Women Write of Home, and a Woman’s Place in It

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A review by Elissa Schappell for the New York Times.

THIS IS THE PLACE 
Women Writing About Home
Edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters
317 pp. Seal Press. Paperback, $16.99.

In the cemetery behind my childhood church was a modest gravestone that read: Mother, She Made Home Pleasant. My family found this hilarious. Pleasant? That’s all? 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. The typical American household — mother, father, two swell kids, a two-story with a white picket fence — has burned to the ground, and with it any simple definition of “home.” Today, domesticity is plagued by an economic uncertainty that sees adult children flying back to the nest, homeless families forced to live out of their cars and hardworking immigrant families under threat of deportation by a hostile administration.

While it has always been both the birthright and burden of women to not only make and maintain a home but also attend to the physical and emotional needs of its inhabitants — often at some sacrifice to themselves — these far-reaching and compelling essays go beyond time-honored examinations of gender and motherhood.

For these writers, home is much more than a set of coordinates. As the editors suggest in their introduction, home is where we were made, where we are most ourselves. It’s our mother tongue, our homeland; it’s our people, or just one person. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Where Thou art — that — is Home.” It’s the place we go back to. In the words of the irascible Robert Frost, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.”

In “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary,” the Navajo writer Danielle Geller translates the language of her mother’s native tribe alongside footnotes detailing a multigenerational history of sexual assault and domestic abuse, wondering if that history must define her people. “Do we finish the story our mothers began, or do we rip out the weaving and begin anew?” Danger of another sort lurks in Amanda Petrusich’s essay “Nuclear Family.” Her hometown, Buchanan, N.Y., is also the site of the Indian Point nuclear power plant. Despite the increasing threat that an earthquake or terrorist attack might trigger a meltdown, her family chooses to stay. Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas, a native of Bogotá, Colombia, and the child of middle-class, educated parents, bristles at the reaction strangers too often have when they find out she’s Colombian: assuming that she hobnobs with drug lords and smugglers. Alaska native and Brooklyn transplant Leigh Newman confronts the chronic pain of dislocation. “There are places that feel like home and places that feel like where you live,” she writes. “The home-feeling ones ruin you for life.”

For Pam Houston, who grew up in the Northeast terrorized by a violent father whose drunken rages drove her to seek shelter in the dryer, being snowed in on her isolated Colorado ranch surrounded by her dogs, horses, donkeys and a cat is where she feels the freest, safest and most loved.

The naturalist and activist Terry Tempest Williams fights to preserve her Utah roots by buying up parcels of federal public land at auction to prevent the oilmen from drilling there.

For some of the writers, first or second-generation immigrants, home is linked to language. Naomi Jackson, in her marvelous celebration of her Caribbean roots, writes, “Home is the language you are loved in.” For Jane Wong, who suffered her adolescence working in her parents’ Chinese restaurant in a New Jersey strip mall, this language is Cantonese.

It should come as no surprise that many of these essays speak to the sacrifices mothers make, often solo, crossing an ocean to secure a better future for their children or saving themselves and their kids by leaving a deadbeat husband. But sometimes a mother can’t protect her children, as the single parent Debra Gwartney discovered when her four daughters were targeted by a pedophile. The realization that the security they felt at home was just an illusion breaks the family apart.

Anthologies suffer when the cast of featured writers is as familiar as the cast of “Cats.” To their credit, McMasters and Kahn do not trumpet the diverse backgrounds of the authors they are lucky enough to publish — and they might have; the d-word has been tossed around so much it’s become threadbare. It is far more powerful to open this book, hear its chorus of voices and remember that we are a nation of individuals, bound to each other by our humanity.

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