Some stages of a child’s independence from their parents are both obvious and seismic. First steps, toddling out of protective arms and off to their own devices. Leaving school, perhaps heading to university. When a new term begins, it’s fitting that autumn leaves are in full show and a cooler breeze hangs in the air. Personal worlds change with the seasons, making way for a promise of something new around the corner. But changes that can be marked against a developmental chart or stored in a little box marked ‘first tooth’ are only what’s on the surface.
The biggest leaps to independences are not so visible. They take place inside the chest and head, and in the granular changes that shift subtly over the course of years. They’re in loving someone other than those who raised us. Seeing oneself individually in the world. Ambitions and hopes that differ from the household of childhood. It’s in the nature of some to follow in footsteps. Others push the boundaries as far as they can go. Neither is necessarily better or worse; just different.
But increasingly the world races into unfamiliar territory. One only needs to turn on the news or feel the unnatural weather on one’s skin to sense that. What does it look like when a child’s natural striving for independence takes place in a world materially different from that of their parents?
Life lessons are valuable but sometimes they need updating. Methods of self-protection, honed in one era, don’t necessarily fit the next generation. Sometimes it’s difficult for parents hoping to shield their child from life’s cruelties to trust rules which have changed. That, for example, it’s now commonplace to talk openly about mental health or sexuality. Many of us feel a small shock when we look at photographs of our parents taken around the age they had us. They leapt life milestones younger; they looked truly like adults, moustached and permed. I suspect a good deal of millennial-bashing comes from simple stupidity and malevolence, but a percentage is probably avoidance. How to come to terms with how quickly the world has moved on when, for comfortably pensioned boomers looking at holiday homes, their children’s generation can’t afford to take a mortgage on their first home? Much easier to put it down to lack of work effort.
I’m sometimes asked what young writers are writing about today. All kinds of things, but some are interested in generational differences, writing about their parents as they explore their own journeys to adulthood and liberation. It’s a ripe theme for today’s era of rapid social, political, and communicative change.
For families of migrants spanning different ages, there are specific challenges of building a life in a new place while at different stages of their lives. Writer Ocean Vuong built a critically esteemed reputation with his early, bold poetry, on themes of war’s legacy across generations, masculinity, and son-mother relationships. (It also sold very strongly – he has spoken movingly of how he was able to contribute financially to his family with the earnings). Recently Vuong published his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Fittingly, its cover bears autumn leaves as they float in the air. The author shares characteristics with the teen lead of the novel; both children born in Vietnam, evacuated with their maternal guardians, spending the latter half of childhood in America.
In the novel, protagonist ‘Little Dog’ lives with a manicurist mother and grandmother. There are descriptions of his grandmother raising his mother in wartime Vietnam, crossing a border with the baby to her chest and a gun pointed at them. He takes a job on a tobacco farm threading cut stalks onto a spear, and develops a close sexual relationship with the farmer’s son. Little Dog occasionally translates the English-speaking city for his mother and grandmother when their language fragments aren’t enough to cross the divide. When they return home to see the word ‘fag’ daubed in red paint across their front door, he tells his mother it means “Happy Christmas”.
It’s a beautiful novel full of raw feelings, of sacrifices made by parents (who don’t always get it right) and a young man’s desire to explore, his growing independence interlinked with viewing his family as adults with lives lived in their own right.
I met the writer Zeba Talkhani when we both contributed to the book Nasty Women. I only knew a little of her story before I read her fascinating and thoughtful memoir, My Past is a Foreign Country. It describes an upbringing in Saudi Arabia to Muslim Indian parents, and as Zeba grew, her emerging desire to push against societal norms that clashed with her growing feminist values.
Zeba describes the adjustments made by her parents to support her in the choice to study abroad, later settling in the UK where she was to meet her now husband. It wasn’t easy to have a daughter at odds with a conservative community’s expectations, but, she recognises, they extended to her a willingness to try and see things her way, perhaps recognising the unquenchable drive that propelled Zeba to her current life working among books having seen more of the world.
For all the frustration, there is a great striving to understand her parent’s reasoning, and a graceful recognition of their gradual opening up.
Understanding has to go both ways. The lynchpin is respect. At a certain age, children learn a parental limit on sweets was for our own good. But beyond that, sometimes directions for life are well-meaning but misplaced. Trusting how the other navigates the world is key. That the child, or the parent, has made decisions, out of self preservation or for the good of others, based on their knowledge of the world at the time they experienced it, and that world might look very different 20 to 30 years apart. That it’s as frightening to see a child pursue a life dream that differs from one’s own as the drive is strong to pursue it.