French Friday: We Are ALL From One Place

Of all people immigrants have an acute sense of what straddling worlds means. But the importance of the place that has seen us grow leaves permanent prints all over our heart and defines our beliefs and misbeliefs, regardless of being or not an immigrant. This place that shapes us – whether with good or bad events – matters to anyone of us.

Over the last ten days I read one memoir, a young adult novel and watched a movie, realizing only lately that despite the first impression all three treat of worlds that meet and collide, ultimately forcing the characters to face the importance of their first home.

In Hillbilly Elegy the author J.D. Vance writes about his childhood and youth spent between Middletown, Ohio where he was born and has lived most of the time, and Jackson, Kentucky where his family was from.

There are many reasons to love and to be wary of this book. The author has really lived among true hillbillies and has seen the worst and the best of the so-called Appalachian values. Substance abuse and violence counter balanced by unconditional loyalty and love of country make it for a confusing upbringing. But as a conservative, Vance shows little patience for the ones who have nothing, often making them responsible for their own misfortune. He claims his hillbilly-ness and seeks responses to the crisis that affect the American white working-class in this part of the country, but his ties to some of the bigggest Trump’s campaign donors can only trigger legit questions. The topic of his memoir is serious but the writing is approachable and I highly recommend the book so you make your own opinion. Here is a New York Times review of the book and here an opinion published in the Jackson Times-Voice. You can also hear the author’s Ted Talk.

The core of the memoir remains about the importance that geography plays in our lives, also the aspect that moved me most when I read it.

No one chooses her/his place of birth. Like one’s first name it is a pure accident and yet so powerful. So powerful that in fact most of us either spend our lives where we were born or close by or leave for an entirely different region, country, or even continent, sometimes to come back much later.

J. D. Vance for example couldn’t wait to leave the poverty of Middletown, a now-decaying Ohio steel town filled with Kentucky transplants. But he still spoke with obvious affection of his family living there and of the physical beauty of eastern Kentucky.  Lately, after living in San Francisco he has returned to Columbus, Ohio, where he studied at Ohio State before going to Yale Law School. Columbus is the city he calls home.

The author’s journey from poverty to professional and personal success is fascinating and very rare. He thanks his grandparents for being the reason behind. Despite their own excesses, they poured constant love inside little J.D. when his mother was abusing drugs and creating havoc around her with numerous temporary boyfriends. His grandmother was particularly loving and pulled him through. And four years in the Marines completed the transformation from a pure hillbilly to a guy who could venture in the world, says Vance.

He  drank, though, sparkling water for the first time at Yale, thinking it was Sprite lacking sugar. This is also at Yale that he learned how to dress for interviews, realizing that what looked extraordinary to him was banal for most of his classmates. Growing up in a hectic environment where conflicts were dealt with fists and not words, he also learned to express his feelings with honesty and not anger. Not an easy task!

Thanks to my parents, I have not lived an abusive childhood neither witnessed domestic violence or the consequences of substance abuse. But Vance’s discoveries of a sophisticated world echoed some of my own.

A whole pear served on my plate for breakfast as I stayed at a middle school friend for a sleepover puzzled me once. As I started to bite inside as I did with apples, I realized that everyone was using a fork and a knife to peel the fruit and then cut it in pieces small enough to be eaten without juice dribbling down the chin.

In my first year of middle school, located only a few miles away from my small village, I also pretended to be fluent in music notation when I understood that I was the only one who had not studied sight-reading. My one-room elementary school teachers had taught me how to read and gosh did I read! But musical education was not for working-class or rural kids.

Years later, a set of unknown cheese knives confused me, too, while they seemed so familiar to a college friend of mine.

In The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas writes about sixteen-year-old Starr Carter who lives in a poor black part of town by night and studies in a posh private high school by day. Her life is distinctly separated between these two worlds, creating from the very beginning issues in her neighborhood where she still has friends and at school where she has made new friends, primarily white boys and girls. Even her clothes and language are different whether she’s in one or the other place.

Starr is deeply aware of straddling two worlds and already struggles with the notion of allegiance. When one of her closest childhood friends, someone she sees less now that their worlds rarely meet, is shot by a policeman in her presence, these two worlds must meet.

The Hate U Give is first and foremost a novel based on the numerous police shootings of unarmed young African Americans, tragic events that triggered the movement Black Lives Matter.

The same question through the entire novel, however, is: Can you straddle two very different worlds and still remain the same person? Can you stay loyal to your kin while living away? Starr often finds herself in such different settings that she wonders who she is. In the white comfortable world of her school friends she is tempted to defend her neighborhood, her people, her tribe. At home, she also realizes how impossible it is for her people to understand that everything white is not always bad.

In the end, she has to find her voice and tells the truth about what happened the night her chidlhoood friend was shot. From a girl split between two worlds she becomes an activist or at least someone keenly aware of the deeply disparate lives people can live, only miles away from each other.

