Review of Motherlands by Natasha Garrett
The moment I opened Motherlands by Natasha Garrett, I knew this book would resonate with the feeling of rootlessness that has defined my adult life. Garrett, a Macedonian by birth, has spent her adult life in the United States, and the book’s nine essays explore the way her cross-cultural life has defined her, especially as a parent. While I have always lived in the United States, my husband’s career as a military dentist has led us across the country, thousands of miles from our support network. Despite the many aspects of our lives that vastly differ, Garrett’s feelings of displacement and cultural uncertainty echoed many of my own experiences.
Motherlands begins with a short poem, “Where are you from?” in which she toys with the various meanings the phrase can have, particularly for an expatriate. The poem is immediately followed by an essay, “Poetry and Prose,” where Garrett describes her writing life. She juxtaposes writing poetry and essays with living in the United States and growing up in Macedonia. She explains, “Though I will always respond that I am from Macedonia, every visit to the motherland reminds me that my full-time life is elsewhere; at the same time, in the United States I will always be the woman who is not from here.” (Garrett, 15)
The third essay, “At Home,” was my favorite. In an echo of her poem, “Where are you from?” Garrett explains the difficulty of deciding where to call home–is it where she grew up, or the house where she now lives with her husband and child? She expounds on definitions in academic literature about the different iterations of home, borrowing from scholar Ilan Magat the phrases “Little Home” to describe the place she lived her life and “Big Home” to describe the place where she feels she belongs. I was fascinated and drawn in by her reflections about these definitions and the way they reflect my own experiences. She explores defining home by relationships, identity, freedom, and symbols, finally concluding, “Perhaps it is not such a terrible thing after all to have more than one place that I can call my home,” a sentiment I, too, have adopted, as my family prepares to pack up and move to our fifth state of residence in the coming months. (43)
In “A Family of Aliens,” Garrett describes the compromises she must make for her husband and child and family of origin, as well as her own sense of belonging and everyday comfort. She marries her American spouse in Macedonia, but lives her day to day life in the United States; she prepares traditional Macedonian foods for dinner but also masters baking apple pies and roasting the Thanksgiving turkey. She describes the conundrum she faces in naming her son, hoping to find a name that is easily pronounced in both Macedonian and English. “The family aligns and realigns repeatedly,” Garrett writes, describing the dance of language and tradition among her family members. (48)
Throughout the book, Garrett uses sophisticated metaphors to illustrate her experience–a landscaped lawn given over to a spreading vegetable plot as her parents visit their grandchild, herself as the embodiment of translation when she acts as interpreter between her parents and in-laws. It is clear Garrett’s transnational identity lends a richness and uniqueness to her life and gives her the ability to navigate through a multitude of experiences.
Natasha Garrett’s writing about her experience across countries and cultures informed my own sense of displacement as I struggle to establish my own sense of home in a nomadic, uncertain life. She is vivid and personal within her perspective, but manages to appeal to the universal as well. Motherlands is well researched and brimming with academic definitions and descriptions, but the prose remains rich and interesting, never bogged down with too much academia.
Garrett concludes her final essay, “Global Souls,” with these words: “I strive to bring languages, cultures, disciplines, people and ideas on speaking terms with one another. It is in the midst of that conversation, in that very exchange, that I feel most at home.” (92) In Motherlands, she accomplishes this, both in exposing me to the culture of her home country and showing how a displaced life can still be completely fulfilling. Readers who wish to explore the idea of home and migration on a deep and multi-faceted level will find much to consider in Motherlands. As someone who frequently moves, albeit within my home country, I will be pondering Natasha Garrett’s ideas and experiences in the months to come.
Natasha Garrett was born and raised in Macedonia and lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she serves as a Director of International Student Services at La Roche College. Her poetry, personal essays and translations have appeared in Transnational Literature, Gravel, Allegro Poetry Magazine, Arts and Letters, and other publications. She is the editor of “Macedonia 2013: 100 Years After the Treaty of Bucharest.” She obtained her PhD in Education at the University of Pittsburgh, and her Master’s in English Literature from Duquesne University. Motherlands is her first book.