Thursday, February 18, 2021

The #Midwessay: Sophie He, The Smell

Like fellow Midwesterner and incredible essayist Sonya Huber, I loathe the harmful writing advice of “show don’t tell.” Yet, I am also a writer born and raised in the Show Me State. While Missouri is steeped in Southern front-porch storytelling, the Middle West’s characteristic pragmatism, understatement, and complicated* past and present are perpetual in our prose. We want it both ways: to show and to tell, to be Southern and Midwestern. Ultimately, there’s a certain resilience and toughness Missouri essayists must harbor because we can’t assume you, dear reader, share our points of reference or understand why we stay or live in this place, however long. Ultimately, though, describing what others do not know or have the words for makes for wilder, more inventive stories. The Missouri essayists in this project share the very Midwestern joys and terror of what it’s like to be in a state with “no particular place to go.” What constrains and releases us may surprise you.

Missourians: we'd love to have more essays riffing and rumbling on the #Midwessay! Contact me at michaella.thornton at gmail and I'll be happy to include your thoughts and insights in this project.

 —Michaella A. Thornton

* And by “complicated,” I mean openly racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ableist, xenophobic, and more. We have a lot to unpack and improve on here.

The Smell

My partner gets a whiff of the world-famous beer factory when he stumbles out the door for work at five a.m., but I’d say its operations are most pungent in the afternoons, which is when I walk the perimeter of our local park. I step into my sneakers, stride out onto the deck, and it hits me: hot musk; tavern funk; the air thick with the secretions of industry. 

From the park’s edge, you can see the gated compound at the very southern end of the neighborhood. I mean, you really can’t miss it. A cluster of giant brick buildings—regal, rust-colored, crowned with cornices—collide into each other like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Plumes of steam billow out from the smokestacks, into the sky, into the streets, right up my nose. 

The family who owns the world-famous beer factory also owns this town. They sit on the board at my school, they make handsome donations to the art museums and botanical gardens. They have Rich People Problems and their own reality TV show. Predictably, the city itself has not benefited from their ongoing prosperity. All we get back is their yeast. 

I don’t dislike the smell. It may come from a stainless steel facility, but it reminds me of the stink of the natural world, how compelling it can be. Like how the coast smells vaguely rotten, or how the woodlands smell highly flammable. It’s earthen, almost bodily. My neighbors are all used to it, and so are the squirrels. But as a newcomer to this town, I can’t help but notice.

I can’t help but notice that remarkable things happen here all the time, good or bad, good and bad, but perhaps because they are used to it, or perhaps because they are considerate, people generally do not remark on them. The world’s largest chess piece looms before a Starbucks, a shockingly bright cardinal craps on my shoulder, Clydesdales clomp down empty streets, hidden caves conceal hidden wares, families live in derelict buildings, derelict buildings randomly collapse and catch fire, the nearby rivers flood and recede and flood again. Here in this city, I’m left with wonder, I’m left with questions. Living here is like writing an essay, one that keeps on fermenting. 

As a child in Shanghai, my father read Mark Twain in translation. He dreamt of riverboats and Sunday school, caves of fortune and buried treasure. When we first immigrated to Los Angeles, he drank the King of Beers exclusively. Now he has reverted to his beloved Tsingtao. Now I act in his stead. 

Sometimes my next-door neighbor, a factory employee, will bring us unlabeled test products, seasonal Pilsners and limited-run IPAs. I cradle the neck of the cold brown bottle and peer with one eye down its lip. What am I looking for? What do I see? A long dark passageway; a glimmering murk. I take a hearty swig and swallow. So yeasty.


Sophie He is a writer from Los Angeles. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in No Tokens, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Catapult, and elsewhere.  A former copywriter, she received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis, where she currently teaches as a Junior Fellow.

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

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