Excerpted from Belonging by Isabel Huggan. Copyright © 2003 by Isabel Huggan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
The most immediate and sensible response is probably “Over many years and after much hard work.” But I suspect that’s not quite detailed enough to give a true picture of the process. Ever since early childhood I have been fascinated by naming things and putting things into words -- simply put, I loved language. By age seven I was composing small poems and songs, and by my late teens I imagined I might become a poet -- although I always thought I would have to work at a day job, for I knew that poets were notoriously underpaid. When I graduated from university, I got a job in publishing, and later on took up high school teaching as a means of supporting myself. However, by my mid-twenties I had begun to write short fiction as well as poetry, and in my thirties, by then working for a daily newspaper, took my writing seriously enough to send stories to literary magazines. My first book, The Elizabeth Stories, was published by Oberon Press when I was forty years old, and since then I have had a sense of myself as a writer. Let me put this another way: for many years, I would describe myself as a teacher who also writes, now I see myself as a writer who also teaches.
2) What inspired you to write this book?
Initially, it was Carol Shields, who used an autobiographical essay of mine in the first Dropped Threads anthology, which she edited with Marjorie Anderson. Not only did Carol herself like the way I expressed my thoughts about aging, several readers wrote to tell me that I had spoken directly to their own concerns. There is something tremendously exciting and energizing about contact with readers -- the feeling that words you have written have had meaning for someone else -- and I think this experience gave me the courage to write directly about my own life, as if I were having a real conversation with readers.
I discussed my plan to write Belonging with Carol in our ongoing correspondence, and she was encouraging and supportive, reading most of the book in draft form as I was writing it -- often,
as part of our letters. Right now, I feel deeply sad at the loss of such a wonderful friend, although I can look ahead to the comfort of rereading her books and in that way hearing her wise, warm voice again.
Another reason for writing a memoir was my desire to share what I’ve learned about life: the meaning of home, the purpose of memory, and the importance of place and friendship. I have been fortunate to have a wide variety of experiences, particularly during the last sixteen years of living abroad. While always remaining open to the surprising joys of chance, my experiences have taught me a great deal and have shown me how to look for patterns and make connections. Also, I think I felt that some of my true stories were just as interesting or useful for readers as fictional stories, and that they deserved to be told.
3) Are there any tips you would give to book clubs to facilitate discussion of Belonging?
Oh, absolutely! Discussion is what this book is for -- my life stories are meant to get readers thinking about their own life stories. I think that book clubs could make the theme of “home” central to a discussion of my book, perhaps by having members bring other books, stories, poems, and songs as a way of examining what home means to everyone in the club. I would imagine that such a discussion would illustrate the rich variety of the members’ experiences, at the same time it would illuminate how similarly everyone feels about the need for home and the importance of familiarity and security.
Related to this, most of us now move house at least a few times during our lives, but some of us do stay in one place. In the chapter "Someday You'll Be Sorry," I suppose what it might have been like to remain in Elmira, a small town in Ontario, and I imagine that I would not have the same reaction to driving down the main street as I do when I return every year or two. A book club might have a very lively discussion about where members have "come from" and whether or not travel has played a part in their lives. Those members who have stayed in one place might have a great deal to offer those who have moved from town to town or country to country.
As well, members may want to bring their own memories about places they’ve lived, difficulties they’ve experienced in adapting to different circumstances and methods they’ve used for overcoming those problems. Each person might relate a relevant anecdote, and mention whether something in Belonging has triggered the memory or is similar in some way. As a catalyst for theses memories, perhaps members could come to the book club with small objects that have sentimental meaning for them -- as do various objects I mention in the chapter called “Saving Stones” -- and using these objects to tell their own stories, in the same way that I do in the book. An interesting discussion might ensue from such a beginning.
