You’ve Got the Wrong Enemies

jerry-kiesewetter-195442One of the most distressing things about the Great Divide, as we’ve come to call the chasm separating us in so many arenas, is the way we seem compelled to create an enemy out of our opponents.  I know that I am getting sucked in to an argument with more heat than light when I hear people explaining, “Well, you know this is what the right wing believes,” or “You know this is how liberals think.”  And then we go on to explain the thinking of “the other side” for them, usually with the greatest stereotypes we can muster.  I had to stop getting news headlines from several online services because I realized they were just feeding my ire and my fire.

It’s not that we don’t need enemies, it’s just that we’ve chosen the wrong ones.  “We are not fighting with flesh and blood,” Ephesians 6:12 tells us, “but against powers, against principalities, against mighty powers in this dark world.”  And no, I’m not talking about your favorite political bogeyman there.

515pkTRb55L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Our arguments have a tendency to go apocalyptic quickly these days, but if they were truly apocalyptic, we wouldn’t be imagining the worst that our opponents could do.  We would be trying to discern the spiritual temperature of the times.  Because the apocalyptic world view, as Fleming Rutledge talks about in her latest book The Crucifixion, is not one that imagines the destructive potential of human actions, but one that places those actions within the context of God’s activity and God’s timeline.  The real question is not, “How are we going to end it all?” but “Where is the realm of God, God’s new thing, being revealed?”

The way our perverted apocalypticism is revealed in the church is in the absence of a sense that anything is at stake when we gather.  When we sink into old worship forms that merely feed our nostalgia or persist in doing things simply because of our inertia, we lose the imperative that comes from being truly enlisted in a spiritual adventure which requires the full armor of God.  Signing on for service in Christ’s corpus is about a fight to the death confrontation with the principalities that have enslaved one and all.  And that’s a fight God wins.

Re-wilding the Land – a Review of Alix Hawley’s All True Not a Lie in It


jordan-whitt-53061All True Not a Lie in It.  Ha!  Daniel Boone is one of the most picked-over commodities in pioneer pop culture, (though admittedly he hasn’t had a major spike in interest since Fess Parker’s TV Boone had ‘60s kids sporting coon-skin caps).  If there’s a truth left below the varnish of 250 years of mythologizing, I’m not sure we’d be able to tell.  Nevertheless, Alix Hawley, in her award-winning debut book, gives us a Boone that feels like a fully human figure, full of dreams and regrets and certainly someone who carries a spark of a larger truth.

51w4-h0whUL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_The pieces of the historical Boone are here.  There’s young Daniel and his family chafing against the strictures of a Quaker community in Pennsylvania.  There’s an older Daniel moving to North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley and reluctantly taking up farming.  Boone the soldier in the French and Indian War.  Boone the family man.  But this Boone blossoms when he takes off for Kentucky with a small group of companions and calls it  heaven – despite being captured by Shawnee, twice robbed of the pelts he collects during long seasons of hunting, and spending more than a year wandering.  “I want to believe that this is Heaven now just here,” Boone the narrator says.  “Is there any great wrong in wanting Heaven now?” (118)

When he finally does return home he discovers a new child in the cradle, something that only adds to the complications of reestablishing a relationship with his wife, Rebecca.  Eventually they work their way back to tenderness, but Boone is no more of a farmer than he ever was, and soon the whole family is heading back to the Cumberland Gap to blaze the trail for an expansion of settled Virginia.  The high hopes of the first part of the book come crashing down when the party is trapped in a valley and some, including Boone’s son, come to a bloody and tortured end at the hands of Cherokee.

If Hawley’s book were a standard pioneer tale, the second half would relate Boone’s success in overcoming, conquering the wilderness, and settling the land.  There’s plenty of that to tell in the historical record, but nothing in All True goes the way one would expect.  The intoxicated dreamer with a musket, smitten with the happy hunting grounds of Kentucky, is replaced by a much softer Boone in the second half – one who is haunted by the ghosts of a lost son and brother and who is mocked and scorned by the men he has led when they are taken into a long captivity by the Shawnee.

