I am no stranger to homesickness. I’ve spent close to half my life moving town and country with a regularity that’s truly baffling when you consider how little I enjoy change. Until I turned 16, I had always lived in the same town – Basingstoke: the butt of many jokes about England’s quietly unattractive (and yet, in some ways, most significantly English) corners. Despite the architecture of concrete afterthoughts that dominates the town, vibrantly landscaped with graffiti that gave me my earliest education in profanity, Basingstoke was my home. A place marked by the turbulent diversity of a London overspill town, created to accommodate the exiles searching for opportunities that the capital’s limitations could not afford. My own family – half Irish, with a father whose accent continues to denote a complexly wandering history – certainly fits the mould of what one might expect from a town built, in many respects, to mirror London’s medley of nationalities, albeit on a much smaller scale. At 16, I left this world behind – moving, with my family, to Florida. My mum’s job had offered her a secondment in the US and so began the transcontinental back-and-forth that has continued to mark the movement of my life for the past 14 years. I have since spent three years in Scotland at university – interrupted with a year back in the US for a study abroad programme – two years in the most stereotypically idyllic English village (complete with work as a tour guide at a stately home), two years in Essex for my PhD programme, six months in New York for work, and the past two years back in the US with my husband. As might be expected from this personal history, the word ‘home’ has a complex set of connotations for me.
I’ve known homesickness. My first move to the US was marked by an unrelenting determination to get back to the UK. I missed every aspect of my home country, including a range of things that only life in another country could possibly induce a person to lament. After returning, I couldn’t see my life ever leaving Britain again – aside from the short stints outside of the country, I was totally content to end out my days within the borders of the UK. Life had other plans. Meeting my American husband necessitated a pretty significant compromise on the location of my life. Immigration issues forced our hand when it came to determining where our more immediate long-term future would be and, as much as the idea of leaving England once again terrified me, I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any additional time with my husband. It’s now been just over two years since I moved to the US. Homesickness has plagued my life more persistently than any of the issues with mental illness that I otherwise experience (and, in many ways, operates in conjunction with them). At its worst, homesickness can be truly debilitating – associated with a variety of symptoms that make life incredibly difficult to bear. The fact that we typically associate adult homesickness exclusively with university students also poses a problem. In an increasingly globalised world, more and more adults are finding themselves crippled by homesickness and its challenges.
Fortunately, homesickness is one ailment toward which bibliotherapy is well oriented. Fiction deals plentifully with the plight of individuals exiled (both willingly and unwillingly) from their home, struggling to adapt to new places and cultures. Reading has been one of the principal ways in which I’ve worked to overcome my own symptoms and attempt to find a footing in a space that continues to feel utterly unfamiliar. This new post in The Book Habit‘s bibliotherapy series (previous articles are linked at the bottom of this post) considers bibliotherapy as a tool for navigating the challenges of homesickness. I’ll start by talking through the relationship between bibliotherapy and homesickness, looking at the physiological and psychological symptoms of homesickness as they can manifest in response to a move from ‘home’. Based on this, I’ll then be drawing on the three components of bibliotherapy – (1) identification; (2) catharsis; and, (3) insight – to make recommendations of some books that might help you to process any feelings or symptoms associated with homesickness. Whether you are experiencing homesickness due to a move away from your town or your country, literature has something to offer you.
As always, be sure to get in touch via a comment or email if you have any thoughts, experiences, or recommendations that you would like to share! If you are interested in the other posts of the bibliotherapy series, they are linked at the end of this post. You can also access them via the site menu.
*These posts are not intended to suggest that bibliotherapy and literature are a replacement for professional help. Although I believe that fiction can serve as an effective tool in the maintenance of mental health and the treatment of mental illness, it must be viewed as a complement to professional intervention, where appropriate. If you are struggling with mental illness or otherwise, please do not hesitate to reach out to someone who is in a capacity to help.*
Bibliotherapy and Homesickness
Despite traditional conceptions of homesickness as simply a sadness associated with missing home, the manifestation of homesickness can actually take numerous forms of varying severity. An article from CNN described homesickness as “a distinct adjustment disorder,” typically accompanied by symptoms of anxiety, sadness, nervousness, and an obsessive preoccupation with thoughts of home. In some cases, the experience of anxiety and depression can become clinically severe. This is confirmed by research described by the BBC, in an article that focuses specifically on the increase of homesickness in adults. Professionals cite depressive symptoms as being of particular concern, identifying that homesick adults can experience panic attacks, social withdrawal, sleep deprivation, nightmares, and problems with concentration. In all of these cases, it is acknowledged that homesickness has significant potential to impair function and prevent the sufferer from living their life as normal.
