Peripheries of Belonging

Reviewed by Emily Ballantyne

Belonging is a vulnerable and uncertain process that can be burdened by difficult feelings—the desire to belong is often coupled with rejection, exclusion, isolation, and despair. Award-winning Toronto authors Alison Pick and Camilla Gibb each describe in memoir their respective journeys toward building a sense of community that is fraught with depression and displacement. These women use literary memoir to better understand their relational identities—as mothers, writers, friends, and descendants—alongside grief, mourning, and loss. Their texts dig deep into the affective consequences of fostering community and the emotional labour behind formal and informal affiliations.

Pick’s memoir Between Gods describes her depression and spiritual uncertainty as she negotiates her family’s suppressed Jewish heritage by undertaking the process of conversion. While she was researching her award-winning novel Far to Go (2010), she could not fully separate her book from her own family’s escape from the Holocaust and her grandparents’ subsequent decision to keep their Jewish origins a secret. As she unravels and researches her past, she feels an intense desire to connect with and understand her Jewish origins, and is confronted by personal and communal boundaries that bar her access. Because Judaism is matrilineal, and her Jewish heritage comes from her father, she must have her conversion formally approved by a rabbinical court. During this two-year process, she looks for other ways to understand and belong to Judaism—from taking courses to observing holidays and attending synagogue—all while having her commitment to the faith actively discouraged or questioned because of her simultaneous desires to marry and start a family with a non-Jewish partner.

The way that Pick understands affiliation extends backward in time through shared loss. She makes a strong case for intergenerational, emotional connections with her ancestors that she describes as “bad blood.” She suggests that the unexpressed grief of her family is manifest in her own emotional responses. Her relationship with her ancestors is primarily understood through feeling—in particular through trying to understand and grapple with the fear and despair of those who were lost in concentration camps, and the shame and guilt of her grandparents as they meticulously hid their identity from their own children. Pick compellingly evokes the ways in which she feels collectively while experiencing individually. The memoir accounts a suffering and redemption that is incomplete, but masterfully recounted.

Where Pick wrote primarily about the liminal two-year period in which she was “between gods,” Gibb’s This is Happy works in broader strokes to craft her relationship to community from childhood into early motherhood. Much of her early life is troubled with isolation from a broken family. Her father suffers from mental illness, and is abusive and itinerant. She grows up in multiple locations and environments, often building relationships that are broken and unrecovered. She is interested in the coherence and security of family, but is caught up in depression and isolation. Her experiences are wide reaching: she pursues graduate work in anthropology at Oxford and in Ethiopia, spends time in a mental hospital, and finally finds a sense of family with a partner in Toronto. When this partner leaves her during the early stages of pregnancy, she must cope with a solitary identity when she most desires community. She effectively starts over, rebuilding her life from the ground up.

Gibb’s work is broken into parts based on the gestation of a bird from incubation to flight, developing a metaphor from within the text. These divisions mark emotional divisions in the text, and structure Gibb’s sense of growth and development. As she frankly discusses her depression during her pregnancy, she also reaches out to networks of support for those who are alone not by choice, and experiences limited access. Prenatal classes are either for families or for women who are single by choice; her friends are divided when her marriage dissolves. But amidst the losses and disappointments, Gibb finds other single people and starts to craft a new support network.

Perhaps the strongest feature of Gibb’s text is the way she interweaves other narratives of loneliness into her own in the latter half of the memoir. Her sense of identity grows to encompass new members, bringing with it an unintended happiness that comes from collectivity. Gibb’s experiences of early motherhood are interspersed with the stories of her own chosen community: Tita, her nanny; Micah, her brother; and Melissa, a new friend far from home. Tita is supporting a large family in the Philippines, recovering from an abusive past employer, and trying to navigate her husband’s move to Canada. Micah is recovering from a drug addiction and looking for stable work, while Melissa is looking for love and trying to complete her doctoral thesis. Together, this small collective works and lives together to raise Gibb’s infant daughter and prepare for the future. This memoir emphasizes the value and strength of circumstantial kinship—the way compassion can heal, even if the bonds are temporary. Gibb evokes the difficult transition period of new motherhood and reframes some of its anguish as the space of happiness and renewal.

Both of these memoirs attest to the emotional labour of belonging. The authors demonstrate the boundaries that limit access to support networks and the isolation that comes from family trauma and relationship dissolution. Both writers struggle to understand family intergenerationally, acknowledging that they are shaped by their parents, and are subsequently shaping their daughters, even in utero. While Pick ultimately draws strength from recovering her family history and restoring Jewish culture in her home, Gibb focuses her energy on defining herself within the structure of a new, chosen family that remains shifting and in flux. These are both memoirs that attest to ways of belonging on the peripheries of existing communities. They attest to the emotional costs of this belonging, and at the same time articulate so clearly the value of connecting with others to better understand the self.

This review “Peripheries of Belonging” originally appeared in Emerging Scholars. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 226 (Autumn 2015): 153-55.

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