bowl on my desk. In moments of anxiety, it soothes me to touch something that I know he touched nearly a century ago. His military discharge certificate, which lists the dates of his service in the French Army during World War I, also hangs on a wall in my office. (I drew inspiration from imagining him on horseback, trudging through unfamiliar territory, as I worked on a historical novel.)

Photographs and family documents are my weakness. Whenever I travel back to Morocco, I ask for photo albums and go through archives, which I scan on my phone or copy into my notebook. I realized a while back that my attachment to these material things was an attempt to hold on to a past from which I feared drifting. A portable history, in the form of family heirlooms or cultural objects, is a balm for the itinerant life of an immigrant.

A few years ago, when my mother wanted to toss out her old coffee and sugar canisters, I held on to them, too. By this time, I had become a mother myself and had given up all hope of avoiding clutter. The tchotchkes I carried from home to home had multiplied: damascene pill boxes, wood coasters, miniature tagines, antique rugs, textiles of all kinds.

But to be an immigrant is to know that, at any moment, we can be uprooted by forces larger than ourselves. In California, where my family and I live now, wildfires have become larger, faster and deadlier in the last 10 years. When the hills blaze up, we know we have to be ready to evacuate, leaving all we have behind.

Last summer, I pinned the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s recommended evacuation list of supplies to the inside of my closet door. In addition to the water, food and medications I’m supposed to pack, I’ve also written down the tangible things I continue to accumulate — relics of the intangible things I want to carry.

Leonard Suryajaya is a visual artist in Chicago. Laila Lalami is the author of several novels including “The Moor’s Account” and, most recently, the essay collection “Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America.”

Photographs taken at South Loop Strength & Conditioning and 13th Flow, two gyms in Chicago.

The Look is a column that examines identity through a visual-first lens. This year, the column is focused on the relationship between American culture and politics in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, produced by Eve Lyons and Tanner Curtis.

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