Other interesting discussions may come out of exploring specific themes in Belonging. In many ways, the book is about making choices, particularly about the choices one makes in a marriage. Members might move into a discussion about the ways in which their own lives have been altered by choices they've made, choices connected to marriage or entirely outside it. What are the decisive moments in a life, and how are they connected to each other? For example, I eventually understood that I would not have discovered Tasmania had I not gone to the Philippines with my husband, a choice I found difficult but necessary. The discussion could be expanded by reference to other books, of course.
Which brings me to another potentially interesting area to explore. Throughout Belonging there are references to other books, particularly to poetry. A book club might decide to read work by these authors. I think this is a great way to expand and deepen appreciation of any book. I would suggest, for example, that the essay from “Elements of Fiction,” by Robert Scholes, (a paragraph from it closes the book) would be worth reading and discussing, as would the entire poem "Transparence," by Jan Zwicky, part of which is used as an epigraph. Reading or rereading Rilke would be an extremely beneficial activity, and reading Margaret Avison's new book of Griffin Prize-winning poetry, Concrete and Wild Carrot, might be an interesting adjunct to the appreciation of the two lines I quote from her earlier work. Members might bring to this discussion their own favourite poems or quotations, and explain how or why they've chosen them. How meaningful are these snippets of poetry that stay lodged in our brains? Why are they there, what can we learn from them?
Reading Belonging in the editing stage, I was struck for the first time by how I wrote very specifically about learning lessons from various people along the way. Looking at those moments in this book might well lead to a discussion of "lessons learned" by the members of the book club. Who are the people who have taught us the most important lessons about life? What do we learn from each other? What are the values we hold most dear? I see my book as a way into intimate conversation from which readers can learn even more about themselves.
Perhaps this is presumptuous of me to suggest, but some book clubs might derive pleasure in reading or rereading my first two collections of stories, The Elizabeth Stories and You Never Know, along with Belonging. Readers can see where those earlier short stories came from as they read the memoir, and perhaps the relationship between fiction and autobiography might be an interesting topic for the group to pursue.
4) What question are you never asked in an interview but wish you were?
Part of my reply to the previous question touches on this. I wish that I would be asked to explain in detail the relationship between the memoir section of my book and the three short stories at the end. We did consider including a preface for Belonging, and I decided against it as it seemed a bit stuffy and academic to tell people what to look for in the book. But without this explanation, some readers may be confused by the switch to fiction, so I’d be happy to have the chance to explain this idea of mine.
I had hoped to show what I was doing -- making the transition from non-fiction to fiction -- with the memoir piece, “S.E.M.A.P.H.O.R.E,” which “lies between true and not-true.” In the piece, I add a character who never existed in order to tell the true story. This piece ends the non-fiction section of the book, and comes right before the short stories. I’d like to tell an interviewer that these fictional stories spring from my life, in the sense that I have used the material of my experience -- places I’ve lived, objects I’ve owned, feelings I’ve had -- although I have created fictional characters whose lives do not mirror mine. Of course, that’s what I have always done, and here, I am simply making that process absolutely clear.
One of my aims in writing Belonging has been to show this intimate and vivid relationship between experience and imagination, something that is particular to realistic fiction. Although I generally start writing short stories out of a need to examine a certain character in relation with others, the setting for a story is enormously important to me -- how my characters behave is related to where they are. I think we are all products of our specific environment as well as our individual families.
5) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
It’s difficult to name only a few, as I think I am influenced in some way by every book I read… but to name some wonderful writers and poets I admire and feel I have learned from: Annie Dillard, Carol Shields, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Audrey Thomas, Elizabeth Hay, Barry Lopez, Don McKay, Guy Vanderhaeghe, and Lorna Crozier. These are all contemporary North American writers, and I should add that a full list would include English and European writers from the past two centuries, and South American and African writers in the present. However, I never aim to emulate or imitate a writer; I believe, very strongly, that each of us sees the world in a unique way, and speaks with a unique voice.
