“Home, I began to feel, was the half-formed beliefs you fashioned in the middle of all you didn’t and couldn’t understand, a tent on a wide, empty plain.”
Nine or 10 months after I was born in Anchorage, Alaska, my parents packed up all of our belongings in a Mazda 323, and drove us away from my natal home. My parents took the Alcan highway through Canada, and then made their way down to Texas, where we lived for a couple of years before moving again. There are photos from that initial journey. In some, I am lolling on a viewing platform in Yellowstone National Park, and in others, I’m bundled up in a snowsuit, unnamed mountains behind me. My parents tell me I remained watchful in the backseat, my eyes trained on the scenery as it flushed from snowy white to green.
After Texas, we maintained a peripatetic existence, moving to Louisiana, then back to Alaska again. Though I learned early on in my life that we didn’t live anywhere long enough to change the walls from sellable beige, the idea of home didn’t concern me until my first-grade year, when my parents suggested we move to a small seaport city on the edge of Borneo, the second-largest island in Indonesia. We spent six years in Indonesia, only moving once from Borneo to Java. It was the longest I lived anywhere. Not knowing as an elementary schooler the layers of privilege that complicated my presence there, I allowed myself to feel as though I had found a home. I learned to pull nectar from the pink flowers outside my front door, speak Bahasa Indonesia, and scooter past the monitor lizards on my way to school. America — the country people often reminded me I was from — became the other end of infrequent long-distance phone calls, during which I’d listen to the crackling, faraway voices of people I loved. When we returned to the States once a year, well-meaning family and friends would always say, welcome home or I’m so glad you’re back. I felt, in those moments, as though there were two of me, both versions shimmering and illusory. I didn’t fully belong in Indonesia, but I also couldn’t understand how I fit into the landscape of technicolor grocery-store aisles and the dazzling suburban asphalt streets of a country that others called mine.
My family found out we were moving from Indonesia while on summer leave in the U.S., so I never got the chance to return or say goodbye. My memories from the formative years I spent there are buried somewhere deep within me — for years, I have felt too homesick to let myself remember. It is only in certain moments — the voice of a woman speaking Bahasa Indonesia rising from a crowded venue in Oregon, the echo of an adzan from a mosque — that I allow my memories from those days to unfurl like lush rainforest leaves, broad and green and glossy, beading with dew and bursting with song.
I move every two to four years now, and I am always filled with anticipation, hoping for a place that will hold me. I feel rootless, capable of fitting in anywhere, but not truly belonging. Most of the time I carry these thoughts quietly within myself, but I have found comfort in the way others voice complications with the idea of home. How much of who we are stems from the places that bear us? What does it mean to long for a home that doesn’t exist in the way it once did? What memories rise to the surface when you return to a long-forgotten place? What does it mean to be unable to return?
1. Reading ‘The Odyssey’ Far From Home (Azareen Van der Vliet, March 10, 2018, Electric Lit)
When Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi moves to South Bend, Indiana, she feels unmoored.
“Given the disorienting cartography of my life, there isn’t a singular home for me to return to. I am from nowhere; or, perhaps, I am from a constellation of places which habits and social codes violently contradict one another, leaving me empty handed.”
Van der Vliet Oloomi reads The Odyssey in Indiana, which helps her better understand her own nostalgia for an intangible place. Her encounter with the tale serves as an example of the power that literature, like place, has in offering an intersection between reality and possibility, solace and hope.
2. Baby Boy Born Birthplace Blues (John Jeremiah Sullivan, December 6, 2016, Oxford American)
When John Jeremiah Sullivan was young, a local paper in his hometown of New Albany, Indiana, ran an article about a boy who discovered a passageway that had once been part of the Underground Railroad. By researching old newspaper clippings reporting on runaway slaves, instances of racial violence, and the origins of blues music, Sullivan unravels myth to reveal truths about the complex and rich history of the place he “was raised in and where occurred the events that most shaped and damaged me as a human being.”
