A Midwestern Identity

What does it mean to be a Minnesotan writer?  In this age of placelessness—sitting in a Starbucks or Motel 6 or airport lounge or on a Facebook page, you could be anywhere—even our literature is without landscape or regional identity.  Especially literature from the Midwest, which, when compared with New York City writing or the work of Southern writers seems bland in its vernacular and hard to locate.

“There is nothing worse than the writer who doesn’t use the gifts of the region, but wallows in them,” wrote Flannery O’Connor, the ultimate advocate for regional voices.  “An idiom characterizes a society, and when you ignore the idiom, you are very likely ignoring the whole social fabric that could make a meaningful character.”  What is Minnesota’s idiom, our social fabric?  Many years ago I read an essay by David Mura in The View from the Loft; it struck me so much, I’ve lived with this quotation on my desktop ever since:

I am calling then for a change in focus:  we must begin comparing Minnesota values and language with the rest of the country and the world; we must see what in our culture here can provide answers (or at least questions) for the country and our species. 

As a transplant to the Midwest, I have deliberately claimed this place.  Mura challenged me to claim it in my writing as well—the flat, ravaged prairies, the heritage of occupying land and ousting its native peoples, the wholesome Scandinavian culture with its dark underbelly of silence and denial, our earnest civic engagement, the farms that feed us and destroy our land, the thousands of lakes, the Somalians and Hmong and Mexicans who are shaping our cities…  So I set my novel firmly in Minnesota, doing my best to sink my literary roots here and see what nutrients they drew from our black, black soil.

Why does this matter?  I could ignore my place, inhabiting instead the psyches of my characters or the drama within a household.  But O’Connor would say place makes the people, and their language; we need to locate our characters for them to become real.  The correlation for us humans today is important:  Perhaps we are less real because we are so disconnected from place.  So we need our literature to reconnect us, to remind us about the butterfly weed growing in ditches, about the migration corridor over the Mississippi, and about Minnesotans’ propensity to return their friends’ canning jars or stick political lawn signs in their yards or carry slippers when they go visiting in the winter.

This matters for us and it matters, as Mura argues, for “the country and our species.”  The brokenness and bravery of our history, the complexities of agricultural communities’ relationship to the land, our particular brew of immigrants, and all the dimensions that make Minnesota unique can provide answers, or at least questions, that the world needs.

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