I wonder if the main character in the 2015 film Brooklyn would introduce herself as Eilis from Brooklyn or Eilis from Ireland?
I watch her story unfold and see my own in the reflection of her eyes. I ask myself, “Am I Kate from Michigan or Kate from South Africa?”
I was born and raised in the small, Dutch town of Holland, Michigan. A month before I turned twenty-one, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa, for my final semester of college. What I thought would be a six-month stint turned into a ten-year transformation.
Eilis was born and raised in Ireland. In 1951, as a young woman living with her mother and sister, Eilis is miserable in her small, gossip-filled town. She works part-time in a shop with a terrible boss and shows no interest in any Irish boys.
Seeing Eilis’s despondency and bleak prospects, her sister, Rose, contacts an Irish priest named Father Flood in Brooklyn, New York, on Eilis’s behalf. With the priest’s help, Rose arranges for Eilis to make passage on a ship bound for America and work in an upscale department store in Brooklyn.
As I watched the immigrants gripping the ship’s railing with one hand and waving farewell with the other, my own hatred of good-byes caught hard in my throat. Family members lined the dock, stoic-faced, except for the stray tear. I swallowed hard, dozens of past airport scenes banging on the back door of my mind, demanding to come in.
Eilis didn’t realize it yet, but her life was about to change forever. Home, as she knew it, would never be the same.
The initial bouts of homesickness are severe. Eilis battles fiercely, but is overcome. When Father Flood takes notice, Eilis admits her intense struggle.
He tries to console her with the words, “We need Irish girls in Brooklyn.”
Eilis confesses, “I wish I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.”
Man, I know that feeling. It took me five solid years living in Cape Town before I realized I had stopped mentally converting every item in the grocery store from Rand to dollars, every litre of petrol into gallons of gas, every degree Celsius into degrees Fahrenheit, every kilogram into pounds. Yes, there were definitely days when I longed to be an American girl in America, not in South Africa.
Father Flood says to Eilis, “All I can say is that it will pass. Homesickness is like all other sicknesses. It’ll make you feel wretched, then it’ll move on to somebody else.”
Gradually, Eilis begins to realize the priest may be right. She even meets a nice Italian boy named Tony at a dance, and they start to date. As their relationship develops, Eilis writes to her sister back in Ireland: “I think of you and Mother every single day, but Tony has helped me to feel that I have a life here I didn’t have before I met him. My body was here, but my life was back in Ireland with you. Now it’s halfway across the sea. So that’s something, isn’t it?”
Halfway across the sea. Exactly how I felt for more than ten years, and even now, though it tugs in the opposite direction. When I’m there, I want to be here, when I’m here, I want to be there. But where is home?
Like Eilis, I met someone while living overseas. Eilis had to learn how to eat spaghetti with a fork and spoon before visiting her Italian boyfriend’s family. I had to learn how to eat mealie pap and tamati gravy with my fingers while visiting my Motswana boyfriend’s house. Each in our own ways, we formed a new definition of home.
In the film, Eilis receives the tragic news that her sister, Rose, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Eilis talks to her mother in a rare overseas telephone call, and it’s clear that her mother is torn in two.
Upon hearing this, Tony presumes aloud, “You want to go home, I guess?”
Lifting her head from Tony’s shoulder, Eilis looks up at him and asks, “How would it be for you if I did go back home?”
He answers, “I’d be afraid every single day.”
“Afraid that I wouldn’t come back?”
“Yeah. Home is home.”
And then the ball drops: “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.”
I am Eilis from Brooklyn. Or was it Ireland?
Eilis does go back to Ireland, but not before Tony persuades her to secretly marry him in a civil court ceremony just before her departure. He thinks their union will secure her return to him. But will it?
Back in Ireland, Eilis wrestles again with her identity, her place, her sense of home. The pull is strong. But which force will win? Can she really turn her back on such a significant part of her heart? Either choice is a loss. Either choice is a win.
In the end, she packs her bag for the long journey back to New York. As an open suitcase sits on her bed, she drinks in a long look around her bedroom. And I saw myself, taking mental snapshots and praying the images would etch themselves into my mind. The bed frame. The curtains. The framed photos on the chipped bedside stand. The view from the smudged window.
On the boat returning to America, Eilis meets another Irish girl bound for the States. After learning that this is not Eilis’s first voyage, the girl asks, “What’s it like in America? I’m going to live in Brooklyn, New York. Do you know it?”
The girl prods further. “People say there are so many Irish people there, it’s like home. Is that right?”
Eilis pauses, then answers, “Yes. It’s just like home.”
She begins to give the girl the same advice she was given on her first trip over, then adds, “You’ll feel so homesick you want to die. And there’s nothing you can do about it, apart from endure it. But you will. And it won’t kill you. And one day, the sun will come out. You might not even notice straightaway, it’ll be that faint. And then you’ll catch yourself thinking about something or someone which has no connection with the past. Someone who’s only yours. And you’ll realize, that this is where your life is.”
This is where your life is.
Here. In the present.
I am Eilis from Brooklyn. I am Eilis from Ireland. And I am heading home.