Margot Kahn and Kelly McMasters have each been described as landscape writers. Kahn mapped the American West in the biography Horses that Buck and McMasters’ memoir, Welcome to Shirley, grappled with a hometown that was as dangerous as it was idyllic. In subsequent work, both writers found themselves writing and thinking about the places harder to locate on a map and much harder still to define: home. Kahn and McMasters are the editors of the recently published This Is the Place: women writing about home, featuring essays by thirty women writers who explore the complex and messy business of making, being, and leaving—or sometimes escaping—home.
Erin Ehsani spoke with the two editors via conference call from her living room in New York City this winter. Kahn dialed in from her home in Seattle, Washington, and McMasters from her home in Port Washington, New York.
Erin Ehsani (EE): When I got a copy of this book I was actually packing up my apartment. This Is the Place gave me the opportunity to think about home and what that means, and it made me pay attention to the way that people use the word. I became conscious of how these meanings and ideas change from person to person, and this is so much of what you interrogate with the collection. Could you tell me where it began for you?
Margot Kahn (MK): It started for me with my grandparents. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house when I was growing up, and my mom was a single mom. My grandparents had come to this country from Poland — they had both left at the outbreak of World War II—and neither of them ever returned. They really didn’t even like to speak of it. When I was a little girl I used to ask them to tell me what it was like where they grew up. The stories were filled with so much beauty and nostalgia – and also a lot of pain.
As I grew older, I did the thing where I moved around a lot from place to place to try to figure out where I was going to make a home for myself. Eventually I fell in love, and my husband and I decided to settle in Seattle, which was a place that I had chosen, even before I met him, for [its] sheer beauty, and the way I felt in this landscape. When we had our son, that topic came up again. Where are we going to live, how are we going to create a home for not just ourselves, but this other human being? Around that time I had [written] all these short essays. I laid them out all on the table and I looked at them, and I said, “What do all these essays have in common?” And the thing that I found was the theme of home. There was a piece about my relationship with my neighbors, a piece about my husband and I renovating our house, a piece about moving in New York City from one place to another. There was a piece about my grandmother, and my relationship with her, and her relationship with her homeland. And then I thought, you know, this actually would be much more interesting if it was a collection of voices instead of just my voice. That was how it all came to be. The rest is sort of mechanics.
EE: Kelly when Margot contacted you, why did it resonate so deeply with you?
Kelly McMasters (KM): I think when I got Margot’s email, I just thought, “Oh my God! I need to do this.” I had been working on a collection of essays that I’m still working on, that take this home question out to rural Pennsylvania. Those stories of what a small town is like, and what the people are like, and what makes home were all circling around my head. But I’d just left that home in rural PA, and my husband, and moved with my two sons three hours away to Lancaster, and was having trouble writing. When I thought about the concept of home, I realized I was consumed with how to make a home, what is important in making a home, and safety. Margot was maybe initially thinking of something more nostalgic and sweet. She had an essay in mind that I’d written about the old farmhouse in Pennsylvania where we lived together. I realized, “Oh, I’m actually thinking about the destruction of home.”
When the [contributors’] essays came in, it was an interesting experience for me to read about everyone else’s disruption and destruction: when home comes together and when it’s torn apart. I was weighing my own failures off the page as I was trying to reconstruct home for my children, while also trying to bring critical distance as an editor. But ultimately, I think it was a very enriching, yet sometimes painful experience.
EE: That touches on so many of the themes that run throughout the book, and all of the different ways people come to home. How did your own ideas of home change from when you started this project to when you submitted the last edit? Did you have any shift in perspective or big insight?
MK: Right now I would say if there’s anything that ran through all of these pieces for me, that changed my view, it is how much things are constantly changing even when you think they’re static or stable. This might just be sort of an ever present metaphor, but here in Seattle, we live surrounded by fault lines. They’re everywhere underneath us. Some of us live in areas of town that have been built on backfill, some people live on bedrock, and some people live in these kind of mushy areas. It’s not really a question of if, it’s more a question of when there will be an earthquake. What’s going to happen to each area of town, who’s going to be flooded, who’s house is going to turn into a pile of rubble, and who’s going to be okay? I don’t mean for it to sound like disaster’s going to strike for everyone, but just to say that there is constant movement in life. Much as we try to build something stable, if that’s our goal, we just never know what is coming down the pike.
There are essays in the book that talk about resisting the urge of stability and the desire to keep moving, to be on the move, and to really sort of relish in that constant state of change. Either way I think that my personal view of home was maybe a little too static, and that I wasn’t embracing the idea of this inevitable constant change, and how to find beauty in that and be sort of in the flow.
