Resolute

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro

A couple of months ago, I started using the Nike running app, and my least favorite part is picking which emoticon to select at the end of my run. I usually select the second- and third-highest “smiley” (just one shy of what is apparently “euphoria,” which is probably an indication that I should be pushing myself more), but I have never once referred back to these to analyze the different conditions that may inch me toward one or the other. It’s too simplistic of a method to chart progress, for although the app syncs with the local weather, it really has no clue how much the whipping wind from the Irish Sea affects my first mile or two. Similarly, although I may enter a relatively happy face because I feel physically good after the run, the little yellow face won’t account for the non-physical issues I’ve been tossing and turning in my mind on a particular day. Mostly, though, I can’t accurately compare my run – the same distance, the same route – to another. This 5-mile route is my only benchmark, and until I stretch out that length or at least huff and puff a little more, I won’t know what any of those frown-y faces on the right of my phone’s screen really mean. Nor will I appreciate the nice and easy little workout I’ve created for myself. (Note to self: It’s never too late to take up New Years resolutions.)

My running route on a particularly day.   :(

My running route on a particularly windy day. 😦

There are some endeavors, however, where I can compare days, instances, and situations because of a consistent baseline. I do enough writing of different genres and lengths to know when one piece deserves an exuberant smile, and I’ve now parented enough days to know when I miss the mark and land squarely on a frustrated sad face. When you do something enough – something that requires constant adjustment to varying circumstances – your arsenal of comparative situations grows.

Juliet Lapidos, an editor at The New York Times, recently penned a manifesto of sorts for The Atlantic simply entitled “Finish That Book!” She lists three good reasons why it’s important to keep up with a book that you’ve started. However, I’d like to add a fourth point: You won’t know what you really like (in literature, or in anything, really) if you can’t articulate what you don’t like.

Not meant to be?

Not meant to be?

I’ve been in a bit of a reading and writing slump. We had a house break-in in mid-October, right before the busy-ness of the Dublin Book Festival and end-of-year festivities kicked in. I was prepped to write about Marilynne Robinson’s new book Lila. (For what it’s worth, I like Housekeeping, her only book not set in Gilead, the best.) A few notes were jotted in a Word document, but then – poof – both my laptop as well as the Kindle I was reading Lila on were snatched, as were any extra concentration and resolve to continue this project’s trajectory. Insert major sad emoticon with tears.

I gave myself an out until January 2015: New Year, New Start. And I ended up picking a book that I had to force myself to finish. Once I realized that I probably wouldn’t change my opinion of this book, I decided that at the very least, I should stick with it until the end to see if anything in particular stood out as a deal-breaker. After all, this book was named Novel of the Year by a large Irish bookseller, and many people thought it breathtaking, including an acquaintance who inspired me to start blogging in the first place. My reading was agonizingly slow, and the sight of me with this book, open but face-down on my lap with a more enticing People magazine in my hands, was a familiar one, I’m sure, to my fellow air passengers, my in-laws, my parents, and my own little family – who continued to see the book lying around our house well in to January. Although each page completed and flicked to the left matched my snippy exasperation, I managed to finish what I initially considered a regrettable first book choice for 2015.

But it turns out that I’m actually quite grateful for reading this particular novel, for the author has been compared to Alice Munro, whose stories I hadn’t read in quite some time. Whereas I felt the novel in question hit a constantly and quietly mournful tone without much emotional texture, no “emoji” can encapsulate Munro’s brain-teasers offered up in her exquisite short stories. So downstairs to our bookshelf I went to pick up a collection of Alice Munro short stories that I had never read.  (For the record, I read Too Much Happiness, although I can also wholeheartedly recommend Dear Life and Dance of the Happy Shades.)

Like Anne Enright, Munro has an astounding ability to combine phrases and words to emote. And I mean, rip right to the base of humans’ often contradicting yearnings and turn-offs. Sorry, Nike, none of your emoticons really represent how I feel after a run (that would be: so-very-glad-it’s-done-but-I-maybe-like-the-thinking-time-plus-health-benefits / completely windswept after running along the sea), but I bet an Alice Munro story could.

How can Munro mine an experience that the majority of us will only gape at via sensational news stories (the first story, “Dimensions”)? Why does she write about childhood cruelty in such vulgar and incomprehensible fashion (“Child’s Play”)? Did she conjure the strange character of Mr. Purvis in “Wenlock Edge” straight from her imagination? I suppose that a reader will never know how forces combined to allow this woman’s “psychologically astute” writing come to fruition.

