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This Is the Place
Women Writing About Home
Edited by Margot Kahn
Edited by Kelly McMasters
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What makes a home? What do equality, safety, and politics have to do with it? And why is it so important to us to feel like we belong? In this collection, 30 women writers explore the theme in personal essays about neighbors, marriage, kids, sentimental objects, homelessness, domestic violence, solitude, immigration, gentrification, geography, and more. Contributors — including Amanda Petrusich, Naomi Jackson, Jane Wong, and Jennifer Finney Boylan — lend a diverse range of voices to this subject that remains at the core of our national conversations. Engaging, insightful, and full of hope, This is the Place will make you laugh, cry, and think hard about home, wherever you may find it.
“This collection, encompassing a spectrum of races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, political beliefs and classes, could not be timelier . . . open this book, hear its chorus of voices and remember that we are a nation of individuals, bound to each other by our humanity.” — The New York Times Book Review
” . . . an honest portrait of the U.S., pieced together like an imperfect American quilt. We need more books like this.” — BUST
As women coming of age in the modern era, moving out of our parents’ homes and into spaces of our own was exhilarating and terrifying. We looked to the past, to the homes our mothers and grandmothers had defined for us by example, and we looked forward into something new we were going to create. Our wishes and daydreams were defining not only the kinds of spaces our homes would be, but the kinds of women—wives, partners, mothers, and citizens—we could become.
As we got older, moving out of homes where we thought we’d be forever, or feeling stuck in places we didn’t mean to be for so long, we realized that home is a loaded word, a complex idea: it’s a place that is safe, sentimental, difficult, nourishing, war-torn, and political. There are so many ways to define it: we might have an ancestral home or homeland, and the place we’re living at the moment, and also the place we feel our soul belongs. Home can be a place whose memory remains trapped in our bones, a notion that may be passed down in our very DNA. Home can be where we learn to first understand our place in the world, and a place we return to, again and again, for answers about how to be. Home is a place constantly evolving alongside our concepts of work, family, gender roles, the economy, and the environment. It is a concept worthy of ongoing reflection and renegotiation.
In her essay “On Moving Home,” Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum says of the place she chooses to call home: “I am more myself here… than I could be anywhere else in the world.” This may be the home feeling we seek, most distilled. And yet, as we collected the essays that ultimately make up this book, we realized the work we were reading overwhelmingly contained an electric current of complicated beauty and love, as well as unease, dissatisfaction, and displacement. These are the stories at the core of our sense of being and belonging, and they are not all happily-ever-after.
The majority of these essays are original, written specifically for this anthology, from a collection of women writers who are diverse on many levels: geography, ethnicity, culture, religion, age, sexuality. What we found, despite our differences, were incredible commonalities in the ways we consider home. Indeed, though we did not suggest or expect it, mothers appear in nearly every essay in this book—in these pages, women remember the mothers, grandmothers, and maternal figures who made or unmade homes for them, while other mother-writers reflect on the homes they are making for their families and for themselves.
Other themes circulate, as well. “Home is the language you are loved in,” says Naomi Jackson in “Between My Teeth.” The language in which we are first loved, the language in which we dream, the accents, aphorisms, songs, and silences we associate with home never leave us, even if the actual language does: for instance, in “A Family Business,” Jane Wong remembers growing up in her parents’ Chinese American restaurant, saying “hello in Cantonese because you haven’t forgotten your language yet.” Danielle Geller’s “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary” takes on formalized language as a way to marshal facts and memory, using the rigidity of an institutionalized format to tell the story of her home in a new way.
Moving—moving out, moving in, moving across the country, moving across continents, and simply being on the move—was another constant source of storytelling. Sarah Viren contemplates the comfort and confusion of returning to a place she’s lived before in “Some Notes on Our Cyclical Nature;” and Tara Conklin’s “The Explorer” interrogates that space between the urge for adventure and the tension of staying still. Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas (“Allá En La Fuente”) confronts a flawed view of her homeland Colombia while in Iowa; as a little girl sitting in a church pew in North Carolina, Hasanthika Sirisena (“Of Pallu and Pottu”) imagines the ways her mother’s new life compares to her old in Sri Lanka. Desiree Cooper describes the ghosts that follow a tight military family through their many moves in “Away from Dangerous Things,” reminding us that ultimately, “Home is culture, tradition, and memory—not mortar.”