KM: You know, I love Margot’s answer so much and I think the first thing I thought when you asked [your question] is actually very close to what she’s describing. The idea of control. I was in a period of my life where I was holding the reins so tightly, that it was so important what kind of breakfast cups my children were going to drink their milk out of. I thought I was a failure because I had taken all this cast-off furniture from my friends. This home that I was building was structurally and visually so different from the one I thought I would build when I had children. And what I realized with a lot of these essays was that the sweet spots, the parts that bring nostalgia, are the feelings and the people, not the stuff. That was a real comfort that I was able to look at my own home in a different way, and not just see second-hand furniture. I have made the decision to cover an entire wall in our living room with the kids’ artwork, and we call it the Wall of Awesome. That was something we’d never done before, and I hope they think of when they think of home.
I was really happy to see that idea reflected in a lot of the essays, like Desiree Cooper’s story about her military family. Every time they had to move every two years, the mother would make the same living room over and over with the same objects. It’s not about the kind of house they are in, but just a reminder that we’re in this together. The kind of home that I aspire to build is one with that feeling of “we’re in this together.” I don’t think I would’ve been able to see that answer before working on this project.
EE: In that essay that you’re referring to, the mother is creating this consistency home to home, and the author is using it as an opportunity for reinvention every time. “Who do I get to be?” That stuck with me as I was packing up my apartment recently and I was like, “How am I going to change my life when I move five blocks?”
KM: You know, every mid-August I still get that sense of reinvention when I go school supply shopping. This is the year I’m going to write, I’m going to finish my syllabi before they’re due. You remember feeling that as a kid. And you know, it never happens.
EE: Yeah, it’s fun to dream, though. Many of the essays in this collection grapple with these inherited ideas of home and revisit childhood, because that’s where we first learn to make home—even if it’s defined by absence or lack, whether that absence means parents, safety, shelter, or even a country. As mothers who write about your children, can you talk about how this book changed the way that you communicate this idea of home, or how you create home for your family?
KM: What I love is that the writers in the collection show women beyond just their label as grandmother or mother and as complicated humans. It’s not the grandma baking cookies; It’s the grandmother in the Caribbean who built her own house and garden. For me I think it also shifted the idea that I had to be a certain type of mother, or that I had to be just a mother, [to] asking my children more about what they want, what they enjoy about our home, what they do not want in our home, and what would they change in our home. Asking myself these questions too and trying to give myself the space to figure it out. Looking at these women and grandmothers in the essays, a lot of them did have failures and made wrong decisions. Some of them made all the right decisions and yet, the world moved against them, and either they lost something or they lost sight of something. It’s really about the small moments, rather than having the perfect architecture— because, like Margot said, you can be on the fault line and the whole world can crumble.
EE: When we look at generational patterns, and how these ideas passed from grandmother to mother to daughter, we can see how home starts to reflect the political situation at large, or societal norms, and so can limit or extend opportunities. Margot, I wonder if you can talk a little bit more about how this is true of the experience that you wrote about in your essay.
MK: Finding myself in this role of a mother and of primary caregiver —this was a role that my mother and grandmother played. When my parents got divorced, and my dad got remarried, it was a role that my step-mother played. It was also a role that my mother-in-law played, and her mother, and so on. I had many friends who grew up in different scenarios; my friend who was one of four siblings and her mother was a lawyer and they had a governess, or my friend who was raised by a single mother who was a doctor and provided for her and her daughter. That was not my primary experience, nor was it my husband’s primary experience. So we grew up with this sort of understanding that it’s important for the mother to be home raising her children.
The economic fact was that I was working for a non-profit organization and my husband was working in software, and he made more money than I did. My choice was at that point to go back to work and pay a nanny basically every penny I would make, or just stay home myself. And so I chose to stay home. While I was home, I had a lot of time to think about what I was doing here at home. I’m not going to lie; it was very difficult. I wasn’t a woman who always dreamt about my wedding, having a baby, and being a mother. I wasn’t a mother who was like, “Isn’t every single moment amazing?” People would say that to me and I would just cringe. During that time I was thinking about the power dynamics of my household, and I was also looking out into the larger world and thinking, “What is everybody else dealing with?” The United States is the only developed nation in the world that has no family leave policy as a country. We talk about feminism and we talk about women and work. We talk about equal rights and we talk about equal pay, and we talk about shrinking the wage gap. But so much of it boils down to: can women really make a fair choice if their jobs are not secured? If they’re going to lose money by taking time off to raise their children?
