There’s no place like home. Like the yellow brick road Dorothy travels, only to discover Kansas is the only home for her, we all take our own journeys in life. Some find no comfort in their Kansas and desperately flee home, trying to find Oz, wishing it lives up to the fairytale — instead of discovering it’s only a smokescreen. Home takes on numerous meanings, and in This Is The Place: Women Writing About Home, a book edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, thirty women writers explore an array of possibilities for the loaded term. The book pulls together so many distinct perspectives in exploring the theme of home that the collection’s pure poetry.
In their essays about home, various writers approach the idea of home as a tension between comfort and discomfort. Some writers never felt at home in their childhood homes and attempt to escape humble — or not-so-humble — beginnings. In “The Privilege Button,” Maya Jewell Zeller discusses moving to the suburbs in a house that afforded her way more than she needed, and the privileged life she'll never feel at ease with because she grew up in poverty and has always lived well within her means. Zeller ponders her struggles with letting go of the past to embrace her new lifestyle, and questions how to relax the tension that comes with trying to reconcile the two.
On the flip side, Sonya Chung’s “Size Matters” examines the writer’s comfort living and working at home in a tiny NYC apartment — that is the perfect size for her. She finds solace in the small space, after growing up in a home too big to allow closeness and warmth in a family home ruled by an angry, inaccessible father. Chung explores living large versus small, and all the comforts she finds in the latter. She writes:
How much space do you really need? What you need and what I need are different. In a small space, however, the question must be asked, over and over again. The persistence of the question is the thing. In 450 square feet, there is no auto-pilot, no passive accumulations or retreating into your pod. You have to — I won’t shy away from the word — curate your life; the result of which is more likely to be beautiful, truthful, healthy. Whatever it is, you are always, every day, figuring it out. Together.
Tiny living often places emphasis on sustainability, an ideology that other writers explore through the theme of home as both a community and global issue. In “Nuclear Family,” Amanda Petrusich talks about growing up in the community that homed the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant located about thirty miles away from New York City, which was considered a terror target post-9/11 and has the potential to wreak havoc on millions of people if an earthquake were ever to hit the area. That essay precedes Terry Tempest Williams’ “Keeping My Fossil Fuel in the Ground,” where the writer buys auctioned-off land around her home in Utah to protest — and protect it from — the drilling of fossil fuels. These stories explore the earth as everyone’s home — a home to be cared for and preserved.
For other writers, thanks to atrocities like colonialism and racism, the United States has never been a safe, stable home. In her essay “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary,” Danielle Geller annotates dictionary entries with relevant stories from her life, family, and tribe’s history in an artfully crafted literary nonfiction style. She discusses complex issues the Navajo tribe has to suffer through in the U.S., as a result of having their homes stolen from them, their communities destroyed, their people killed, with none of the protections most non-native citizens are afforded. These stories are often told, yet so rarely heard.
Similarly, in “We Carried Ourselves Like Villagers,” Catina Bacote revisits Eastern Circle — the projects in New Haven where she grew up — as an adult, which had been gutted and changed completely, as if razing people’s homes cleanses the world of racism. Her grandfather, known as Dada by all, was murdered while protecting residents from gang members. In its heyday, Eastern Circle had a mural memorializing Dada and other lost community members. But the mural, like everything else, was destroyed, in a devastatingly normal attempt to erase history. Bacote writes:
The city, like the nation, stamps the past with one battle or another. Statues are built to remember the fallen, to honor sacrifices, to recognize all the terrible losses, and I think there should be a marker for those who died in Eastern Circle, something more lasting than the mural that was painted on the brick wall. I can’t imagine a shrine or a heroic bust but I can envision a stone pillar etched with the story of what happened—and acknowledgment of the drug epidemic that swept the country and ravaged our community. It would make it harder for the violence to be forgotten, or denied, or justified, or diminished. I’d hold it in my mind as a stark contrast to all the monuments that put forward the idea that American splendor and victories serve everyone to the same degree.
The essay serves as a powerful conclusion to “This is the Place” — and a harsh reality that too many Americans don’t want to talk about, and too many others have to suffer through every day. But conversations need to happen, and more of these stories need to be told. Just like "home," "the U.S." is a loaded term, meaning so many things to so many different people that live here. Yet, the essays in “This is the Place” come together to show an honest portrait of the U.S., pieced together like an imperfect American quilt. In reading these stories, and finding the common ground that is shared in our concepts of home, it’s easier to see beyond the differences — and to see the bigger picture. We need more books like “This is the Place” in the world, to remind us of the humanity amid all the chaos.
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Crystal Erickson is a writer, blogger, copy editor and proofreader. Off the clock, she freestyles cat-themed raps to Cat Mulder, watches campy horror movies, and talks to plants. You can follow her on Facebook.