There’s plenty of that to tell in the historical record, but nothing in All True goes the way one would expect.

Boone_CumberlandHawley does a deep dive into the Shawnee culture and opens the possibility for some real relationships between the colonial and indigenous characters, particularly between Boone and Chief Black Fish, who adopts Daniel as the replacement for a lost son.  Hawley’s Boone has a light spirit that is alternately puckish and pugnacious.  He earns a level of respect within the tribe and the book ends only as change is coming again as the power dynamics shift on the frontier.

Meanwhile, Boone’s legend is growing.  There is a sense that another figure is living in the stories now being told about him back East and in London.  “Everyone knows my story,” Boone reflects at one point.  “Everyone but me, as I think.”  Boone has been undone in the second half, his Kentucky Heaven now a place of ghosts and broken dreams.  “I feel myself a vacant house.  I have nothing.” (303).

Hawley has done a miraculous thing in this well-written book.  She has re-wilded the early colonial frontier and populated it with visionaries, mercenaries, and troubled souls.  She has also, through the extended scenes in the Shawnee camps, taken stock of the native culture that was receding yet still vital.  In that, the book resembles Philipp Meyer’s 2013 novel The Son, which worked the same magic for the Texas frontier by including an extended section featuring a Comanche capture.

Hawley has done a miraculous thing in this well-written book.  She has re-wilded the early colonial frontier and populated it with visionaries, mercenaries, and troubled souls.

This is not an easy romanticism that Hawley gives us, but it is a romanticism.  There is something pulsing and singing through this land that inhabits these characters.  Larger forces and deadly vices are conspiring to disenchant the land, though, and it’s not clear if Boone and the others will be heroes or villains in the end.  The Boone that Hawley creates is certainly not sure.  Part One of his story is called “When I am Good” and Part Two is “When I am Not.”  Is his narrative that easy?  I’d be tempted to say ‘no’ but then again, this is all true.  Not a lie in it.

All True Not a Lie in It: A Novel

By Alix Hawley

Harper Collins, 2016

372 pages

Going Underground on the Eastern Shore – the new Harriet Tubman park

IMG_6043One of the dynamics that happens in marginalized places, (and I’ll count the Eastern Shore, where I live, as one of those), is that the people who live in them can internalize that marginalization and begin to believe that nothing significant ever happens there.  Or we latch on to narrow stereotypes of what the region is about, (in our case, oysters and pony swims), and make them carry too much weight in establishing a communal identity.

So hooray for the National Park Service for returning Harriet Tubman to us as a reminder of the subterranean currents that have formed this place.  When the new National Historical Park opened up near Cambridge, Maryland recently, Suzanne and I went to check it out.

IMG_6031The neck (peninsula to most) where Tubman grew up is still a marshy, pine-studded piece of land.  But it was home to a slave economy that once dominated the region.  Mid-Atlantic slavery was sometimes downplayed as a less harsh version of the deep South model, but the stories in the museum make clear that there were terrors on the Chesapeake to match those of the cotton plantations.  Families were rent and punishments rendered that left enslaved peoples physically and psychically scarred.

There were terrors on the Chesapeake to match those of the cotton plantations.

The museum is heavy on narrative and visual representation because there are so few artifacts left from the time.  But it is effective in giving the visitor a taste of Tubman’s faith and grit and determination to liberate her family and anyone else who would follow. She said, “I was free and they should be free.  I would make a home in the North and bring them there, God helping me.  Oh, how I prayed then, I said to the Lord, “I am going to hold steady on to you, and I know you’ll see me through.”

Tubman’s visions of God leading her and others to freedom began when she was hit in the head by a metal weight hurled by a white man in anger across a country store.  Like some scene out of a Flannery O’Connor story, this sudden act of violence was a revelation of God’s redemptive purposes for Tubman.  She wrote a song for the day she left which has all the elements of a spiritual.  “I’ll meet you in the morning, safe in the promised land;/on the other side of Jordan, bound for the promised land.”

img_6040.jpgShe was caught up in a biblical story that gave meaning to the one she lived.  The promised land, despite the colonists’ dream, was not the Eastern Shore, nor even Philadelphia where she fled.  It’s a place approached in song and faith.

