“All American fiction, it seems to me, is circumscribed by place; I have a feeling that my work ends up being labelled as regional simply because fewer people come from my particular place.”
-Leigh Allison Wilson
When she wrote that for the anthology Listen Here, Wilson was speaking about the marginalization of women writers from Appalachia, but the feeling of having your “particular place” downplayed or written off is one that an awful lot of people share. People have and will always like to write about where they’re from, what home means to them. You’re obviously not where you’re from or the places you’ve been, but they probably mean more to you than you realize, and that will come right to the surface when you feel those places are being attacked or misrepresented by others: it’s not their place to say, they don’t know it like you know it, and all that other sentimental business that you know is silly.
This is all old news, but I started thinking about it a lot lately after a meeting over drinks with a poet-fellow to discuss my writing. I’m not going to bore you with an exact account of all the ways in which I sometimes fail at being a social creature–it’s a Saturday night and you are a sexy, vivacious person with a full dance card–but let’s just say that it’s not like I have Aaron Sorkin on call to be my own personal Cyrano. Anyway, at this meeting, after we were able to establish that I like music, favor some types of music over others, enjoy writing, might not always break lines in the best places, and am an American, we kind of drifted.
See, his biggest point was to warn me against appropriation; of types of writing I had no links to, of landscapes and places I did not know, of experiences that could not possibly be my own. He was a lovely, intelligent man with a sweater I spent a good portion of our time together envying, but when he was saying those things I had no love for him at all.
It is only fair to say at this time that, if you don’t already know, that I’m from New Jersey. I will give you a few moments to make your jokes and assumptions. Will the length of a video of Bob Ross feeding a baby squirrel do?
I’m not going to dwell on perceptions of the state because Mo Rocca’s about to do that for me, but you had the thoughts you had when you read that. I hear them all the time. Conversations with potential new friends come to an immediate halt when I try to explain where Sandy Hook is or that Locust is named for a group of trees that can be toxic and thorny or produce beautiful blossoms–read into that as much as you like–and that, contrary to popular belief, the town where I grew up was not named for one of the plagues of Egypt. Those jokes haven’t been funny since my Communion.
Did you feel how defensive I was just then? Me, too. It wasn’t cute, but I don’t mind and I hope you don’t either. Those were kind of thoughts I was having when the lovely man in the purple sweater was telling me that I had to watch myself when talking about farmlands that couldn’t possible be that close to the sea, nor could there be woods anywhere near the industrial hellhole that sprang to mind when I told him which airport I fly out of at the start of each school year. And that’s fine–people make assumptions even though we know they’re wrong. But I was hurt because all he had to say to me was that where I was writing was not real and he couldn’t be convinced otherwise, even though a product of that place was was fidgeting and drinking her cider right in front of him.
So I’d like to hear about where you’re from. Really, I would. If being from Kentucky or Cavan or Egypt or nowhere in particular has ever earned you more than a sneer from somebody else, let’s hear it. What’s your place really like?
In the meantime, here some things you might like to check out that are vaguely related to what you just read.
Mo Rocca’s video on perceptions of New Jersey:
Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia
This collection was years in the making, and while I was only able to read the first few sections of it in my local community college library over break, I’m really looking forward to having it on my bookshelf when I move back to my thorny, little, made-up place. The link above will let you go through it and check out some brilliant writers you’ve never heard of.
“In Which We Are Tantalized by the Ancient World”
This article by Karen VanderBijl of This Recording discusses the monuments and ruins she encountered on her travels, of the human needs to be remembered and to destroy, and how we’re keeping up with those traditions today. There are some sweet photos to make up for the wordiness of this post, too.
Martín Azúa’s art piece that involved making a collapsible house out of gorgeous gold material, questioning ideas of homeownership and home in general. Beautiful stuff.