Saturday, February 6, 2021

The #Midwessay: Cris Mazza, "Who Am I? Why Am I Here"

What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. 

The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond.  These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors

“Who am I? Why Am I Here”

(Admiral Stockdale in the 1992 vice presidential debate, and now, barely altered, a title for middle-school Christian homeschooling books).

Seven years ago Essay Daily ran “Cris Mazza in conversation with Jane Rosenberg LaForge on ‘California memoirs.’” Yesterday I was invited to share my thoughts on the Midwest Essay. 

As I’ve entered older-female invisibility, my identity already in a whirlpool just before the drain; and as I’ve just completed two manuscripts of essays-with-embedded artifact; whether or not I write as a Midwesterner is an interesting, yet muddling distraction.

At the beginning of the 21st century, when I wrote what I thought would be my only book of nonfiction, Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, the introduction, titled “Displaced,” ended with “I’ll not ever not be a Californian.” I think that to not be not a Californian is more descriptive for my “place” than to say I am a Californian.

Indigenous was followed by a novel, Homeland, set in my San Diego County origins. On book tour, I participated in a “California Writing” conference. It seemed more an “L.A. Writing by Those Who Weren’t Born There” conference.

There was another memoir in 2014 which helped occasion the Essay Daily conversation with LaForge. (I think Jane has lived in NYC as long as I’ve lived in Illinois.) So now I hesitate to be one of those not-born-there now defining writing-from-there.

Do I identify as a Midwesterner? (Can I write without question-marks?) While I may not be able to claim a current designation of Californian, I’m also not an Easterner, Southerner, Southwesterner, Texan (gratefully), Pacific-Northwesterner, Canadian (I wish), and—despite my fishing cabin in the North Woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where I imagine relocating—not a Yooper. I’ve taught for almost 30 years at an intensely urban university, yet am also not an urbanite. But I’ve lived for 30 years in the middle of the Midwest. Is there some way to measure a place’s impact? Has a literal horizon-to-horizon vantage point symbolically given me more insight in my writing? Well, don’t let these 300 words not be an answer. 


Cris Mazza’s new novel, Yet to Come, is from BlazeVox Books. Mazza has eighteen other titles of fiction and literary nonfiction, including Something Wrong With Her, a real-time memoir; her first novel How to Leave a Country, which won the PEN/Nelson Algren Award for book-length fiction; and the critically acclaimed Is It Sexual Harassment Yet? She is a native of Southern California and is a professor in and director of the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

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