A few days ago I was at the Lowell Folk Festival, which has been running for the last 26 years. Lowell is an old mill town on the Merrimac River in Massachusetts and for a long time has attracted sizable immigrant populations. The festival itself reflects some of the international quality of Lowell, with performers who emigrated to the U.S. from various parts of the world. Besides the wonderful music (and the food and crafts), the festival is in many ways a celebration of diversity — and, for each ethnic group, a celebration of their original home country.
While listening to a Portugese fado singer, I began thinking about this whole notion of home, and of the desire to return to it through artistic creation, particularly through writing and, more particularly, through the writing of children’s literature.
“There’s no place like home,” says Dorothy. There aren’t all that many statements that most of us remember, but this is one of them. There must be a reason for that. As for Dorothy, all of her adventures, as fabulous as they are, take place in order for her to return home.
Home, where she first started, is the final destination of her journey, as it probably is for many of our journeys. Of course, once she returns, there is a difference, a shadow of the world of Oz, a memory and recognition of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the core of identity in the ordinary people around her. It’s not exactly a circle that takes us back home but a spiral. We return, but on a somewhat different level.
I thought a little about my own writing. I haven’t lived in New York City for thirty years, and in Brooklyn for longer than that, but most of my books take place there. Why?
Surely the place which appears in my writing isn’t the “real” Brooklyn or New York City. At least in most ways it’s not. Brooklyn for me is colored by the blue tint of nostalgia. I know that. It’s an ideal place, a place of yearning.
Before Brooklyn, at least certain sections of it, became hip, it was less sparkly. In fact, it was a bit of an outsider, if you can call a place that. Maurice Sendak talks about Brooklyn being just across the bridge from the real place, Manhattan, the city of bright lights, where the movie palaces, the snazzy restaurants and the fancy stores could be found. For me, Brooklyn is a place of longing, of possibility, a place where unexpected and magical things can happen, perhaps because it lives in my memory from a time when I saw the world that way. But there’s grit there too, and particularity of color and taste and odor — all those things that make remembered places worth visiting again.
This is the Brooklyn I return to in my writing. Although fabricated, it retains some sense of authenticity. Like all utopias it actually exists nowhere. It is a memory place, lit and shadowed by my own desires. A desire to return to family and neighborhood. A desire to return to my place of origin. (And what thoughts this brings: the old belief that the soul descended from the heavens to earth and it is our desire to return back to that heavenly origin; of dying and going home in gospel songs; or of my own father’s last words to me — “I want to go home.”)
But back to the fado singer, with her longing for Portugal and her passionate songs of love, generally of the unrequited kind (“I would rather die / Than see you and wish I were dead”). And then to the next group, Garifuna singers (an ethnic minority from Nicaragua and Belize) — how wonderful and soulful they were, with their pleading voices and desire to return. And we were all, strangely enough, returning with them and with the other groups we heard — to Nicaragua, to Portugal, to Ireland, to the Cape Verde Islands. Through an artistic creation, we may not have been going back specifically to our own home, but we still had a sense of going home, with the richness of that return resounding within us.