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.

Why Iowa isn’t Heaven


Where else would Ray Kinsella have built his Field of Dreams except in an Iowa cornfield?  Am I right?  A baseball diamond where the ghosts of the past could come for healing and restoration – for their own and for the living?  Had to be in the heartland, where the solid goodness of America is on full, homogenized display.  “Is this heaven?” Ray’s long-dead dad asks.  “No, it’s Iowa,” Ray responds.  But we know he’s wrong, and Ray does, too, when he looks up at the farmhouse porch where his wife and daughter are playing.  “Maybe it is heaven,” he mumbles.

Yeah, Iowa’s gotta be heaven.  When the rest of the country has gone to pot, dissolving into arguments over bathrooms, borders, and Trump, always Trump, something green will still be growing in Iowa.  Something pure and enduring will always play out between the chalked lines of a Midwest ball field.  If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.

If we want to believe in America again, we’ll take a road trip (because you can’t get there by plane) to Iowa.

Except…maybe the Midwest is not the Midwest anymore.  Maybe the stories of diversity and change that play out on the coasts have found their way to Ames and Grinnell, too.  Maybe there are trials and even terrors on the prairie.  Maybe…gulp…Iowa’s not heaven.

Mark Athitakis is not afraid to tell you that it’s not, but he will tell you that the Midwest is vibrant and interesting all the same.  I just finished his new book, The New Midwest: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction of the Great Lakes, Great Plains, and Rust Belt [Belt Publishing, 2016].  Athitakis is a writer and book reviewer for the likes of The New York Times and Chicago Sun-Times and he writes a regular column on Midwestern books for Belt Magazine.  In this slim review of Midwestern fiction you can get a good list of books you want to read, but also some insights into how not only the lit but also the land is changing.41emhjjubll-_sx348_bo1204203200_

“The Midwest is a richer, more contrarian, more surprising place than the one we’re encouraged to carry in our heads,” Athitakis tells us on page 15.  The writers he wants to introduce us to are more willing to acknowledge this, too.  He goes beyond Marilynne Robinson, whose Iowa trilogy of Gilead, Home, and Lila, he feels often gets miscategorized as a tribute to gauzy, Midwestern values, ignoring the social tensions beneath the surface.  And he takes us to people like Aleksandr Hemon, a transplanted Bosnian to Chicago who “became an American less by choice than by force, by accident” — a perspective that leads him to write “about America not from the perspective of constitutional idealism, but decay and threat.  For his heroes, America isn’t the New World but the Old World’s postwar absurdity in a different costume” (21).

“The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)

Athitakis’s grandest theory is that the Midwest is no longer the backdrop for stories about how disparate people become Americans (a la Willa Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Richard Wright, and Saul Bellow).  “The prevailing question today is now slightly different: How do I become myself in this place?” (17)  Some novels, like Laird Hunt’s Indiana, Indiana, which talk about Midwestern landscapes, now “evoke place less through descriptions of the flatness of the territory, but by evoking a desolation that echoes it.” (48)

The New Midwest is a quick read that sparked a lot of thoughts for me.  I finished it with Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s poem ‘A Psalm at the Sunrise’ echoing in my ears.  Looking out my window at the winter field across the road, I feel that I, too, “wake to an effulgence of mirrors, and lo: I see.”  It’s not the pure light of America that I see glowing in the dawn or in the Iowa cornfield.  It’s the refracted light of multitudes.  Christ playing in ten thousand places, if you will.  Rural is plural that way.