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Belonging Reader’s Guide

By Isabel Huggan

Belonging by Isabel Huggan

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. One of the central themes in Belonging is the act of homemaking. How does Isabel Huggan go about “feeling at home” in the various countries in which she lives? How do you make yourself (and/or your family) feel “at home”? What exactly is the sensation that you — and the author — are attempting to create? She raises several questions about the underlying meaning of home: Is it a physical place? Family? Friends? What (for you) constitutes “home” in its most ideal sense?

2. Are there definable/noticeable differences between those of us who stay in one place and those of us who move from house to house, city to city, or country to country? If there are differences, what are they? A discussion might circle around personal experience or anecdotal evidence. In Belonging, you can see that the author’s life changes after she leaves Canada: How do her attitudes change, from the chapter “Graceland” to the end of chapter “Fast Water, Slow Love”? What images does she give us to illuminate those changes?

3. In the story “Scenes” (in her collection Various Miracles), Carol Shields wrote that the individual moments of our lives “fit together like English paving stones”. She does not suggest that the stones make a path, only that they “fit”. This raises some interesting questions: Do you believe that everything you have ever done has been heading you to where you are today OR do you think that you have arrived somewhere you could never have anticipated, after many surprises, alterations and interruptions? What do you imagine is Isabel Huggan’s view? What do you think she intends in the final sentence of the final short story?

4. One reviewer of Belonging commented that the author tells us much more about her marriage in her three short stories than in the memoir itself. Do you agree, or not? Do you see other “cross-over connections” between her personal essays and her fiction in Belonging? Is the “writing style” the same or different in the short stories as it is in the nonfiction section? What about the author’s “voice”? What is the difference, as far as you are concerned, between the two sections of this book? Which do you prefer, and why?

5. In many ways, Belonging is about “making choices”. What are the choices the author makes that propel her forward in her life? Might you have acted differently in her place? If one partner has the chance to develop (further a career or learn a new skill) by taking a job in another country, what is the obligation of the other partner: to self, or to the relationship? In a two-career family/relationship, how can this matter be resolved? What indications do you have that the author (finally) feels she “made the right choice”?

6. Friendship is another essential theme in this memoir, as the author describes her relationships with people met in her travels, and people she chooses to “keep” in her life. Perhaps a discussion about the instances of friendship in Belonging could turn to a more personal conversation about the value of friendship. Do you believe that women are better at maintaining friendships than men are? Is it true, do you think, that friendship is a skill? The author says she has lost friends over time, but those absences have been filled with new friends: Has this happened to you?

7. Isabel Huggan uses her two meetings with the Frenchman named Antoine as a “literary device” — a method of connecting two different parts of her life in the book, and as a means of putting forward an idea she holds to be important, and worth sharing with her readers. Discuss. The book contains many ideas about how best to lead one’s life: what other techniques doe the author use to express these notions?

8. In the chapter “Saving Stones”, the author says that she writes because she likes using language to make a physical object (“stone, word, book”) and wants to create a tangible reality from her own experience. Discussion about this chapter could focus on the importance of “mnemonic objects that tell our stories”. How does this chapter relate to the rest of Belonging? Where and when do you note the author’s use of “physical things” as story-telling devices? If you were to make a list of objects that best reflect your life — because of memories attached to them — what would they be?

9. Memory plays an enormously important role in both nonfiction and fiction sections of Belonging. Discuss, with reference to “Making Up Mother” in which the author explains that she and her sister have variant stories about their deceased mother. She says that differences in recollections within a family simply add to the richness of mutual memory, and include all the possibilities. Do you agree? How does this idea relate to your experience in your family? Does an individual’s age/ placement in a family increase the likelihood of being seen as “right” or “wrong” (regarding versions of remembered events)?

10. Hoping to show the close relationship between the material of experience and its transformation into fiction, Isabel Huggan closes the memoir section with a chapter called S.E.M.A.P.H.O.R.E. that she says “lies between true and not-true”. In it, she recalls an event from her childhood, but in order to intensify the long-lasting guilt she and her peers feel about an accident, she invents a character. What do you think about this kind of “fiddling with the truth”? Have you ever told a personal anecdote and changed details in order to get a certain reaction or to make a point? Discuss.

11. Supplementary Questions, for an additional RG meeting or for personal enrichment.

In the chapter “Someday You’ll Be Sorry”, the author remembers her parents and their friends gathered round a piano for informal singsongs. Many of the songs had “home” as their central idea. Add to her list with songs or music “about home”. Are there songs you associate with your home, or childhood, or with the sensation of “feeling at home”? To the musical references to home one could easily add any number of visual references — photographs, paintings, or graphic illustrations (advertising, in particular) which make vivid the sentiments we associate with the idea of “home”. It would certainly provoke a lively group discussion about cultural values if members were to share their findings.

12. Expand this search to include other books — both fiction and nonfiction — which focus on the idea of, or the search for, “home”. This list could include everything from “Exodus” (the Bible) to Gone With The Wind to the PEN anthology Writing Home (McClelland & Stewart) to Passages: Coming Home to Canada (Doubleday).

13. Throughout Belonging, the author refers to several other writers of poetry and prose. Make a list of these references, and read works by these authors, so that the quoted phrases you’ve encountered in Belonging are now understood in a larger context.

14. The author often uses bits of poetry she memorized earlier in her life, and it is clear that these have great significance for her. Did you memorize poetry as a child in school? Perhaps an exchange of “favorites” would be a wonderful way for a Reading Group to begin a discussion about the value of memorizing, and/or which of these remembered lines has meaning and value as the years pass by. Or on a strictly personal note, it might be fun to put together a small collection of your own favorite poems and stories.

15. Belonging is meant to be a conversation between the author and the reader but it is, of course, one-sided. If you were able to conduct a real conversation with Isabel Huggan, what would you want to ask her? What would you want to tell her about yourself as your part of the dialogue? Are there aspects of her book with which you take exception or with which you would like to argue? Write a letter to the author, as if you were having a discussion with her.




From the Hardcover edition.
 
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