However, Munro said something interesting in The New Yorker in 2012: “For years and years, I thought that stories were just practice, till I got time to write a novel. Then I found that they were all I could do, and so I faced that.”

Well, that’s far too humble for a Nobel prizewinning author. But it’s also exactly spot on. How do we know what we like, or what we’re good at, if we’re not aware of where shortcomings – either in ourselves or in literary preferences – fall?

Shall we give a big thumbs-up emoticon to that? Happy New Year.

 

Cheers to 2015 and finishing a lot of books!

Cheers to 2015 and finishing a lot of books!

 

 

The More We Read Together, Together, Together

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

The Children Act, by Ian McEwan

Reading: It’s the quintessential “hobby” to add a little pizazz to your bio. Somewhere along the line, it became de rigueur for companies (particularly of the hip start-up variety) to have their employees include whimsical and totally-unrelated-to-their-job tidbits in their bios in an effort, I suppose, to humanize and personalize the faces behind a (hopefully) profit-making enterprise. This is a completely unscientific and totally anecdotal conclusion, but I believe this to be the most common line in a professional bio: “Outside of work, Employee X can be found with a book in hand, enjoying [insert craft beer or designer coffee].” Now, to be fair, the beverage can sometimes be replaced with sporting hobbies (kayaking/climbing/skiing, most likely) or the ever-generic “travel,” but you know what the constant will be the majority of the time? Reading. “You like to read? Hey, I like to read too! I just knew I wanted to do business with this company!”

We're all a bunch of bookworms!

We’re all a bunch of bookworms!

So, we’re a society of “readers,” and contemporary culture has glommed on to this. Take a look at the success of Oprah’s Book Club, the brouhaha that Amazon caused when Kindle was first introduced, and the $15.05 billion in book sales in America in 2013. Notice, too, the number of book clubs in your community or circle of friends. If you’re a woman of any age with the luxury of just a tiny bit of post-workday leisure time, and you haven’t frequented at least one book club meeting, you may be an anomaly. (Why is the converse such an anomaly? I met some neighbors down the road recently and was pleasantly surprised that the husband was a part of a men’s book club.) I love book clubs and am ever grateful that my next-door neighbor invited me to join hers, as it is comprised of a bunch of smart women who choose thoughtful books as well as “supplemental” materials, such as interesting documentaries that we can find on Netflix. It is nothing like this:

But with a culture of book clubs, internet-based publishing, and the domination of large bookstore chains that put what they want us to read front and center, are we choosing what we’re reading based on the experience of reading something “together”? This notion of communal reading can be a great one; Dublin, for instance, hosts a “One City, One Book” initiative every year. But in the years that I’ve been a “reader,” I’ve learned that there are some books that are simply better-designed for group discussion than others, and that sometimes those selections fall flat when read with the intent of individual contemplation and enjoyment.

The Children Act, Ian McEwan’s latest (as well as—surprise!—my book club’s selection for next week), is the perfect book club book. Full of the type of moral and ethical dilemmas that require some mental and emotional gymnastics to unravel, McEwan’s thirteenth novel nonetheless provides an overly tidy look into the institutions of religion and marriage. High Court Judge Fiona Maye must simultaneously balance the potential implosion of her marriage as well as a People magazine-esque case wherein a just-underage Jehovah’s Witness refuses a blood transfusion to treat his leukemia on religious grounds as well as due to the implied pressure from his parents. McEwan deftly weaves these issues together with two rock-solid themes. Here, in lieu of a back-of-the-book discussion guide, are two points to consider at your book club meeting:

First, the concept of “need” arises as soon as the novel opens and Fiona’s husband Jack declares his intent to start an affair with a much-younger colleague: “I need [an affair]. I’m fifty-nine. This is my last shot.” McEwan further describes the man’s “unmet sexual needs.” And then, of course, the title of the book references a piece of 1989 legislation in the UK by the same name, and McEwan takes care to outline the many “needs” of a child: “On the whole, [Fiona] believed in the provisions of family law. In her optimistic moments, she took it as a significant marker in civilisation’s progress, to fix in the statutes the child’s needs above its parents.” Before she hears leukemia patient Adam Henry’s case, she presides over the case of divorced Jewish parents—the father more observant and conservative than the mother—and hears how the man “accused his wife of being unable to separate her own needs from the children’s. What she said they needed was whatever she wanted for herself.” And of course we have Adam, the almost-adult who needs a blood transfusion if he wants to live. The book is ripe for discussion about the idea of “necessity” and where the line falls on the “want versus need” continuum—and whether or not legislation can touch what one determines to be a “need.”

