‘Where I was from’ is the title of a book – a memoir – by the American writer Joan Didion. I think that it’s best to read her work slowly because there’s every chance that her text will raise a number of basic questions about one’s own identity.
She begins her memoir by offering short notes on the character of her ancestors – beginning with Elizabeth Scott who was born in 1766. Elizabeth Scott impresses as a hardy woman who had ‘bright blue eyes ‘and who ‘grew up on the Virginia and Carolina frontiers.’ She mentions other female ancestors – including Nancy Hardin Cornwall who made the arduous crossing from the east to the west of the United States of America – and finds that at least some of these women were able to break clean ‘with everyone and everything they knew.’ A part of Joan Didion’s family cultural heritage was the capacity to jettison the past. She writes:
‘They were women, these women in my family, without much time for second thoughts, without much inclination toward equivocation, and later, when there was time or inclination, there developed a tendency, which I came to see as endemic, toward slight and major derangement, apparently eccentric pronouncements, opaque bewilderment and moves to places not quite on the schedule.’
As Joan Didion explores the nature of her forbears we can begin to get an idea of the way her own being was created. She too may well embody some of these ancestral characteristics – such as the ability to cut loose from the past; and Didion herself acknowledges that she, like one of her grandparents, was thought of as ‘well, different.’
First, then, Didion invites her reader to conduct a type of family archaeology in order to unearth the distinct characteristics that may provide part of the answer to the question, ‘Where I was from’. This would be part anthropology, part sociology and part psychology.
Then in the second chapter of her book Didion reflects upon the content of an early speech she gave as a schoolgirl to an audience of fellow pupils and their parents. Her speech was entitled ‘Our California heritage.’ I think it’s a remarkably well-written piece and foreshadows her wonderful gifts as a writer. What is interesting about the speech is that she reprises a form of the standard and conventional narrative about the kind of people who (originally) came to California. In her school-girl offering she tells us that:
‘They who came to California were not the self-satisfied, happy and content people, but the adventurous, the restless, and the daring. They were different even from those who settled in other westerns states. They didn’t come west for homes and security, but for adventure and money …’
‘California has accomplished much in the past years. It would be easy for us to sit back and enjoy the results of the past. But we can’t do this. We can’t stop and become satisfied and content. We must live up to our heritage …’
But after a few years Joan Didion realised that certain aspects of her ‘Our California Heritage’ did not ‘add up.’ Perhaps most obviously her audience consisted of people who had arrived in California not for any grandiose motive but, who were, in the 1930s, refugees from the crisis of the Dust Bowl. Why had they come to California? Well, to meet the most basic of human needs: They hoped to find the means for survival (food and shelter) and, beyond that, a bit of security.
And so in her text Didion notes that it was after the realisation that she had embraced a fanciful narrative, a narrative that did not square with reality, that she ‘began trying to find the ‘point’ of California, to locate some message in its history.’
So, a second and overlapping answer to any inquiry which investigates ‘Where I was from’ concerns the stories that we are told about the state or country that we were born into, the nation to which we belong and the kind of people we are. (And this is what Didion painstakingly does in her book – including the master narratives that tell many Americans about ‘who they are’ – even if these narratives are full of romanticised myth.)
I was intrigued by the idea of trying to find the ‘point’ of California, and with the idea of trying to locate some message in its history; this struck me as fascinating. I began to imagine the idea of ‘the promised land – that never really is’ and I was reminded of the Eagles’ song, ‘The last resort‘.
But then, by extension, I asked:
What is the point of England?
It was possible to begin answering this as a general question even before examining what ‘message’ may lie in its history.
So, ‘What is the point of England?’ …
Post script: ‘Where I came from?‘: My background consisted of a family constellation without grandmothers (they had both died before I was born) and with only one grandfather (who died when I was 12 years old). I had no sisters – but I did have three brothers. My first memories were of Singapore and I only began to get some idea of England when my parents returned to the British Iles in 1956. My mother, herself, did not come to England until she was 15 years old in 1939 and she did not always entertain a favourable view of the country. My father, too, was a critical thinker – and that helped to give our family the sense of being an outsider group.
What else? Well I think I’m one of the relatively small percentage of people in England who has a certain claim to being déclassé.