Factors at the root of homesickness vary. It is clear that homesickness has been a problem for humans for almost as long as we have been able to consciously travel. Homer’s The Odyssey deals with the experience of homesickness, in this case associated with the implications of years away from home for soldiers in the Trojan war. CNN suggests that homesickness actually has very little to do with home and more to do with the feelings of “love, protection, and security” that the thought of ‘home’ provokes. The BBC similarly acknowledges that leaving home – particularly when migrating to another country – provides a person with fewer “anchor points.” The sufferer is effectively cast afloat in a world that is unfamiliar, without the attachments that one looks to in knowing how to navigate life on a daily basis. For adults moving without a fixed timeframe – particularly in the case of mixed-nationality marriages – the experience of homesickness can be particularly acute, retaining a good amount of its severity over time. There are many cases of athletes and actors having to return home after finding themselves crippled with homesickness to the point of dysfunction. This experience is not uncommon, although the general lack of awareness or discussion surrounding homesickness in non-university bound adults is certainly not reflective of the condition’s prevalence. Fortunately, homesickness has been a part of the human experience for millennia and, as such, literature goes a good way toward mirroring the symptoms of the ailment. Fiction as therapy – or bibliotherapy – can thus step in to reduce some of the isolation that typically accompanies feelings of homesickness, allowing sufferers to better understand the particularities of their own experience and, hopefully, find a fruitful way forward.
*The following couple of paragraphs are a brief introduction to the components of bibliotherapy. If you have read my previous posts on the subject, you might want to skip ahead to the recommendations!*
As I highlighted in Can Fiction Help You? An Introduction To Bibliotherapy, bibliotherapy can be grouped into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) categories:
(1) Identification with the character or text;
(2) Catharsis in response to the text;
(3) Insight into problems through the text.
As they pertain to homesickness, each of these components have something truly important to offer. Identification and insight are tied to the representation of homesickness via the text of a novel. Research has demonstrated that our brains process fictional scenarios as if they were happening to us directly. Reading thus equips us with better tools for the management of challenging scenarios and a degree of emotional resilience when confronting situations first-hand. Our brains quite literally learn to change and adapt our response to homesickness as we read about fictional encounters with the same emotion. The catharsis aspect of bibliotherapy is similarly important as it pertains to homesickness. Not only does fiction have the ability to calm any physical distress – for example, the sadness (both psychological and physiological in manifestation) that often comes with homesickness – it can also provide an important mirror for our experiences and, through this, an alleviation from the isolation through social withdrawal and unfamiliarity that homesickness can impose.
Making sure to choose the right novel to meet each of these requirements is important. While there is less risk of ‘triggering’ by reading the ‘wrong’ novel in regards to homesickness – as opposed to with conditions such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD – our requirements will vary depending upon our situation and our needs. We might be looking for identification with characters, in order to find representation of our experiences. Alternatively, it might be insight that we desire, in an effort to confront our homesickness head-on by finding coping mechanisms or a shift in perspective. Or maybe it is catharsis that we are looking to find – a chance to connect with characters more generally or an opportunity to laugh and alleviate some of the physical distress caused by feelings of homesickness. The following section talks through book recommendations that fall into each of these categories. While they are obviously not personalised exactly to your needs, they are a starting point – a signpost toward the lists that you can continue to create for yourself.
These fictional works all centralise characters and situations that overlap with the experience and/or symptoms of homesickness. The process of identification with a text is believed to increase a reader’s capacity for empathy and compassion toward individuals and scenarios as represented in fiction and, by extension, the ability to better understand personal suffering.
