“Motherland” has a particular meaning for me. Follow the line back through the women of my family; you’ll see it tied to Virginia. My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother; they are all from here. It is the men who have come and married into the land. My father from Idaho, my grandfather from Texas, my great-grandfather from Maryland.
It’s the very reason why I want to leave, because I’ve become the exact same way. My husband is from Philadelphia. Leaving Virginia, at the very least my hometown, is an ideal of freedom, of breaking the pattern. Of Being My Own Woman. I do love it here; I breathe easier when I cross the state line coming home from a trip. But I want to leave.
What I’ve discovered over the past few years is that travel can be particularly instructive when you take your home for granted. A few weeks ago, I wrote about different parts of the South compared to mine. I think part of my problem is that I don’t really know what it means to be Southern.
Nothing jumps out from my childhood as being particularly regional. My accent is blander compared to other parts of the South, even to other parts of Virginia. Pineapple tchotchkes sat dusty & unnoticed on side tables no one was allowed to use. Kurt once asked me what comfort foods I associated with my childhood. I told him canned tuna, tater tots, macaroni & cheese, cold spaghetti, Saltines with butter. Mayonnaise. He thought I was joking; I wasn’t. Things like green bean casserole or forgotten cookies or spiral ham or navy beans were all holiday foods, things reserved for special occasions. I came from a middle-class family with both parents working. Convenience went hand-in-hand with cooking.
It’s because of this mayonnaise childhood that, I think, makes it difficult for me to identify with a lot of Southern writers. I’m thinking of Abraham Verghese’s My Own Country, Randall Kenan’s “Where Am I Black?” or anything by Thomas Wolfe. Each of these authors reflect thoroughly on the cultures & the places they connect to & track the changes that are encroaching on the edges. This is part of the continual concern of Southern Lit: the agrarian giving way to the industrial, the closed community forced to become open & self-aware. I study Southern Lit almost as a stranger to the region might, memorizing its aspects in hopes of understanding it. The Southern writers I’ve always felt sympathetic with were rooted in the land, but focused inward. Writers like Carson McCullers & Dorothy Allison, where pure alienation to the body & exploring the terms “love” & “loyalty” always moved me more than any lost landscapes.
Surprisingly, it’s actually been a Midwestern writer that has gotten me thinking about more & more about the definition of place & one’s relationship to it. Reading Michael Martone’s essays are a bit of foundation-laying for me. Martone’s preoccupations about place arise mainly from the fact that the Midwest is not completely fixed by boundaries. In his essay “Correctionville, Iowa,” Martone writes about the birth of the Midwest through a meld of government planning and slow but inevitable American expansion.
The irregular shapes of the treaty lands, their borders not fixed by compass and chain but by the land itself, rivers, lakes, and hills, suggests the anarchy of their taking, a swipe here, a swath here.
Which is more terrifying? This random rent or the steady quilting? Perhaps they were worse taken together, the chaos so reasonably ordered and camouflaged by the brand of that order which remains cut into the land today.
The Midwest didn’t spring from one major conflict of temperaments, beliefs or lifestyles like the North & South. (Although my friend Courtney will be happy to tell you about the schizophrenic history of Missouri, threshold of the South & Midwest.) But, reading the same questions Martone returns to is soothing: What is place? How fixed is it? How do we carry & influence place with our own movements?
It helps me feel less like a stranger in my own motherland & causes me to open my eyes to the stream of industry around me. It’s a strange sensation, like standing in the ocean & feeling the cold current flow beneath the warm. Discovering that there are layers to Southerness. A top layer of gentility & pride that is merely a purposeful facade to wear. A layer of awareness of the changing land & the troubling consequences of building strip malls & McMansions on battlefields. A layer for the roll of the hills & the red bricks that comfort me. Finally the clannishness that I know so well from my mother’s people, where we let you in but only so far. An innate awareness of where we are welcome & where we are not.