3. A Map of Lost Things: On Family, Grief, and the Meaning of Home (Jamila Osman, January 9, 2017, Catapult)
While watching salmon return to the site of their birth to lay thousands of eggs of their own, Jamila Osman feels a pang of jealousy at the certainty of the fish, their ability to find their way back to a point of origin. In this lyrical, haunting essay, Osman chronicles her parents’ journey from Somalia to Canada to Portland, Oregon, and reckons with grief after the death of her sister, the shortcomings of maps, and how her own identity has been shaped significantly by loss and place.
“A country is impossible to contain; a people are impossible to boil to the silt of parchment. A map is only one story. It is not the most important story. The most important story is the one a people tell about themselves.”
4. Enduring Exile (Alia Malek, October 15, 2013, Guernica)
When Anto’s neighbors warn him that he’s no longer safe in northwestern Syria, he heeds their warning, quickly shuttering the windows of his restaurant and inn, and selling what possessions he could. Alia Malek not only tells the story of Anto’s displacement in this harrowing journalistic essay, but also writes about the devastating effects of the Armenian Genocide and the way Anto’s family’s relationship to the idea of home was permanently altered as a result.
“He was curious to visit Armenia, even if it wasn’t really Armenia, and he wasn’t really from this Armenia.”
5. Fountain Girls (Samantha Tucker, Fall/Winter, 2016 Ecotone)
“There are Fountain girls who try to leave, but cannot outrun their hometown legacy; there are Fountain girls who never even stumble upon the chance to try.”
By deftly weaving together her own personal narrative about her upbringing in Fountain, Colorado and the death of her brother Ronnie, with the death of a “Fountain girl” named Tara, Tucker illuminates how a place can hold you in its grasp, even after you’ve physically left it behind.
“Where, in our reach for something better—an enlistment, an education, a steady job, a family, the dream—where do we, instead, cycle back, or discover our beginnings have inevitably been our end?”
6. Looking for Home in the Palestinian Diaspora (Marcello Di Cintio, September 24, 2018 Hazlitt)
Over 70 years have passed since Palestinians were first displaced by the Palestine War in the late 1940s, and many of the refugees living in UNRWA-administered camps have not been able to return to their ancestral homes. After Palestinian author Mona Abu Sharekh guides Marcello Di Cintio through Shati refugee camp in Gaza, Di Cintio begins to wonder “about the descendants of refugees who live far from the villages their grandparents lost — not just across a fence, but across an ocean.” Di Cintio meets with several Palestinian poets in Brooklyn in order to bear witness how both literature and heritage inform their conceptions of home.
“‘My father infected in us a nostalgia for Palestine,’ Hala said. Though she’d never seen Palestine, she came to love the place because of her father’s love.”
7. A Woman’s Choice — Sexual Favours or Lose her Home (Jessica Lussenhop, January 11, 2018, BBC News)
Broke and homeless, newly released from prison, Khristen Sellers was offered an abandoned trailer under the condition that she’d clean it herself. She did, but when the inspector came by, he “asked her if she ‘gives head’” and implied that “his signature on the inspection was the only thing standing between her and a place to live. Sellers is not the only one to experience this kind of harassment.
“In a post-Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo world, most people are well aware sexual harassment occurs in the workplace. But across the US, women are subjected to it in a far more intimate setting – their homes.”
In this piece, Jessica Lussenhop chronicles the experiences of sexual harassment that many women tenants have experienced, the flaws in the system that allow for such egregious incidents, and related legislation.
8. Home by (Chris Jones, Jaunary 29, 2007 Esquire)
After the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated before re-entry in February, 2003, Donald Pettit, Captain Kenneth Bowersox, and Nikolai Budarin were left stranded in space. Through interviews with the crew, and research about the surrounding circumstances, Chris Jones, in this moving piece of longform journalism, writes about what it means to be suspended far from Earth’s comforts and minutiae, not knowing when — or how — you’ll be able to return.
“And sometimes you’re no longer a month away from home–you’re suddenly much farther, although you’re not really sure how far, because the miles are meaningless.”
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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and illness.