Ostranenie is a theoretical term that was coined by Russian writer and critic Viktor Borisovich Shklovsky. The English translation is “defamiliarization” and roughly stands for the concept of the familiar made strange.
I love ostranenie. That is, I love it when I return to a place and I experience the familiar as strange.
When I recently returned to Newfoundland after being away for half a year in Guyana, Newfoundland was (and still is) strangely unfamiliar, though I have lived here now for about fifteen years. I am able to recognize afresh what is unique about this place, and I am able to enjoy things afresh without the weight and waxing of familiarity and routine.
The first thing that jumped out at me was how beautiful the west coast of Newfoundland really is. Newfoundland is also extremely safe. This combination, though it appears simple, allows for experiences many people cannot have in other places.
Newfoundland is a place of rugged beauty, and, because the province is largely “undeveloped,” there are numerous spots one can head to outdoors to be alone and to simply enjoy nature. In the summer, there are numerous fresh water ponds (lakes) to swim in and many hikes to be had. Swimming here one does not have to worry about predators in the water (there are no piranha or caiman, as there are in Guyana—nothing to worry about at all, in fact), and, though the water is cool in comparison to tropical water, there is also no real water pollution or parasites one must consider. Because of the extreme safety of Newfoundland, one can also wander by oneself or with a friend through the woods (perhaps with a bear bell to scare away any unlikely bears) and enjoy silence and serenity. These are simple things, but they do not come so easily in other places where there are high crime rates, for example, and where one wouldn’t dare walk through lonely areas by oneself or even with another.
What I have also taken for granted is that there is not even any poison ivy in Newfoundland. There are no snakes. There are no diseases such as malaria and dengue, and there is a hospital close by–complete with the trappings of the “developed” world. These are very “simple” things that are luxuries for such places as Guyana.
What also strikes me afresh, though, is the manner in which one can slip into consumerism so easily, and I was also made aware of this during my stopover in Ottawa en route back from Guyana to Newfoundland. I hate the terms “developed” and “undeveloped” worlds (because I think places are developed in different ways and these terms do not account for some very important intricacies), but, if I do employ these terms here to speak of large differences, I have to admit—afresh—that “developed” worlds are very “undeveloped” in terms of waste. While garbage litters the streets of Guyana and is there to see in bold relief, the spending patterns and behaviors of the developed world are so normalized that I think we do not transparently see the waste (both in terms of garbage and frivolity) of the everyday “developed” world. And I find this realization much more problematic than the waste that chokes the streets of Georgetown.
Here, cars cue in heavy lines through coffee drive-thrus (idling in wait for beverages and food items distributed in “disposable” containers), and the parking lots at malls are full of people taking advantage of the cheap prices of products manufactured (as many know) in the sweatshops of “undeveloped” worlds. Garbage is perpetuated on a gross scale, and, with no real evidence of serious recycling endeavors, one can only assume that the majority of garbage is being dumped in landfills and oceans (notably, in relation to the rest of Canada, Newfoundland is very behind in terms of recycling).
I am not so much watching other people, though, as I am watching myself. It scares me how I can so quickly jump into a life again where I don’t question each and every product I buy and how I can normalize spending and buying things without pondering because these activities are just part of “normal” life. At this point in my stage of “defamiliarization” in Newfoundland, where I am still experiencing my home as “strange” and “new,” I am still uncomfortable with these patterns—and my participation in them–and still pondering these differences. I am also wondering what I can do to help keep alive this discomfort and awareness because, without awareness, there can be no change.
Maybe what is needed to evoke change is consistent defamiliarization. Without this (without seeing the strangeness of our own worlds, the worlds to which we belong), complacency and normalization take place. Perhaps that is why travel is so important, because it seems that one cannot understand one’s own world without having some basis of comparison.
It’s like I’m seeing fireweed again for the first time as I drive in Newfoundland. I remember seeing this “weed” about fifteen years ago and marveling at its beauty. Perhaps what we have done to this earth and our planet is irreversible, but, for now, the fireweed (much like Newfoundland’s lupines, which come earlier in the year and look quite like fireweed) keeps growing along the roads here, and they remind me that there are many things worth breaking our patterns of comfort and familiar ways for. They remind me, too, and always will, of my dear friend Al Pittman’s poem “Lupines,” published in his last collection of poetry, Thirty-for-Sixty:
[. . . ] I come upon them suddenly
at a quick twist in the twisted road.
Whatever the weather, they are here
this summer season like a bright ribbon
of light, not quite, but almost
out of sight [. . . ]
(Pittman, from “Lupines,” T-f-S, 13)
Newfoundland’s fireweed and lupines are comparable to Guyana’s lilies. All grow wild and dominate their respective landscapes. Perhaps Guyana’s lilies are not seen as quite so bright as the fireweed or lupines of Newfoundland, shrouded, as the lilies are, by refuse in Guyana’s streets. However, being back in the familiar made strange reminds me that Newfoundland’s flowers, too, could, indeed, be “almost out of sight” if the “developed” patterns of the world keep “developing” and forging “ahead.”