Thursday, 8 December 2016


“I sometimes think you can divide humans up based on who stays at home and who leaves,” my friend Catherine, a sociologist, said to me once. Ever since I was nineteen and left home for Spain, where I lived for a year, I’ve thought of myself as a person who leaves and keeps leaving. I’ve lived in Central America on three different occasions; I’ve lived in Atlanta, Chicago. Dave and I moved to Durham, England in 2015, and when people here ask me how long we plan to stay, I say, “Oh, indefinitely.” And this has felt right. We’ve been so happy here, pretty much since we got off the plane.  

Yet all along, in my living afar and abroad, my sense of home has been rooted in the American South. It’s been years since I lived there, but it’s still the place I’ve imagined returning to, eventually. I have an affinity for the southern Appalachian Mountains that goes deep down into my bones. And I loved growing up in Hickory, North Carolina—running wild in the forest and jumping off the Lake Hickory dam and canoeing back into the inlets. I loved going to St. Stephens High and running track and cross country with all of the boys, and driving around in my pea-green 1964 Ford Falcon with my girlfriends on a Saturday night. Though I lost my North Carolina accent a long time ago, hearing someone else speak with it still lifts my heart.

Downtown Hickory, North Carolina

But the recent U.S. elections have made me feel estranged from my home—from my country of origin, from the state where I grew up in—in a way I have not felt before. In the month since North Carolina and the U.S. went Red again, I’ve asked myself at least daily: How can that be my home? How can that be my country? Do I even want to belong there anymore?

So where, then, is home?

Is home where most of your history is—where your family and all the other people who’ve known you since childhood still live?

Or is it where you feel more politically and culturally comfortable? Where you can live at one remove, at least, from the madness that’s swallowed your land of birth? Britain has its share, too, of nasty politics and politicians—starting with Brexit and Nigel Farrar and Boris Johnson—but politics here do not get under my skin as thoroughly as they do when I read any recent news feed from the U.S. Because the U.K. isn’t really my culture—not yet, anyway—I don’t take politics as personally here. This too is a sign, perhaps, that I don’t really know where my home is.

These are thorny questions which I cannot answer in a blog post (or maybe ever), but something happened last week that threw such questions of mine into a different perspective. I’ve just begun, via Skype, to tutor a young man in English; he grew up in Syria but now lives in Eastern Europe. He has not told me much about his personal life, but the facts alone speak for themselves. He’s had to flee his home country. He cannot return—does not know when or if he’ll be able to, ever. After growing up in relative privilege, he’s now living as a refugee.

He and I were discussing first-language attrition: the process of losing fluency in your native language as you immerse yourself in another. That hasn’t happened to him, my new friend said. “But I do feel like a different person when I speak or English as opposed to when I speak or write Arabic.”

He went on to say that when he tries to write about “secondary political issues” in Arabic, he feels like he’s being pretentious. Like it’s silly—not the best use of his time—to put his focus on them. Secondary political issues? What did he mean? Oh, global warming, he said, women’s rights. I was taken aback; how could those be secondary issues?

“If I write about them in English,” he said, “it feels right. In English, those issues feel important, very much worth discussing. But in Arabic, the only thing I can write about—the only thing I think I should write about—is the war in my own country.”

#     #     #

There are so many ways to miss home.

Since Dave and I moved to England, I’ve been writing a novel, and when people ask me what it’s about, I often respond with an “elevator pitch,” as it’s called: a plot summary lasting only a sentence or two. No longer than an elevator ride.

Until lately, my elevator pitch has gone something like this: “My novel’s about the rivalry between two sets of girls, separated by social class in their small Kentucky high school, which erupts into violence the summer a movie star comes to town and seduces each one of them.

“Wow, that sounds pretty intense,” some people remark, and I say, “Yeah, and then one of those girls burns down the movie star’s hotel.”

For a while, I got a kick out of making my novel sound like a thriller. (It does have some elements of a thriller—starting, of course, with that sex-and-violence plot line.) But I’ve started to think that my elevator pitch needs reworking.

The last time I gave it to someone, he was wearing a tux and I a long dress; over these, we both wore long, black academic robes, as one does at Durham University when you dine formally at a college. What a college is in this context, I’ll have to save for a later post; for now let’s just say that dining at St. Chad’s College of Durham, at the high table—yes, that’s really what it’s called—made me feel like I’d fallen into a Merchant-Ivory film. Except for the big drapey sleeves of my robe occasionally getting caught in my food, this was all quite gratifying, in an Anglophile sort of way, until the young man beside me asked what my novel’s about.

St. Chad's College at Durham University
When I gave him my regular elevator pitch, he blinked rapidly several times. Then he said, very politely, “Well, perhaps you can use a pen name.”

I was as startled by his reaction as he must have been to my plot summary, though in true British form we both smiled and nodded and moved on to a different topic.

My dinner companion got me thinking, though. My novel isn’t as sleazy as I’ve been making it sound. You can’t write 300 pages about nothing but sex and violence—or I can’t, anyway. But looking back over the past 18 months in which I’ve been writing this novel, I see how my elevator pitch came to focus on its melodramatic aspects alone.

This novel started out as a short story, just 20 pages or so. In an early revision, it grew from 20 pages to 40; then from 40 to 60—at which point I had to start calling the thing a novella.[i] That draft, I buried deep in a desk drawer and didn’t look at for four solid months. When I unearthed it again and reacquainted myself with the characters and their problems, I found to my surprise I still had more to say. The next draft reached 200 pages; I finished it this past June. The draft that I’ll finish by Christmas—please God—tops out at 300 pages.