Second, the notion of motherhood colors the novel. McEwan delineates Fiona’s thought process in predictable form. “Yes, her childlessness was a fugue in itself, a flight – this was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist – a flight from her proper destiny. Her failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term.” Is it any wonder that Fiona, therefore, is drawn to Adam’s case? The author seemingly takes a stereotypical notion and inserts it into interactions with the patient, while Fiona probes his relationship with his own parents. To remind readers that Fiona is not a mother but enjoys the younger generation, nieces and nephews of Jack and Fiona make random appearances throughout the book.

Between the discussion of needs and motherhood (and, if your book club would like to take it to the next level, how those two themes intersect), your book club meeting can be a fruitful one. But if you’re looking for some extra guidance, McEwan gives Adam this idea and therefore the perfect trifecta for book club discussion: “And if God, poetry and science all said the same thing, it had to be true, didn’t [Fiona] think?”

All this is not to say that The Children Act is trite. Rather, it touches upon the types of ideas that are appropriate for communal discussion—perhaps best deliberated over an aforementioned pint of craft beer or cup of designer coffee. It’s the sort of book that can bring out the best in readers when we blur the lines of personal and professional by sharing not only our life experiences but the details and facts about how we believe our world to work.

Yet that begs a tree-and-forest question: If a book is absolutely spectacular, but isn’t read with the intent to discuss with others, has it earned acclaim in our “reading” culture?

If a tree falls in the forest...

If a tree falls in the forest…

The ABCs of Changing the Topic

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson

The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, by Jonas Jonasson

About two years ago, when the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) started making waves in America, there was one thing that scared the living daylights out of scores of folks: Socialism. And you know what was even scarier? A place that seemed to encapsulate everything that was wrong with the ACA: Sweden. It sent shivers up people’s spines and became a rallying cry for everything that was going to hell in a handbasket in the United States. #eeeeekpleasenotsweden had the potential to be the hashtag heard around the world. “Sweden” became a synonym for “Socialism” (never mind that, strictly speaking, Sweden is not a Socialist country) and some people’s obsession with the country nearly overshadowed the fact that some people just wanted to talk more about healthcare on a broader level without going into policy or making assertions about what works or what doesn’t.

Let’s call it the Art of Making Something Seem Like It’s About Something Else, or Missing the Point Entirely. In other words, “I’m not talking about A nor B (even though everyone else is discussing A and B)—I want to discuss something entirely different: C.”

Ya sure, ya betcha?

This all looks very sinister and dour...

Mamma Mia! This all looks very sinister and dour…

There seems to be something about Sweden because this C-level discussion is something that Swedish author Jonas Jonasson uses to perfection in his second book, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden. Billed as the “uproariously funny” follow-up to the author’s debut, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window, this book does, in fact, read much like a comedy. Rarely does a book coax guffaws from me, but this one did. But I wonder if I sat down with Jonasson and said, “Hey, thanks for making me laugh!” if he would actually respond with “That wasn’t exactly my intent.”

mrbean

Paging Rowan Atkinson…this book was made for you.

The “A topic” is that the book is a comical global romp in which Mr. Bean would feel right at home. On the surface, a man who gets bitten in half by a hippopotamus, an “illiterate” who has more brains than her bosses, and a boy who shares the same name as his twin brother find themselves in farcical situations. But taken with the facts and back stories behind them—the eaten man is a English missionary, the “illiterate” is a young girl from the slums of Soweto, and the twin has literally been hidden from the world and given his brother’s name as a means to do so—the reader realizes that there is a sick kind of humor in the absurdity of tragic circumstances.

Nombeko, born in Soweto in 1961, really is an “illiterate,” but it turns out that the joke is on everyone else because her brains surpass everyone she encounters. A latrine cleaner who volunteers herself for the vacant manager job, Nombeko is met with this response: “For God’s sake, I can’t very well have a twelve-year-old latrine manager, can I?” When she replies that she is, in fact, fourteen, her boss continues, “Have you started using drugs yet?…Are you pregnant?…Then I suppose you’ve got the job, if you can stay sober.” The quick-fire exchange between the two is so ridiculously satirical that when it dawns on the reader that it actually isn’t, a mixture of sadness over injustice and hope for the underdog arises.

