You can never go home. You can never leave it either.
Home and identity are consistent themes in Trisha Low’s Socialist Realism, a book-length essay tracing the author's moves west in search of more personally meaningful circumstances. The book’s fragmented narrative offers piercing reflections full of intellectual power and personal resonance, peering at once inside and outside herself to try to make sense of a vitally uncertain world.
Socialist Realism traces Low’s childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood through recollections, reflections, and art criticism, as well as musings on relationships, family, and politics. It all adds up to a work that defies normativity pretty much in every way, as she moves with a kind of vulnerable virtuosity from one illuminating entry to the next. Though she avoids dealing in definites, the idea of home remains in the background (and sometimes the foreground) throughout, as a constant supporting character. "I would say," Low told VICE, "that, emotionally, home is like the ideal...of solace, but it's not necessarily the reality of solace for many people." For Low, both home and identity are fluid concepts; Low continues, "I think that part of what my book is struggling with is this sense that identity has become more static; like, it has become a feeling of sameness."
And both home and identity, and how they manifest, can be complicated or clouded by desire—which in Low's mind, is a positive thing. To her, desire can also be a stand-in for engagement. She explains, "The best example that I can think of in the book is probably that...figure of the fangirl. This idea that a desire for Harry Styles might actually belie a kind of fledgling political desire to recognize the kinds of oppressions there are towards femininity in women's lives. Like this desire for something better. If we focus too much on desire as being good or bad then it's very easy for that to lead to political disenchantment."
Amidst the swirl of ideas and desires in the book, the confessional tone is perhaps the most striking. There’s a reassuring, anxious intimacy running through it, which can be confusing, because all the confessional sections aren't quite true. What’s true and what’s fictional are blurred on purpose, Low says, because, "People seem to think about it [the confessional] as an authentic mode, like it's a mode that contains truth, whereas for me I really see it as...like interplay of fantasy and reality...I would use the term confessional...because it's both true and not true."
Then there’s nostalgia, muddler of true and not true, always elbowing in on our sense of home and identity. Low writes about the professor Svetlana Boym, who held that nostalgia was a product of capitalism because capitalism’s fixation on progress allowed no "space of experience," no place of reflection. Capitalism, Low continues, leaves us "a future that promises us everything but the solace for which we long."
So yes, art and politics are also central to Low’s book. And art and politics may not be the same thing, but they do overlap, and that’s where the title of the book comes in. Socialist realism, to Low, is a stand-in for a vision of what a more perfect home and identity could be in the future. Low references art historian Robert Bird’s notion that what these artists "painted or sculpted or created were not idealized versions of their current reality; they were imperfect images that evoked the perfect unknown."
So, how does one get to the perfect unknown? Lots of first steps.
In Socialist Realism, home and identity are made up of first steps, then more first steps. And it might always be only first steps, and there might not be a perfect unknown. And the future seems impossible. And desire and hunger drive you forward to an ideal that will inevitably be less than ideal. Which is all to say home can be where you actually are, where you’re trying to get to, or where you’ll never be.