No Place Like Home

August 22, 2011 | 9 books mentioned 5 7 min read

I had a strange dream recently, and I haven’t been able to forget it. This is unusual for me. I tend to dream a lot, and vividly, in multiple layers, and all that vividness and layeredness will typically slosh around in my mind for a few moments when I first transition into consciousness; but by the time I’m stumbling into (then out of) the bathroom, I can’t remember a thing. (I know people say you should keep a notebook by the bed; but once my eyes are open, and I’m hauling myself over to the nightstand, click-clicking a pen, the essence of the dream escapes me even faster. In my experience, words can generate highly detailed dreamscapes, but not the other way around.)

The dream took place in my childhood home. More specifically, the home I lived in between the ages of 5 and 13. In the dream, I open the closet door in my bedroom and find torn plastic wrap and wrapping paper all over the floor. I stomp into the hall and find a girl I don’t recognize, and my two sisters. My sisters are adults in the dream, but they aren’t really my sisters, they are weird versions of my sisters, much more matronly than my actual sisters and sort of 1950s-ish. Suddenly, I am an adult, too (in my bedroom, I had been my child self opening my child’s closet), and it becomes clear that the unfamiliar girl is the culprit: she has a roll of wrapping paper in her hand. Then I am a child again and I tell her to please not make a mess in my closet. She rolls her eyes and folds her arms and starts talking. One of my sisters also starts talking, and then the other. I can’t make out exactly what they are saying, they are talking loudly over each other, but basically, they are making it all out to be my problem for being fussy about my closet floor. I grow angry – that dream-anger that is so frustrating, because you can’t express it, like you’ve got lead in your throat, akin to running dreams where you’ve got lead on your ankles. Finally, I manage to spit out these words: “What I really need is to be able to come out here and say that there is wrapping paper all over my floor and to…” And this was where I woke up.

But the dream – and this is weird, too – sort of continued as I woke. I finished my sentence – possibly out loud, but more likely in my head – “…and to be able to just state it as a problem. Without anybody telling me that the problem is my fault.” The feeling of anger – what I needed to spit out as a result of the dream – was so clear, so sharp.

I am always humbled by how transparent, psychologically speaking, my dreams are.

After the dream, and the half-waking continuation of the dream, I drifted into a slightly yet more conscious state, though still in bed and not completely awake (probably I rolled over and scrunched up the pillow under my head); and I started to feel sad. Sad about the dream, and my “issues,” and all the ways in which that particular species of anger pervades my life.

But that’s not what I want to say about this dream. The dream continued on (or I guess it ceased to be a dream at this point, strictly speaking, more like an involuntary imaginative exercise) as a journey through that childhood house. I haven’t thought much about the house in recent years; there were three houses after that during high school and college, none of which I really lived in, since I was away at school, moving from dorm room to dorm room, summer sublet to group house (and then after that on to a string of apartments and houses, the west coast then back to the east coast, etc.). I remembered all the rooms and different areas of the house: the wood paneling on the walls and the scratchy synthetic carpet and the musty coolness of the basement TV room where I used to watch What’s Happening and General Hospital after school. I remembered the burn marks on the ceramic stovetop and the medicinal smell of ginseng tea simmering overnight and the pantries stocked with Ichiban ramen and Chunky Soups and the sliding doors that looked out onto a pebbled patio we never used and the yellowing mattress skirts and the plastic suction noise that the doors between the kitchen and the family room made when you opened them or shut them and the fake crystal chandelier hanging over the dining table that was always missing crystals because my sisters would climb up on the dining table and pilfer them so they could pretend they were earrings.

I lay there, and all of it washed over me; I moved through the house, like a ghostly cinematographer. I was recalling to consciousness what it felt like to live in that house, emotionally, sensorially – as a six year-old, an eight year-old, an eleven year-old, and everything in between; alone, with parents or sisters or school mates, doing something, doing nothing, in this room, in that room; every moment or image that had, for whatever reason, stuck around in my brain. And then I grew sadder. Because no matter how hard I tried – and I was really trying at this point; I was all in, working at it – I could not bring forth a single good feeling. Happiness, peacefulness, joy, warmth, comfort, silliness, wonder. Not a single one. Evidently that house, wrapping paper or no wrapping paper, was for me a place only of fear and unease.

