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.



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.”

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.

The We of Me – Carson McCullers week continues

Don’t we long to be fully engaged?  I’ve checked in with Carson McCullers a couple of times this week on the occasion of her 100th birthday.  She’s often thought of as a prophet of loneliness, but I wonder if what she expressed in her writing was more a longing to be released from the silo of her own experience.


In The Member of the Wedding, her 1946 book that later became a hit play and movie, (starring a young Julie Harris and a sterling Ethel Waters), McCullers goes back to adolescence to imagine her Columbus, Georgia childhood through the lens of Frankie. It begins like this:

“It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person and hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.”

What she longs for is to be inside of a love large enough to include h330244er.  She thinks she finds it in her brother’s engagement and somehow she will be asked to be a part of his marriage.  Her brother and his bride, she imagines, are the ‘we of me.’

The ‘we’ she shares this with are her wise African-American caretaker, Berenice, and John Henry West, a younger neighbor.  They humor her tempers and temper her passions, but Frankie still manages to be wildly imaginative and deeply heart-broken.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt the same sort of longing:

“Searching nature I taste self but at one tankard, that of my own being.”

It is a strange thing to be sharing this experience of life with such a multitude and yet not find the way inside.

phone0001McCullers’ biographer, Virginia Spencer Carr, shares an image of the young Carson that has haunted me.  At the age of 17 she travelled alone to New York City to try to make it as a writer.  She was overwhelmed and enticed by the crush of people in the city.  Not knowing how to connect, she took books down to the Macy’s department store and sat in an enclosed wooden phone booth.  There she sat reading for hours on end–tantalizing close to the people she longed to meet and yet sealed off in a compartment designed for communication.

Alright–I’ll give you that that sounds like an exquisite image of loneliness. But it also feels like an apt image for the age.  In a time of fantastic means of communication, we find connecting hard.  And as much as we distract ourselves with our myriad screens, there is a longing to be fully engaged.  We have our own tankards, but we also want to know the ‘we of me.’

When Psalm 42:1 describes the deer panting for living water, I think that’s a thirst McCullers knew.  And as the psalm also describes, it is a holy thirst.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter: Carson McCullers Week, part 2

Post 2 for Carson McCullers 100th Birthday Week.

37380Things to expect when you read Carson McCullers: late night diners, music, triangles of frustrated love, circuses, outsiders, and wanderers.  In her two best works, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding, you also find a fiery, pre-teen girl trying to make sense of the world around her.

Mick in Heart and Frankie in Member are both stand-ins for Carson, who never really outgrew the wonder and longings of that stage of her life.  But the fruit of her arrested development is work which probed the depths of her deep South community and captured the vulnerabilities of her adult characters in a way that a more jaded author would dismiss.  She tackles great national issues like race, class, economics, and rigid gender roles, but all from within the roiling of a young soul.

“This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.”  —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Besides the girls, perhaps her greatest literary creation was the character of John Singer, the mute man at the center of Heart who does not speak but who becomes the confidant of Mick and several other troubled characters.  His silence allows those around him to project whatever they would like onto him, but it also condemns him to be misunderstood.

“During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged.  The rumors about him grew bolder.  An old Negro woman told hundred of people that he knew the ways of spirits come back from the dead.  A certain pieceworker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state–and the tales he told were unique.  The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves.  And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real.  Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.”  —The Heart is a Lonely Hunter


Carson McCullers’ typewriter

Singer himself is devoted to a comically selfish man, Antonapoulos, who is unable to reciprocate his affection.

All these star-crossed dreamers wander the same streets and seek the same thing – a lasting home within love.  The failure of their searches only illuminates the treasure that they desire.  And it’s what gives McCullers work it’s transcendent beauty and warmth.  There is a heart in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

“A World Intense & Strange”: Carson McCullers Week


Hanging out with Carson McCullers

Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of my new favorite writer — Carson McCullers.  My relationship with her began with an audio book of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and quickly followed with lapping up all of her novels.  I’ll share some thoughts through the week on her basic themes, much of them related to longing for home and the nature of love, mostly set within the frame of her Columbus, Georgia childhood home.  I set out some early thoughts in this piece for the Streetlight magazine blog.

It’s about that Church Building. It’s Got to Go.



Beginning in the late 19th century, the Methodists began settling down.  What had been a movement of house groups, camp meetings, and simple preaching houses, set up shop on every Main Street and country crossroad and made themselves a presence with substantial stained-glassed buildings.  In the 1950s and 1960s we built again during that anomalous period when Methodists grew and mainstreamed into American life along with the other mainline churches.  So what to do with all these buildings?

I’m only a few poems into the new collection edited by Kevin J. Gardner titled Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches [Bloomsbury, 2016], but it has already gotten under my skin.  The unifying theme of the poems is a focus on abandoned or little-used Anglican churches.  In an opening essay he quotes John Betjeman, the late British Poet Laureate: “Those driven by fiscal motives to shutter churches ‘ forget that church as a building is a more lasting witness to our Christian faith than any bishop, vicar, churchwarden or congregation.’” (4)

Now, I’m as likely to haunt old churches as anyone.  An old church has a texture of well-worn devotion and memories of ecstatic transport.  At Pocomoke Church, here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, one of the old stiff pews has a small plaque to mark where Purnell Bailey, later a prominent United Methodist clergyman, received his call to ministry.  Why people don’t sit there every Sunday in hopes of being zapped is a mystery to me.

But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith.  They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.

“But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith.  They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.”

No, don’t prop them up for poets’ sentimental longings.  Repurpose them!  Shutter them!  Bulldoze them if it serves the kingdom!  The Son of Man had no place to lay his head and our investment in buildings as an institution is a kind of nostalgia for the Davidic kingdom and a time when we were established and respected.

9781472924353We are not curates for a culturally-relevant museum.  We are agents for the subversive kingdom which always demands new wineskins and they are in short supply.

Churches that find their budgets steadily consumed by the cost of maintaining their physical plant might ask the question of how best to be housed as we move into God’s new future.  In many churches, the upkeep of buildings falls to aging trustees who do heroic work but who are feeling more overwhelmed by the task of addressing years of deferred maintenance.  And in the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.

“In the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.”

I’m a sentimental fool with a romantic sense of history.  I love these old buildings.  It’s why I’m reading Gardner’s collection.  But I love Jesus, too, and I think he’s calling us to new digs.