6) If you weren’t writing, what would you be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
If I weren’t writing, I suspect I’d still be teaching writing -- I love conducting fiction-writing workshops -- I do this annually for the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and in other places as well (most recently, the Paris Writers’ Workshop). I might be working as an editor -- this is work I have done over the years, both as a technical editor for the Asian Development Bank in Manila, and as a mentor in the Humber correspondence program. In other words, my work would continue to involve language. I am in love with English, and can’t imagine not being connected in some meaningful way with its use.
On the other hand, if you’re asking what I might dream of being instead of a writer -- well, I would have loved to be on Broadway, singing and dancing in a big musical! And I’ve always suspected I might be a good therapist, although my tendency to weep when people tell me sad stories about themselves might disqualify me.
My passions in life are music (I play the piano badly but I love listening to all kinds of music, both classical and jazz) and art (I take painting classes and I’m not particularly talented, but I love looking at pictures -- drawings, paintings, photographs). I am always aware of the connections between the visual and aural arts and writing, and I feel I improve my own skills by paying attention to how other artists see the world and express it.
I love the natural world, and spend an increasing amount of time outdoors, finding deep peace and enjoyment working in the garden or walking in the hills. The older I get, the more I value the simple things -- a butterfly, a leaf floating in the stream, a bit of quartz shining in the sun, a bird trilling at dawn simply for joy.
7) If you could have written one book, what book would that be?
This is the hardest question of all! But I think I have some kind of answer, although it involves more than one book. I would be proud to have written Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, and I’d like to add the four books that constitute The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell. The reason is that Durrell and Woolf, (authors I encountered very early in my reading life), both created novels in which the story is told by more than one narrator. Many voices work together to give the reader a multi-faceted truth -- there is always more than one point of view, and there is no one truth. Each voice is unique, each voice has value. Both these books teach the reader this important lesson, and do so in a stunning and memorable way.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. One of the central themes in Belonging is the act of homemaking. How does Isabel Huggan go about “feeling at home” in the various countries in which she lives? How do you make yourself (and/or your family) feel “at home”? What exactly is the sensation that you -- and the author -- are attempting to create? She raises several questions about the underlying meaning of home: Is it a physical place? Family? Friends? What (for you) constitutes “home” in its most ideal sense?
2. Are there definable/noticeable differences between those of us who stay in one place and those of us who move from house to house, city to city, or country to country? If there are differences, what are they? A discussion might circle around personal experience or anecdotal evidence. In Belonging, you can see that the author’s life changes after she leaves Canada: How do her attitudes change, from the chapter “Graceland” to the end of chapter “Fast Water, Slow Love”? What images does she give us to illuminate those changes?
3. In the story “Scenes” (in her collection Various Miracles), Carol Shields wrote that the individual moments of our lives “fit together like English paving stones”. She does not suggest that the stones make a path, only that they “fit”. This raises some interesting questions: Do you believe that everything you have ever done has been heading you to where you are today OR do you think that you have arrived somewhere you could never have anticipated, after many surprises, alterations and interruptions? What do you imagine is Isabel Huggan’s view? What do you think she intends in the final sentence of the final short story?
4. One reviewer of Belonging commented that the author tells us much more about her marriage in her three short stories than in the memoir itself. Do you agree, or not? Do you see other “cross-over connections” between her personal essays and her fiction in Belonging? Is the “writing style” the same or different in the short stories as it is in the nonfiction section? What about the author’s “voice”? What is the difference, as far as you are concerned, between the two sections of this book? Which do you prefer, and why?
5. In many ways, Belonging is about “making choices”. What are the choices the author makes that propel her forward in her life? Might you have acted differently in her place? If one partner has the chance to develop (further a career or learn a new skill) by taking a job in another country, what is the obligation of the other partner: to self, or to the relationship? In a two-career family/relationship, how can this matter be resolved? What indications do you have that the author (finally) feels she “made the right choice”?
