Dream Homes: A reader's guide

“Dream Homes” by Joyce Zonana
A reader’s guide – by Eleanor Jaffe

For Brandeis Women’s Resource Center

“Dream Homes” is an intense and sensitively written account of Joyce Zonana’s efforts to knit and integrate the various skeins of her life. Born into a Jewish/Egyptian family in the mid 1940s, Joyce immigrates to the U.S. with her mother and father when she is only two years old. Thus, she has no memories of her own of this exotic, cohesive past – only photographs, letters, conversations with family members and a fractured sense of who she is. She struggles with her heritage, trying to fully understand and feel its passions, often seeming so different from her American-Jewish Ashkenazi friends, as well as her non-Jewish friends and acquaintances.  

Feeling fragmented, Zonana struggles to find a true identity, her own true home and a place and culture where she can live freely as the woman she has become. In her mature adulthood, she succeeds at integrating those skeins of her identity and experiences into one whole creative, sensuous, sensitive, intellectual, accomplished, loyal and loving woman.

Zonana’s book seems to belong to at least two genres of literature: the memoir and literature of the immigrant.
I.    As a  memoir, Joyce struggles with her identity in many ways as she grows and becomes an adult. Please discuss:
      A.  She is a loving and helpful child, but in her late adolescence and for almost a decade, she leaves home and rejects her parents. Where does this rebellion come from? Why is it so fierce and protracted?
      B.  She is not an Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jew like most of her neighbors in New York City. She is Sephardic, from the East, setting her apart. She does not quite feel “Jewish”. How does this play out?
      C.  She struggles with her sexual identity and experiments. Is she heterosexual? Bi-sexual? Lesbian?
      D.  She loves to shop for food, cook food, eat food through almost all of her life. Yet, during her decade of rebellion, she never seems to indulge these appetites. What is going on?

II.    It may not seem clear from the loving reminiscences that precede Joyce’s later adolescence and early adulthood why she experiences such a tumultuous, wandering period, those unsettling years in her late teens and 20’s. In your opinion, what factors explain these sporadic moves, haphazard love affairs and general disregard for her health and education – as well as the wishes and feelings of her parents?

III.   Are her many moves around the U.S. reflective of her earliest immigration? Why or why not? How does living in Oklahoma add to her new sense of identity and belonging? Likewise, how does living in New Orleans fulfill her needs?

III.   Joyce misses a Jewish/Cairo culture she herself has never herself known. How can you explain this? How do her visits back to Egypt resolve her yearning and complete her identity? How does the use of T.S. Eliot’s quotation on page 183 provide a most fitting resolution for the end of Zonana’s memoir of dislocation?

IV.    Joyce is teaching “The Iliad” shortly before Katrina strikes and demolishes New Orleans. She identifies deeply with the wanderings of Odysseus. How was that fitting? Think about how deeply Joyce entered into the text of “The Iliad.”

V.    Will you try some of Joyce’s recipes? Do you think they belong in this book?

VI.   Zonana can be viewed in a 5-minute video clip (video.aol.com/video-detail/bmcc-professor debuts new memoir – joyce zonana/4012297037. In it, she says, ”Everything is transitory. We can lose everything in an instant, and we do lose everything in an instant. We have to find home in ourselves.” How does this statement encapsulate her book, “Dream Homes.”

VII.  “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” by _____________ and “Dream Homes” are both memoirs, written by American Jewish women whose lives began in Cairo, Egypt. If you have read both books, you might compare them. Consider: themes, style of writing, emotional impact. Do you have a favorite? Why?