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|Review by: Mackie Blanton||
For some of us, the normal use of memory is to recall experiences, however verbatim or not, as we believe they happened. However, Joyce Zonana nudges us toward a different understanding of memory. Zonana's Dream Homes compels us, urges us, to re-examine the active verbs lurking inside the words recollection and remembrance; literally to take them apart back to their bare forms: re-collect, re-member. Only then can we recognize that memory for Zonana, and for untold others among us, means to gather around oneself experiences of the past (to re-collect) and then to re-assemble them (to re-member), member by member, as if to say -- limb by limb.
Dream Homes is therefore not simply an easy, rewarding memoir or recherche. This kind of intelligent writing is an attempt to put together again one's body and spirit. The reward comes when the author finds a new person at the end, or somewhere amidst the telling, and readers can then take heart that a new person is there at the end for all of us when we are willing to reconstruct (not literally) flesh and (literally) spirit.
The thing about Zonana is that what she wants to recollect and to remember -- she insists she has forgotten or just can't ever remember. What she does sense is that there once was an Egypt for her, an Egypt her family left in 1951, when she was barely two-years old. Barely days back in Egypt years later, having returned there now as an adult on her own on New Years Day, 1999, in search of something she senses there that ought to belong to her, an older woman dismisses her matter-of-factly: It's nostalgia. I can see Joyce's face and hear her voice as I read these pages: a respectful face that wants to smile through the moment but barely gets a grimace out; a polite voice that wants to counter the older woman's remark but pleads instead: But I was just a child. How can it be nostalgia if I have no memories? I am here to learn (173).
In many ways, this is a book of atonement. For adjacent cultures that refuse to -- or have no ability to -- interface, to resonate, with one another, Zonana wants to, needs to, atone through collecting together the puzzling pieces of her past. Her parents, Egyptian Jews, never ate with Muslims in the country of her birth. Forever deracinated, Joyce is saddened that her mother, after being evacuated during Hurricane Katrina (Monday, August, 29, 2005), refuses to return to New Orleans, to which she moved from Brooklyn, in 2001, after her husband's death, to join Joyce there. Joyce now follows her mother east to New York City to be near her from Brooklyn. Can one, after all, following upon the trauma that Katrina visited upon a stranger's city, really blame her mother for listening to a centuries-old inner voice that urges, Get up! Move from here! Keep going! Until you feel safe?
This book deserves to be mined by a larger review and by several re-readings. There is so much to be sifted through here: so many hints, themes, and resonances regarding mother-daughter and father-daughter synchronicity and the intermittent lack thereof; sibling resentment, the taking of lovers, family abandonment, the peripatetic academic; an always abiding sense of foreignness, anti-Semitism, Zionism and Arab nationalism.
As one begins reading this book, one may at first think that Joyce remembers so much of the past, but her work is a work of a new knowing. Four chapters went through incremental versions (2000-2004), each published elsewhere, now transformed into ten rich story experiences. Practically each chapter has at least one photo; other chapters, more. Then there is the special gift of fifteen family recipes that we are offered at the end of the book.
Over the fullness of her still young life, Joyce had never ceased chiseling away at the memories of others until they, as she got older, began to reveal more to her, through recollecting experiences at the dinner table, opening family albums, dusting off old letters and cards. As we read Dream Homes, we, too, come into a new knowing as Joyce discovers a new way of remembering.
For Author's Information about Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile's Journey, visit:
Zonana, Joyce. Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, An Exile's Journey. New York, New York: The Feminist Press, 2008.