As an elevator pitch for the original 20-page story, my sex-and-violence summary works pretty well. But that story has grown exponentially in size. My characters’ psychology is deeper, more nuanced; their setting, too, has become more important, shaping their desires and frustrations. Bit by bit, over the past year of rewriting, the elevator pitch I’ve been using no longer does justice to the whole story. My story—as it’s evolved into a novel—is really about an artist’s relationship to her rural, Southern hometown.

I didn’t know this when I started writing. It wasn’t clear to me till this summer, when I got into that 200-page draft. Out of the five high school girls I thought the novel would focus on equally, one girl began to emerge. She became the character I was most eager to follow, the voice I most wanted or needed to hear. Jewel—that’s the character’s name—turned out to be my protagonist; her struggle in adolescence is how to get out of her small, isolated hometown, where her artistic ambitions stamp her as different, at best. But when she does get a scholarship to art school—when she leaves her town and her mother and classmates to move to the city—Jewel finds she is deeply homesick: 
Homesick for the house I grew up in, and for its long summertime smell, the smell of damp earth and bright moss, pungent and clear as the end of a thunderstorm. Homesick for summers that poured on and on, a ridiculous wealth of hot days, when all the front yards by August had turned brown and sere, and on Main Street you could walk barefoot in and out of the stores. Homesick for those mountains that encircled our growing up: Guthrie’s Mountain beneath and behind us, Blue Mountain just west and north; and facing us over the river, the steep escarpment of Killiwack Knob.

It’s self-indulgent—forgive me—to quote from your own (unfinished, unpublished) novel. But as I’ve probed farther into Jewel’s divided life, into her feeling torn between home and the rest of the world, I’ve come to see that I’m really writing—surprise, surprise—about my own lifelong struggle. A struggle that's come into sharper focus since the recent U.S. elections.

There are so many ways to miss home.

[i] Story, novella, novel, what’s the difference? In simplest terms, it’s about length—the length of a work of fiction. A story can be as long, typically, as 15,000 words. Much beyond that, and it’s become a novella. Novellas, which fill that strange space between stories and novels, are usually 15,000 to 40,000 words long. A novel, then—you guessed it—is a work of fiction that’s longer than that.


  1. Patricia, what a moving post about the complexities of home. It is a question that I have had to confront from my childhood, where as a daughter of a refugee family I grew up hearing stories of my grandparents home in Bangladesh. As I grew up, as a women I found India, Calcutta inhospitable. In a strange way grad school in Morgantown WV felt home even though I was eager to leave it. US has been the closest I have felt to home because it gave me the freedom to be independant, despite the microagressions I faced as a brown Indian woman, possible immigrant. Now I am not sure where home is: US now is so different from how I experienced it, India is under a religious right government. I feel home is with Nathan, with books, with writing: things that take me away from the reality of contemporary USA, and India.

  2. Thank you for the kind feedback, S. I resonate with your idea of home as a space you create OUTSIDE of (or beyond) nation: being at home with the person you love, with the activities that give you life.

  3. Living in the south, your home town, for 15 years now. I realize I will never stop missing my roots in PA. In addition, a northerner can never be a southerner. No matter how long one lives in the south. Now, when I visit home (PA), they say, "Where are you from?". Here in Hickory I'm asked, "Where are you from?" I'm an outsider wherever I go because my accent is somewhere in between. My heart knows where I belong, wherever my family is. But, my heart also knows it feels more at home on Pennsylvania soil.

    1. Kristin, yes: you and I probably have a similar experience now, of not quite belonging to either the South or the North. Or perhaps we belong to them both? I like to think that, but I agree with you that people sometimes quickly "place" us based on accent (or some other too-simple marker) alone.

  4. I'm another yankee "living" in the south. More accurately, coming and going from the south.

    That paragraph you quote about Jewel is not self-indulgence, since it is so beautiful.

    But it is a tease. Can't wait to read the finished product.

    Oh yes, the British put down. "Perhaps you can use a pen name." Ha! I've seen these in action too.

    He gave you a gift, however. You recognized that you have a lot more to say. I like what you are discovering under the elevator speech.

    1. Thank you as always for your thoughtful reflections, Shirley! And I agree, my dinner companion did give me a gift; it just took me a day or two to figure that out. ;-) It may be an almost universal experience these days, now that I think about it, to be from "someplace else" -- or to be moving in and out of different places that feel, mostly, like home.

  5. Hi Patricia, I enjoyed this and it caused me to reflect on what feels like a very tested sense of home - Whitley Bay, Hull, Leicester, Basingstoke, Sydney, Whitley Bay. I also admire your chutzpah in stating your intention to write a weekly blog piece. I set out with similar intentions which quickly dissipated as I struggled to sustain authenticity - writing something truly felt, rather than for a self-imposed deadline. That said, I look forwrd to your next piece. No pressure!

    1. Ha, thanks, Bruce! (No pressure, indeed!) I agree that it feels somewhat challenging to plan to write one post per week; we'll see how long I can make it last. For now, it feels like a good spiritual discipline, if you will. (Not unlike taking yoga -- which I occasionally do in Whitley Bay, by the way. I like your town!)

  6. Replies
    1. It's just possible you may have met my wife - Jacqui Grainger. We lived nearby for about 7 months and she used it regularly. She was a Librarian - Rare Books & Special Collections, Sydney Uni., looking for a post in the UK - she now has as 'stepping stone' position as Librarian at Shakespeare's Globe.

  7. Bruce, I don't know for sure if Jacqui and I have met, but it certainly sounds like I would enjoy meeting her!