It was not exactly a new revelation to me that my childhood was not a happy one; but the way in which the Me who has been formed by those feelings and memories lived all those moments and days and years in those rooms, in that place, was something new. The dream, and the semi-conscious journey that followed, made stark (in that slanty way that probably only a dream can effect) how placeless and out-of-body modern life can be.

At the risk of stating the obvious: isn’t it strange, I mean, this thing about being a human being breathing and thinking and sensing and dwelling always, always, in a place?

covercoverMy estrangement from a happy or anchoring childhood place – that is, my estrangement from place as home – seems to have propelled me toward literature that is rooted in what American southerners sometimes call “home place.” Early in my literary reading life, my bookshelves were stacked with regional literature – Thoreau, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, all of Wendell Berry’s Port William novels and stories, Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Stuart Dybek, Mary Oliver, Tony Earley, Jane Kenyon’s poetry and prose, Donald Hall’s Life Work, and Jimmy Carter’s An Hour Before Daylight – all of which spoke to deep, spiritual ties between soul and land, individual and community. I read all these for antidote, for counterweight: for, beginning with my parents’ immigration from Korea to the U.S. – no, before that, when their families fled this city for that city, this region for that region, because of war – my life was all but fated for disconnection. From place, from community, from home-ness.

In those days I read – as many people do, I think, and as I still do – for consolation. So while New York City became a logical place to live, because so many New Yorkers are from elsewhere, or nowhere, like me, my reading life for a long time was populated by people of place, people who consider themselves very much from somewhere.

But writers, as a breed, are no strangers to either literal or psychic exile. At The Faster Times, Josh Garret-Davis writes:

We moderns seem to have developed an exceedingly complicated, ungrounded relationship to place — and, if I had to guess, I’d say readers of literary magazines probably have some of the most balkanized inner geographies. Few of us live where we grew up […] We experience place through research or through evocative photos, movies, and — most to the point here — works of literature.

It is from an external vantage point that a writer captures the essence and authenticity of a place he knows intimately. The writer of place is most often both member and outsider; skillful straddler; translator. He has split loyalties, between the flesh-and-blood people of here and now, and an abstract, timeless humanity. He has left the home place for a time, then returned (Berry, Hall, O’Connor); or has left and revisits by memory (Joyce, Carter, Earley); or has arrived later in life and stayed a long time (McCarthy, Proulx, Kenyon, Norris).

Two central challenges confront the writer of place:

  • “Caught up in life, you see it badly. You suffer from it or enjoy it too much. The artist, in my opinion, is a monstrosity, something outside of nature.” (Flaubert)
  • “And he said, ‘Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.’” (The King James Bible, Luke 4:24)

In other words, in order to see a place, its essence, the writer can never be a full member; he must stand apart, see into the heart of the place, its beauty and its demons, and he must report truthfully. Given this, his work will always be regarded with a measure of skepticism by the inhabitants, the subjects of his penetrating gaze.

What is a modern sense of place? Jennifer Acker, editor of The Common, a new print and online journal that takes the phrase as its tag line, has given this a lot of thought.  In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, she says:

The increasing use of digital technology does not mean place is no longer one of the most fundamental forces in our lives. It is. Where we are from and where we live and how we embed or distance our selves from our environments and their cultural influences are central to our relationships and perceptions, and therefore our art.

And in the introductory note to The Common’s first print issue, she writes:

Where are you from? is still a relevant question […] We can’t extricate our selves from our places, nor would we wish to. Themes of place, including exile and exploration, provoke us to reflect on how we live; they fascinate, unsettle, and comfort […] our mobile modernity creates a hunger for place-based ruminations. Literature provides the vehicle for these travels.

Appropriately, the editors’ commitment to publishing The Common in print is, in Acker’s words, “unwavering.” A print version “reinforces the fact that we live and read and create in physical communities.” Not to mention that Issue No. 1 – which features prose and poetry by the likes of Ted Conover, Fiona Maazel, Sabina Murray, Lauren Groff, Mary Jo Salter, Rafael Campo, new translations of Marina Tsvetaeva by Catherine CiepielaHonor Moore, and newcomer Maura Candela, among others – is a beautiful book-object indeed (design by Gabriele Wilson).

