Homesick Love: Guest Post by Méira Cook

Book Cover House on Sugarbush Road

"The books that I have responded to most over the many years of 'reading myself Canadian' are those written by immigrants. Not necessarily diasporic writers but immigrants of the soul. Those who, like me, are always looking for a place to land. Those who circle writing like a runway. Those who touch down, take off."

When I was a graduate student taking a class with the incomparable Robert Kroetsch, a charismatic and intuitive teacher, I remember in particular a gnomic phrase that he uttered in the middle of one of our Wednesday afternoon seminars at the University of Manitoba. Now that I think of it, much of Kroetsch’s tremendous impact as a teacher came from the terseness of his declarations—his utterances on literature were aphoristic, oracular and always provocative. After one of his Delphic pronouncements there was inevitably a pause and then (how long after? minutes, years?) a babble—of dissent, agreement, agony, epiphany, despair.

It was the winter term and there always seemed to be a blizzard raging outside the seminar room with its clanking radiators and ice-blooming windows. Sometimes I felt as if the wind had tugged us loose from our moorings in that classroom on the third floor of the old Arts Building and was spinning us high above the prairies in an enchanted space only to return us, three hours later, with a perceptible jerk into the everyday student world of coats and boots and bus timetables and ramen noodles.

But I seem to have digressed nostalgically far from what Kroetsch said that day and which has had such an impact on everything I’ve ever thought—in my writing life, at least—about love. Paraphrasing Freud, he said, Love, well, it’s a kind of homesickness, isn’t it? If I was a cartoon character I believe I’d have had words like Boom! Bang! Kerpow! forming in thought bubbles above my head at that moment.

I’m not immune to romantic or familial love (in real life I’m quite partial to my husband and passingly fond of my kids) and my novel, The House on Sugarbush Road includes a love affair between the bolshie and wayward Dhlamina Mopede and her devoted suitor, the taxi man, Madiba Mhda, who falls instantly in thrall to Dhlamina’s famous love magnetism. But I respond most intensely, in print anyway, to the love of place, the homesickness that masquerades as lovesickness.

Book Cover A Walker in the City

A year ago, my fourth book of poetry, A Walker in the City, was published; a book that I have described as my homecoming book, my love affair with Winnipeg, the collection in which I finally transform from immigrant to citizen. Winnipeg is my home now, but I was born and grew up in Johannesburg, a city to which I have a far more complicated and ambivalent relationship. The House on Sugarbush Road is set in the Johannesburg I remember so vividly almost exactly at the time that I left it (the mid-nineties) and it is this spirit of conflicted homesickness that I believe to be a species of true love composed of nostalgia, longing, and starry-eyed reluctance.

“Even in Kyoto—hearing the cuckoo’s cry—I long for Kyoto,” says the poet, Basho. For me, there is no truer definition of love.

The books that I have responded to most over the many years of “reading myself Canadian” are those written by immigrants. Not necessarily diasporic writers but immigrants of the soul. Those who, like me, are always looking for a place to land. Those who circle writing like a runway. Those who touch down, take off.

Here is a list of books I’ve loved, arranged alphabetically (as befits a passionate lover). When I read I tend to underline phrases that strike me so I’ve included one of these with each entry.

Tamarind Mem by Anita Rau Badami: I love the long rail passage the old woman, Saroja, takes across India entertaining passengers with her stories and invective.

“A long time ago, Dadda had pinned a map on my wall. It was to stop me crying every time he left on tour.”

Bloody Jack by Dennis Cooley: I’ve always thought that the outlaw, Jack Krafchenko, who never leaves the prairies, is somehow—and inexplicably—an unrequitedly homesick man.

“He was simply fascinating.”


The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston: The ardour between Joe Smallwood and Sheilagh Fielding almost eclipses Smallwood’s yearning for his home place.

“‘They should have called it Old Lost Land, not Newfoundland but Old Lost Land,’ he roared . . .”

Book Cover Words of My Roaring

The Words of My Roaring by Robert Kroetsch: I’ve always been partial to literary rogues so Johnnie Backstrom with his tall tales and political gumption is my idea of a romantic lead. Besides he promises rain during a prairie drought, a mission of love and impossibility if ever there was one.

“‘If I’d looked back once, I’d have lost my determination. Beauty does that to me.’”

Disappearing Moon Café by Sky Lee: Moving between Canada and China, the past and the present, the women of the Wong family try to discover a place to house their disappearing memories.

“‘Ever since I can remember, I’ve been plagued with the feeling that something was going on that I didn’t know about. It drove me a little crazy!’” 

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry: Mistry’s India is an excruciating, complex, divisive place yet he describes it with tenderness and care, with compassion and, yes, love.

“What was the point of repeating the story over and over and over, she asked herself—it always ended the same way; whichever corridor she took, she wound up in the same room.”

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje: A novel about running away from, towards, and through the family romance. And one good story, as the narrator warns us, is worth a thousand truths.

“Ceylon falls on a map and its outline is the shape of a tear.”

Joshua Then and Now by Mordecai Richler: There is such yearning in the youthful elsewhereness of Joshua “then” and regret in the here-ness of his “now.” And, as in every Richler novel, this is a profound domestic love story.

“Look at me now, Joshua thought."

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews: The story of this lost girl whose favourite word is goodbye and whose favourite place is away and yet who can’t escape the small town in which she was born is also the story of a roving and aimless homesickness. Homesickness without an object.

“Nomi from Nowhere says hello.”

Diamond Grill by Fred Wah: A sweet sour narrative about all the ways of missing place, food, fathers.

“Biology recapitulates geography; place becomes an island in the blood.” 

Meira Cook

Méira Cook is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently A Walker in the City (Brick). Poems from A Walker in the City won first prize in the 2006 CBC Literary Awards and "The Beautiful Assassin" garnered a Manitoba Publishing Award (a "Maggie"). Her first novel, The House on Sugarbush Road, has been published by Enfield & Wizenty. Méira lives, writes, and walks in Winnipeg.

February 4, 2013
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