Friday, March 4, 2011

What leaving home means in different cultures

The other day I was inspired by Melissa Crytzer Fry's post about home, and the things we associate with it. Home is a concept that is so basic to us that invoking it brings an enormous amount of dimension to our storytelling. Today I thought I'd turn it around and look at leaving home.

If I asked, "What did it feel like when you first left home?" the likelihood, at least in the US, would be that I might get someone telling me a story about going to college for the first time. I might hear about how strange it was not to know anyone, how it was hard to keep a schedule what with classes and parties and just plain old not-having-parents-around-to-manage-stuff. However, leaving home doesn't always mean going to college, just as going to college doesn't necessarily mean leaving home. In Australia, for example, people usually stay home and attend university classes (my husband says the university in Canberra is an exception "because nobody lives there," but I'll take his quips with a grain of salt).

What other kinds of leaving home might there be?

In fairy tales, what we commonly find is a young man growing up and going off to seek his fortune. Not exactly like going off to college. Usually this journey results in wild and crazy adventures which threaten the young man to within an inch of his life but usually end with him gaining the fortune he sought. In real life people have left home to seek their fortunes, with more mixed results.

I think of a beautiful Irish song in which a young man convinces his young lady to elope with him because he's leaving the next day for "far-off Columbia's shore."

There are also the marriages of pre-Revolution China. The young woman would leave her home with great ceremony and ritual, and travel to the home of her husband's family, where she would be subject to the directives of her husband's mother.

I also think of people who leave their home countries for a better life elsewhere - notably, immigrants to the United States, whose stories are often harrowing and don't always end well. Some of these are fleeing war or persecution in their home countries. This type of leaving-home story was brought to life for me by the true stories I heard from young people when I helped them with story writing. By contrast, what would a refugee's story be like? What would a defector's story be like?

The context of home-leaving varies widely, but in many cultures it takes on an iconic significance. It is a major turning point in life, sometimes accompanied by ceremony. It is something that people remember and carry forward with them as they continue their lives. "When I left my home." Therefore I think it's an important thing to know about characters in my books. Did my character have a happy home life and leave as an accomplishment, as when going away to college? Did he leave home as a child and go to boarding school? Did she run away from home because she was miserable at age 15? It's worth thinking through these very personal stories, and how they would affect the behavior and emotional states of a character in the context of story action - even if the particular events of the backstory are never explicitly mentioned.

It's something to think about.