Home Bound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging
Vanessa A. Bee
Astra House | October 11, 2022
If home is a concept rather than a place, Vanessa A. Bee’s memoir, Home Bound, sets out to demonstrate this by unraveling her experience of self-discovery. Bee writes of the memoir: “While reflecting on a childhood spanning across three continents, between social housing and public boarding school and nicer homes, from the secular to the evangelical and back, from small public schools to Harvard Law School, this book will offer a meditation on the concept of home and the factors that can complicate it.” We follow her as she emigrates from Cameroon to France, and then from the United Kingdom to the United States. This is the story of an ambitious and bright young woman doing her best to navigate a complicated transcontinental existence, a real-life bildungsroman.
We follow Vanessa’s life from infancy to the moment when she herself becomes a mother, offering an excellent example of the complexity of womanhood. Vanessa, a sensitive yet strong child, grows into an intelligent and self-aware woman. As a child, she is constantly negotiating her place in the world in light of the immigration. She muses, “I was presumed to be an extension of those sanitized depictions.” Innately sharp, she questions discrimination as a person of color: “Was there really such keen interest in black students with my profile? The implications made me uneasy. I had worked hard for my grades and was near the top of my class. I had not signed up to be anyone’s charity case.”
This is a particularly positive note of the memoir: how Bee writes scenes that depict the social micro-tragedies familiar to any immigrant child: name-butchering, and the clumsy childlike hesitance to correct the misunderstanding, thereby leading to a humiliating loss of identity. In a similar way, her analyses of the often-unrelenting nature of American narrow-mindedness is at the same time witty and searing: “Loserdom could be reversed, by makeover or a timely growth spurt, just as it sought be caught. One vicious breakout of cystic acne, a blowjob to a blabbermouth, or an exhibition of sadness past the social expiration date, and you might find yourself in exile.” This is unforgiving black-and-white thinking that takes place in American schools, and Vanessa A. Bee defines it as unpleasantness with notable exactitude.
Yet the memoir goes beyond being just a cutting social commentary on race, but rather integrates her beliefs into the vaster landscape of her experience coming from Cameroon. All throughout, readers will find a remarkable clarity of structure and mind with which she embarks on her attempt to peel back the layers of identity. For instance, she peels back the layers of her complicated relationship with her father in a completely candid manner: “I pictured him walking through the door of the empty little apartment, grime under his fingernails from a long day’s work. My poor daddy: eating alone, reading alone, and finally drifting to sleep—alone still.” Here we see her immense loneliness, grappling with her family’s place in the world through her deeply elusive father.
This upbringing then informs who Bee becomes as an adult: she is culturally eclectic, cosmopolitan, hyper-analytical, and deeply concerned with the socio-political issues of our world such as race, poverty, adoption, and religion, which shapes her thinking as a wife and then mother. Though unlike many books on girlhood and motherhood, there is no pedantic obsession with the body and its function; sexuality has a place among the many other aspects that put together the variegate composite of the contemporary woman but isn’t overbearing. In her marriage troubles, complicated by religious prejudice, healthy sexuality appears as a sine qua non rather than a forbidden fruit, with the story of her failed marriage representing a cautionary tale, warning against excessive naivety and zeal.
At certain points, occasional wavering on bouncing back and forth in time as opposed to chronologically, paired with the introduction of ultimately important characters, suggests a tendency towards a diffuse summary rather than an incursion into a message. However, the ending is truly where everything comes together, and—I daresay—refreshingly hopeful, careful not to be overtaken by the rancor that might mark the air of a heavy past, and looking forward towards a newborn’s sunrise, as she says herself at one point: “Home is a shell painted with the present.” Thoughtful yet decisive, this memoir transmits the authentic texture of a person making her way through a difficult world.