Jennifer Finney Boylan celebrates the freedom of choosing to return home or not for the holidays in “Freeing Thanksgiving from My Family,” while in “Subjunctive” Naima Coster explores the inevitability of certain patterns laid out by the family history that precedes us. In many instances, moving is not a choice, but a necessity: in her essay “The Stars Remain,” about her childhood in El Salvador, Claudia Castro Luna remembers, “On a windy afternoon Mami comes home and tells us that our petition for US Resident Status has been approved. To leave means survival.”
Landscape becomes story in many pieces, from Terry Tempest Williams’s political land purchases in “Keeping My Fossil Fuel in the Ground” to Miranda Weiss’s choice to raise her family in far-flung Alaska in “Cold, Comfort.” In Pam Houston’s essay “The Sound of Horse Teeth on Hay in the Snow,” a snowed-in ranch that seems like a dangerous setting to others offers only peace and insulation, while Leigh Newman’s Brooklyn garden becomes the unexpected center for intersecting lives in “Vesica Piscis.” Elissa Washuta, in “Undergraduate Admissions Essay Draft,” charts the experience of leaving home for college, illustrating the transition by the absence of the home landscape she’d taken for granted: “I didn’t know, then, that there were places without crickets, without mothers.”
In many ways, a home can be defined by the objects we choose to live alongside us, but sometimes those objects wind up defining home for us. In “The Inheritance,” Elisabeth Eaves describes the way an object can contain both person and place when losing a home is helixed with losing a loved one. Akiko Busch artfully links objects to the ways in which we build home and the ways objects remain even as home changes in “Home in Four Acts,” while in “The Privilege Button,” a simple garage-door opener triggers Maya Jewell Zeller’s conflicted emotions of her personal history moving from homeless to homeowner.
Home can also be a dangerous place, as we learn in Amanda Petrusich’s eerily comforting essay about growing up in the shadow of the Indian Point nuclear power plant and Dani Shapiro’s masterfully terrifying essay “Plane Crash Theory.” While the idea of home carries with it the notion of safety, or at least the hope of it, in reality home is also often the place where we were first afraid, as depicted in Catina Bacote’s “We Carried Ourselves Like Villagers.” Home can also be the place we were pushed past our limits, where we were betrayed, exposed, left in the cold, or, simply, left. As in Debra Gwartney’s searing essay “Broken Home,” home can also be mistaken for a safe harbor, until the day we realize that it is achingly impossible to keep any place truly safe, for ourselves, and sometimes, for those we love.
Like the rooms within a house, the essays in this collection inhabit the inner space: the thoughts, memories, emotions, questions, and meditations with which we envision and embody the idea of home. In this regard, it is not surprising that these essays connect to so many of the issues now at the forefront of our conversations: immigration, gender equality, sexual and family violence, homelessness, and poverty. It is no accident that we open the collection standing in the kitchen with Kate Lebo, “Here.” Imagining home, creating home, staying home, and leaving home—whether to go to work every day, or leaving a household or homeland for good—are all political acts for women. We rejoice in this; it makes us powerful. We hope you feel the same.
—Margot Kahn & Kelly McMasters
My personal, artistic, and professional lives are tangled most stubbornly where the kitchen table meets the kitchen wall and window. From there I can walk 72 inches to the sink to wash a mug, 48 inches to the stove to heat the percolator. Swivel 180 degrees to retrieve milk from the fridge, go on tiptoe to reach the microwave that heats my milk. Then turn back around and walk 12 inches to the table, pour coffee into milk, tease a skin of scalded protein off the top with a fingernail, and walk 24 inches to my kitchen chair. There I will eat, drink, talk on the phone, look out the window, resist the urge to check Facebook—which requires a 72-inch walk into another room—and write and write.