I’m glad for the emergence of a journal like The Common and agree with Lisa Peet of Like Fire who wrote that Issue No. 1 is “both dense and lush, something to take the time to read through and then revisit. It’s a keeper, well worth the $20 subscription price for two issues yearly.” But strangely, after spending some time with it, both print and online, I found myself most absorbed in an online-only feature called “Dispatches” – short evocations of particular places. In these 30 vignettes (and growing), “dispatched” to us from Cairo, rural Texas, Alaska, Santo Domingo, Ethiopia, Poland, Baja, Tuscany, et alia, we are reminded that when a writer evokes place, she evokes an entire way of being, seeing, navigating existence – the enormity of human experience via finely observed particulars. As much as I long for a real home-place, some coherence to my own balkanized inner geography, it’s ultimately in this scattershot pointillism – the experience of reading these 30 elegant blips not unlike that of a vivid and layered dream (though exhilarating not saddening) – that I seem to find my nowhere-somewhere, a peculiar feeling of home; my modern sense of place.


Image credit: bean*mama/Flickr

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.


  1. WIth regard to the modern sensibility toward place:

    Multiculturalism may turn out to be its own worst enemy.

    One kind of multiculturalism is to have truly unique cultures surviving side-by-side. The idea that I can visit New Orleans years from now and it still feeling like “Nawlins”.

    Another kind of multiculturalism is really just a monocultural cosmopolitanism. The idea that wherever you go there will be a rave club, a frozen yogurt stand, a group of racially/ethnically/sexually diverse people with rather similar ideas of the world.

    If multiculturalism drifts towards the latter definition then place won’t really mean all that much. Those that try to point up what differences there are will be viewed with suspicion and hostility as bigots. There will always exist bubbles of true multiculturalism (e.g. Amish country) but those will be fewer and farther between.

    A while ago I was on line with some folks and one of them said she was from Texas. I had just learned that it was still legal to drink and drive in Texas (this was years ago), so long as you weren’t actually drunk. There are long stretches of very hot road in Texas where you can drink beer continuously and sweat it out fast enough to keep from going over 0.08. I mentioned this to her as a good thing. Her response was less than enthusiastic assuming that I was being snarky and accusing of her of being a hick.

    Oh well. One day all the hicks will be gone. They’ll all be waxing their faces and privates, eating their low fat yogurt, and biking to their pilates classes. I for one will miss them and the places they created in the world, in their heads, and in their hearts.

  2. This is a lovely and evocative piece, echoing many of my own preoccupations with place. Yet it’s no surprise, really, that humans are always breathing, sensing, dwelling in a place. After all, we are physical bodies, and bodies are somewhere, located. I also suspect we are wired to connect with our places as a way of protecting and nurturing them–and by extension, ourselves. As someone with an equally “balkanized inner geography” (beautiful phrase), I’m looking forward to digging into The Common.

  3. I appreciate the wonderful essay, the dreamy evocations, and the attention and questions aimed at place. Anthropologists have a doubly estranged, and doubly rich, relationship to place, since they are the ultimate “member and outsider, skillful straddler, translator,” with “split loyalties.” Keith Basso’s “Wisdom Sits in Places,” is a particularly brilliant evocation of how place can be lived in such different ways by different peoples, and the complex role anthropologists play in translating and transmitting these notions.

    Anthropology requires evoking a sense of place and personhood among cultures that are alien to one’s life experience. Such exercises are intended to make us all appreciate “what it is to be human” in a broader, more inclusive sense. But they can also deepen the inherent sense of alienation that drives at least some anthropologists, like some writers, to explore such places and experiences in the first place: despite what reality TV franchises want to make us believe, one can never truly “go native,” and yet upon returning, the “home” place and culture seem newly alien as well, and one wonders whether there is any place to fit in.

    Thank you again for a richly evocative and provocative column.

  4. Glenn, thanks so much for your anthropologist’s viewpoint on place. I think that insider/outsider border is such a rich “location.”

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