When the sun sets across the Chesapeake Bay, it is a beautiful sight.  It can make you feel that all is right in the world.  But there are troubling things below–discontent nurtured by a biblical narrative of redemption and release.  Today, the Underground Railroad may be led by Latino Tubmans who know there is a promised land, and it’s not the same as ‘here.’

Also recommended: Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad.



Humor & Theology at the Chemo Pump – A Review of Cancer is Funny

My review of Jason Micheli’s Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Chemo [Fortress Press, 2016] is now up on the great Englewood Review of Books.  Full disclosure: Jason is one of the pastors I work with in the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and I was on one of his recent podcasts of Crackers & Grape Juice – a real labor of love by pastors who love theology. Jason also maintains the Tamed Cynic blog.

But on to the review:

Most of what Jason Micheli has to tell you about cancer, you don’t want to know.  The title of his new book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, may hint at optimistic self-help with some humorous anecdotes laced throughout, but cancer is not ‘ha-ha’ funny.  Micheli is glad to tell you, in harrowing detail, that “cancer f@#$ing sucks.” (ix)  This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.  Yeah, there’s a lot here you don’t want to know, but it’s a story told by one of the most honest and profane pastors you’ll ever meet and along the way he spins out the heart of a battle-tested theology that is clear-eyed, unsentimental, and fully alive.  Plus, too, he’s funny.

417jI57h4TLI can only imagine the debates that Micheli, a United Methodist pastor in northern Virginia, had with his editors in getting this book to press.  Despite the striking cover art (a smiley face sporting chemo hair on a bright red background), the prospect of selling a book about cancer, especially one that refuses to sugar-coat anything, must have been daunting.  Micheli’s edgy writing style certainly swims in the zeitgeist of his 30-something generation, but then again, most of them are not facing the rare, aggressive cancer that Micheli faced, (mantle cell lymphoma – a type that usually affects much older men).  A tale like this has to be carried along on the vitality and voice of its author and we certainly get to meet such a voice in this book.

This book is as raw as the sores running down his esophagus in mid-stage chemo.

A few years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich used her own journey through cancer as a lens for her book, Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.  Ehrenreich shares Micheli’s disdain for the Hallmark language and easy positivity we throw at cancer.  She wrote, “Breast cancer…did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift’, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

Micheli chafes at this force, too, but he has a different vocabulary for understanding itjason-briscoe-223974—one that is shaped by his own theological journey with the likes of Karl Barth, David Bentley Hart, and Stanley Hauerwas.  Through it all, he is placing his own suffering within a thorough-going Christological framework.  In doing this he pushes back against the notions that God is only visibly present when cancer is being combatted and defeated.  “As Stanley Hauerwas points out, the assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power… implicit in this assumption is another one: because humans were made in God’s image, power primarily defines us as well.… Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”(162)

“The assumption behind what theologians call theodicy is that God’s primary attribute is power…Christians, however, believe God’s primary attribute is suffering love, not power–-passio, not potens.”

In a better world, these insights should be the thing that brings people to this book.  Micheli uncorks some great laugh lines.  (One of my favorites: “Whenever we picture Jesus tempted by the devil in the wilderness, we usually imagine it in unsubtle comic book lines and hues, with a bad guy readily identifiable as ‘Satan’ and three temptations to which Jesus readily gives the correct answers as though he’s been raised by a Galilean Tiger Mom.”(65)) But it is the way that his theological formation illuminates his suffering (and vice-versa) that give this book enduring value.  When he says, “They then both bent me in impossible positions as though I were a yoga instructor or Anthony Weiner on the phone”(7), I think/hope that the Weiner reference will be incomprehensible a few years down the road.  But when he writes, “Cancer doesn’t lead you to ask, ‘Why me, God?’ Cancer leads you to wonder why God, whom we call Light, can’t seem to enter or act in our world without casting shadows”(88), well, then I think we’re on to something that will last.

