Barbara Kingsolver’s. Homeland and Other Stories about Another
2In general, we tend to think of homeland as a concept based on geographic territory. however, the eponymous tale questions the notion contained in its title, “homeland”, and eventually invalidates the idea that one’s homeland consists of where one comes from. In fact, as Green Leaf’s family tries to take her back to the place where she grew up as a Cherokee girl of the Clan of Birds, it turns out that the place she knew before has been wiped off the map of America. Since then, Cherokee land has been completely redrawn: “The Hiwassee Valley has a town now, it says ‘Cherokee.’ origin points out the absurdity of the new lines invented to redraw the territory of the united states:
“big mom looked at the colored lines and narrowed her eyes […]. “is this the hiwassee river?”, she wanted to know. “no, those lines are highways now”, [dad] said. […]”well, what is this?” he looked. “that’s the state line.””now why would they put that on the map? you can’t see it.” (8)
3Tragically, despite all the billboards claiming to be authentic, the image we get of the so-called ‘Cherokee’ people betrays the mock tourist trap concocted by American capitalism: “There were more billboards after that, with drawings of cartoon indian kids urging us to buy souvenirs or stay in so-and-so’s motor cabin. the signs were shaped like log cabins and teepees. then we saw a real teepee. it was made of aluminum and taller than a house inside it was a souvenir shop […]” (17) the entire town turns out to be a farce displaying the worst clichés of Native American identity for sale. Tragically, Green Leaf finally concludes, “I’ve never been her before.” (18) The misrepresentation of true Cherokee heritage is further expressed through metonymy, when the family goes to “Cherokee Park” and sees icons of Americana destroying the originally more natural landscape: “Sycamore trees grew on the water’s edge, with sodden, colorful trash floating in circles in eddies around its roots.” (18) In addition, the park displays as its “main attraction” “an old buffalo in a pen,” one-eyed and sick with mange, and “identified by sign as the last remaining buffalo east of the mississippi.” from an emblem of the Indian way of life, in harmony with nature, to a tragic symbol of the Indian genocide carried out by the American civilization, relegating the last Indians to reservations similar to the feather of the buffalo. in this light, “homeland” resonates with its South African meaning, as a euphemism for “reserve”.
4But American Indians are not the only characters who feel excluded from postmodern society. In “dreams of stone”, for example, when the couple goes to the petrified forest national park and follows the itinerary drawn on the map of its visitors, reality seems to be disconnected from the brochure that supposedly reveals the interest of the site: “At each stop we parked the Volvo and walked the hundred yards or so across the desert to sight, hoping that each time we would come close to seeing the real Petrified Forest. Peter tried to make it more impressive by reading excerpts from the pamphlet [.. .]” (97) at the end, the two characters leave disillusioned, having seen nothing of which they could grasp the meaning. In “Islands in the Moon”, Annemarie’s eyes are similarly used to describe the nonsensical simulacrum of a dream location in the trailer park where she lives:
RVs are arranged like shoeboxes along the main drive, with cars and motorcycles parked alongside, just toys in a sandbox. […] the RV park is called “island breeze” and, like the names of most RV parks, it’s a joke. No swaying palm trees. in fact, there is no official vegetation at all, except for cactus plants in straight, symmetrical rows along the path, like some weird desert set up by a child. […] has been an unusually dry spring, although here it doesn’t matter much with the island breeze, where the grass is made of gravel. Some folks, deeply missing the Midwest, have spray-painted its gravel green. (130-33)
5kingsolver’s stories also represent another kind of estrangement by which minorities are excluded from mainstream America. the story “rose-johnny” actually points to the ostracism of blacks and gays. In the eponymous story, Gloria recalls that because of her Cherokee blood, “at the end of every summer [she] had such dark skin [that her] schoolmates made fun of [her], saying that [she] should be sent to black school .” (14) in “why I am a danger to the public”, the Mexican homodiegetic woman-narrator serves to give voice to the misogyny and racism that prevail in the industrial world, while remembering bluntly to his fellow strikers: “ellington wouldn’t have hired me in two million years if it wasn’t for the union raising a ruckus about all people being created equal […]. 235)
