Dionisia Morales’s debut essay collection, Homing Instincts, explores Morales’s perceptions of home and how they change as she migrates from New York to Oregon. Despite having a central theme, her essays display a wide range of storytelling and setting. For example, Morales describes transporting a new TV without a car in Portland, beekeeping and canning in small-town Oregon, growing up in New York City, raising her children in Oregon, and rock climbing across the United States and Europe. Morales is able to string these eclectic stories together into a larger narrative, making the collection surprisingly cohesive and more like a book-length memoir than an essay collection.
One of the most compelling sections of Homing Instincts is actually the prologue, which reads like the opening of a novel. It welcomes the reader and introduces the changing theme of home. Oddly enough, the prologue is not about Morales’s home, like the rest of the book, but rather the home of a man named Zlatko, whom Morales and her husband spent time with during a rock climbing trip in Croatia. Zlatko’s city has belonged to many countries, so the people who live there have had various citizenships. This is in direct contrast to Morales, whose nationality has never changed despite her moving far afield. Yet the prologue opens the book with a close examination of home, what it means, and how it changes, setting an engaging tone and offering a clear introduction to what follows.
Right from the start, Morales supplements her storytelling with research, which provides a sweeping context for her personal narratives, deepening their meaning and importance. This is often done quite skillfully, as when Morales uses history to construct a vivid image of Zlatko’s homeland:
The Illyrian tribes of the Histri originally settled Istria during the Bronze Age, around 1500 years before the age of Christ. You can still find remnants of their culture today, the most famous of which are the hill-forts, which were built with large stone blocks using a mortarless technique. Farmers still raise Boskarin, the grey and white longhorn cattle that once plowed fields and towed stones, and several dialects endure to bind the people with the words and stories of their ancestors.
On a few occasions, however, Morales’s research feels abrupt, interruptions that add length to her narratives without clearly adding value. However, these bits of research are always interesting at the very least, and they often help develop the stories and their themes.
A highlight of the collection is the essay “Formula for Combustion,” which examines how events, such as a power outage in New York City during the summer of 1977, can have unexpected social consequences, such as the looting and pandemonium that accompanied the outage. Morales is able to reach back into her childhood memories and paint a detailed portrait of this experience, intuitively weaving the larger narrative of her city during the outage with her own personal narrative. The result is an essay that simultaneously tells the story of a young girl and a big city.
Another essay that stands out is “Catch Me, I’m Falling,” which examines fear by juxtaposing rock climbing with her first pregnancy, using climbing as an extended metaphor. She, as the pregnant woman, is the climber; her husband, as her support on the ground, is the belayer. Her husband knows from his place as an observer when his wife is getting tired, when he needs to take the slack out of the rope and catch her. “You’ve got this,” he says when she is tired and high off of the ground. Later in the essay, when they discover pregnancy complication, her husband calms her during a medical procedure by helping her visualize the moves of a climb they did months earlier. The words, “You’ve got this,” take on a new and urgent significance.
Morales also experiments with different techniques throughout her collection that give various essays their own unique style, such as the script-like way she puts speaker tags before dialogue in “Conversations About Bees” or the way she braids two narratives, one about starlings moving into her attic and the other about her parents’ house fire, in the title essay, “Homing Instincts.” These techniques refreshingly distinguish each piece from the rest while still allowing them to feel unified as a whole.
Throughout the book, Morales’s voice is consistently straightforward, interspersed with perceptive observations and poetic language. For example, in “A Lingering Sense of Place,” she describes a woman at a train station: “Her voice rings with resentment and reverie; she speaks in the language of banishment.” I would have liked more of this carefully crafted language, especially when occasional passages become a little dry, but overall, the writing remains engaging. An especially gorgeous passage is in the essay “First Kitchen,” when Morales describes the ending of a day spent with the man who would later become her husband:
I reached out to hug him. Putting an arm around his shoulder, I breathed in the faint scent of rain and sweet onions. I lingered a moment and braced against the weight of him leaning down toward me. I detected no sign of the mortgage we would eventually struggle to pay or the mountains of diapers we would one day change. There was no hint of how waking up naked and safe in each other’s arms would become bittersweet with the responsibilities of children, work, and household chores. Instead, the drape of his body anchored me to the present.
Homing Instincts insightfully examines the idea of home as a place of constant change, as well as the effects those changes have on an individual’s identity. Morales does this in a way that will resonate with readers regardless of where they call home. The book holds the reader’s attention with beautiful language and carefully crafted tension, and when research or a particularly prosaic passage might tempt the reader to let go, Morales always reengages her audience quickly, as if to say, “You’ve got this.”
About the Reviewer
Brian Wallace Baker is an MFA candidate at Western Kentucky University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, Panorama, Outlet, Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Magazine.