The humanity of Micheli’s writing also shines through here.  He is the father of two young children and his relationship with them and his wife is handled with a good, light touch.  The poignant moments, and there are many, are not cheap.

Some readers, especially those who are used to the tame and tidy spirituality of much popular Christian writing, will be surprised by Micheli’s unvarnished profanity and his willingness to bare his carnal thoughts in these pages along with his poisoned, prodded body.  I’ll admit that I flinched for him at points, wondering if he needed to be that confessional.  But good memoirists know that a concern for appearances is deadly to the form.


Jason Micheli

Micheli is a spiritual heir to Mary Karr, whose The Liar’s Club is the seminal memoir of this era.  In Karr’s The Art of  Memoir, she talks about the hard work that memoirists must do in order to maintain an authentic voice.  “For most, knowing the truth matters more than how they come off telling it.”  And this means digging down beneath the pretty.

Micheli has a poetic gear, and it comes through in this book.  But he values the rawness he has experienced.  His rationale for sharing it comes late in the book and it, like all of the book, is grounded in his theology: “Thinking our holy obligation is to give God the glory, do we, in fact, rob God of glory, hugging tightly to the first draft of our testimony and offering up instead sanitized, sterilized, red-penned spiritualized jargon that intersects only tangentially with our real lives, because–-we think–-God’s not up to the challenge of our pain or unholy emotions?” (192)

This is a searing book.  The cumulative effect of reading it through is, perhaps, like rounds of chemo, drawing us deeper into the pain.  But we do get a glimpse of the joy Micheli holds onto.  Not ‘ha ha’ joy.  But life for sure.  It’s a journey worth taking with him.

Post-election Reading – my interview with Mark Athitakis concludes – part 3

i-m-priscilla-165366I discovered Mark Athitakis and his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Beltin an article on The Huffington Post where Mark was interviewed.  Then I thought, if HufPo can do it, why can’t I?  So, I contacted Mark and well, here we are.

Mark’s field is Midwestern fiction and he has written on books for a number of publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Belt Magazine, which publishes his “Reading the Midwest” column.  Previous entries have covered the plural Midwest and keeping the Midwest weird.  Today – reading après le déluge:

So, you say in that interview with The Huffington Post that you wrote this book mostly before Trump’s election.  And I’ve read the other selection of your suggested reading list for the time of Trump.  What are the connections you see between the kind of writing that you’ve been doing and what’s happening politically in the region?

You know, I wish I’d whipped up a better grand, unified theory about this just because of the interview.

Yeah, well, nobody’s got one these days.

41emhjjubll-_sx348_bo1204203200_I was writing on this book.  I was just really no different from anybody else as regards to Trump.  I just thought, well, he was an interesting sensation, but wasn’t somebody who was really going to capture the imaginations of enough Americans to win the election when November rolled around.  But I grew up in a Chicago suburb, and the Chicago area in general, is treated as this monolithically Democratic stronghold.  When people hear that, especially people who are outside the region, they say, “Well, it must be a progressive place.”  And no, it’s not.

I’ve lived there, and there’s lots of people, especially older white people, who harbor a lot of resentment that goes back to the 50s and 60s, and weren’t onboard with the civil rights movement, and they voted Democratic because they wanted their trash picked up on time, and that was the party that you voted for if you wanted your trash picked up.  So, it was more a practical vote than it was anything that reflected their ethics or their values.

So, obviously, that got tapped into in the last election, and there’s a smallish shelf of fiction that reflects some of that.  I think you see it early on in a book like Joyce Carol Oates’s Them, which is an interesting book about the ’68/’69 Detroit riots.  And it focuses on that neglected, upper-/lower-middle class of whites who are not in poverty, but also feel like they’ve been ignored by the system, and people you might call Trump voters now.

You see it in books like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, which is about people who are struggling in that area of Pennsylvania; or in books like American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which is set in central Michigan and dealing with people who are really just scraping by after factories and plants closed in the 70s and 80s.  There’s a lot of people who got hit very hard and felt neglected and felt unled and were obviously looking for a leader who was going to speak to them.  None of these books are explicitly political books, but they are about these people.

