Winter. Bone deep cold. Oil. Wind. Fargo (you can still pose with the woodchipper from the movie at the Fargo Visitors Center). These are some of the first concepts that usually come to mind when people think of North Dakota. The essays presented here examine the complexity of North Dakota, “a state used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens,” as Bronson Lemer writes. It’s not an easy state to love, but it is a hard place to shake. —Pamela Pierce, North Dakota Coordinator
Recently, I read a popular novel set in North Dakota. I enjoyed the story and the journey of the main character, but I just couldn’t get past how unfamiliar the North Dakota in the novel felt to me. Something about the setting felt off. The novel was supposed to be set during North Dakota’s recent oil boom, but I couldn’t feel the place the writer was describing. It didn’t feel like the North Dakota I grew up in, ran away from, and return to for yearly visits. So often my home state is used as a punching bag for a place where nothing happens, a place of empty spaces, and on the rare occasion when North Dakota is in the spotlight, I want it to feel right, true. More than just nothingness. I know “truth” is subjective, but reading that novel I wanted a North Dakota I could recognize.
When I write about my home state now, I can’t help but be defensive. I want to get it right. I want the reader to feel how beautiful and haunting the place can be. Often, I find myself thinking about a line from Debra Marquart’s memoir The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere: “We children of North Dakota are programmed for flight. … When grown, we scattered in a kind of diaspora, a phenomenon known as “outmigration.” But we always feel the pull of our home ground.” I don’t live in North Dakota anymore, but I find myself often writing about this “flight,” the forces that pushed me away, and the tethers that keep pulling me back. These forces and tethers are influenced by my family, but also by the land itself. Writing into the mystery of why this place has such a hold on me is one way for me to document the complicated relationship I have with the place I grew up and to show you something I feel is true.
Bronson Lemer is the author of The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2011). His work has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Midwestern Gothic, The Southeast Review, & Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers (Random House, 2006). He is a 2019 McKnight Writing Fellow and lives in St. Paul.
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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