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
Monday, March 1, 2021
The #Midwessay: Jordan K. Casomar, Iowa: It Exists!
Iowa: It Exists!
Jordan K. Casomar
Did you know that Iowa is the birthplace of the worst apple, the Red Delicious? It was developed in Peru, Iowa back in 1880, and I can think of nothing better to represent the state than the nation’s most average, unimpressive, and unremarkable “apple,” if you can even really call it that, because that is Iowa in a nutshell: the plainest place in the country.
Iowa lacks the deep freeze of Minnesota, the white supremacist energy of Wisconsin, the exceptional flatness of Kansas, the natural beauty of the Dakotas, the cultural presence of Illinois, or the jazz and barbecue and soul born out of Missouri. Des Moines is the largest city in Iowa and it doesn’t even make it into the top 20 largest Midwestern cities. There are no important attractions, no national sports teams, not even some boring monuments of white men for white people to gawk at. Even the name is unmemorable, mistaken for both Ohio and Idaho.
The economy’s so-so. The traffic’s alright. The size is adequate. Crime is fairly low. The public education system’s pretty okay. It’s a decent place to raise a family. The cost of living is very affordable. You get a good amount of each season, enough to really feel it. There are some good restaurants. It’s fine. The best thing I can say about a Red Delicious is that it’s an apple. Iowa’s the same way.
Don’t get me wrong, there is beauty there. I have seen it as the sun creeps up over the horizon and bathes a seemingly endless expanse of green and gold fields for mile in every direction in pinks and oranges and purples and in the dark, heavy clouds filled with lightning-flicker and deep, bone-shaking thunder.
If you have not felt the deep quiet, save for the tinkling of ice-covered branches swaying in the wind, of a winter morning after a fresh, heavy snow, if you have never seen the strange yellowing in the sky or felt the thick stillness in the air before a tornado, when it feels the whole world decided to hold their breath at once, you have not seen the best the state has to offer.
I know few writers that are born-and-raised Iowans, outside of Bill Bryson and the handful I went to college with in Iowa City. I know even fewer essayists, and almost no Black essayists who came up in the Corn State. Almost every Iowa-related piece I’ve read comes from people who grew up elsewhere and came here later in life and wrote about Iowa as if it were either an exile or a reprieve or a curiosity—in large part because almost every Iowa-related piece I’ve read’s been by white folks—but never their home.
But Iowa is not just a green and idyllic landscape, nor the redeemable white meth and opiate addicts, the Bridges of Madison County, or the story of farmlands and farmhands. It is in the top five for racial inequality in its prisons, schools, workforce, healthcare, political representation—you name it. It is Steve King and Joni Ernst, Trump winning the state by 8 points, the Pints Bar in downtown Des Moines taping Kaepernick’s jersey to the ground for patrons to stomp on and “stand up for America.” It is the murder of Michael Williams by four white residents of Grinnell, Iowa who burned his body to hide the evidence.
Even though I will never live there again for as long as I draw breath, even though I talk shit about Iowa every chance I get, even though I’d rather eat a whole bushel of Red Delicious apples than spend an hour in Iowa, it is my home. I do not know what makes something an Iowan essay, though I do know that this essay is not what comes to mind, and I do not know what makes someone an Iowan essayist, just that I do not fit the part. But that’s been the story of Black folks in this country since forever. And yet, here I am. Here we are.
Jordan K. Casomar is a Black prose writer from Iowa. His essays have appeared in the Kenyon Review, Kweli Journal, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is a VONA alum, the runner-up for the Pinch’s 2018 Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, and holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Minnesota. Jordan lives in D.C. with his wife and their two destructive cats.
Ander at 6:00 AM