6Single mothers are another minority who, as expressed through Annemarie’s sense of separation, can feel left out as soon as they cannot fit into any space designed by the codified world of the majority. Annemarie, in fact, feels like an exile in contemporary America, despite her white Americanity: “Annemarie feels permanently disqualified from either the old-fashioned or the new family. The river, and now she must see the happiness that is represented on the beach of a distant shore.” (133)
7in one of her autobiographical poems, kingsolver also refers to the feeling of exile from oneself, as she has experienced when being raped. She recalls her trauma by analogy with the burglary of her friend’s house: “I tell her that I know, that she will leave. I cannot leave the house. ” (Kingsolver, another America, 37)
8Finally, many characters embody a sense of exile from their own relatives, associates; or friends that reflects a deep feeling of loneliness and a painful inability to communicate the most intimate feelings. In “blueprints”, for example, when lydia realizes that she and whitman have grown apart, her understanding comes with a deep sense of estrangement: “she looks at his hands and his ass and feels that this is someone he has never been with. neither have spoken nor made love.” (28) In “Extinctions”, Grace and Randall’s failure to understand each other is expressed metaphorically in terms of separation: “There has always been this difference between them, a deep chasm that she he can not swim”. 169)
9in the end, just as one’s country of origin can be perceived negatively, as confining and oppressive, so too can home itself be perceived: “in sacramento their friends referred to lydia and whitman as an institution. now the The word makes Lydia think of a building with many windows with upset faces pressing against the glass.” (28) home no longer triggers a longing for it as a place of refuge and comfort, but instead is associated with with a desire to escape the confines of a home perceived as a prison, where one is grounded and must obey the roles established by the space one occupies:
the martyred wife, the absent husband. […] when things were going well, when everyone was telling whitman how evolved he was, the clichés of his parents’ life seemed like a quaint old photograph you’d hang on the wall. now it is not so charming. now it looks like one of those carnival sets where you take a picture with lydia and whitman’s faces looking through the holes. (29)
10the title story finally reinvigorates the dead metaphor in the expression “homeland”, to suggest that one’s true home, in the end, is nothing more than the land itself. in fact, the final vision of the story, respecting the Cherokee tradition, poetically returns the bones of the body of the green leaf, after his death, to the earth where he is buried: “while we turned our backs, the little people would come dancing and pick the flowers [from her grave]. they would kick the jar and run through the woods, swinging the hollow stems over their heads, scattering them like bones.” (22) This last paragraph echoes the teachings of the green leaf for the narrator, according to which the flowers should not be picked so that no one has them, but “should be left where they are”. “You have to leave them for the little people to see,” he explains. “when they die, they will fall where they are, and make a seed for the next year.” (11) the ending, therefore, implies that gloria has remembered her ancestor’s plea, “return [the flowers] to the earth, “for “[the] little people to come and take them away” (12) with the glorious retelling of the stories of their ancestors, their deaths transcended as their cultural heritage lives on through the memory. Blending magical realism with his otherwise realistic story, Kingsolver transcends the idea of death itself with the oxymoronic final painting, reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, in which he reconciles plant and human life, united in their common regenerative capacity. Just as the seeds of flowers return to the earth to be born again through nature’s endless cycles of life and death, so does the marrow within human bones, which can be perceived as the quintessence of life.