EE: Homemaking is a political act. I appreciate your effort in this collection to assemble perspectives and viewpoints that broaden that picture, and represent so many different kinds of experiences and ways of being in the world and ways of defining home.
In Pam Houston’s essay, “The Sound of Horse Feet on Hay in the Snow,” the very last line really resonated with me. She writes: “It’s not only that the eight-year-old feels safer at the snowed-in ranch than anywhere, it’s that the snowed-in ranch was a story she used to tell herself—she is certain of it—when she needed a place for her mind to go, when she needed a reason to make it to nine, and then ten and eventually seventeen, and freedom.” I’m wondering if either of you can share with me the imagined places in your mind, whether they’re from childhood or adulthood, and whether you’ve created it or you hope to create it someday.
KM: Last night I woke up in a sort of sandwich of small boys. Their limbs were flung all over me and I couldn’t move. I felt trapped for a moment and I sat there and I realized this is the absolute best. Their little breathing— it’s like a metronome and it felt safe, cozy and together. I think that closeness and that warmth and being in it together feels very different from the house that I grew up in. I always felt very solitary and I think that’s the reason that I’m a writer today actually, but I also realize now how important it is to feel like a unit.
MK: I grew up in a very large house where if you wanted to speak to anyone else, you either had to go find them or in my civil disobedience phase, I would just scream at the top of my lungs so I wouldn’t have to leave the safety of my room. We live in a very small house now and my husband and I didn’t think we would be here for very long. It was what we could afford at the time. But now I love that the house itself is really small because there’s no need to shout. I babysat for this family in New York on the Upper West side, and they were a very close family who all genuinely seemed to like each other. I kept in touch with this family and years later when the older daughter was in her mid-20s, she actually came out to visit me. Over dinner I asked her, “How did your family do it? How are you so close?” And she said, “We lived in a really small space.” I think about that with Sonya Chung’s essay: this idea that there’s something about living in a small space that forces you to work it out. The American idea is bigger is better. I really have come to love living in a small space and dealing with it even when I get frustrated. Stopping for a moment and looking at the big picture and really appreciating what we have and making the best of it.
EE: You seem to kind of unconsciously create the life that you need in response to what you may have had or didn’t have in childhood—and maybe there’s a moment and time when you start to become more intentional about that process. I’m reminded of all the adages about home—some of which are listed in the book—I’m sure you also heard “bloom where you’re planted,” that comes from a passage in the bible, and which I heard my grandmother say often. There’s also “no place like home,” “a woman’s place is in the home,” and “you can never go home again.” I’m wondering if there are adages that either of you wanted to write against, or if you have new ones that you would propose instead?
KM: We had a difficult time communicating the intellectual and emotional rigor of this book almost a year ago [at] our first discussion at AWP. When we were thinking about [that] panel, and actually for a hot second it was a title contender, we talked about home as a four-letter word. I find myself returning to that idea. I would like to explode the word “home” on its own because it is so misused in politics today. It is meant to push others out, rather than bring people in. It’s just the complete opposite of what that word could mean. For me, home became a four letter word politically. Every time I hear it coming out of someone’s mouth in the newspaper or in the television, it’s exclusionary. I would love to write an essay against the word home itself. And I think really that’s what the book is, it’s exploding a solitary version of home, which I think is the danger of that word.
MK: I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately too. It’s so easy to think about our home in isolation, or that our homelife is only inside our doors. Part of what we tried to do with the collection was open that experience—to look at home not just as where you live, but your physical state, the people and land and politics around you. To recognize that the experiences of our friends and neighbors might be very different from our own, and that we’re all in this together. When we think in bigger terms about how our actions affect others, how other’s actions affect us—that’s a more interesting conversation, and I think the more important conversation.
I spent my Saturday afternoon volunteering for an organization that takes pack lunches and dinners to homeless shelters of various types. We ended our evening serving dinner to 100 people in the Department of Emergency Service Center. When I got home, my little one was on the couch with his blanket. I explained to him what I had been doing. For someone who has known nothing but one safe place for all of his six years, it was important for him to recognize the larger picture and the larger world. I feel like that’s something that we all need to work on constantly: Being aware and being involved and looking outside our own doors. Thinking about not just how we treat people on the inside of our homes, but in the larger world.
This Is the Place was published by Seal Press in 2017.
Erin Ehsani is an Alabama native who lives and writes in New York.
Photo credit: Headshot of Kelly McMasters by Sylvie Rosokoff.