Meanwhile, as Nombeko learns how to read and subsequently teaches herself higher-level math in addition to world history and current events (she figures she should have a sound idea as to why she lives in a shack), a set of twins is born to a Ingmar, a Swedish postal worker who has an unhealthy obsession with the Swedish monarchy, and his wife Henrietta. Ingmar’s desire for a child begins and ends with the notion that either he or his offspring will eradicate the monarchy. So when two children are unexpectedly born, he thanks his lucky stars that the midwife doesn’t get to their home in time and names the children Holger One and Holger Two and pretends to the world that the two boys are one in the same by allowing only one out at a time.

So, “A: Humor”—check.

But is The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden about “B: Geopolitical Commentary”? Yes, it’s about that too. In between 419 pages, Nombeko and Holger Two meet in Sweden all because of an atomic bomb. Jimmy Carter makes an appearance and two Chinese sisters are shipped to Sweden in a crate (along with a bomb). Outlandish? Yes. This is not an easy book to summarize. But in a way, a plot summary is secondary, for I think what Jonasson is partly trying to do here is take a look at what’s going on in our world from a faraway vantage point. How does a girl from Soweto end up in Sweden and alert the POTUS to nuclear weapons? Jonasson uses a knowledge of how our global systems work to create a plot that, in some strange realm, could maybe happen.

The late Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter both make appearances in Jonasson's book

The late Nelson Mandela and former President Jimmy Carter both make appearances in Jonasson’s book

But despite the absurd laughs and veiled statements about the state of our world, the book is poignant and bittersweet, and in my opinion, is really about “C: Humans’ Need to Be Known.” When Holger Two and Nombeko discover a fondness for each other, she realizes that “…in some ways, she existed just as little as he did. Naturally, a person who doesn’t exist does best with someone who also doesn’t exist.” Readers can rave about the author’s clever use of humor or rant about the state of our world reflected in Jonasson’s words, but I’d like to think that the book ultimately sheds light on the universal desire to connect with someone who really “sees” us.

If Jonasson’s ability to use two different methods (the A and the B) to illuminate a greater idea allows us to discuss something more than what’s presented to us, then perhaps we could, in fact, take a cue from Sweden, or at least one of its writers.

On being seen: A Swedish dala horse given to me by my mother-in-law after she heard me mention that they remind me of my grandparents.

On being seen: A Swedish dala horse given to me by my mother-in-law after she heard me mention that they remind me of my grandparents.

 

Measuring Up

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi

About a year ago, my brother-in-law posed a question on Facebook: “Comedians judge each other by The Aristocrats joke. My dad judges chefs by their chicken parm. What unique yardsticks do you have?” In other words, by what metric do you judge something specific? I responded that despite the cliché, I do, in fact, judge a book by its cover. Incidentally, that’s how I ended up purchasing Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi. I’ll readily admit that if a book’s cover doesn’t register aesthetically for me, I’ll have to be convinced about its content. The converse, of course, is that I’ve been burned a time or two by books whose innards don’t match their eye-catching exteriors. By the way, I’m not alone in this fascination: Here’s a piece from The New Yorker about the ins and outs of cover design.

One “unique yardstick” that doesn’t do much for me in the book-acquiring department is the “if you like X, you’ll like Y” list. And that is part of the reason the following endorsement by Marie Claire on the back of Selasi’s debut novel rubbed me the wrong way: “If you are a big fan of Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, then you are bound to love this simmering debut.” Why? Is it because Smith and Adichie, like Selasi, are women of African descent (well, Smith’s mother is Jamaican) who have lived in America and/or the UK? Or because these authors wrestle with matters of race and nationality? These are potential reasons for prompting someone to pick up Ghana Must Go—so say the marketing folks in publishing companies. Review copies of new books, for instance, outline the equivalent of real estate comps when trying to target a potential reader (or, more realistically, nudge the reviewer).