6. Friendship is another essential theme in this memoir, as the author describes her relationships with people met in her travels, and people she chooses to “keep” in her life. Perhaps a discussion about the instances of friendship in Belonging could turn to a more personal conversation about the value of friendship. Do you believe that women are better at maintaining friendships than men are? Is it true, do you think, that friendship is a skill? The author says she has lost friends over time, but those absences have been filled with new friends: Has this happened to you?
7. Isabel Huggan uses her two meetings with the Frenchman named Antoine as a “literary device” -- a method of connecting two different parts of her life in the book, and as a means of putting forward an idea she holds to be important, and worth sharing with her readers. Discuss. The book contains many ideas about how best to lead one’s life: what other techniques doe the author use to express these notions?
8. In the chapter “Saving Stones”, the author says that she writes because she likes using language to make a physical object (“stone, word, book”) and wants to create a tangible reality from her own experience. Discussion about this chapter could focus on the importance of “mnemonic objects that tell our stories”. How does this chapter relate to the rest of Belonging? Where and when do you note the author’s use of “physical things” as story-telling devices? If you were to make a list of objects that best reflect your life -- because of memories attached to them -- what would they be?
9. Memory plays an enormously important role in both nonfiction and fiction sections of Belonging. Discuss, with reference to “Making Up Mother” in which the author explains that she and her sister have variant stories about their deceased mother. She says that differences in recollections within a family simply add to the richness of mutual memory, and include all the possibilities. Do you agree? How does this idea relate to your experience in your family? Does an individual’s age/ placement in a family increase the likelihood of being seen as “right” or “wrong” (regarding versions of remembered events)?
10. Hoping to show the close relationship between the material of experience and its transformation into fiction, Isabel Huggan closes the memoir section with a chapter called S.E.M.A.P.H.O.R.E. that she says “lies between true and not-true”. In it, she recalls an event from her childhood, but in order to intensify the long-lasting guilt she and her peers feel about an accident, she invents a character. What do you think about this kind of “fiddling with the truth”? Have you ever told a personal anecdote and changed details in order to get a certain reaction or to make a point? Discuss.
11. Supplementary Questions, for an additional RG meeting or for personal enrichment.
In the chapter “Someday You’ll Be Sorry”, the author remembers her parents and their friends gathered round a piano for informal singsongs. Many of the songs had “home” as their central idea. Add to her list with songs or music “about home”. Are there songs you associate with your home, or childhood, or with the sensation of “feeling at home”? To the musical references to home one could easily add any number of visual references -- photographs, paintings, or graphic illustrations (advertising, in particular) which make vivid the sentiments we associate with the idea of “home”. It would certainly provoke a lively group discussion about cultural values if members were to share their findings.
12. Expand this search to include other books -- both fiction and nonfiction -- which focus on the idea of, or the search for, “home”. This list could include everything from “Exodus” (the Bible) to Gone With The Wind to the PEN anthology Writing Home (McClelland & Stewart) to Passages: Coming Home to Canada (Doubleday).
13. Throughout Belonging, the author refers to several other writers of poetry and prose. Make a list of these references, and read works by these authors, so that the quoted phrases you’ve encountered in Belonging are now understood in a larger context.
14. The author often uses bits of poetry she memorized earlier in her life, and it is clear that these have great significance for her. Did you memorize poetry as a child in school? Perhaps an exchange of “favorites” would be a wonderful way for a Reading Group to begin a discussion about the value of memorizing, and/or which of these remembered lines has meaning and value as the years pass by. Or on a strictly personal note, it might be fun to put together a small collection of your own favorite poems and stories.
15. Belonging is meant to be a conversation between the author and the reader but it is, of course, one-sided. If you were able to conduct a real conversation with Isabel Huggan, what would you want to ask her? What would you want to tell her about yourself as your part of the dialogue? Are there aspects of her book with which you take exception or with which you would like to argue? Write a letter to the author, as if you were having a discussion with her.