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.

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

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