Measuring comps

Measuring Comps

But is the Marie Claire “comp” really a good one? Do readers have “black female authors with ties to Africa, London, and America” as a “unique yardstick”? Perhaps. To be fair, reading novels is one of the finest ways one can begin a journey toward knowledge about a place, an era, or a cultural movement. (In fact, I wrote about fiction as an educational tool here.) So if you’re interested in 21st-century Nigeria and Ghana or migration between these places and Europe and America, these books might be good starting points. Yet in the past year I’ve read Americanah by Adichie and On Beauty by Smith, and despite the similar topical similarities, I found these two books quite different. Whereas, on a broad level, Adichie’s novel deals with the idea of “place” and how people respond differently in different communities (her characterization and illustration of various facets of American culture is impressively spot on), Smith’s book takes a microscopic look at the clashes between two dissimilar families, as well as the clashes between men and women. The aforementioned is how I would quickly summarize these books (two books that are only singular representatives of the novelists’ portfolios, I must add) despite the clear and overarching presence that race, ethnicity, and stereotyping play. As for Ghana Must Go? I feel that, at its core, this is not so much a book about Africa, but a book about one family’s exploration of the genetic grouping and legacy they belong to—an exploration of how the notion of “family” affects its members.

A Smith/Adichie/Selasi mashup?

A Smith/Adichie/Selasi mashup?

Marie Claire’s apparent use of a “unique yardstick” didn’t resonate with me, and I wonder what happens when we use our own imposed methods of judgement not on products and entertainment, but on actual, real-life people—such as, in this case, an author. And further, what happens when we try to fit others’ narratives into the story line that we’d like to see? For all the fascinating yardsticks that we individually employ, the people on the receiving end have the potential to not care one whit how they “measure up.” Interestingly, the author, through her characters, grapples with this concept.

Although Selasi starts the novel with the dramatic fact that Kweku Sai “dies barefoot on a Sunday before sunrise, his slippers by the doorway to the bedroom like dogs,” it is Kweku—father to the four adult children and the ex-wife who comprise the rest of the primary characters—who ultimately dictates how the Sai family functions throughout the book. Arriving to America from Ghana to attend school, Kweku jumps on a promising trajectory: medical resident at Johns Hopkins, renowned surgeon in Boston, and father to four prodigiously gifted offspring. But when some combination of racism, classism, and elitism rears its ugly head, the Sai family—the epitome of “successful immigration”—disseminates. What was, is no longer. And once this nice narrative—one could call it a “yardstick” that people use to judge immigrants—is interrupted, each member of the Sai family struggles with self-definition.

Just as readers (and magazines that provide back-cover blurbs) judge authors and book covers, Selasi takes a look at how society judges one family—and how this family judges themselves and how they flux between fitting the narrative others have spelled out for them and shunning this narrative for one of their own.

Because Kweku’s death—in the courtyard of his self-designed home—occurs in Ghana, the five living members of the Sai family attempt a reunification from their scattered lives: Fola back in Ghana, Olu following his father’s footsteps as a Boston surgeon, Taiwo regrouping after a scandalous affair, artist Kehinide (Taiwo’s twin brother) reemerging from anonymity, and Sadie, far younger than her siblings and ensconced at Yale. And Selasi walks these characters, through flashbacks, through their struggles with understanding “family.”

When reflecting on her life in Nigeria and her subsequent fleeing to Ghana and then departure to America, Fola feels that as a young adult, “Her life until that moment had seemed so original…” But once she arrives in America, she is seen as merely a sketch, “…a thing she recognized (tragic) instead of what she became: a part of history (generic)…That she’d stopped being Folasadé Somayina Savage and had become instead the native of a generic War-Torn Nation.”

And as Kweku is lying in the grass, dying, he thinks about how “There was one basic storyline, which everyone knew, with the few custom endings to choose now and again. Basic: humming grandmas and polycentric dancing and drinks made from tree sap and patriarchy. Custom: boy-child Gets Out, good at science or soccer, dies young, becomes priest, child-soldier or similar.”

The sign of a "real" family?

The sign of a “real” family?

Olu, the eldest son of Kweku and Fola, struggles with feeling proud to follow in his father’s footsteps while simultaneously yearning “…for lineage, for a sense of having descended from faces in frames. That his family was thin in the backbench was troubling; it seemed to suggest they were faking it, false. A legitimate family would have photos on the staircase.” He feels that he and his siblings come from “…a family without gravity, completely unbound.” Years later, as Olu’s future father-in-law withholds his blessing for his daughter Ling who wishes to marry Olu, the surgeon struggles with this man’s characterization of his father as “…a brain without equal but no moral backbone” because Kweku has fled his family. “Abandonment” is what Dr. Wei sees—and how he chooses to judge his daughter’s suitor. And although Olu eventually tells Ling, “I don’t believe in family. I didn’t want a family. I wanted us to be something better than that,” the dutiful son is quick to rebut his future father-in-law: “I’m just like my father. I’m proud to be like him.”

