Emily Parker spoke with author Jo Swinney about her new book 'Home, the Quest to Belong', her experience of being a 'third culture' child and what home means to her.

Jo Swinney
Jo Swinney

Emily: First of all, tell me a bit about your life and when you grew up in France and Portugal.

Jo: I've done a lot of moving like many people have. The big move, I suppose, was when I was five years old and my family moved to southern Portugal. My parents were starting a Christian conservation charity called A Rocha. Myself and my two younger siblings, and later a fourth born in Lisbon, we went off and lived in Portugal. We lived there from when I was five until I was 17 years old, so a big part of my childhood.

Emily: How was it for you, growing up in a country that wasn't English speaking?

Jo: At first it was definitely a bit intimidating and challenging. I remember really hankering after everything English, from people understanding what I said, to the sweets I was used to from the corner shop, and even the rain sometimes. I remember really craving cooler weather, but actually, after a short while, I think children pick up language very quickly, faster than adults do.

Home for me at that point was definitely mostly about where my parents were. So Portugal became home fairly fast I'd say. I think all of us adjusted pretty quickly and it's a very friendly, welcoming culture and Portuguese people love children and we got really spoilt and really well loved.

Emily: Were there any things that your parents decided to do in order to instil that feeling of home and belonging in to your childhood?

Jo: There is a lot they did. We had quite a lot of family traditions and routines, so we would always read aloud at bed time. My mum and dad were big fans of taking primus stoves everywhere and cooking sausages, so we used to go on quite a lot of family outings and cook sausages. We also do a lot of talking and laughing, and we have meals around the table together. We'd start every morning by all of us jumping in their bed for a big old rag round.

I think one thing that was very challenging for them was that all of our possessions were coming in a removal van from England and for some unknown reason they got delayed by two years. So we were living out of suitcases for two years. I think that and having all of the kind of familiar bits and pieces and pictures and books and furniture and so on, that would have helped my parents. But in terms of us children, I think it was just the little family activities that we did and the fact that they were so secure and loving as parents.

Emily: That must be a big deal as well, where your perspective on what home is doesn't necessarily then become your possessions, it becomes those memories of the things that you do together.

Jo: I think the older you get the more significant those objects, pictures and things become, the ones that have travelled from place to place. I'm sitting in a room here while I'm talking to you over the phone and there's so many things from different places and times that say home to me, even though they are just physical objects. I think you're right, mostly it's about people, but there is something quite profound about our physical spaces as well and how we fill them that says 'home'.

Emily: So, how would you define what home is for you?

Jo: Over time it's come to mean more things. So for me it's a very multi-faceted thing now. I think it does involve my address, the house that I live in, but it's also to do with the story that I have come to live; the story of my life and where I see myself sitting in it.

It's the community; I feel really at home in the church that we're currently a part of. I think I have a sense of home in my work. I have a sense of home in my culture, although that's a funny one. I was hesitating because I don't know if you've come across the term 'third culture kids', that's where your parents come from one culture and you come from another and you are raised in another and therefore you belong to a third. So, I don't think I do feel particularly at home in English culture still, but for some people culture is definitely part of home.

Emily: Within those different facets that you've just mentioned, what does the feeling of belonging mean to you?

Jo: Belonging is to do with feeling that you have a place, community, and people that is yours and where you have the right to be and where you are wanted and where you are committed. But that place or those people are also committed to you. I think that belonging for me comes and goes and when I feel I don't belong there's some real grief and fear attached to that feeling.

Emily: What moments have you found where you felt like you haven't belonged and how did you work through those emotions you've just mentioned like fear?