Vanessa A. Bee’s debut memoir opens with a passport replacement appointment at the French consulate in Washington, D.C. “Where are you from?” the consulate guard asks Bee. Home Bound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging, a meditative and captivating examination of the layers that make up a home, is Bee’s answer to this question.
Born in Yaoundé, Cameroon, Bee was adopted by her aunt and uncle at ten months old and lived in France and England before moving to Reno, Nevada, as the financial and housing markets teetered on the edge of collapse. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Bee settled in Washington, D.C., where she lives and works as a consumer rights lawyer and essayist.
Home Bound explores themes of identity, inequality, and belonging, and is organized thematically in a roughly linear timeline, each chapter beginning with a different definition of “home.” In addition to one’s place of residence, home can mean a community, a place of worship, a body, and a safe space, among other things, and Bee examines each of these definitions as it applies to her life. But for all the word’s complexities, Bee believes “home” contains a sense of universality. “It’s the confidence in this universality,” she writes, “that emboldens us to ask complete strangers where they are from. We pry, certain that we will recognize elements of ourselves in the stranger’s answer, no matter the distance between our places of birth and present circumstances.” She shares her story as “half of a conversation between us—a test, perhaps, of this universality’s boundaries.” Bee’s memoir is a detailed account of her upbringing, personal evolution, and family dynamics, as well as an examination of the political, cultural, and economic factors that have shaped her life. “This is the way home feels to me,” Bee writes. “Does it also feel this way to you?”
The story of Bee’s early life meanders through Lyon and London, offering vignettes of a curious and precocious child, before reaching Reno, Nevada. These first few chapters are rich with lyric detail and describe foundational experiences—living in government housing, collecting stories about her biological father, going to church and questioning whether she believes its teachings.
The fulcrum of Home Bound is situated squarely in its center, within the chapters “The D Word” and “The Speculator.” The writing in “The D Word”—the word in question being ‘divorce’—is urgent, quickly paced to reflect the tumult of that time in Bee’s life. Told in short, wrenching scenes, this chapter follows Bee as she enters Harvard Law School, a newly-married twenty-year-old trying to reconcile new ideas and budding friendships with her devoutly Christian husband and his evangelical church. Bee juxtaposes the freedom she feels among her law school classmates with the restraint required of her by her marriage and the religion that comes along with it as a package deal. The tension and anxiety of this time is palpable. When Bee wants out, she is pressured into Christian marriage counseling. She listens as the pastor asks whether she would drop out of law school if it were the only way to save her marriage, then watches him smirk when she asks whether he knows how hard she’s worked to get there. After a fraught and painful process, she finally obtains a divorce, securing her freedom to graduate law school and begin a job with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“The Speculator” examines housing issues and gentrification in Washington, D.C., as well as how race impacts access to housing. Describing the process of purchasing her first condo, Bee deftly examines the political backdrop and her own complicated emotions entangled in securing something she knew to be, in part, a “predatory marketing ploy” in the aftershocks of the housing market’s collapse: her “own piece of the American Dream.”
At times both wry and earnest, Bee’s memoir is a product of introspective scrutiny, reflecting both the deeply uncomfortable process of examining all the dark little corners of your life and the combination of maturity and self-respect it takes to tell your story with depth and nuance. When Bee levels criticism at policies that create income inequality or questions how to forgive certain of her family members, she does so thoughtfully, fairly, and with unflinching honesty. And sometimes treating something fairly means recognizing when forgiveness cannot be on the table, at least for the moment.
Bee’s idea of the universality of home is both intriguing and comforting, and readers may find themselves thinking, yes, same here, or exactly! at various points throughout her memoir. There’s the teenage nostalgia of Dippin’ Dots and trying on stuff at Charlotte Russe in the mall, the impassioned discussions in a first-year property law class about who should have access to beaches, the constant analyzing and overanalyzing of every possible option when creating an outline for how life should unfold, and the related, ongoing effort to find comfort in uncertainty. Readers of Home Bound will likely experience that pleasant rush of recognizing something personal in someone else’s reality, of answering, yes, home feels like this to me, too.
Home Bound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging
By Vanessa A. Bee
Published October 11, 2022
Erika is a writer and lawyer currently living in Chicago.