A blend of dissatisfaction about how others judge them and a lack of certainty about what type of metric to use to examine themselves is the ultimate conflict Selasi’s characters confront. I don’t intend to downplay the role Africa plays in the novel: It’s an important part, and the book contains so much action and history that a family tree as well as a pronunciation guide to characters and locations prefaces the first chapter. Yet this feeling of being assessed—while simultaneously being the ones to take stock—permeates Selasi’s writing. While Fola’s children anxiously suss out where they stand in this great narrative of life, their mother determines this: “Whether this house or that one, this passport or that, whether Baltimore or Lagos or Boston or Accra, whether expensive clothes or hand-me-downs or florist or lawyer or life or death—didn’t much matter in the end. If one could die identityless, estranged from all context, then one could live estranged from all context as well.”

Given that thought, I wonder how Selasi feels about Marie Claire’s statement. If it’s possible to rise above context, then maybe our “unique yardsticks” begin to disintegrate.

 

 

 

 

Home, Where My Thought’s Escaping

Women of Sad and Myrrh, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Women of Sand and Myrrh, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Does one need to leave home in order to truly understand what that word means to him or her?

With migration inching its way to “top headline” status in news media around the world, the notion of “home” bubbles into my mind repeatedly. I don’t mean just “immigration,” because one can merely mention that word to someone (particularly an American) and know that a forceful stream of opinion will begin to gush forward. Yes, “migration” is in the news because of debate about immigration to America and Western Europe, but migration also refers to refugees, a general spirit of “multi-culturalism” (when you’re married to someone of a different nationality, you’ve obviously got to choose someplace to live and make roots), the globalization of the world’s economy and where multinational companies are sending their employees, and simple but gradual population shifts. The Wittengenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital recently released an  interactive map showing major migration pathways from 1990 to 2010. Take a look because it is fascinating: The Global Flow of People

Time to migrate

Time to migrate

Do you remember in elementary school when the special treat was watching a film reel, which was even more of a special treat if you were the one to be selected to wheel in the projector from whatever mysterious place housed it? My favorite was a film about the day-to-day living of four families from different continents because I was transfixed by the ways these people lived. And, now, as an adult, this fascination has turned into a real-time issue, because in the literal sense of the word, I, too, am a migrant.

Since moving to Ireland in 2011, the notion of “home” has permeated almost every interaction I have with both people and static things such as the shops I frequent, the way I drive, how I speak, and in the very broadest sense, the way my family and I “do” things. As soon as I open my mouth, one of the first things people ask, of course, is some iteration of “where is home?” What I’ve realized, though, is that besides the way-too-broad reply of “America,” I don’t have a good answer to that question. And this need to go into my entire history (“Well, I grew up in…”) causes me to reflect that “home” is a tricky thing to pin down.

Home, Sweet Home!

Home, Sweet Home!

The recent lapse in blog posts is due to the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks traversing America, visiting a handful of cities—an amalgamation of “home.” On my plane and train journeys, I read Women of Sand and Myrrh by Hanan al-Shaykh, a book I learned about via Arabic Literature (in English). The blog lists another one of al-Skaykh’s other novels (Story of Zahra) as a recommended place to start with English-translated Arabic literature. I had recently reflected that an overwhelming majority of my reading is produced by Western authors, and more specifically, authors from either America or British Commonwealth nations. So I dove in, wanting to learn more about this author. This work is described as a book about four women in an unnamed Gulf community. Women provides a detailed and harsh look at how women search to find their places in a repressive land. But, at its core, I think the book is about the different ways we search for “home,” despite the physical parameters and limits of the community in which one resides.

Women of Sand and Myrrh is divided into four sections, each narrated by a different woman who has found herself in this unnamed city in the desert (but most likely modelled after somewhere in Saudi Arabia). The English translation of the book sequences these women’s stories differently than the original, so I’ll discuss them in the order I read. While I read, I sometimes popped over to Goodreads or Amazon to see what other readers thought; the reviews of this particular book weighed on the more wishy-washy side of things, with a common complaint being that the women al-Shaykh writes are too “dramatic” and “shallow.” What I found, though, is that each woman—however much a caricature—represented a different facet of the notion of “home.”

