An Idea of Home

by Danielle Spencer

Mothers, Fathers, and Others, by Siri Hustvedt - book coverThe theme of home—as a topic, question—is woven throughout Siri Hustvedt’s excellent new essay collection, Mothers, Fathers, and Others. In the first essay, “Tillie,” about her grandmother, Hustvedt also recalls her grandfather, Lars Hustvedt, who was born and lived in the United States, and first traveled to his own father’s home in Voss, Norway, when he was seventy years old. “Family lore has it that he knew ‘every stone’ on the family farm, Hustveit, by heart,” Hustvedt writes. “My grandfather’s father must have been homesick, and that homesickness and the stories that accompanied the feeling must have made his son homesick for a home that wasn’t home but rather an idea of home.”

Homesick for a home that wasn’t home but rather an idea of home. Yet home is always an idea of home, even when it is indeed a home we have experienced. Lars’ memory evinces philosopher Derek Parfit’s discussion of “q-memory”—a memory of an experience which the subject didn’t experience. Rachael’s implanted “memories” in Blade Runner are q-memories (and perhaps Deckard’s are as well, at least in the Director’s Cut.) According to Parfit, the notion that I am the person who experienced my memory is an assumption I make simply because I presume that I don’t have q-memories. Thus

on our definition every memory is also a q-memory. Memories are, simply, q-memories of one’s own experiences. Since this is so, we could afford now to drop the concept of memory and use in its place the wider concept q-memory. If we did, we should describe the relation between an experience and what we now call a “memory” of this experience in a way which does not presuppose that they are had by the same person.

As André Aciman puts it, “things always seem, they never are.” In his essay “Arbitrage,” he describes his own experience of being, in Hustvedt’s words, homesick for a home that wasn’t home but rather an idea of home—or perhaps moreso in his case, homesick for missing home.

He recalls a time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, writing a paper about Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” in which the poet remembers himself in the past, picturing the future, and imagining the future, in which he recalls the past. This memory evokes Aciman’s recollection of returning to his childhood home in Alexandria, where he missed his apartment in Manhattan, as that is where he remembered Alexandria: “In Alexandria, I was homesick for the place from which I had learned to re-create Alexandria, the way that the rabbis in exile were forced to reinvent their homeland on paper, only to find, perhaps, that they worshipped the paper more than the land.”

Aciman describes this operation as a form of “mnemonic arbitrage,” a continual borrowing and selling of Time and Place. As he describes, “arbitrageurs may have seats on not one but two exchanges, the way the very wealthy have homes in not one but two time zones, or exiles two homes in the wrong places. One always longs for the other home, but home, as one learns soon enough, is a place where one imagines or remembers other homes.” In an interview, Aciman reflects upon this ever-present ungrounded-ness, and the fact that as a person who was displaced from his home, he has a particular reason and privilege to address it. “I am luckier than most other writers because I have a story of not being grounded, of being deracinated and dislodged, and that story was handed over to me ready-made, which gives me a kind of right to speak to this,” he writes. “But in fact I was always deracinated and I was never in the moment, even before I was officially deracinated from my home in Egypt. I’m an exile from a place I never loved, so I’m always in the wrong country and I’m always living in the wrong century and everything is always wrong.”

I have long been drawn to this theme of dislocation, and when I read Hustvedt’s essay collection I was struck by the recurrent appearances of home, of being homesick for an idea of home—the presence of absence. They arise in many different contexts throughout the book, from her grandfather’s homesickness for a home he had never experienced first-hand, described in “Tillie”; to her own mother’s memories of her home in Norway, told to Siri and her sisters in Minnesota, very beautifully recounted in “My Mother’s Ocean and How it Became Mine (2017)”; to a lack of mentors described as an “overwhelming feeling…that I never came home” in “Mentor Ghosts (2019)”; to her account of being an “intellectual vagabond,” a perpetual traveler, in “Open Borders: Tales from the Life of an Intellectual Vagabond (2019)”; to “Translation Stories (2018),” in which translation is understood, following Ricoeur, as “a way of welcoming the foreigner. It is a way of saying, ‘Come in and make yourself comfortable.’ But the reader of a translation is also a foreigner, taken into unfamiliar houses and down streets that look nothing like home.” A welcoming to a home which is not home; just as not-home reminds one of home.

As for my own mother, father, and others—my parents both left their homes, the lives into which they’d been born. My mother is of Irish and English descent by way of many Episcopalian generations living on the great plains; my father is Ashkenazi, first-generation American, born in Brooklyn, by way of Latvia and Lithuania. Together they created a very different life from either of their families of origin: academic, not grounded in any religious tradition. My mother flew from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles a week before my birth, and that is where I was born, though I have never lived there. I did almost die there, in an incubator in the Cedars-Sinai NICU, fighting to breathe, while my mother wept outside the nursery window, until a kindly nurse helped her to hold me and to believe that I could survive, and that she could take me back east. Just as her own mother wept outside the gates of the orphanage in Washington, D.C.—far from her home in Sheridan, Wyoming—until the kindly nuns gave her baby, my mother, back to her, and helped her hold her and keep her. They traveled west on a troop train, not long after V-E day, filled with soldiers, finally returning home.

Home is the idea of home. Home is what is present in its absence. Home is where you were found and re-claimed. I grew up on Long Island, but I feel little connection to the place, apart from our house and our street. Neither do I feel much connection to my heritage; don’t feel called home to my roots, the ethnicity pie chart split so neatly in half between two distinct parts of the world. Like Aciman, I have always felt dislodged; but I lack his ready-made story of deracination, as I grew up in the country where I was born. Yet we did live abroad several times when I was a child—my father is a research mathematician, and we left on periodic sabbaticals—and these other places are far more vivid to me than my “real” home, particularly Hungary, where we returned multiple times. When I enter a Russian grocery store in Brighton Beach the smell strikes me with the force of the Proustian narrator’s madeleine, and I am transported back to the markets in Budapest—the kifli, crescent-shaped rolls, and winter salami, and the dark chocolate with hazelnuts, Piros Mogyorós, which, at that time, one avoided buying at the end of the month, for that was when the factory was meeting its quota, so they threw the shells into the chocolate along with the nuts.

Aciman writes about missing the act of missing, and how we re-constitute the idea of home through that very act. About the experience of being always already de-centered, un-grounded, deracinated. For me, Hungary is a place I can miss from here in Manhattan, a place that is not my home; but it is a place where we missed our home, and had to create a home—travelers, mathematical vagabonds that we were—we had to make our own history. Make a q-past, a past that was not really ours, but became ours in the act of living and remembering it. And remembering that is as vivid and real to me as anything. Like Lars, I know every stone by heart.

Siri Hustvedt Discusses Mothers, Fathers, and Others with Danielle Spencer, Harvard Bookstore, 8 December 2021