I gave a reading last week here in Phoenix.  Someone was asking me, “Do you think we’re going to see more books about this?”  And I said it’ll take a few years.  It took a few years for novels about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to appear.  So, we are probably going to see more of these books about what is happening in the Midwest and what is going on culturally, but there’s enough evidence that we already have some of these books now.

There’s no book that will say, “Here is what happened in the Midwest that changed things.”  But, again, it’s a place full of micro-climates.  There’s a big difference between what’s happening on the east end of the Ohio River Valley in Ohio and the west end of it.  There’s a big difference between that and what’s going on in Cleveland, and different from that and what’s happening in Detroit.  Clearly there was enough of a critical mass of people to say that they were making a decision to vote for Trump, but I just hope that whatever book comes out, doesn’t say, “Well, you know, of course, all the people who live in Ohio are like this or all the people who live in Michigan are like this.”

Keeping the Midwest Weird: My interview with Mark Athitakis continues – part 2

i-m-priscilla-165377In my last interview blog post with the writer Mark Athitakis, “Why we we’ve got to get Willa out of the cornfield”, we talked about the plural landscape of the Midwest, something he covered in his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt.  Today we talk about seeing the world for what it is, the state of religious literary fiction, and “keeping the Midwest weird.”

I like how you bring out, in the chapter on bad places, how Jane Smiley and Gillian Flynn are looking at the landscape and, kind of, flipping the old bottle on its head, and saying, “Yeah, it’s kind of ugly out here.  There are some really ugly places.”

Or, it can be. Those Gillian Flynn books are fascinating to me, because I think she writes in a very gritty way about how rough those places are and how much those regions kind of took it in the teeth, especially during the great recession.  But her characters have this very strong urge to defend the Missouri Bootheel.  It’s like, “Don’t tell me what my place is.  This is where I grew up.  This is my home.  Don’t mock it.  Don’t make fun of it.  Don’t call us dumb hicks, or southerners, or hillbillies, or that sort of thing.”  She doesn’t get credit for this because I think she’s treated more as just a thriller author.  But she captures that sense of loving an unlovable place better than a lot of other writers out there.


Let me ask you about your religious literature section.  You talk about Marilynne Robinson, and then, at one point, you talk about how she’s kind of left alone “as the standard bearer of the religious literary novel, prompting some critics…to wonder whether it might be revived again.” (32) I guess the implication there is that it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of hope for that.


Marilynne Robinson at the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing, Calvin College – photo by Christian Scott Heinen Bell

I was thinking more explicitly about Paul Elie, who wrote a book, I think coming on ten years ago now, about the great heyday of Catholic writers, talking about Flannery O’Connor and Thomas Merton.  There was kind of this period where so much of what we’re talking about in terms of social issues and issues of identity could be filtered through what Catholic writers were doing and we don’t have an explicit religious literary culture like that anymore.  In terms of Marilynne Robinson, there’s room for one, and we’ve picked her.  If you’ve got to pick one, I think she is a remarkable thinker about religion.  What struck me as funny in going through how she’s been approached critically, though, was that so much–and I’ll cop to being guilty to this as well, I wrote a review of Home for the Sun Times that kind of played into this–is that so much of what people publicly admire about Marilynne Robinson is her writing.  She is an exquisite maker of sentences, and she obviously writes with a real sensitivity about people and their struggle.  And she wrote beautifully about Iowa.  James Woods celebrated that when he re-elevated her, reviewing Gilead in 2004 in The New York Times Book Review.

But all this kind of comes at the expense of the tough stuff that’s in these books.  I mean, it’s talking about interracial relationships and how this estranged families.  It’s about church burnings.  It’s about the role that Iowa had played during the Civil War.  And prostitution.  There’s a lot of dark stuff going on in Marilynne Robinson’s novels that gets very soft-pedaled in public discussions that we have about them.  So, there’s still this reflex of trying to implant this: “Well, it’s an Iowan, she’s writing about religion, so these must be very soft, church-y books.”  But you know, they’re not really.

