In my book This Is One Way to Dance, there is an essay called "Six Hours from Anywhere You Want to Be." It's about where I grew up: Rochester, in Western New York. It wasn't until after I left my hometown and lived elsewhere (New England, the West Coast, New York City, the Midwest) and then returned that I recognized Western New York and my hometown as Midwestern, as part of the greater Great Lakes Culture by temperament, temperature, geography, climate, weather, and mindset.
From the opening of my essay:
Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and the Southern Tier all hang on to the moniker "Northeast" by their fingernails. In a short story, I once described Western New York as 'disturbingly close to Ohio.' I thought I grew up on the East Coast. It wasn't until I left for college that I realized my mistake. (New England lets you know they are the oldest, they are the coast, they are the Cape.) New York: we are the only state whose borders touch both a Great Lake and the Atlantic Ocean…If you travel abroad, people will ask you where you live, and you will inevitably hear about how amazing New York City is. You can either nod your head in agreement or explain that you live nearly six hours away from that New York. And where you live is nothing like it."
When I lived in New York City, my writing group was composed of four writers: all of us had grown up a few miles from the Great Lakes (between us, Michigan, Erie, and Ontario). We shared a certain sensibility of being outsiders and we shared an attunement to a sense of place. I feel that still when I talk to other Western New Yorkers like Stephen J. West, a friend and fellow member of my current Rochester-based writing group who was willing to take up my invitation to write about New York, at least our part of the state, as midwestern.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to meet Moheb Soliman, an Egyptian American from the Midwest, and see his performance art and learn about his Great Lakes travel project during his visit to Rochester. Soliman's performance art, reading poems and mapping using an overhead projector and transparencies, strengthened my recognition of Western New York as being part of this larger ecosystem spanning the US Midwest and Canada. (Soliman's book HOMES based on the Great Lakes is just out from Coffee House Press.)
By the end of "Six Hours from Anywhere You Want to Be," I concede that where I live is more like Ohio than any of the other places I lived. And that I like it. Most of the time I do want to do what poet and nonfiction writer Wendell Berry exhorts and "stay home."
—Sejal Shah, Western New York #Midwessay State Coordinator
Want to contribute a #midwessay? Get in touch. Details on this page.
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