I have made my life, quite literally and with onions, in this kitchen. If every time I walked the kitchen I left a trail of silk like a spider, I could fall asleep between the stove and the fridge in a homespun hammock.
My neighborhood has become the sort of place Sunset magazine writes articles about, a land where 50 percent rent hikes are mean, but not crazy. If my landlord and I have one thing in common it’s that we both need to make more money. That’s why in thirty days I must leave this kitchen.
After I lose my apartment my friend says, “This is what thirty looks like?” She just lost her job. She’s thinking about moving to New York.
When my mother was thirty, she moved for the fifth time in five years to follow my father to another job. She was pregnant. I was two. That was the year my friend’s mother would move from Mexico City to Miami, where she would divorce her husband and raise two children alone.
“Apparently.” I make a comparison to help us feel better: “Except for husbands and children, our mothers’ lives looked like this too.”
I have planted a garden. I have harvested rhubarb, herbs, and radishes. The rest of my seeds are start-sized, tender.
Here is where I stirred pots, moved pens, read poems, all without boyfriend or husband or children. I was lonely here, happy here, caught between cabin fever and deep peace. Here is where, as my neighbor once said, I was my own man.
Kate Lebo is the author of Pie School and A Commonplace Book of Pie, and co-editor (with Samuel Ligon) of Pie & Whiskey, an anthology of writers under the influence of butter and booze. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best New Poets, New England Review, Gettysburg Review, and Gastronomica, among other places. Her new book of nonfiction, The Book of Difficult Fruit, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She lives in Spokane, Washington.
Away from Dangerous Things
One night in 1942, when my mother, Bobbie, was only nine years old, the walls of her family’s tiny, wood-frame house began to shudder. Her heart thrashing, she jumped up in the bed. Beside her on the bumpy, thin mattress lay her mother, deep under the spell of slumbered grief.
“Mommy?” Bobbie whispered. “Do you hear that?”
At first, the sound was like the rumble of the Norfolk Southern making its midnight run through Waverly, Virginia, a depot town of barely a thousand people. But then, it gathered into something more discrete—a furious pounding like a crew of carpenters at work. Hammer against nail. Saw against grain. Hinge against jamb. Anger against regret.
“Junious?” Her mother sat up in the bed, pulling Bobbie close. “What you doin’ in the kitchen?”
Neither mother nor daughter stopped to question that it was anybody but Junious, now four days dead. Nor did they question that he would be in the kitchen, in the thick of the night, raising holy hell.
Bobbie heard her father’s disembodied voice rasping from the back of the house. “Stay in the bed!” he commanded. Terrified, she whimpered as her mother held her tight.
This was not Junious’s first visitation. Since his death, he had come in the darkness and rocked their bed like a dinghy on the open sea. He had pulled fresh clothes off the line and strewn them across the backyard. He’d caused the naked light bulbs to blink off and on. Now he was in the kitchen, banging furiously on the back door.
Decades later, my mother would tell me this story like it was a testimony. By then, she was a long way from the little girl cowering in her mother’s bed, listening to her father’s ghost rage through the night. But she never lost her belief that her kin could visit from the other side, bringing with them signs and omens, protection and advice. The night that her dead father hammered in the kitchen was no exception. Later that day, they heard from the neighbors that there had been a thief on the prowl on the Rural Route 40. He had stolen corn from bins, the Stokleys’ good ax, and hams from the Johnson’s smokehouse. But no one had bothered the widow and her little girl, Bobbie, even though they had fallen asleep with their kitchen door unlocked.
My mother believed her father had come to hammer their door shut and keep them safe. The neighbors called it a miracle.
When Bobbie was twenty-one, she married my dad, Willie, in a civil ceremony in Connecticut. They had been neighbors in Waverly since they were six years old. Despite their deep roots in the sawmill town tucked in the Virginia Piedmont, neither ever doubted that they would one day escape its clutches. My dad’s ticket came in the form of a football scholarship to North Carolina A & T in 1952. When he was cut from the team after his second year, he joined the air force to continue his education. My mom did what many women did back then—she went to college to find a husband. But after two years, she ended up marrying the boy next door.