Lila, the last one in the trilogy, is about a young girl who is orphaned, left to live among prostitutes, left to fend for herself in the wilderness, and eventually becomes part of this church community.  But so much about that book is about skepticism of religion.  How can I trust this faith that you are telling me about, this religion that you are telling me about, when everything I’ve known in my entire life has existed to degrade me?

Then you go from that to read reviews that talk about: “Nobody writes better about Midwestern values than Marilynne Robinson.”  Wait, what?  That’s not exactly where she’s coming from.

So, of course, I come out of a different region.  And the literature that has formed me has been more Southern Gothic literature—Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and people like that.  When you talk about “keeping the Midwest weird,” do you see any connections between the kind of things that people like, maybe, Thomas Disch are doing? Is that a similar way of trying to shock us into seeing something different about the region?

One point I tried to make in that particular chapter is that the Midwest, as much as any other place, has sparked experimental writing of its own.  Obviously, the Iowa Writers Workshop is there.  You have writers like Robert Cooper, who is one of the experimentalists who wrote a lot about the Midwestern region, writers like William H. Gass, who writes in this beautifully elegant, smart metaphors, but also this very angry, infuriated tone.


Mark Athitakis

Really what I was trying to get at there is this idea, again, that there’s not one particular specific kind of Midwestern writing, but that there was maybe a little bit more risk-taking amongst writers in the region than it’s perhaps given credit for.  And also, someone like Leon Forrest, a longtime Chicagoan, who I write about in the last chapter, was a pioneering African-American experimental writer coming out of the, roughly, second half of the 20th century. Toni Morrison, who is treated now so much as practically a statue of contemporary American fiction, was a great experimentalist earlier in her career, and she was Leon Forrest’s editor.  So, my goal there was to point out that there’s a through line of writers who, contrary to popular belief, were taking real chances and risks with language.

Why we’ve got to get Willa out of the cornfield – an interview with Mark Athitakis (part 1)

i-m-priscilla-201731Mark Athitakis is one of those people who resists the impulse to reduce things to stereotype, which is one of the guiding values of this blog.  Athitakis’s field of inquiry is Midwestern fiction and he has written on books for a number of publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, and Belt Magazine, which publishes his “Reading the Midwest” column.

Recently I did a review of Mark’s new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust BeltThen I called him up for an interview. Over the course of three blog posts, I’ll share some of our conversation which focused on keeping the Midwest weird, great Midwestern books, and reading in the Age of Trump.

Let me start by asking the question: where is the Midwest now?


Mark Athitakis

It’s a hard question to answer because, I think, culturally, we have tried very hard–we, meaning just the general American population–to keep the definition of ‘Midwest’ adherent to this very church-y, heartland-y, white, monolithic, values-driven sort of Midwest.  It’s one that emphasizes religion, nuclear families.  None of those things are bad things, of course, in and of themselves, but what’s happened is that lots of places within the Midwest, a lot of places within cities especially, tend to be neglected and marginalized when you work with that particular definition.

So, if you want to actually have a more pluralistic definition of the Midwest, you have to understand that it accommodates the Ohio River Valley and Cleveland and Detroit and Flint and Kalamazoo and Central Iowa.  There are certain things that unify them in terms of being close to the Mississippi River, being close to the Great Lakes, being close to the Ohio River.  Commerce has a lot to do with it.  Being close to Chicago has a lot to do with it.  So, there’s some unifying factors there, but you can’t say that there is a monolithic, Midwestern culture.

You say, on page 13, “The Midwest picked up sticks and moved to Iowa.”

In the public imagination, I think.  It was thoughtful of you to talk about, you know, Field of Dreams, because that’s the picture people have in their heads.  It’s very golden hour, cornfield-y.  I’ve always seen Field of Dreams as sort of a religious allegory that…

Yeah.  Well, certainly a lot of preachers have used it that way, too.

