The essay, as we all know, is an attempt. It’s a way of telling about, relating to, examining, delineating, and explaining things: big things and small; elephants and moths; individual human lives and families; a neighborhood, a whole city; a state or a whole damn, glacially-ironed region.
The Illinois essay, and the essayists who call Illinois home, are concerned and consumed by delineations, with explaining themselves and the state(s) they now find themselves in: Northshore vs. South Side; Chicago vs. the ‘burbs; Chicagoland vs. Downstate; corn and soybean futures vs. the actual plants themselves; mile-long parcels of flatness vs. many-storeyed city blocks; staying vs. leaving.
The Illinois essays that follow are indebted to many that came before (Chief Blackhawk, Eliza Farnham, Honest Abe, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, John Hughes, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few) but are trying real hard not to live in the past.
The essays that follow are curious about how many minutes it took you to get here. They are here to warn you that if a white boy in a Patagonia fleece tells you he’s from Chicago that he’s actually from Oak Brook or Highland Park. —David Griffith, Illinois #Midwessay Coordinator
Sometimes I find myself having to resort to anthropological principles, to logic, to geology: if other places exist, then so does the Midwest. If you assume that one populated entity, by rights of its existence moving backward in time, has a culture, then any other place populated by people for the same amount of time will have a culture. Even a created place like an oil rig or a space station has a culture.
These are the ravings I have been reduced to. I’ve been on the East Coast for a long time. This is what happens to you out there. I wrote a long, researched piece, “Stop Dissing Midwestern Literature
.” I have described myself as a Midwestern nationalist, even though I’m not
a nationalist in any sense of the word, just as hyperbole to stress that the place is real
The assumptions—that it’s less diverse than other places, that it’s boring—are so factually incorrect and offensive that I have a file of links I could send you that…
Good god. Let me catch my breath.
Beneath these ravings, I am tuned like a level to the flatness of Illinois. I am set in the key of a diagonal drive between New Lenox and St. Louis, a five-mile Zen monastery of corn. I always miss the place where the sky is entire, where you can roll down the window and practically eat the smell of the black earth. It is both overwhelmingly biological and industrial. My hometown marks a seam where the twin steamrollers of agribusiness and steel claimed the landscape.
Beneath that tuning is a quietness that comes from assuming no one cares anyway, and a wacky freedom that comes from assuming that no one cares anyway. Twined around that like a zucchini plant in a chain-link fence, with green squash grown into the metal weave like a stuck monstrosity, is my brother (who I love) raving about the East Coast liberal elite. Which I kind of am, now, but I also get it. It’s not about politics. It’s about the dismissal of a place, it’s about taking a map and running an eraser all down the middle. Doesn’t that do something to your soul?
The Midwestern essay rings in the tune of a productive, generative nothing: an assumption that we come from a place that almost isn’t real. Unlike other places, we have been forced to contend with and to dance with that ghost of nothingness, which gives us a scale and a humanness I am quite fond of. Within that nothingness are the same wretched cruelties and blind spots and anomalies as anywhere else, but in the eyes of some people I see the sky, and so I ask, and I am almost always right.
Sonya Huber is the author of six books, including the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System and the forthcoming Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir in a Day. Her other books include Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and in the Fairfield low-residency MFA program.
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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