They say that fleas, when captured in a jar, will eventually stop trying to escape even after the lid is removed. I often think of this in contrast to the human spirit, which can continue to push against what appears to be an airtight reality, against all odds. To this day, I marvel that two young people who grew up under the oppression of the Jim Crow South would even imagine that they had a right to be citizens of the world. But my parents did. Within four years of my dad enlisting, they found themselves a black couple in post-war Japan, expecting their first child, far away from the comforts and terrors of their native Virginia.
It’s not accurate to say that I was “homeless” most of my childhood, even though we lived in Japan (three different times), Texas, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Virginia, all before my fourteenth birthday. Not even the word “nomad” works, since nomads often carry their homes with them. Perhaps we were more like immigrants who leave everything behind but their most prized possessions and their roots.
Like those immigrants, my parents knew that they didn’t have to own a home to make one. Home is culture, tradition, and memory—not mortar. For my mother, that meant carving out a routine as reliable as an atomic clock, building a universe of belonging around my brother and me. With each move, she furiously stamped her imprimatur upon the cookie-cutter military base housing, making each place unmistakably ours. She adorned the walls with her framed needlework and hung my father’s painting of Jesus—with long, dark hair, brown eyes and tanned skin—to bless our dining room table. She filled the air with the aromas of her Southern cooking, especially on Sundays, when the table was lavishly spread with roasts and potatoes, gravies and collards, pound cake and the sweetest tea on earth.
She was the Kool-Aid mom, and ours was the house where our friends were welcome. She was the Girl Scout leader and den mother; my father coached my brother’s baseball teams. Long after we should have outgrown them, my brother and I are still partial to taking Sunday drives.
We were a team when we were traveling, like astronauts cocooned in a capsule, as we crisscrossed the country three times before I was ten. My dad always seemed to sit a bit taller when he was behind the wheel of his Buick (the only brand he’d ever drive), taking us sightseeing around the base or venturing off-base to the markets, or Shinto temples, or White Sands or ancient desert caverns or the Rocky Mountains or the Atlantic. He was always on the lookout for the mighty forces of man and nature, pointing to a suspension bridge or a fighter jet or water tumbling over shorn cliffs, and saying to us, “That’s a dangerous thing!”
My brother delighted at the hint of threat. At an Okinawan festival, he’d watch a habu (a deadly Asian serpent) attack a weasely mongoose or gargantuan Sumo wrestlers face off on television and ask my dad, “Is that a dangerous thing?” My dad would laugh and nod. For us, dangerous things were strangely reassuring, as long as they loomed outside of the fortress of our family—the way listening to thunder as you snuggle beneath the covers can make you feel both lucky and safe.
Not counting Christmas, moving day was the most exciting day of the year. When the van would pull up into the driveway, my brother and I would be as giddy as ferrets. After school, we couldn’t run home fast enough to push open the door and squeal through a completely empty house. The size of the rooms doubled in their emptiness, and the stripped walls threw back our voices.
As we got older, moving meant a time for reinvention, a chance to reset our lives. When we move to Florida, I’m going to ask mom if I can do my own hair. I’m going to start a babysitting business in Virginia. When I get to the States, I’m going to learn how to dance.
Of course, there was the grief of leaving behind all that had become familiar. My last day at school would be full of hugs and tears and signatures in slam books like “Stay sweet and crazy. Friends forever.” But the sadness was always tempered by the extraordinary realization that I had best friends all over the world. I just hadn’t met them yet.
Wherever we went, I knew it would be home in no time at all.
Now, I have resided in Michigan for thirty years. It’s where I became a writer, a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. My children have lived their entire lives in the same town with their aunts, uncles, and grandparents just one house away. They are still in touch with their kindergarten best friends. They have roots. I guess that means that after all of my girlhood travels, I am finally rooted, too.
