This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home
“. . . love, I suppose, is the single prerequisite for feeling at home.”
The knotty topic of women and home has been approached often, both with sensitivity and blunt force. Are women the repository of “home”? Is gender destiny in defining what is and is not adequate shelter? Do women dwell more deeply within the places that should provide shelter? Is social construct the true architect of female destiny? Are women prisoners within a gilded cage or designers of their own nirvana?
In a series of essays, some searing and some melancholy, 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.
Edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, themselves contributors to this volume, This Is the Place doesn’t take an overarching stance on what is and isn’t home. Instead, the individual writers are free to explore their own ambivalence over what home means to them. Without the editors dividing the essays, the writers themselves seem to write in a few loose categories: home as location, home as feeling, home as a political act.
Home as location is an important theme to writers like Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum and Leigh Newman. Both women write of feelings of disassociation and loss when separated from their original homes. Though both live outwardly fruitful lives outside of major U.S. cities, they pine for their past. Sundberg Lunstrum in “On Moving Home” and her family deal with her feelings of loss by returning to the Pacific Northwest. “Home, I’ve discovered, is not something that can be made anywhere; for me, at least, it is a definite and fixed point, a holy center, and I am more myself here in that center than I could be anywhere else in the world,” she writes.
In “Vesica Piscis” Newman deals with her pain differently: She descends into depression, writing of her home, “I just did not—and do not—love it, and love, I suppose, is the single prerequisite for feeling at home.” Eventually she learns to live out her rural fantasies in her suburban garden, but there is never the sense that she is truly settled.
Home as a feeling is celebrated by writers such as Desiree Cooper and KaiLea Wallin. During a childhood and adolescence marked by many moves, necessitated by her father’s Air Force career, Cooper learned to thrive with change. This was possible, she intimates in “Away From Dangerous Things,” because her family created a harmonious nest wherever they went. “Home is culture, tradition, and memory, not mortar,” Cooper sings as her personal truth, and her home was about familiar routines and tchotchkes, food lovingly prepared from old family recipes, family time spent together, no matter the geography of the physical home. Wallin finds similar comfort in her small family, husband and child, traveling seasonally between their ‘real’ home in the US and their floating home off the coast of Mexico.
Home as a political act is a powerful category of This Is the Place, and where the toughest conundrums dwell. Editor Margot Kahn seems to be the most conflicted writer of this collection of essays. In “In the Kitchen” Kahn ruminates on the stress many American women feel when it comes to the home. On one hand, she finds great joy in the small moments of her life, ending the essay with a picture of her washing dishes and listening to joyful bathtime giggles between her husband and their child.
On the other, Kahn points out, women’s dreams are often shackled by expectations that they will eventually be responsible for children and schedules: “Professions for women, so far as I understood, were best when they were flexible and ended early enough in the day to pick children up from school, to have summers off.” She cries out against, “This . . . strange middle step of an idea, the approval of a woman’s freedom while keeping her imprisoned, tethered, powerless.”
Hasanthika Sirisena, in “Of Pallu and Pottu,” admires her mother for removing her daughters from constrictive Sri Lankan culture, after initially scorning her for falling into the role of homemaker and mother. “What I didn’t understand then, what I see now, is that home is a political act. How can it not be when so many ideological, religious, and nationalist movements use home as the fundamental building block of social and cultural identity?”
Claudia Castro Luna in “The Stars Remain,” and Danielle Geller in “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary,” tread similar territory in their individual examinations of what home means when your life is threatened, Luna from the perspective of an immigrant to America and Geller as a Native American, a class of permanent “foreigners” on U.S. shores. All the essays mentioned are powerful and resonate.
This Is the Place is a well-curated group of essays, with many moments of insight into different lives. It is a bit top-heavy in stories from the Pacific Northwest and New York City and adjacent areas (there are other areas in the U.S., writers and editors), but Kahn and McMasters have collected a variety of stories and are shining a light on myriad experiences. This is a thoughtful book, and well worth the time it takes to read the essays, either individually or en masse.