The Parisian by Isabella Hammad
Isabella Hammad’s The Parisian has already established itself as one of my favourite books of the year. A poignant examination of life across cultures, the novel follows Midhat Kamal, a teenager from Palestine, as he moves to France. Taking place at a time of significant global conflict – a conflict that, post-World War I, cements itself in the battle for self-determination in Palestine – Midhat grapples with adaptation on both sides of the ocean. In France, Midhat battles with his ‘otherness’, attempting to determine how to best ingratiate himself with his new compatriots and navigate the significant cultural differences of this European world. Upon his return to Palestine, however, Midhat is similarly consigned to life as an outsider – too ‘European’, at a time when Palestinian identity is the question at the centre of social and political life. This novel is a fantastic examination of what it means to live life in the chasms of cultural identity – set apart through the ‘too much’ and ‘too little’ that has come to characterise a personal sense of belonging.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I first read Americanah in the midst of one of my transcontinental moves and it has remained a touchstone for my battles with homesickness ever since. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a master at conjuring the particularities of cultural difference that so often exacerbate – and feed from – feelings of homesickness. In Americanah, Adichie considers two transcultural moves. Set primarily in Lagos, Nigeria, Ifemelu and Obinze are two teenagers in love. As political strife threatens their futures, however, both Ifemelu and Obinze look to escape. Ifemelu leaves for the US as a student, finding herself subjected to the particular kinds of racial distinctions and racism that exist – both explicitly and as products of systemic prejudice – in America. Obinze is unable to follow her. He instead moves to the UK, living illegally once his initial visa expires. Here, Obinze is subject to a different kind of cultural experience – living on the fringes, with the shame imposed by a society unprepared to make space for him.
There There by Tommy Orange
I’ve placed Tommy Orange’s incredible There There on this list as a different kind of examination of homesickness. Mirroring what John Steinbeck seeks to remedy in Travels with Charley in Search of America (included in the list below), Orange takes a look at what it means to be homesick within your own country. Exploring the journeys of its 12 narrators, There There examines life as a contemporary Native American, working to reconcile personal and group identity in a land governed by its colonial victors. In many cases, the narrators themselves feel the ruptures in their own ancestry – the result of mixed marriages that consign identification with the Native American community to the outskirts of their own lives. The novel is a fantastic reflection on the nature of identity as it is tied to place and culture.
As I mentioned above, the cathartic capacity of fiction is one of the most meaningful and direct ways in which literature can assist those of us experiencing homesickness. Catharsis indicates an alleviation of physiological and/or psychological distress and can be achieved in a variety of ways. There are three principle ways to achieve catharsis via fiction – as it pertains to homesickness – and this is via (1) calming, (2) levity, and (3) nostalgia. Although the manner in which each of these works for you – as well as the books that evoke each response – will depend largely on your individual preferences, the novels listed below can serve as a point of reflection and exploration for you to figure out what offers the best cathartic response.
Calming: The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
I’ve recommended The Enchanted April as one of my cathartic suggestions for bibliotherapy for anxiety and panic. Indeed, Elizabeth von Arnim’s sublime prose works a physiological catharsis that is quite unrivalled elsewhere. Her novel, published in 1922, follows five women as they escape to the Italian Riviera for a months-long holiday and escape. The women, previously strangers to one another, have all embarked upon the trip for different reasons – to find connection, to escape challenging marriages, or to take a break from the expectations imposed upon them by others. It is a beautiful novel that, for homesickness, encourages curiosity and a willingness to rest in the unfamiliar.
Levity: Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson
One of my favourite collections of stories, E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series is an unrelenting delight. I found Benson at a time of complicated feelings about home. I was still in England, waiting on my visa to join my husband in the US. I felt entirely dislocated within my own country – drifting in a state of joblessness and homelessness, anticipating a permanent departure from my own country but unable to escape the restlessness of waiting for the ‘next step’. The humour of Mapp and Lucia – a collection of 1920s stories, following the eponymous Miss Mapp and Mrs. ‘Lucia’ Lucas as they battle for social dominion over their respective English villages – was the perfect escape from such complicated emotions. I returned to the series recently to deal with a particularly severe bout of anxiety and homesickness, finding myself able to take the edge off of some of my symptoms with time spent in this turbulent English idyll.
