“This book is a work of creative nonfiction. Names, identifying details, and places have been changed.” So reads part of the copyright page of Homesick: A Memoir, the recent book by Jennifer Croft, the widely known translator of 2019 Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights and numerous other books from Polish, Ukrainian, and Spanish. Homesick tells of the lives of Amy and Zoe, sisters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the span of about two decades.
In addition to the fact that the main character is not named Jennifer Croft, her “memoir” lets you know right away it is going to be an unusual work of “creative nonfiction.” The book begins with a pair of epilogues on photography by well-known photographers that are immediately followed by a color photograph of a bridge upon which parts of a phrase or sentence have been written in bright red marker, then four more color photographs, each of which are accompanied by a single sentence that forms a prologue in which the narrator recalls teaching her younger sibling to speak. This book—or so that scribbled-on photo seems to suggest—wants to be the bridge across which the two languages of words and images will cross as equals.
The two epilogues are curious in themselves, suggesting that we are holding a book in which secrecy is going to prevail over revelation.
Henri Cartier-Bresson: “We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again.”
Diane Arbus: “A picture is a secret about a secret. The more it tells the less you know.”
If this is Croft’s own memoir (and it sure looks that way), she tells the story in fairly distant third person, with only minimal omniscience into the mind of Amy, who would be her stand-in. Amy and Zoe build a close relationship, often around shared secrets, as they grow up in a slightly dysfunctional family that is forced to face a series of challenges. The first challenge is the concussion Zoe receives as a preschooler while playing with her grandfather, which will have lifelong, frightening consequences for her. The second is the suicide of Sasha, Amy’s Russian tutor, and Amy’s sense of guilt that something she did might have contributed to his decision. The third is Amy’s own suicide attempt at college. Each of these three events happen mostly, if not completely, out of our sight, as if the narrator is still not ready to deal with these issues. Here is the narrator describing how fifteen-year old Amy learns from her mother about the suicide of Sasha, on whom she had a huge crush.
She tells her. Amy says oh the way she’d say it to someone she didn’t know, like she means to say okay but forgot to finish.
Then their mother tries to give her a hug, but now Amy recoils, eyes bulging, blood cold. Their mother tries again. Amy pushes her away, hard as she can. Their mother staggers back, and for one split second, she doesn’t seem to know what she should do. Amy stares and backs away.
Amy runs out of the house and stays away until late in the night. We don’t learn until six pages later what Amy has been told—that Sasha has shot himself. Croft’s sparse narrative and minimal commentary makes these tragic moments somehow all the more shocking. Throughout Homesick a number of disturbing events are quietly mentioned almost in passing and I found myself stopping to reread the brief part about the young boy who killed himself at summer camp or the crazy neighbor who shot his family then climbed into the tree in the backyard before he killed himself or the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City or the uncle who raped and tried to murder his girlfriend or. . .
What keeps Amy afloat, beside her love for her sister, are her language studies and her photography. Early on she discovers an affinity for foreign languages, especially Russian. “Each time a Russian word meets an English word it generates a spark.” When she is just twelve, her parents recruit the handsome Sasha (who is probably a college student) to be her tutor. Here is Amy studying one of her Russian language textbooks:
The final chapter is titled What We Need for the Table. It teaches the dative singular and the ordinal numerals. . . .The sub-chapters in the final chapter of the first-year textbook are Buying Groceries; Age; Expressing Fondness, Need, Uncertainty, and Desire; and Time by the Clock. Amy finds it impossible not to say something incriminating when she tries to use the dative singular in expressions of fondness, need, uncertainty, and desire, so in her homework, she focuses on food.
At fifteen, Amy becomes the youngest student ever to enroll in the Tulsa University. After she graduates she moves to Europe and by the end of the book “she has just won the world’s largest translation prize.” But she has now failed to keep in touch with her sister for years.
As young children, both Amy and Zoe had taken photographs with the family’s Polaroid camera. Amy eventually graduated to her own camera and took up photography seriously. But one day, living in Europe, she lays out rows and rows of the photographs she has made over the years—landscapes, animals, flowers, and more—and decides “first, that every picture she has every taken has been a portrait, and, second, that every portrait is a portrait of Zoe.” “What she wants—what she’s always wanted—is to capture and to fix forever the presence of her sister, to contain her, to never let her go, or break, or even change.” She phones her sister and soon Zoe joins her in Paris for a reunion.
The book’s secretiveness carries through to the very end of Homesick. The final brief chapter has the heading “The last portrait Amy takes of her sister is a picture of some hot pink letters on the thick transparent railing of the Ponts des Arts.” I’m not sure how to interpret “the last portrait.” Is Zoe now dead and is this book her memorial? Or does that simply indicate the Paris reunion was the cut-off date for the memoir? Homesick feels exceptionally personal, private, and I felt like a trespasser at times, wanting to ask questions that suddenly seemed too intimate (but that really weren’t).
It is through the book’s photographs and their accompanying texts that Croft allows the adult Amy to directly address her sister. What Croft does is add text beneath most of her images, texts that are written in Amy’s voice and sometimes speak directly to her sister about their relationship, but occasionally reflect on language, the original meaning of certain words, and on translation. But even then, I suspect, they reflect back on her relationship with Zoe.
Words are worlds, with capacities enough for polar opposites, like left, meaning remaining and departed, or oversight, both supervision and failure to see.
In the long history of novels that add photographs into their “text,” the photographs remain secondary citizens 99% of the time. I can think of only a handful of novels in which the photographs are given parity with the text in any meaningful way—as Croft does in Homesick—and they nearly always occur when the writer also thinks of himself or herself as equally a photographer: Wright Morris and Quintan Ana Wikswo come immediately to mind. Croft’s book contains family photographs (credited to herself and her mother), as well as numerous color and black-and-white photographs that she took of her sister, of still lifes, on her travels. The relationship between the images and text pairings is never obvious. At times I would intuit a connection but usually I found I couldn’t prove it existed.
Homesick, published this year by The Unnamed Press in Los Angeles, is a remarkable book for the unique way in which Croft manages to make text and photography work through and around each other as equals. It’s a memoir that is as much about privacy and shared secrets as it is about revelation. And in this age of rampant self-exposure, this seems strangely welcome.