#AWP17 Conference Report — Kristine Langley Mahler on “Home: A Four-Letter Word”

awp#AWP17 Panel: F119. Home: A Four-Letter Word

Description: Home is a loaded word, a complex idea: it’s a place that’s safe, sentimental, difficult, nourishing, war-torn, and political. It’s a place we escape and a place we create. This panel of women writers discuss the ways in which they confront home in their work, including writing within and rebelling against the idea of home as a woman’s place. What choices do we make to reveal, deconstruct, and imagine homes for our characters? In what ways do our homes inform our real and imagined selves?

Panelists: Sonya Chung, Rachel DeWoskin, Kelly McMasters, Hasanthika Sirisena, Elissa Washuta

Conference Report

9:00am, on the second full day of AWP, in a little room tucked in the corner of the basement warren of the Marriott Marquis, Kelly McMasters moderated this panel of four women, all of whom are contributors to the forthcoming anthology Wherever I’m With You (Seal Press), which should be available in November 2017. McMasters commented on the wide variety of approaches that these writers took when discussing what “home” means—the essays all look at home, but acknowledge that it is a complex concept.

Elissa Washuta introduced herself in Cowlitz, naming her mother and father and her grandmothers, and reminded the audience that we were currently on occupied Piscataway land. Washuta read from her piece for Wherever I’m With You and spoke about the difficulty she faces in attempting to identify a home when her lineage is full of fractures. Washuta is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz tribe of Oregon/Washington, though she grew up on the East Coast. When Washuta moved to her current hometown of Seattle, she found that by being closer to the land her ancestors have learned from, land had become a source of knowledge for her: when she calls Seattle home now, it’s because the ancestors are there.

Hasanthika Sirisena chose to speak extemporaneously about home, which is a conflicted subject for her, saying, “I made a conscious decision not to have a home.” Sirisena is Sri Lankan and grew up in North Carolina, knowing many people who were in America only because their homes had been taken by the governments of their home countries. The twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka caused enormous upheaval and a mistrust of home for Sirisena since home was used as the building block of a nationalist ideology—Sirisena reminded the audience that home isn’t necessarily the safe space we think it is. Later, Sirisena spoke at length about how her mother was “the bravest person I know” for creating a home in North Carolina that did not sacrifice her mother’s identity.

Sonya Chung confronted the idea that a woman’s place is in the home—and that home is not always a happy place. Chung’s parents left their homeland and experienced the trauma of settling into a new place, which reverberated through Chung’s childhood in various permutations. Chung incorporated her unsettled feelings about home into the main character from her novel Long For This World—the woman is a photojournalist who only feels at home when she is between places. Chung spoke about the search for home which had plagued her, and the necessity she found to transgress boundaries in order to find a version of “home” which suited her—Chung found it “unusual to live somewhere without pining for another place,” but her current neighborhood is at a crossroads between two neighborhoods, and she finally feels satisfied.

Rachel DeWoskin shared her experience living in Beijing as a child and how she viewed her “house [in America], which had been so central, like a tiny green Monopoly house—so insignificant” in reality. That distance between perception and realizing one’s smallness in the vastness of the world remained with DeWoskin, who noted that if you stay somewhere too long, you can’t see where you are anymore—she said she had to leave both America and China in order to see what her home was. DeWoskin starred in a Chinese soap opera called “Foreign Babes in Beijing” (which cracked the audience up), and DeWoskin told a story about how the directors wanted her character to wear a long fur coat—though she was supposed to be an American college student. When DeWoskin mentioned this disconnect to the producers, they told her that it was, in fact, what the audience thought American college students wore, and DeWoskin realized that “If 1.6 billion people have an idea about my home, even if it isn’t how I see it, that has value.” DeWoskin noted the moral nuance of having been an insider—a Beijing resident—while playing a conspicuous interloper, and ultimately concluded that her “home was contained in the English language.”

***

Kristine Langley Mahler has nonfiction recently published or forthcoming in Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Rock & Sling, and Tahoma Literary Review. Her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, and she is currently researching a grant-funded nonfiction project about immigration/inhabitation on native land. Kristine is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

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