Yet, I still have a moment of hesitation when people ask me where I’m from. Am I from Japan, the country of my birth and the place I spent the bulk of my childhood? Am I from Detroit, which has been home to me for three decades? Or is it Virginia, where my lineage seeps down into the soil, and where my heart keeps migrating in my dreams?
Over the past six years I’ve moved four times, each time with fewer belongings in tow. At fifty-six, the moves have not been filled with the excitement that I felt when I was a little girl. They have been stressful and anxiety-ridden, precipitated by divorce, unemployment, foreclosure, and family demands. Each unmooring has felt more like amputation than opportunity. Now I think, I’m too old for this.
My parents, however, have stopped moving. For all of their desire to escape Virginia, they returned in 1974 when my dad retired from the air force. For the past forty years, they have lived just an hour from Waverly. They are salmon who, after battling upstream most of their lives, have returned to the river of their birth.
Now in their eighties, they are clinging to their independence. My father is making a go of it, but his short-term memory has trapped him in a constant loop of remembering and forgetting.
My mother is living, once again, with ghosts. She sees her mother’s face come alive in pictures on the wall. Strange figures enter her room at night to loom over her bed. Children she doesn’t recognize scale the steeples of pines in the backyard. As her life gets emptier, the spirits are crowding. This time, they haven’t come to save her.
Dementia, it turns out, is the one dangerous thing that has finally penetrated the sanctum of their home.
I go to check on them often. During a recent visit, my mother suddenly gasped as we were watching TV. I gazed at her expectantly to see what she was going to say. These days, sudden memories and secrets tumble out as her mind wanders, uninhibited. I braced myself, but she said nothing as she looked around the den wide-eyed.
The room has remained pretty much unchanged since I was in high school. The elm coffee table and matching end tables came with them from Japan, replete with inlaid marble and three-dimensional carvings of feudal life. Over the sofa hangs my mother’s framed needlework, a peacock with a fan of magnificent feathers. The fireplace is adorned with figurines, pottery, and silk flowers. Every other wall in the room is plastered with family pictures that go back as far as my great-grandmother’s generation.
Only a couple of pictures survive from my mother’s childhood. The largest is one of little Bobbie and her father Junious at the county fair the year he died. His eyes are wide and all-seeing, but his spirit is silent. There is no hammering at the back door, no furious warnings in the night.
As we sat there, my mother gazed at her ark of memories, all of her beloved tchotchkes. Then she turned to me, her eyes as scared and lonely as a lost child’s.
“Whose place is this?” she asked. “When are we going home?”
Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize–nominated journalist, and Detroit community activist whose fiction dives unflinchingly into the intersection of racism and sexism. Her first book, Know the Mother, was published in 2016. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers, and was a 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow.
A Family Business
How to lob an egg into a parking lot: Wait until it’s dark, settled-in dark, not sunset dark, say, 9 p.m. The sound of breaking is better when you can’t see it happen. When your father isn’t looking, go to the fridge and steal two eggs from the bottom of the carton stack and wrap them in a small towel, folding the towel like you would an origami cup. Sneak out through the back of the restaurant, mind the potholes, and circle around front to the parking lot. Unfold the towel and give your little brother one egg. When he says the egg is too cold and smells rotten like unbrushed teeth, tell him to shut up. Ground your heels into the gravel, as you imagine baseball pitchers do to gain traction. Give all your anger up to the egg. Breathe your hot breath on it. Hold it up to the sky like an offering, a sacrifice, this careful thing that could have grown into something else. Tell your brother there is nothing to be afraid of. Tell him to stop shaking. With your arm bent back at 45 degrees, hurl the egg high into the air, into an arch any city would welcome as a bridge. Hurl the egg and do not think about anything—not about how your father disappears for weeks to gamble in Atlantic City, not about how your mother crushes cockroaches with her fist—no, nothing at all. You must give the egg all of it. You can open your eyes or close them; it won’t matter since you won’t see it land. But, you will hear it. You will hear your brother squeal like a pig at mealtime. You will hear the splat—the crepuscular glob of the yolk spreading across the hood of a car. Poor car, you’ll think, poor, stupid car.