Lady Bird aka Christine McPherson is also a high school student in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut movie Lady Bird. The story tells of the emotional rollercoaster of adolescence and of Lady Bird’s exceptionally strong but butt-headed relationship with her mother who we imagine being exactly like her daughter at the same age.

Since the story is set between 2002 and 2003, in Sacramento, California it is also a film about the power of a birthplace on human’s psyche. Anyone who has lived in post 9/11 California has also lived the rapidly changing American economic backdrop, largely due to the end of what was called then the dot.com boom.

Lady Bird’s family is directly impacted when her middle-aged father loses his job. They already live on the other side of tracks, as Lady Bird puts it. Her home is not set along one of those tree-lined Sacramento streets where the wealthiest residents live. Her mother can be a hardworking nurse, clothes are bought at thrift stores and money is tight, moreover since Lady Bird’s parents have sent her to a private catholic school – no doubt to get a better education. There, she meets economically and financially diverse kids.

Opinionated but big-hearted and impossibly likeable, Lady Bird has one dream: leaving Sacramento and California. She has harsh words against the city and the state. The delta has always been frowned upon as being agricultural. People there often argue that they are not part of Central California, a region even less desirable for many. Sacramento is still quite diverse and greatly benefits from the proximity of UC Davis, located about fifteen miles away. But as local kid, Lady Bird doesn’t want to attend UC Davis but study in “a place filled with culture.” A dream that I could easily understand as someone who has also lived in a French region considered rural and remote from cultural life.

Lady Bird sometimes lies about her address and even pretends living somewhere else. She goes great length to avoid being seen with her parents, mostly because they don’t drive a recent car. Again, these details rang so many familiar bells. I was so impressed by some of my middle and high school friends’ homes that I prayed they would never show up at my much smaller and less comfortable house.

I don’t want to brandish the Spoiler Alert flag, so I won’t go into more details, moreover since there are countless small details in this movie that tell so much and show the talent of the director.

As an example, just a brief conversation between Lady Bird and a boy she meets at a party, toward the end of the film when she has just started college.

“What’s your name?”

“Christine.”

“David. So where are you from?”

“Sacramento.”

“Where?”

“San Francisco.”

It is when she is in New York City that Lady Bird takes back her given name. This is also there that she understands the importance of place for oneself. And where she considers her mother’s feelings about Sacramento, a city that will forever tie them.

This short dialogue moved me since I also lied on occasions after realizing that the name of my hometown resonated with no one but me. Much later, of course, I understood that it shouldn’t have mattered.

We are ALL from one place. And even though we may leave it behind we are still from there. There is no particular pride or shame to draw from it, only perhaps respect and affection for a small corner of earth that shaped the person we became.

Besides the common theme of home that serves as a crucial backdrop, the role that one or more persons plays in a child’s life is very important in these books and movie. Whether it is J. D. Vance’s grandparents and particularly his grandmother or Starr’s mother and father but also uncle or still Lady Bird’s mother, each of the characters receive love, sometimes brutally bold, sometimes embarrassing, always unconditional.

Ultimately, as seedy or posh home is, love is still what defines it and what matters most.

From my home to yours

 

Comments

  1. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about The Hate U Give!

  2. A very powerful exploration of where we come from Evelyne. Like you I was a working class child and for my early childhood, I mixed with others like me. Later, in high school, I met people who were middle class and always felt less comfortable in that world. I don’t think it’s easy to straddle two worlds – I was the first in the family to go to university and I often felt that I didn’t fit in.

    • I’m so glad to read your comment, Andrea. You write so well about the sense of place that I hoped to see you here today. I feel exactly like you. I was also the first one to go to university but also to high school. And yet my parents were literate and smart. But I felt displaced for a while in places and situations that were unknown to me. And I’ll always feel an immediate bond for the people who experienced these feelings. Thank you for stopping by.

  3. A lovely post, Evelyne. Happy weekend hugs.

  4. I lived away from here long enough to do a lot of questioning. Ultimate, I came “home” because I knew where home was and it was here, not there. These days, I wonder if I made the right choice. Maybe we should go back “there,” but of course it was my home, never Garry’s.

    We watched a movie today that you should see when you can: “The Last Flag.” It is philosophically and politically the story of our lives on a lot of levels. Our generation, with Vietnam in the background and all the wars in the middle and now … well … the horribleness of now.

    I haven’t read any of those books and I don’t know if I will, possibly because I feel so overwhelmed already, I am not sure how much more emotional conflict I can handle. This is a very difficult time and I don’t yet know how it will end and where we will be when it is over.

  5. LIke you, though being poor, I am ever so glad my parents weren’t abusive to one another. (though my mother harangued sometimes…)

    I had a good white friend with whom I was fascinated by her beautiful parents’ middle class home with beautiful décor, etc. But then later, the parents divorced, her adopted brother got into trouble with drugs, etc….. However it was from knowing my best friend, the ways and habits of middle class folks.

