Home is a thorny concept, often more fantasy than reality. And in the midst of the holiday season, when most people are consumed with the idea of home—whether that means decorating it, inviting others into it, returning to it, or dreading it—three writers took time to discuss what home means for women specifically.
In a new essay anthology, This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home, edited by Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters, women explore the ways in which home connects to issues at the forefront of our cultural conversation: immigration, gender equality, sexual and family violence, homelessness, the environment, and poverty. Margot and Kelly discussed these concepts with Claire Dederer, a memoirist and essayist who has had more than her fair share of thinking devoted to the ways in which gender shapes our experience of home, as evidenced in her most recent book, Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning.
Together, the three writers puzzle out what it means to be a woman at home on the advent of 2018, and the ways in which home can be our most intimate refuge and a terrifying trap, often at the same time.
Claire Dederer: What inspired you to pull together an anthology on the theme of home?
Margot Kahn: Seven years ago I gave birth to my son and, as I describe in my essay, I found myself in the role of stay-at-home parent. Only this was never a role I thought I’d play. I got to thinking about what it meant for me to be “a homemaker” in this day and age and, more importantly, what kind of home I was creating for my family. I thought about the homes I grew up in, and the homes of my friends; I thought about my grandparents, in whose house I spent much of my childhood, and how they had made a home in a new land after having lost everything and everyone they knew. I became curious about the choices other people were making in creating homes for themselves and their families, and I thought that by gathering these stories together we might begin to unpack this complicated notion of home.
Kelly McMasters: Margot invited me into this idea almost four years ago, in a moment of complete upheaval in my own home, though she didn’t know it at the time. In the span of a few months, I closed a bookshop I loved, left an 1860’s farmhouse in which I thought I’d live forever, and left my husband of more than a decade. I’d taken my two small sons to a new place and started a new job and was trying to create a new definition of home. And most days I felt like I was failing miserably. So as Margot was muscling through these questions of how to build, I was going through the motions of deconstructing. Now, looking back with a bit of critical distance, I think the differences between what Margot and I brought to the proverbial table—from our geographic locations on opposite coasts to where we were in our own home-making journeys—made the editorial experience, and, ultimately, the book stronger.
CD: Is there some special charge or quality to women’s writing about home? What made you decide to limit the contributors to women?
KM: Limiting the collection to women felt like such a natural decision at the time, but now feels somehow radical. The decision was made pre-election, when we all assumed we’d have a woman in the house, and all the essays were written pre-Trump—and pre-wall, pre-immigration ban, pre-trans troop ban, pre-#metoo, pre-fake news. Yet all of those electric nerves that sparked to life after the election are here in this book. I want to be clear that this book is not meant to disinvite men to the discussion; the two most important people in my life are men (my sons!), and in many ways this book is designed with them in mind. But we wanted to track the shifting negotiations of home—for women, specifically, and in this moment in time, specifically.
MK: Exactly. Historically and traditionally, the home has been the woman’s place (“a woman’s place is in the home”, et cetera). But in the past 100 years, the past 50 years especially, much has changed. Women today are looking at a different set of expectations and opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers. Or are they? Also, women’s voices are still, by the numbers, underrepresented in publishing. These are voices that need to be heard.
CD: I’ve found that it can be challenging to write about subject matter that is especially close to me — if a subject is too close, I tend to lose perspective altogether. Did you and your contributors find it challenging to describe what is, after all, your most intimate place?
MK: My essay, while especially close, felt like the most urgent thing for me to write. I wanted to try to capture this feeling of being sort of trapped at home in early motherhood in all its messiness, and I hoped the writing would help me make sense of my thoughts. I bounced my ideas off of a lot of other people, so I felt I had some perspective in that sense, but Kelly and another early reader helped get my drafts from the too-close (scattered disillusion, rage, despair) to a more reflective place. For other writers, I know there were some struggles. In a couple of cases — Tara Conklin and Jane Wong — they chose to write in the second person, which gave them an extra layer of remove. Taking a step outside themselves allowed them to write some of the hardest, most intimate things.
KM: So many of the contributors seemed to have the experience of sitting down to write one story, and having a different one pour out. That was certainly my own experience. Home is tricky that way—we see it from a distance as one thing, but if we look closer, it shape-shifts and reveals itself in new ways. I had to leave the home I wrote about before I could begin to write it, and even then I feel like I was working with limited sight. So much of home lives in memory; I don’t think it is an accident that many of these essays access childhood homes and countries and times that function more as dream than reality for these writers, places to which one can never return.
