So entrenched in our most intimate yearnings, home often seems as if it were some universal truth, like it says in all those sayings, home is where the heart is, home is where you hang your hat, you would be so nice to come home to, there’s no place like home. But it isn’t, of course. Since like all universal truths, home varies across the smallest increments of time and space, manifesting itself into a symbolic meaning which some people acknowledge and others fight to escape, some feel controlled by and others struggle to achieve, that hard to grasp essence of identity, which differentiates who belongs in a place, who doesn’t belong, and who has the right to tell.
Many scholars have worked to understand how home is an epistemology or knowledge system. For most of the century, such analyses arose either completely outside or on the fringes of the academy, for example, the critical essays of novelist Virginia Woolfe, the ethnographies of novelist and playwright Zora Neale Hurston, the political philosophies of sociologist Franz Fanon, or the cultural analyses of literary critic Edward Said.
However, in the early 1980s, studying home in this way began to gather force within academic women’s studies departments. Theoretical essays by feminist, post-colonial and queer scholars, most notably bell hooks, Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty, Gloria Anzaldúa, Mary Louise Pratt, Adrienne Rich, Trihn T. Mihn-Ha and Clare Cooper Marcus, rigorously incorporated ideas from literature, history and social science to understand people’s homes in the context of migration and immigration, work and poverty, racial, ethnic, and linguistic inequalities, cultural loss and assimilation, as well as the politics of gender and sexuality. Several important anthologies were compiled, including Janet Zandy’s Calling Home, Becky Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi’s Names We Call Home, Mickey Pearlman’s A Place Called Home, and Hazel Rochman and Darlene Z. McCampbell’s Leaving Home.
It perhaps goes without saying that studying home in this way has always had deep inter-disciplinary roots, ones that often reach far outside the academy and onto more political, literary and artistic terrains. However, it is also important to point out, that regardless of the discipline or medium through which it is expressed, whether memoir or poetry, ethnography or film, every critical analysis of home begins at the exact same starting point, the author’s (or scholar or activist or artist’s) sense of literal and figurative displacement. For example, the first member of a family to find work in the academy; the social scientist who pursues research away from the academy and out in the field; or the scholar settled far a field from the country of their citizenship, because of political exile or personal choice.
For some, losing one’s physical or symbolic footing means feeling at home in many locales, possessing what artist and art critic Lucy Lippard calls a multi-centered sense of place. For others, it means feeling homeless in every place, living as, what essayist Pico Ayer calls, a nowhereian. Either way, whether the author (or scholar or activist or artist) feels connected to the earth or disconnected, possessing many homes or no home, one thing becomes clear. It is the physical or psychic act of moving from one place to another which shifts the social sediment of the familiar to reveal the space where home exists, in between the desires of the self and the expectations of others, or what philosopher Gilles Deleuze would call the folds of society or the pli.
Poet and cultural critic Gloria Anzaldúa likens this sense physical and psychic displacement to living in a historical and cultural borderlands, namely the borderlands between Texas, the southwestern United States, and Mexico, the place of her birth, childhood and growing up. In her epistemology of home, these borderlands, (a social collusion of Native American, European and Mexican people), become a metaphor for her to rediscover the languages and stories of her past, (languages and stories, which sometimes makes her feel oppressed and alienated and other times comforted and proud), as well as for thinking about healing the social divisions and enmities which this, as well as other borders evoke, with their hostile definitions of us and them and their violent visions of insiders and outsiders.
For Anzaldúa, home is a state of being that we accumulate over time and know we possess, but can’t always name, even as it harms or protects us. Boundlessly protean, elusive, and ethereal, home isn’t something we can escape from or return to, like it says in all those sayings, but rather, something we create and negotiate, sometimes making it our most inescapable burden and other times our most saving grace.
Novelist and cultural critic Salman Rushdie says as much in his frame-by-frame analysis of the Hollywood film, The Wizard of Oz, arguably one of the most internationally known parables about what home means in the twentith century. Based on a series of children’s books by Frank L. Baum, the story of the film goes something like this: A girl named Dorothy longs to escape the drudgery, loneliness and confinement of her life by leaving her home in rural Kansas and going over the rainbow. This longing is suddenly and unexpectedly realized after an unusually forceful tornado carries her off to a fantastical world called the Land of Oz.
However, even though many of her longings become fulfilled in this place, she leads a life of adventure, she makes a gang of friends, Dorothy finds herself deeply homesick for the routines and people she left behind in Kansas. And so, after a very long journey and several tests of character, she decides to return home, a decision made possible through the magical power of a pair of ruby slippers, her recitation of a single phrase, there’s no place like home, and, perhaps most importantly, the sheer force of her own desire.
As she stands in Oz still awaiting her fate, Dorothy tearfully declares to a very powerful and kind witch that should she be allowed to return to Kansas, she will never travel any further than her own backyard. An unfortunate ending, argues Rushdie, since with this single scene an important message of the film becomes muted. He writes, The real secret of the ruby slippers is not that there’s no place like home but, rather, that there is no longer any such place as home, except, of course, for the homes we make, or the homes … made for us, in Oz … Which, is anywhere, and everywhere, except for the place from where we began.
It’s hard to say for sure where Oz is located, though, if we are to believe Dorothy, it may, in fact, exist. In the very final scene of the film, when her family and neighbors inform her that Oz was simply a dream, Dorothy argues with them by saying, but it wasn’t a dream, it was a place. And in the series of books the film was based on, Dorothy actually returns to Oz again and again after her accidental first visit, eventually choosing to reside there instead of Kansas. Rushdie builds upon this ambiguity to make his main theoretical point: That our homes are something we imagine, something we invent, and perhaps even more importantly, something we are always moving towards or going to, even if the distances we travel in physical terms are never very far.
Among some people in the southern United States, a homegoing is a funeral and I invoke this colloquialism here not so much to discuss the ritual where the living say good bye to the dead and the dead are laid to rest, but rather to think about the coupling of the words home and going. It’s a powerful pairing, one, which, draws to the surface what I would suggest is the most definitive quality of home: It’s uncertainty. Rare is the colloquialism, which does this.
As I pointed out earlier, most sayings and idioms about home cast it as if were something fixed or something constant, something we can rely upon or easily predict. Like a home front or a homeport, a hometown, a home team, a home plate, a homecoming. Even when our homes are broken, they still carry with them the implication that they once occupied some sort of location. But a homegoing is devoid of any endpoint. It doesn’t offer us any final destination. And so it lays bare a possible explanation as to why we so often labor so hard to pin down our homes and keep their edges from unraveling.
End Note 1: The image at the top is of me in my first home place: River Road, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
End Note 2: I have recently incorporated the idea of ‘home goings’ in a more narrative work, right here.