11Throughout the collection, the stories point to all life on earth as one great chain of being and thus remind us that, ultimately, our true place of origin, to which we necessarily return , is the earth itself. In the words of Green Leaf, “A flower is alive, as much as you are. A flower is your cousin.” (11) in lydia, the biologist’s vision, “[the] insects, and plants too, are all related to her in a complicated family tree.” (26) oppressed at home, lydia seems to find a more meaning deep sense of belonging in nature: “She leaves the village and walks through the fir forest, content to be among the mosses and beetles. ‘The bugs are our friends,’ Whitman says, teasing her, but Lydia feels this friendship from way more serious than you imagine.” (26) Lydia’s character finds a double in the narrator of “Covered Bridges”. Another biology professor, calling attention to the transcendentalist undercurrent of Kingsolver’s writing: “I’m a great gardener. […] I feel that I commune with nature in the tradition of many thinkers: thoreau, whitman, aristotle. my fellowship is just more domestic. I get inspiration from cauliflowers.” (44) beyond the sense of humor in these passages, both lydia and this last character are read as spokespersons for the kingsolver herself, trained as a scientist, specializing in evolutionary biology and ecology, to which is related as a “religion”.
12As contained in the oxymoron “patria”, our sense of belonging is rooted in culture (“home”) as much as in nature (“land”). Consequently, KingSolver’s characters thrive on a sense of belonging within their community, but also within the larger macrocosm of the cosmos. Hence Jericha’s epiphany achieved through the rite of passage on “jump-up day”, which leads her to a newfound compassion for all living things, as she discovers herself at the center of the universe: “There were worlds under his feet, and above his head too—when they flew over the pythons he had forgotten to look up. There is always something above your head and you are never up or down either, you are in the center.” (201 )
13While most narratives tend to backtrack at the beginning, they also draw lines toward vanishing points outside of previously designed territories. in “homeland”, the poetic ending outlines a new horizon, towards the forest and eternity. in “survival zones”, the ouroboros motif that expresses Roberta’s impression of stasis is finally replaced by the “sunbeam obliquely through the west window”. (118) Roberta’s newfound vanishing point takes her beyond her initial despair in the face of “unwinnable battles against nature.” (105) It is only at the end, when she clearly sees the meaning of her life. , despite the “life change” she is experiencing early (102), that she can fully take charge of her choices. the stories feed on the cyclical energy of natural life, and thus probe nature for symbols of metamorphosis—the butterfly, the egg, the trees and plants, the serpent—thus transcending the tragedy of our individual finitude through through images of transformation.
14Finally, as the “Covered Bridges” narrator concludes of his wife’s near-death experience, “nature, red in teeth and claws […] is just one way of looking at it” . (61) The reference to Tennyson, along with the earlier ones to Nietzsche and Aristotle, point to the cathartic effect of the stories on the reader. through empathy, the reader tends to gain knowledge and wisdom from the experiences of the characters. as they appear in the light of Nietzschean superheroes, we benefit from their enlightened acceptance of our human condition, and from their full adherence to the part of suffering and death that is inseparable from joy and life.
16the falsely smooth surfaces of the stories actually move along fault planes that trigger catastrophic revelations. the earthquake in “fault lines”, or the volcano motif in “jump-up day” and “extinctions”, point to the cracks in the stories that announce the sudden epiphanies represented by the characters. The obsidian in “Dreams of Stone” also functions as a revelation symbol: “Obsidian is rare and quite precious. Technically it is volcanic glass, which suddenly cools when it is dug up from the ground and spewed across miles of heaven .” (90-91) Following this apparently scientific definition, typographic white shows the gap in the deeper meaning of obsidian. metaphorically, the stone refers to the subterranean magma stirring of the unconscious, suddenly concentrated in an epiphany, shooting up to the level of consciousness. the illumination caused occurs when the stone reaches the higher spheres of consciousness, and acquires its brilliance as it rises to the sublime realm of the imagination.