Yeah, absolutely.  So, Kevin Costner is a kind of a Christ stand-in, you know?  And I think that’s part of why it resonates.  I think it’s why certain books, like, say Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Days, really captures public imagination, because it gives people something to romanticize.

Right, right.  So, in that same section of the intro, you said that “the Midwest is richer, more contrarian, a more surprising place than the one we’ve been encouraged to carry in our heads.” (15)  Why does it need to be that?

If you’re going to just be accurate about what the place is, that helps.  Also, part of the motivation for me to do this book was because I had spent the better part of 10 to 15 years as a book reviewer, and I think I’d read my fair share of reviews that seemed to talk about Midwestern literature in this older, Willa Cather, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow perspective, and didn’t really catch up to the present date.  Even though there were plenty of writers who seemed eager to either talk about the Midwest as it is now, or look back at its past and say, “No, this is a little bit more complicated.”

I think that writers like Aleksandar Hemon, who are relatively new arrivals to Chicago, have a more relevant and interesting and, perhaps, counter-intuitive perspective of what it means to be a Chicagoan than the vision of Nelson Algren or Theodore Dreiser or any of those writers.  I don’t have a problem with any of those writers.  It’s just that that the more I had read contemporary fiction and kept running up against this cliche of what Midwestern fiction is, I kept seeing this disconnect that I wanted to look at and to approach and move the story forward a little bit.

You also wind up the whole book by saying that [Midwestern fiction] hasn’t locked into a set form, and it never locked in.  Is your sense that, even in the Willa Cather era, that it was a lot more fluid than we gave it credit for being?

Image 3-10-17 at 11.21 AMWell, think about Willa Cather herself.  She’s oftentimes mostly praised for O Pioneers! and My Antonia, which are quintessential, matriarchal, heartland, settler stories.  But she was also very much an urban dweller.  She lived in New York City, she traveled a lot, went to the Southwest a lot.  The novel that she wrote in between the two of them is a remarkable book, The Song of the Lark, which is about a young woman, Thea Kronberg, who wants to become an opera singer; grows up in Colorado, goes to Chicago for her training; has this sharp-elbowed approach to the city that I think was a little bit different at the time.  I think it was different than say, like, Sister Carrie, where a woman comes to the city and conquers a man and conquers the city, and becomes famous.  It’s a little more nuanced in The Song of the Lark, [where the woman] goes to Arizona and goes to one of the canyons up in the northern part of the state, and has this religious epiphany.  And all the time, [Cather] was in New York and was a very pioneering, proto-feminine writer.  So, she contained multitudes but when people talk about Willa Cather, they’re very focused on this standing in a Nebraska cornfield.


So, even within her it’s different.  I had to go back and forth on this, because I don’t want to say that in that past it was always monolithic and now it’s much more different.  There are always examples of books that were set in the Midwest that have spikier themes.  Think about Spoon River Anthology or Winesburg, Ohio.  There are always books that are like that, that push against the grain a little bit.

And just on that count, by the way, this is a fantastic reading list that you’ve provided for us.

Oh, good.  Well, I’m glad.  When I talked with my editor about who is this book for we decided that it’s split in two.  In a very practical sense, we wanted to give a reading list for people to say, “What is interesting that’s come out of this region in recent years?”  Also, I intended this to be a book that had an argument, wanted to make a case for the Midwest being a little more complicated than it’s been perceived.

I thought your most interesting idea in the book was this whole idea that the purpose of Midwestern literature has been changing from a story about assimilation into a perceived unified American culture, versus using the landscape to try to define who an individual character is, or trying to find a way maybe even to resist that culture.

Yeah, I think about this mainly in terms of Chicago where, historically, it was a city that is built on ethnic enclaves.  And the process was–and I’m speaking a little bit from personal experience because both my parents were immigrants from Greece—that you came overseas, you found a community where everybody spoke your language until you could learn English if you were going to learn English, and then you found a way for yourself or for your kids to assimilate into American life.  And that made sense when  immigrants were coming in large waves from Poland or Germany or Greece or you name it.  But when we talk about fiction that’s set now, they’re much more individualized stories.  I think of one writer I really admire, Dinaw Mengestu, who grew up in central Illinois, the child of Ethiopian immigrants, or someone like Aleksandar Hemon, who had this strange story where he’d come from Bosnia, and then was set adrift all by himself.     