How to lock your brother in the meat freezer: Say the following with love and intention:
“You won’t even last five minutes.”
“It’s 100 degrees outside.”
“Mommy said you have to get the spareribs.”
“Look, I can see my breath in here. Huuuuh-huhhh.”
“I’ll give you five dollars.”
“Let’s go to Alaska.”
“You aren’t afraid, are you?”
How to be in Alaska: You live on the other coast, the Jersey side, and the wildest thing you’ve ever seen was a goose eating chips at the beach. But in the velvet cold of winter, in sad February, you can escape anywhere. You can be transported to the other side of the country. To travel, you must wait until closing time, around 11 p.m. when the parking lot empties and your mother begins shaking the ants out of the MSG bin. Pull on your boots and grab two brooms from the supply closet and run outside. Ask your brother where he’d like to go. Alaska, he’ll say, arms high in the air as if a puffin would adopt him any second. Earlier, at lonely 5 a.m., before you woke up, a snowplow’s jaw pushed all the snow from the lot up against the street lamps. Take your brother’s arm and give him a broom, bristle side-up. Don’t ruin the expedition, you’ll say, or I’ll send you back to Jersey. As if Jersey was punishment enough. With the alien light of an Alaskan sun, dig the end of the broom into the hard snow—a mix of ice, gravel, and car oil. Climb up the mound, declaring coordinates along the way. 64.2008°N, 149.4937°W! At the top, sit with your little brother, your back against the street lamp, the bare warmth of electricity running through this conduit, this lifeline. Close your eyes, frost thickening along your lashes. Imagine what it feels like to be so far away from home. To leave this strip mall, this state, this way of life. Imagine traveling to places beyond Alaska—Hong Kong, Seoul, Cairo, St. Petersburg. Vow to leave Jersey the instant you graduate high school; link your two pinky fingers together and promise yourself to leave. As you fall asleep, surrounded by glaciers and your mother’s sharp voice slicing through the ice, your brother declares everything he wants to see right now: sand, yak, mud, ice, caribou, polar bear, volcano, fox, rainbow fish, ants, ants, ants.
How to pretend to fall asleep so your mother picks you up:
- "The concept of home has certainly evolved beyond a mother haloed in cake flour making home pleasant, as evidenced by the 30 essays in "This Is the Place," edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters. This collection, encompassing a spectrum of races, ethnicities, religions, sexualities, political beliefs and classes, could not be timelier. ...open this book, hear its chorus of voices and remember that we are a nation of individuals, bound to each other by our humanity."—The New York Times Book Review
"If only creating a home were as simple as creating a homepage! This Is the Place beautifully and poignantly explores the many complicated feelings that the concept of home evokes in all of us. A must read for any modern woman, wife, daughter, or mother."-Randi Zuckerberg, best-selling author of Dot Complicated
"An exquisite collection. Whether it be a moving target or a constant, a place of fondness or melancholy, these women look at what we call home, and the roles we have played within it, from every perspective imaginable. This book will inspire you to ponder what your home has been and is-a provocative and worthy pursuit." -Shawn Colvin, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter
"A marvelous collection of original essays that testify to the centrality of home as a place where fantasy and reality collide. Reading the book was like witnessing a series of wrestling matches-the author versus chaos, versus anxiety, versus expectations and finally versus reality. A multi-layered and satisfying anthology of original work."-Thomas Beller, New Yorker contributor and author of J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
- "This Is the Place allows some of America's brightest female writers to explore the often complex and contradictory emotions they have about perhaps the single most emotionally charged word in the English language: home."—New York Journal of Books
- "The essays 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."—BUST.com
- "Rich, thoughtful"—Toronto Star
- "The authors of the pieces in this rich collection reveal fresh approaches to making sense of our culture...Their voices help make sense of where we are going, and also where we stay."—Santa Fe New Mexican
- On Sale
- Nov 14, 2017
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Seal Press