CD: Home is a refuge, but Margot gets at the idea that for women it can also be a trap — a place that imprisons them with its work and its demands. Do you think this is changing for women?
MK: My mother, and a handful of other women her age, have read my essay and said to me, “It’s like you were in my head.” One woman wrote to me, “It shot me right back to being a young mother and wife and all of the seemingly conflicting situations and emotions of those days.” It saddens me to think that not that much has changed between our two generations. And while I do think we’re moving in the right direction, I feel strongly that we need some major policy changes in this country to push this conversation forward.
So long as babies continue to be born only by women, women must not be shunned or shafted at work during her childbearing years. Nor should it be said that a woman is “doing nothing” or “taking a break” or “wasting her talents” if she chooses to stay home and raise her children. She must not be belittled or demeaned if she is cooking, tending to play dates and jingling bells in the circle at Music Together instead of litigating or operating or coding. She must not fall behind on her pay when she returns to work, even if it is five years later, or seven, or ten. (Of course if this is the man staying home, everything that I have just said should apply to him, too.) And, at the outset, she needs equal pay for equal work.
I am not saying that parents must stay home to raise their children. I’m saying that in order for the home not to be a trap, the decision to stay home or not must be a fair choice. Equal pay, affordable child care, and paid family leave make this possible. The first step was getting women into the workforce. The next step is recognizing that that’s just one piece of the puzzle.
CD: “Home” is a cozy, reassuring word, but some of your contributors are writing about circumstances that might seem less than ideal. Did you find yourself redefining the word “home” as you read the contributors’ pieces?
MK: Absolutely. Some of these essays — Elissa Washuta’s piece, for one — cracked open my thinking completely. Elissa writes about her individual body as a home and, citing the way our bacteria — our microbiome — is unique to the environment and the people we live in and with, she says “…when I left my home, I changed it completely; when I was away, I was altered; when I returned, it was to a place I’d never been to.” Seriously? I want to insert one of those fiery, exploding emoticons here. Sonya Chung’s piece, “Size Matters,” is another shake-up. This essay, a meditation on living in a small space, has made me pause many times to remember the virtues of my modest footprint and to question my values when faced with an impulse for more stuff, square footage, etc. And I cry every time I read Hasanthika Sirisena’s essay “Of Pallu and Pottu” about her mother’s immigration, with her three daughters, from Sri Lanka to the United States. The force of her conviction, the strength of her independence, and the example she sets by forging a new home is so powerful. I felt this essay punch off the page, a big RESIST fist. For her, I think, as in so many of these essays, home becomes conviction itself.
KM: Agreed. This anthology remade my entire understanding of the word. I like to visualize this collection of essays as a kind of flock of migrating birds, in the way they hold together in formation and yet pump their wings individually, switching out the leader intermittently to share the burden of setting the tempo and speed and direction, and yet work together to create this giant arrow of intention. More than anything, the way these essays lace together sweetness and sorrow, pain and pleasure, safety and danger, nightmare and fantasy, underscores the range of possibility, which I find both terrifying and liberating. We are all being propelled forward towards an idea of home, an idea we cannot see but that we feel innately drawn to, a memory we reach out for over and over, in the same way those birds keep pumping their wings without quite knowing how long it is going to take to find the place they’re searching for, or even if they will ever reach it.
Essayist and biographer Margot Kahn is the author of Horses That Buck and co-editor, along with Kelly McMasters, of the anthology This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her work has appeared in Tablet, River Teeth, High Desert Journal, The Los Angeles Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Publishers Weekly, among other places. She lives in Seattle.
Claire Dederer is the author of two critically acclaimed memoirs: Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning and Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which was a New York Times bestseller. Her essays, criticism, and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s, The Nation, Vogue, Chicago Tribune, Real Simple, Entertainment Weekly, New York magazine, Yoga Journal, Newsday, Slate, Salon, and many other publications. Dederer is a fourth-generation Seattle native.
Kelly McMasters is a former bookshop owner and author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, the basis for the documentary film The Atomic States of America. She is also co-editor, along with Margot Kahn, of the anthology This Is the Place: Women Writing About Home. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, The American Scholar, River Teeth, and Newsday, among others. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of Publishing Studies at Hofstra University in NY.