Those are stories about people who don’t have that hold; they don’t have that immediate community that is going to be there to embrace you.  There’s not necessarily a neighborhood you can walk into and say, “Oh, this is my people.”  So, how are you going to preserve the identity that you grew up with and the place that you came from, but also try to find a way to settle into this new place that you’ve been thrust into?  I think you’ve got to be old-fashioned—find your tribe, find the kind of work that is going to help you integrate.  The story is a little bit different now.

Rural is Plural

This article originally appeared in the great Topology magazine.



We were in danger of becoming a caricature.  When a parent stood up at a local school board meeting and expressed her dismay at a word being used in two books in the school library, blogposts and news stories from New York to Singapore decried the benighted censorship emanating from our Virginia backwater county.  Because the books were Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  But the word was ‘nigger.’

219 times in Huck Finn.  48 times in Mockingbird.  That’s how many times the word (along with other slurs) is reported to have been used.  And oh, the power of the word.  “What are we teaching our children?” the mother, who has a biracial child, asked the school board.  “We’re validating that these words are acceptable, and they are not acceptable by any means.”

Do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

The school system could have responded by following their recently adopted policy which asks that a “Request for Reconsideration of Learning Resources” form be submitted to the school and be considered through a process that would not require immediately pulling the books.  But our schools, like so many of our institutions, have so many policies and the heat of the moment is often quite hot.  So the books were pulled and in the week that followed before their reinstatement, Accomack County became an international symbol of censorship with its accompanying heaps of opprobrium.

There were upsides to the controversy.  People rallied on the courthouse lawn to protest.  When is the last time that people rallied in defense of literature?  Our local independent (and only) bookstore put Mockingbird & Finn on prominent display and sales spiked.  The owner was interviewed when TV crews came to town.  The local (and only) community theater sponsored a dramatic reading of the play based on Lee’s book.  All in all, it was a boost for the arts.

The question raised didn’t fall along simple lines, either.  How do we offer these books with their shocking words to our children?  What sort of context should we give?  Is the freedom of a library book shelf enough?  Or do we neglect the power and the potential of great literature by simply pointing to it but never truly embracing it?  I didn’t want to fault the parent who dared to ask.

What stuck in my craw, though, was the way my community was flattened by the media coverage.  It’s been happening all fall.  As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

As pundits try to make sense of the election and the roilings of rural America, it has been easy to imagine the region as one vast, undifferentiated, splenetic mass.  And places like Accomack County are one more dot of crimson in the faceless sea of red.

So when the book controversy arose, we suddenly became another piece of evidence for the yawning divide between the enclaves of enlightenment and the continent of disgruntled whites malnourished by their steady diet of fake news.  Not that there isn’t a divide.  Lord knows, the distance from here to the Northeast Corridor seems to grow by the day.  Economic dislocation, declining educational opportunity, racial tension, opioid abuse – they all take their toll.  But we don’t get better by being exotic objects of remote observation.  Or by turning ourselves into such a thing.

Rural is plural.  That’s the thing I know from my life in the rural South.  I’ve had my run-ins with the kind of small-mindedness that lends itself to easy lampooning, but I’ve also been nurtured and challenged by big-hearted, poetic grandeur from the likes of English teachers, non-profit leaders, and country church choirs.  I grew up with and live with dreamers and everyday artists.

If we have a way forward beyond this time of crucial divide, it wofelix-serre-207685n’t be because certain regions hunkered down in their bubble and withstood the assaults coming from the other bubble.  The way forward has no red or blue hue.  It has the character of a river running right through the heart of a land on which unlikely companions seek a new day of freedom and adventure.  And on this journey we will share our best and worst selves, in language coarse and beautiful, with people who come from very different circumstances but with transcendent desires.  Someone should write a book about that.