From The Writers' Room Featuring Tremontaine
Alaya Dawn Johnson on writing Tremontaine S2E5: “Alive, and Home Here”
As of January 1, 2017, I will have lived outside of the United States for three years. I live in Mexico City, and I learned my first words of Spanish about five months before I moved here. Moving away from your family and friends, from any semblance of a comfort zone, when you barely speak the language and don’t know the city—well, it’s a formula for either misery or adventure (at the beginning I vacillated between joy of discovery and complete alienation daily). I know feeling out of place a thousand miles from home. I know that sudden longing for the flavors and sounds and understood rhythms of the place that you were born.
Which is to say, on this level I understand Kaab very well. When I set out to write this guest episode, the writing team gave me a very spare outline and basically said, “have fun.” My love for Kaab is well-attested, and this episode was going to have a lot of her in it. There were some important plot points to hit, but in and of themselves they didn’t seem to fall into an obvious an arc or a theme. I knew I’d have to look at the plot from a lot of different angles to find something quintessentially Kaab to unite everything. I knew I’d have to dig deep to find a theme that spoke to me and made me excited to write the episode. And it occurred to me that Kaab has now been in the City for several months, long enough to find love and friends and adventures and a million new smells and tastes, some of which make her long for her old home, and some of which (as much as she hates to admit it) make her fall more and more in love with her new one. I realized that I understood exactly how that felt.
Like Kaab in Riverside, I arrived in Mexico City a little out of breath, fleeing a messy situation back home. Like Kaab, what had only been meant to be a brief sojourn turned into a life-changing journey. I learned the language, I made lifelong friends, I fell in love, I ate new food every day and while, sure, some days I could have given blood for some mac & cheese or grits, I found myself completely at home in a city so far away from home. I realized that I didn’t want to leave, much as Kaab has discovered that she can’t just leave her City loyalties and lover behind for a chance to go back to Binkiinha. It is a particular kind of homesickness when you have affirmatively chosen your own exile. I realized I had to give that to our Kaab: the tense, conflicted longing for a home that you have willfully given up. From that realization sprang the conflict and the emotional arc of this episode. I had to show what Kaab is not yet ready to admit out loud: Riverside and the City have dug their splinters into her heart. She will carry them with her in the same way that she carries her birth home, uneasily and irreversibly.
As Kaab gets more entrenched in the life and intrigues of this cold northern land across an ocean, we can expect that the pain of those tensions will only be exacerbated. But like she tells the baby growing in her aunt Saabim’s belly, she is home wherever she has love. Luckily, so am I.