It’s little more than a funny coincidence that two books with the same name are coming out within a month of each other this fall. The books are completely different—one is a memoir, the other a collection of short stories. Their shared name doesn’t lead to the same questions as the year of the two Prefontaine movies or the year of the two Capote movies. Far more productive is the question of what each author is doing with the word and metaphor of homesickness, and what would lead them to separately title their books the same way.
Jennifer Croft’s memoir, a hybrid creature with color photographs and oblique, present-tense narration of a strange childhood, breaks the compound up into its two words: sick and home. The memoir concerns sisters named Amy and Zoe, who must be Croft and her sister, but who are renamed and narrated in close third person rather than first. Amy is older than Zoe by about four years and extraordinarily different from her: Zoe has idiopathic seizures and spends a lot of time in the hospital, while Amy is so gifted she begins college at 15. Their family is rather isolated, or at least that is the reader’s impression. Only a small handful of people other than Zoe and her parents appear in the book, and both daughters are homeschooled.
Perhaps appropriately, Croft’s concerns are close to eye level. Her Homesick is unease, a longing for family, and even linguistic concerns:
I wouldn’t know how to translate homesick, either, without sacrificing something—like the clash of its component parts…Words owe their very existence to distance, although their deepest purpose is to overcome it; this is the most true for words like saudade, hiraeth and even homesick, a word I’ve always loved—but never thought I felt, until today.
It’s an impressionistic piece of work, threaded multiply, telling the story in one register through short, detail-laden chapters, in a second through beautiful, haunting photographs, and in a third, most lyrically, through the captions to those photographs. The same questions that apply to autofiction (how much is true? why add a layer of fiction to real experiences? is this a book or a performance?) also apply to Croft’s Homesick, but the book is labeled a memoir, not a novel, which makes these questions all the more puzzling. Nevertheless, her book is an exacting, enthralling piece of work, weaving the fabric of childhood so colorfully as to make it three-dimensional, pushing and tugging memoir into new and intriguing shapes.
Homesick is Croft’s first book, but she is a well-lauded translator, having won the Man Booker International Prize for translating Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights and a slew of prestigious literary fellowships from organizations such as Fulbright, the NEA, and Tin House. Amy, Croft’s stand-in, also has a gift for languages, but the emotional truth of that gift is much crueler than Croft’s resume.
Meanwhile, Nino Cipri has named their collection of short stories after the definition of “homesick” that describes the major drawback of summer camp. A nagging feeling of displacement and longing, writ large among the problems of 21st century life. These stories are delicious speculative confections, as masterful as Kelly Link’s but even more approachable. Three of them deal with the specter of “home” directly: “She Hides Sometimes,” in which a house vanishes, room by room, as the narrator’s mother loses her mind; “Dead Air,” in which an audio interview project reveals a young woman’s deadly and unbreakable tie to her hometown; and, most significantly, “Presque Vu,” in which the main character, Clay, physically coughs up house keys as part of his particular haunting. Most people in “Presque Vu” have a haunting, whether they receive postcards or phone calls or mixtapes. Cipri sketches rather than explains the world of this story, but homelessness, as in rootlessness, is certainly part of the picture: “Billboards along the road still advertised new homes, built to order. But the project had stalled. None of the homes were built, and all that remained were enormous gouges in the ground where they’d dug foundations.” A failure to grow homes rather than a souring of the existing ones.
But home as a place that becomes sick is also part of Cipri’s vision for Homesick. “She Hides Sometimes” makes literal the sense of a home’s changing once the heart of the home—the family—leaves:
She was in her parents’ bedroom, a room once as familiar as her own. She’d slept in here when she was a baby, in a crib next to her parents’ bed…she had burrowed deep into the armoire, touching her father’s suits to her cheek, opening shoe boxes, rubbing her mother’s dresses and scarves between her fingers.
And now, even the way sounds echoed and air moved was different. Was wrong.
For Cipri, home is elusive, problematized, and an ache for home encompasses a desire for acceptance, safety, and even innocence. Many of the stories’ characters are queer, which complicates their search for a place to land comfortably. Additionally, Cipri’s fiction carries with it a particular flavor of angry despair common among Millennials and younger people. In the background of their challenging lives, Cipri’s characters worry that the environment may be destroyed beyond repair, and that they may not have a home on this planet anymore in a few dozen years, much less a home among their families.
Both books tackle the weight of homesickness, but they do so in innovative and individual ways. It’s a testament to both writers’ imaginations that they stretch the definitions of “home” and “homesick” to mean so many different things, and to function in their books in such distinct ways. Croft’s interpretation is often scholarly, testing the limits of language to say what she means, while Cipri’s is at once fanciful and menacing. Both books are remarkably strong debuts, at turns personal and involving while keeping one eye ever on that tricky title.
by Jennifer Croft
Unnamed Press, 256 p.
by Nino Cipri
Dzanc Books, 208 p.