Nostalgia: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
The novel that best evokes a sense of nostalgia for place will vary depending on personal experience. For me, that piece of fiction is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I first read his play during my time at high school in Florida. I had picked Wilde’s work as the basis for a comparative essay, already knowing that I enjoyed the story of this particular play due to my love of the film adaptation featuring Colin Firth and Rupert Everett. During my time in Florida, I never strayed far from the feeling of being almost completely lost. Although I had my school work and my new friends to ground me to something, I anchored myself almost entirely through the friends, family, and routine that I had left back in England. An escape to the world of The Importance of Being Earnest and its ridiculous escapades was exactly what I needed at the time. It conjured such a complete feeling of home that I continue to look with a particular fondness on Wilde’s work and what it did for me at a time of acute challenge.
When reading fiction for insight, it is not necessarily the case that novels need directly refer to or deal with the problem at hand. Where identification allows us to explore characters and situations to which we can directly relate, insight permits us to consider ways of operating that might allow us to better navigate our challenges. While the books listed below do not necessarily portray homesickness directly (although, in most cases they do), they offer a variety of reflections on coping and moving forward that provide particular insight into the problems that homesickness can create.
Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
It is appropriate that Invisible Cities was the book that my husband bought for me on our first date (he took me to his favourite bookshops, which I can firmly say is exactly when I knew he was it for me). Calvino’s work can be a challenge but Invisible Cities is arguably the most accessible of his writing. While it does not have a plot in the conventional sense, Invisible Cities is essentially a conversation between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the Tartar emperor Kublai Khan. Polo is relating his travels to 55 different, fictitious cities, each described in vivid and beautiful detail. They read almost as parables and thought experiments (in a similar vein to Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman), told in luxurious detail with moments of truly transcendental luminosity. Invisible Cities opened my mind to the importance of place, the breadth of the world, and the eternal possibility of connection to new spaces. Beyond this, Invisible Cities can also be read as a homage to Polo’s hometown of Venice – with every city he describes reflecting a different component of his home. Any reading of this novel has something to offer the homesick – an invitation to curiosity and to examination of the small details, as well as a lesson in how best to celebrate place through memory.
Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
I read this book last week on my most recent bout of reading to temper homesickness. Given my personal circumstances, I’ve developed the philosophy that reading more American fiction (or, in this case, non-fiction) may help me to grow a deeper sense of connection to a country that is, in no other respects, truly mine. In this work, John Steinbeck sets out for a trip across America, accompanied by his faithful and tenacious companion, the French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck decides to take this journey as a remedy to his growing sense of unfamiliarity with his own country, travelling via 1960s camper-truck from the east coast to the west, and back again. What Steinbeck expects to uncover is not exactly what he finds and a sense of growing disillusionment with the consumerist, racist society that he stumbles upon pervades the novel. Yet Steinbeck never strays far from a provocative, vibrant understanding of the essentials of place – rooted in nature, connection, and quiet moments of reflection. This novel is a profound reminder of what really matters when we attempt to ‘get to know’ somewhere and what we mean when we talk about ‘home’.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
Brick Lane, a street in London known for its Bangladeshi population and some truly excellent cuisine, is the setting for Monica Ali’s essential exploration of immigration. In Brick Lane, Ali introduces us to Nazneen, a Bangladeshi immigrant who moves to London at 18 years old for an arranged married. Nazneen’s efforts to adapt to life in the UK, knowing virtually no English and utterly unfamiliar with the culture that has been thrust upon her, is one of the most detailed and authentic fictional representations of the challenges of life as an immigrant. Nazneen’s existence at the heart of a disaporic Bangladeshi community, her new marriage, and her quest to adapt are vital components of the experience for many immigrants around the world. Although there has been some controversy surrounding Ali’s depiction of the majority Sylhetis that live in the Brick Lane area, the novel remains an essential insight. For the homesick, Brick Lane offers a vital reflection on adaptation – both its challenges and successes – as we work to find our roots and establish who we are when removed from all that we have previously known and loved.
Other Posts in the Series: