7 Memoirs About Leaving Home
Sarah Fawn Montgomery, author of "Halfway from Home," recommends books about searching for place, self, and belonging
Leaving home is a rite of passage. Departure stories often celebrate our origins while heralding hope for the future. But for many, leaving home is an act of survival, an exodus that requires sacrifice and sorrow. It is a search for solace despite trauma, for safety despite harmful histories. Though leaving home is prompted by a search for our place, it is ultimately a search for ourself.
My new book, Halfway from Home, is a lyric essay collection about leaving a chaotic home to chase restlessness and claiming places on the West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast all while determined never to settle. But it is also a collection about how difficult it is to move forward when you long for the past. With my family ravaged by addiction, illness, and poverty; the nation increasingly divided; and the natural world under siege by wildfire, tornados, and unrelenting storms, I turn to nostalgia to grieve a rapidly-changing world. From the tide pools and monarch groves of California, to the fossil beds and grass prairies of Nebraska, to the scrimshaw shops and tangled forests of Massachusetts, I examine contemporary longing and sorrow, searching for how to live meaningfully when our sense of self is uncertain in a fractured world, and how to build a home when human connection is disappearing.
The seven nonfiction books gathered here offer the stories of others who have left home in search of somewhere to belong. The writers share the struggles of departing the landscapes that define them and the families that raised them, as well as the challenges that come from trying to discover who you are in a place where you are a stranger. While some return, some move between landscapes, and some embrace new places entirely, the writers on this list reveal how we often must leave in order to discover home.
Crying in the Bathroom: A Memoir by Erika L. Sánchez
When Erika L. Sánchez leaves home as a senior in college in search of a life of her own, she willingly accepts the role of outsider. Her choice to pursue an unmarried life of education and writing is unprecedented in her Mexican immigrant family. Forging a solo path around the globe in a community where girls are not supposed to stray from their homes, Sanchez takes readers along for her story of what it means to grow up in the ’90s in Chicago as a melancholic misfit, a hilarious outsider whose sharp insights about the world lead to an award-winning writing career. The best creative expression, Sánchez writes, is born of narrative tension, and this collection juxtaposes raunchy humor with unapologetic honesty in essays about sex, comedy, white feminism, and mental illness. Sánchez explores what it means to live in contradiction, to belong everywhere and nowhere at once, to become your own home after spending a lifetime searching for your place.
Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller
Danielle Geller inherits restlessness along with eight suitcases that contain the contents of her mother’s life. After her mother dies of alcohol withdrawal during an attempt to get sober, Geller begins to piece together the story of her mother’s life from what she leaves behind. Archiving her mother’s possessions—diaries, letters, photos, clothing, and other artifacts—Geller weaves images and text together in an innovative exploration of legacy and loss, given and chosen family, in an effort to understand her mother and herself. As Geller forges a life for herself, confronting her family’s troubled history and her role as caregiver, she is compelled back to her mother’s home on a Navajo reservation. Exploring matrilineal heritage, the delicate balance of sisterhood, and intergenerational trauma, Geller teaches readers how to honor the homes we have left in the past while showing us how to build a home and family for ourselves in the future.
Engine Running by Cade Mason
Cade Mason’s debut essay collection is an innovative archive of stories and selves frozen in time, an exploration of whether home only exists after it is gone. Examining what it means to grow distanced from the people and place that raised you, Mason shares the story of his gradual separation from his religious West Texas home and fractured family. Mason travels through endless roads and dusty farms, weaving childhood stories with family secrets in order to piece together the story of how his family fell apart—his father struggling to forget the past in the aftermath of divorce, his mother eager to move on to her future, his sister caught up in the chaos. This is a story of queerness in the rural South, of the myths of manhood, and of the end of a marriage, a family, and a home. Mason teaches readers what it means to love a place that you must also leave in order to live.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
Leaving home seems to be the only way Ashley C. Ford can escape poverty, a challenging relationship with her mother, and the isolation that comes from a lifetime of missing her father, who is incarcerated for reasons she does not know. Growing up poor and Black in Indiana, Ford spends much of her childhood worrying about safety and much of her adolescence being told her developing body is a danger. As she struggles to find connection, she dreams of a day she will finally feel sheltered in her brain and body and hopefully find unconditional love. After a relationship turns violent, Ford learns the truth about her father’s incarceration, and must reconcile her sense of safety with her shame. Leaving her family in pursuit of a life that feels like her own, Ford begins a journey to discover a body and home that feel safe, and to find out who she is outside of her fragmented familial history despite the many ways they will always be connected.
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home by Jami Attenberg
The daughter of a traveling salesman, Jami Attenberg inherits wanderlust, dedicating herself to a life on the road in the pursuit of her art. Restlessness drives her search, as she chases inspiration and experience, leading her on self-funded book tours and artistic endeavors across America and eventually around the world. Along the way she encounters artists, lovers, and friends, questioning her craft and how to build a career creating art, uncovering ideas, and understanding herself. Ultimately, it is leaving home in the pursuit of rootlessness that allows Attenberg to discover her artistry and individuality, trusting her vision and herself enough to finally claim a life and build a home.
When They Tell You to Be Good by Prince Shakur
Growing up during the early aughts in Ohio as the son of Jamaican immigrants, Prince Shakur grapples with the violent murders of several men in his family, his family’s homophobia, and the complexities of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora. Leaving home for college is just the start of Shakur’s travels—throughout the book, he journeys from France to the Philippines, South Korea to Costa Rica, coming of age as a radicalized millennial to participate in movements like Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock. As Shakur confronts what it means to be young, Black, and queer in this country, he questions life in Obama and Trump’s America, urging readers to do the same as we consider the political landscape we still have the power to shape. Though a memoir of leaving home, Shakur’s search to confront his identity, his family’s immigration, and the intergenerational impact of colonial violence ultimately leads him home to his power, his passion, and his next radical pursuits.
Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional by Isaac Fitzgerald
Leaving home defines Isaac Fitzgerald’s life and this memoir-in-essays. After his birth ends his parents’ marriages to other people, Fitzgerald leaves Boston for small town Massachusetts, his childhood defined by a sad mother and an absent father, a family dynamic of loneliness and depression, anger and disconnection. Later he leaves for boarding school, for the West Coast, for another country in search of a life away from the trauma he knew as a child. He leads many lives—altar boy, bartender, biker, smuggler—on his search for family and forgiveness, for a way to understand and accept himself. Combining gritty honesty about a violent childhood, a lifelong struggle with body image, and toxic masculinity, with humor and unabashed reflection, Fitzgerald leads the way for readers to open their hearts. While this is a story about leaving, about learning to love places and people that did not raise you, it is also about offering compassion, generosity, and forgiveness to others in order to come home to yourself.