    Since my father was a cook, working class, etc. and their friends were working class people, when I went to work after university in my first professional job, I had no role models. I had to learn quickly how to carry myself professionally, how to phrase myself…fortunately my supervisor was happy to mentor me.. And she did and later became just a good friend in my life, until she died 10 months ago.

    • Your experiences, Jean echo so many of mine. Learning from diverse people remain the best way to find ourselves. I am sorry that someone who mattered so much to you passed away. Must have been hard for you. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  6. It’s interesting when we see bits of ourselves in other people’s stories. There are elements that you’ve described, that I can definitely relate to.

    • Isn’t it, Dan? I was reading Jean’s comment above yours and felt the exact same way. This is why people will often connect quite instinctively with the ones who belong to their social class. This is also why social class can be a booster for some or a barrier for others. As always I appreciate your visit and comment.

  7. A wonderful post! I love the common threads and themes you found in such different pieces. I come from “the wrong side of the tracks,” but I was taught not to be ashamed of it. My husband, from the same place, was always ashamed of it. So he’s always wanting the house to look “just so” and I don’t care what anybody thinks if our furniture doesn’t match. It’s pretty funny, actually!

    • I know this “just so” scenario from many people in my life, Marian. Sometimes people are completely shaped by the absence of things they never had, thinking they mean something they don’t.
      I’m just going to finish my commenting here. I loved this post, and am yet again, feeling the need to add to my TBR.
      My parents’ generation = the climbers in my family, from working class roots to white collar. My mother never held a working class job until she retired. My father was an entrepreneur, and a BIG believer in everyone having both a trade and a career. My stepdad went from farmer to business owner in the span of ten years.I was raised with what I would call working class values.This meant, above all else, I’m not better than anyone else, all jobs are equally important, and nothing in life is/ should be handed to anyone.
      I lived in a middle class neighborhood as a youth, and was well aware that we did not vacation where our neighbors did, or buy new cars as often, that sort of thing. At school, I would discover a level of affluence I still can’t fathom. Those kids truly were handed everything, and seeing them as adults, frequently it seems to have impacted them badly.
      So I would say I was in the middle, back and forth between kids who really did get shiny new cars with big red bows on Christmas morning, and kids who worked to buy old cars and repair them. I would say the middle is the best place to be, straddling those worlds, having relatives and friends in various ‘status’ slots, teaches us a lot about what’s really important, makes it easier to relate to more people. It’s all relative, but regardless, it shapes us.
      I made most of my best friends on “the wrong side of the tracks” because that’s where I found my people. Married one of those people. I contend I live among my people. Their jobs, colors, income, educations all vary, but you can be sure I have more in common with them than I do with those I grew up around. I bet there aren’t any cheese knives within a mile of here! LOL I have a grater and a cheese wire, and I’d bet that’s the norm. My mother would probably make a quiet private comment to me about how cheese knives are for people who have more money than sense, but to a person using one, she’d probably say “Well isn’t that nice?” 😉

    • I’m glad you liked my post, Joey. I really like your comment 🙂
      And your funny thing about cheese knives! And your mom is right. The unusual for some is the norm for others.
      So yes, ideally we should experience life with diverse set of people, in different parts of the country and different neighborhoods within these towns. In the end, we are always people. See you on your blog, Joey.

  8. Very interesting, Evelyne. I can identify with much of what you are writing about. There were a lot of awkward times as I worked on figuring out who I was/am. I was fortunate along the way to have some great mentors. I chuckled about Sacramento, since I lived there for 30 plus years. The town has something of a complex itself, about who and what it is. People often brag about being close to San Francisco and the Bay Area and to Lake Tahoe and the mountains. You rarely hear them brag about being from Sacramento. –Curt

  9. As a longtime California resident I’m not suprised about your comment. Away from CA most Americans think of CA being SF and LA. Since the high tech explosion the Bay Area and of course the coast and Napa. But there is so much more land stuck in between where people live and are often dismissed as rural and more…
    I’m glad you found pieces to relate to in this post. See you on your blog.

  10. Such a thought=provoking post Evelyne.. I am still thinking about the implications… having lived in so many place, that it was only when I came to live in NZ at the age of 32, that I dared to buy a potted plant, as a symbol of putting down roots !!!

  11. Behind the Story says:

    My first home and birthplace is called Sedro-Woolley, a small town that was known in our state at the time of my childhood as the location of one of the state’s mental hospitals. So now and then people made jokes about being from Sedro-Woolley.

    When we lived abroad, there was much to get used to, but before long, I made friends and felt at home there. The expatriate community was like a small town. But though we were abroad for twenty years, it was just an episode in my life. Eventually we came back to the United States. I live now about 70 miles from Sedro-Woolley in a town that’s just right for me. I’m comfortable here. My sister lives nearby; My kids come to visit. I think you put it well: “love is still what defines (home) and what matters most.”

    • What an interesting story, Nicki! What were the odds for you, after so many years abroad, to return so close to the place that saw you as a child!
      I’m happy for you that you feel home there and that you agree about love making any place home.

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