Home as Place

The book’s first section describes the life of Suha, a Lebanese woman who moves from Beirut with her husband and son. While her husband’s new life revolves around his job, Suha finds expat life stifling: “Like the other women, I’d thrown myself into the life here so that I wouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I’d given up following the news, local or international, and occupied myself with cake recipes, and with finding friends for [my son] Umar…I’d congratulated myself when I’d prepared dinner for five businessmen in an hour…” Suha recognizes that expat life—in this case, she is relegated to compound life, the antithesis the freedom she found in her “real life” home—doesn’t allow the opportunity for her to carve out a “normal” life. For her, home is specifically rooted in place. She thinks, “My desert experience had to be related to the place, not just the people: I determined to try and communicate with my surroundings.” Similarly, the author gives Suha these words: “But the first impression is the most important, because your eye grows accustomed to its surroundings and no longer connects with the mind and the heart in its responses.”

Home as Culture

Unlike Suha, Tamr is from the desert. And although she struggles with the repressive culture, she believes that “A person away from his country and his nearest and dearest isn’t worth a stick of incense. It’s true I was happy abroad. But how I missed it here! I even missed the humidity and the dust and the heat, believe me. And what would they say about me? That I’d run away. For what reason?” Rebelling against a patriarchical society, Tamr has been married three times and proposes a personal hunger strike when her wish for an education is met with rebuke. As she explores more of her country, she “was astonished to find that there existed in my country women like the women in London and Lebanon and Egypt, the kind of women I’d seen on videos.” Yet the push-pull between what Tamr knows (and inherently is) and what she may see as new and exciting results in her understanding that on some level, one cannot choose what home means or looks like and in order to invoke change, one needs to work within the limits and structure of one’s culture.

Home as “Un-Home”

On the other hand, Suzanne, a stereotypical Texan brought to the desert by the same circumstances as Suha, seems to find a sense of home in her utter “otherness.” Seeming to find home—even a temporary or fleeting one—in embracing another culture and straddling the line between foreigner (and curiosity) and citizen, she takes a local lover and endeavors to marry him and infiltrate his life. “The difference between me then and me now was a difference in the way I felt. The world beyond the desert seemed far away. I seemed to be a different Suzanne now…” Out of the cocoon of her former home she realizes that “[she’d] been an ordinary American housewife in the past, washing [her] children’s nappies and enjoying folding them up neatly…[she] never gave a thought to other countries or even to neighbouring states, until [she] talked to Barbara [a neighbor who owned an art gallery]…” In the desert, Suzanne finds a new sort of freedom in herself, and she sees it as an indicator of a new identity—and therefore a new understanding of home.

Home as a Person

Nur, a woman who appears to others as one who “has it all,” is also a local. From Suha’s view, “An odour of permanence emanated from [Nur’s] home…” She is settled in her community, yet unbeknownst to others, she feels untethered. It is through one of the aforementioned women, however, that a sense of home and belonging emerges; in short, Nur looks to people as the means to find the comfort of home. “Plenty of people had occupied that place before her, men and women, but only for a short time, and before I got to know them well.” Finally, however, she seems to find someone who fills this void permanently—the tricky part is determining whether this person seeks the concept of home in the same fashion. “I wished Suha would come to me at that moment, or to be honest, I longed for any human being who would hold me until the first ray of sunlight stretched down through the darkness, but the silence deepened.” Nur is not at home unless the right person is there.

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Despite the sometimes unrealistic portrayals of women (Will a Western woman truly abandon her previous life to move across the globe permanently?), Women of Sand and Myrrh deftly provides a moving look at the many components of this often intangible idea of “home.” Rather than being defined by a mere dot on a map, these women instead draw from the individuals in their community, the visual markers of a location, how a place stacks up to others they’ve known, and a location’s culture as a way to conjure up a feeling of “home, sweet home.”

Do you have to live away from your home of origin to truly understand what “home” really is? In my opinion, yes. In the twenty years that I’ve lived away from the city of my childhood, a more finely tuned sense of what brings me comfort and makes me tick has emerged. And I feel for migrants—as best as I can, given my limited personal knowledge of what that experience may entail—because whether migrating under duress or migrating willingly for new opportunities, abandoning home and conjuring a new one is a simple process to judge from afar, but an intricately knotty one to actually execute.

Where is Home?

Where is Home?