18humanity, the collection reminds us, has in common with the rest of nature an internal memory capacity that, as lydia says, “is something like a model for life”. (37) as the story says “blueprints” implicitly reveals, the unconscious imprint in one’s environment common to most animals and men explains the pattern of reproduction that lydia sums up: “it’s terrifying […] how when the going gets tough you fall back into whatever horrible thing you grew up with.” (29) such internal memory can be as beneficial—as long as it serves for a conscious and voluntary transmission of a cultural heritage—as dangerous— when it works without one being aware, forcing one to reproduce unwanted behavior patterns, however, as the story “blueprints” suggests, though it is not stated (27), the most important thing in the evolution of Ape to Man is man’s unique ability to create symbols, gain self-awareness, and subsequently recreate himself.Whitman’s name and mannerisms in the final painting reveal his character’s status as a singing romantic poet, not the last song song of the dying swan, but rather the song of his own rebirth as he creates a new language, and so he finally reaches face to face with lydia, standing on the opposite bank of the stream:
[whitman spreads] his arms like in the farce of the swan dive and shakes his head “no”. she points to a horizontal circle: that will reach where she is. she should stay there. he looks embarrassed. He points both hands at Lydia and then places them flat on her chest. they are using a sign language unknown to mankind, making it up as they go. she understands that this last gesture is important, and she returns it.”(41)
19Her shaking her head “no” means her refusal to sing the poet’s last song before he dies. In fact, when the story was first published in Mademoiselle in May 1989, its title was “Love’s Lost Language”, following Walt Whitman’s poem “Proud Music of the Storm”, in which the poet listens “the plaintive song / song of love lost—torch of youth and life extinguished in despair, / song of the dying swan” (l. 87-89). Subverting the traditional meaning of the swan, Kingsolver’s diegetic Whitman overcomes his earlier muteness, gesticulating and “inventing a sign language unknown to mankind.”
20Throughout the collection, kingsolver’s writing glorifies creative language as the best survival strategy and as the best way to bridge unwanted gaps. Literature appears as an open space where one is free to remap oneself, thus reclaiming the territories denied by reality: “we lived in the morning glory, a coal town uprooted with sharp blades from a forest that always threatened with walnut trees invaded the town, springing up spontaneously amid the dog pens, front yards, and cemetery.” (2) metonymically, “patria” operates the reclamation of the land by nature and the Cherokee culture against the so-called civilization. Kingsolver’s somewhat clandestine literature digs up secret avenues of resistance, primarily against patriarchal encroachment on the territories of others. hence, in “homeland,” the poetic victory of storytelling suggested in the name of glory st clair, and in the city of morning glory: “the vines that give the city its name crept along the wire fences and climbed up the walls of houses with the persistence of the displaced.” (2) stories yearn further for the healing power of literature: “even the earth beneath us sometimes moves to recover its losses : the long, deep shafts that men dug to steal the coal seams would close again, as silently as the wounds of flesh.” (2)
21The collection advocates peaceful resistance, as also underlined in the book’s last story, “Why I Am A Danger To The Public,” whose title reads like metafictional irony on the part of the implied author. despite the protagonist’s imprisonment, the text approves the superiority of being a “jail bird” rather than a scab. His name, Vicky Morales, implies a moral victory. Thus, it echoes Glory St Clair’s victory in Morning Glory, in the opening story, as well as the Bird Clan’s resistance to being captured by the American government. Home and ideological freedom, expulsion and imprisonment notwithstanding, the Kingsolver stories suggest, are essentially an inheritance that one internalizes and carries within oneself across the boundaries of space. In fact, readers can learn of the Cherokee clan of birds that, despite their removal and flight, “had carried the truth of themselves in a sheltered place within the flesh, in exactly the same way as a fruit that it has become soft, it still carries within itself the clean and hard flesh, the stone of its future.” (2)
22to conclude, kingsolver’s tales attempt to point out man’s ability to recreate himself through artistic creation. in fact, literature appears as a territory that has already been well explored, but that can still be reassigned forever according to one’s need to write a place for oneself in the world. her feminist and multicultural writing, moreover, questions the established assignments of patriarchal and rational concepts. Above all, Kingsolver encourages one to search poetry for new horizons, as summed up in the central metaphor of “islands in the moon,” when Magda says to her estranged daughter: “It seems that’s what you are like. and I “we’re like islands in the moon. There’s no water on the moon,” says Annemarie. “That’s what I mean. a person could walk from one to the other if she simply chose to do so.” (146)