SEPTEMBER 10, 2019
ALL LIFE ON EARTH began as a single cell. From that cell have emerged jellyfish and tulips and athletes and woodlice and donkeys and sous chefs and moss. What force made such variety from a single cell? Call it evolution or call it life itself: experiences through time and the way they change us.
This law of the universe also gives us one of the world’s necessary pains: that life — the quickening, the rapture of experience — comes hand in hand with separation and loss. We live, we change, and in changing we gain and lose. Which makes homesickness an intractable but generative kind of pain. It’s the longing to unify two things that once were one (which is to say, the longing to unify any two things, since all was once one), and all things not separated by death are separated by life. To live with homesickness is to live in the beautifully bruising space of separation created by the rapture of experience.
Star translator Jennifer Croft occupies this space masterfully. Homesick is a coming-of-age story — a memoir of sorts tracking the arc of Croft’s life, though names and details have been changed. Croft charts an Oklahoma childhood, the spark of a fierce intellect, and the kindling of a linguistic skill that carries her first to college in Tulsa at the age of 15, then far from Oklahoma and into the wide world of learning and love affairs and quickening around Europe and Latin America.
Much change, then, but Homesick’s beating heart is Croft’s changing relationship with her sister. For Croft’s protagonist and proxy, Amy, younger sister Zoe is the first and most enduring home. Just as their names bookend the alphabet, these sisters’ characters bookend the spectrum of personality; home to each other perhaps because two sides make one coin. Where Amy is meticulous, careful, curious, with a powerful caretaking tendency most often directed toward Zoe, Zoe is impulsive and strong-willed — and also sick. From an early age, she suffers from mysterious seizures, subjecting her to numerous hospitalizations and surgeries. Croft writes:
What I could never understand, since we were sisters, was how some little tiny stars could misalign in your brain, and not in mine, and just like that instead of being part of me all of a sudden you began to drift away from me, unstoppable, leaving me alone.
In this instance, then, the inevitable separation of two things that once were one begins with the wrench of sickness. The later wedges are more ambiguous, bittersweet: Amy’s early departure from the family home for university and, later, her travels and studies around the world. During these travels, Amy won’t be homesick for Oklahoma but for her sister:
Amy won’t get homesick. She’ll buy hats and a backpack and think about her sister as her hair grows back. […] And as [the bus] drifts off the horizon, Amy will close her eyes and wish that she could have her sister back, nearby, but when she opens up her eyes again, Zoe won’t be anywhere in sight.
Where does this missing come from? Death or separation? While Amy was at college, Zoe fell sick again and was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus, hemochromatosis, and the possible return of her brain tumor. Croft leaves her fate ambiguous for some time afterward, forcing readers to consider the difference between death and separation. Aren’t all separations a kind of death, made tolerable only by the births of new experience? Hence a habit Amy develops: instead of indulging homesickness, she goes to a café, orders a café crème, and immerses herself in it, as an intuitive kind of life affirmation.
She picks her cup up, gazes out across its snow-white cap as its perimeter comes undone from the ceramic in tiny almost imperceptible pops that turn it iridescent brownish gray. When she’s ready, Amy fits the cup back into its groove on its saucer, relishing the sound.
With its tiny pops and snow-white cap, this cup holds the thematic core of Homesick: life creates loss, but each second of a life brims with consolation. And besides, since change is inevitable, what’s the alternative? Death?
Amy doesn’t automatically or even easily land in such sanguinity and zen, calmly sipping a café crème. During a particularly turbulent period of change in her teenage years, she experiments with this only alternative to change: death. Shortly after Zoe’s diagnosis and the suicide of Sasha — the sisters’ childhood Russian and Ukrainian tutor and Amy’s first, illicit love interest — Amy attempts suicide. Sitting in her dorm room with her box of mementoes, she swigs cough syrup and vodka, takes pills, and works at her wrist with a box knife. The pain of separation — from the Zoe of her childhood, from Sasha, from a former life in which both were available — is unbearable. Still a teenager, Amy hasn’t yet found a way to weather the pain of loss by embracing the life and change that create it.
It’s translation that saves her. Lying in hospital after her suicide attempt, Amy works on some Russian homework, translation. The world lights up. “Each time a Russian word meets an English word it generates a spark,” Croft writes. “Amy understands: the world’s not small, unless by small you mean infinite.” Here, then, is the seat of Croft’s great gift as a translator, which has already propelled her to a Man Booker International Prize and the cream of her craft. Translation takes expertise and linguistic skill, but also a certain emotional genius. It’s an art of empathy, requiring its practitioners to enter another’s mind at the deepest level, and also an art of living in the space between things, of comfort in the liminal.
In this way, translation itself is a form of homesickness, of the most generative kind. It takes place precisely in that beautifully bruising space between things separated by life itself. The thousands of languages spoken in the world today (and all those that have now died) forked not from a single cell but from common roots — a few hundred protolanguages. Each change, each complexification, each moment in a tongue’s trickle from protolanguage to its own form is also the work of life itself: the lived experiences of the language’s speakers though time. Each word, like each person and each place, carries history and is gathering it still, changing with each utterance. Or, in Croft’s words:
The journeys a word makes are not fully fathomable (a fathom was once an embrace, or the measure of an armspan), part of what sets it apart from its semantic kin, giving rise to words that look the same and come from the same home but that mean completely different things now, like casualty and casualidad (which is just coincidence in Spanish).
It’s locating the shimmering life force of this constant change in words that gives Amy (and by extension Croft) the strength to trust in the necessity and beauty of change in people and everything else in life. Translation saves her life, and her life, in turn, equips her to translate.
The memoir is titled Homesick, but what does Croft mean by homesickness? There’s the sickness of her true home, her sister. Then there’s the missing, yearning quality of the word. Amy rejects the maudlin nostalgia most English speakers most readily associate with the term, repeatedly disavowing any such feeling. And yet it’s the memoir’s title — and the book is strung through with photographs, captioned, cumulatively, with a letter to Croft’s sister. There are childhood pictures: the sisters playing on a climbing frame, or sitting before a birthday cake, Croft in a party dress and hair ribbon, her sister’s head bandaged. And there are pictures of Croft’s travels: hot pink letters on the transparent railing of Paris’s Pont des Arts, a cow before a train emblazoned with French graffiti, buildings and woods and a mountain through a ship’s porthole.
Photography, of course, is a great prop and crutch of the homesick and nostalgic. It’s also a form of rebellion against change. “Every picture,” Croft writes of her photography:
is a portrait of Zoe because Amy’s intentions as a photographer have never wavered, although she herself had never known of them till now. What she wants — what she’s always wanted — is to capture and to fix forever the presence of her sister, to contain her, to never let her go, or break, or even change.
For all her disavowal of homesickness in the traditional, nostalgic sense of the word — the sense that wills the end of change, the reversal of time — Amy has been harboring a form of it all along, in her pictures. And all the better, since the change she learns to embrace is meaningless without history.
Fittingly then, given its themes, Homesick is, in its broadest interpretation, the story of a word. Over the course of the memoir, Croft recasts the term just as all words are ever recast: through life experiences. She holds the word’s history, its traditional meaning of missing and melancholy and pain, and adds cafés crèmes and trains and planes and surgeries and love affairs and all the other stuff of life. Best of all, she reminds us that each word, like each life, is ever being written, and that the generative space she opens is available to all. Change is life, and Homesick is an exercise in conscious, delicate, joyful change.
The author will appear at Skylight Books on September 17, at 7:30 p.m., to discuss Homesick with novelist Marisa Silver.