Q&A: Alice Driver on home and the nomadic life

Alice Driver is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and traveler. I first discovered her work when I read her piece, “My Own Trap,” a moving mediation on creativity, personal history and home. It spoke to me on every level and I’ve followed her work since, finding a kindred spirit of sorts. There’s so much to say about Alice, but she’s said it all better than I could in answer to my four questions below. The above photo was taken by photographer Rodrigo Jardón on Alice’s parents’ property in Arkansas, which was the subject of his photo essay, A Homeland: Arkansas.

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Much of your work touches on or is centered around your childhood home in rural Arkansas where your artist parents bought land, built a house and raised you. Though you’ve chosen a different lifestyle, it seems like this unconventional sense of home informs a lot of your decisions and actions in life, which I can relate to. How do you carry the significance of home in your daily life? Does it ever feel like a burden?

I spent the first 14 years of my life in rural Arkansas in the Ozark Mountains. In the late 70s, my dad and three of his brothers bought land together, and they moved there with their wives, children, and girlfriends and began to build houses. I grew up with my aunts, uncles, and cousins and among a community of people who formed part of the back-to-the-land movement, basically old hippies. My friends from Arkansas are friends I have had since birth, and we ran wild around the Ozarks, spending our days like a pack of roving wolves. I lived out my childhood in the woods and the creek, and via books. My parent’s didn’t have a TV, so reading was an important part of how I saw the world since where we lived was quite remote.

My parents, a potter and a weaver, had little money, so we rarely traveled outside of the state. At my local school, which had less than 100 kids in kindergarten though 12th grade, I had absolutely no exposure to languages. I say all of this to explain what happened to me once I left Arkansas, and, at the age of 16, traveled to Costa Rica. I could not wrap my mind around the fact that for several hundred dollars, I could step on a plane and arrive in a different country where people spoke another language. The impact of that trip has never left me. I wanted, more than anything on earth, to speak other languages, and I was angry that I had not been exposed to them earlier. Even now, if I have the choice between buying furniture and traveling, or spending money on clothes or things and traveling, the choice is always travel. This is probably why I still have no house or apartment of my own and live a relatively nomadic life.

I have been able to pursue life as a writer and to follow my passion for language and travel, things that are all quite financially unstable, because I know that I always have a home in Arkansas. If I run out of money, or don’t get paid for my writing projects, or fail to sell my book, I know that I can always return to the house my parent’s built in Arkansas. My parents, in buying land and building their own house, have set me free. I can do anything and fail as many times as I have to, and that is liberating. However, it also took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I am not leading the lives my parents led, because I so much admire what they have built with their own hands – a house filled with weavings and pots and paintings, a garden, and art studios.

I see the world through the prism of my homeland in Arkansas. I value things that are handmade and real – food from the garden, tortillas made fresh each morning, a house built by hand over a period of 20 years, a handwritten letter. I have little tolerance for people who measure their worth by money and by the things that they can buy. My homeland does not feel like a burden. It is the only home I will ever have and one I want to pass on to my grandchildren.

To me, your work has a strong sense of place to it, even beyond your pieces about Arkansas. For example, “Waiting for Heads,” which touches on the marginalized lives in Tepito and La Merced, Mexcio, and “A Digital Notebook on Invisible Borders,” which gives fantastic snippets of life in Mexico City. However, the place is never really what the story is about, but more like a supporting character. How does place effect your view of the world?

Growing up in rural Arkansas, I had an idyllic childhood that was largely untouched by societal standards related to beauty, success, and defined gender roles. However, when I was 14, my dad accepted a job in Owensboro, Kentucky so that the whole family would finally have health insurance and access to better schools. Whereas Oark, Arkansas has around 200 people, Owensboro, Kentucky had around 50,000. The first two years in Kentucky were brutal for me, because kids made fun of me, and I was very shy and didn’t know how to deal with it. I cried a lot.

I have always been sensitive and very empathetic, and I think those two years of ostracism only made me more empathetic and more interested in telling the stories of marginalized people. As a writer and a lover of photography, I feel like my strength is my ability to empathize and relate to people from all walks of life, and, if necessary, to establish trust and understanding in a matter of seconds. When I lived in Mexico City, I volunteered in the La Merced neighborhood at a Cultural Center. The neighborhood is known for being the most dangerous in Mexico City and has been the center of prostitution since colonial times. Everyone told me not to spend time there, but the truth is that once I started assisting in workshops about photography, film, and writing, I made friends with many kids in the community. And once you are friends with the kids, you are friends with everyone. I am so fond of La Merced and of the people there, and feel grateful that they let me be a part of their lives for the year-and-a-half that I lived in Mexico City. In essence, I am more interested in people than in place, although I think they go hand in hand. I am who I am because of my home in Arkansas, and the kids in La Merced, many of whom had to drop out of school at an early age to work, are who they are because of their neighborhood.

You are currently in Mexico, where you will spend three months working and where you have spent a lot of time in the past (enough time, in fact, to write your recent book, “More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico). Why Mexico? What does it mean to you?

I first traveled to Mexico in college with a professor of mine who has taken students to Mexico for something like the past 30 years. I stayed with a family in Morelia, and to this day I continue to be friends with them. I fell in love with the warmth of the culture, the way everyone greets you with kisses and asks after your family, the freshly made tortillas and real juices and exquisite pre-Hispanic recipes, and with the thousand worlds that can be found in this country. I returned to Morelia three times, lived in Guadalajara, and most recently lived in Mexico City when I had a postdoctoral fellowship at the UNAM. I am now based in Oaxaca because I wanted to have a more relaxed pace of life. Mexico City is an incredible cultural experience, but it can be extremely tiring to live with some 25 million people. I remember passing out on the metro one day because it was so packed and hot that I couldn’t handle it.

Mexico is my second home, and when I was working on my Ph.D., I always knew I would write about Mexico, because it is a country of huge inequalities, and I was drawn to activism and human right issues. I believe in the power of art to move people, and my book was inspired by a documentary. I watched Lourdes Portillo’s Missing Young Woman and felt compelled to write about the mothers in Ciudad Juárez who, after their daughters were disappeared or murdered, became activists. I love working in another language, conducting interviews, translating my own work, and the incredible sense of power I get from doing what I always dreamed of in two languages.

Does “home” mean the same thing it’s always meant to you? If not, how has it changed?

My understanding of home has changed in the sense that, for a long time I felt that I needed to do what my parents had done. I was so in admiration of what they had built, but eventually I realized that what I wanted to write and that my creation, my home, would be made via my writing. I was not going to try to redo what they did. Even if I wanted to follow in their footsteps, the world has changed, and whatever I do would turn out differently. The beautiful thing is that they have supported me as I am and thrown their weight behind my projects. They are wise, and I am glad I can continue to learn from them.

Tessa Love

23 thoughts on “Q&A: Alice Driver on home and the nomadic life

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