It's possible all the writing I've done over the years has been in some way a response, a pushing back against the isolation and loneliness I felt at sixteen, driving an endless loop between home and school and work, speeding through the rolling country 'burbs of southeastern Wisconsin. There, a farm. There, a subdivision. There, a snowy field. Lots of trees. Another farm. Another subdivision. Endless fields. Growing up in this landscape my edges were smoothed; I was shaped. For me, this landscape was so cold, isolating, lonely. Constantly, I seek warmth, body, connection; I seek community, conversation.
To some degree, all of us here are shaped by the landscape, by the way the highways bend, by the way one watershed tilts towards the lake, another to the river, and by all the cold and snow this winter. And yet, each of us inhabits a landscape uniquely our own, built of our own experience. We are Wisconsin-born, -bred, -rooted, but we live alone in our own version of wherever we are. And Essay Daily, this #Midwessay project, what are these but elaborate feelers, searching, finding, sharing, celebrating a coming-together? I'm not sure I care all that much about what a Wisconsin essay is or isn't. I just want to hear your voice, your thoughts, your stories. The Wisconsin essay is whatever you say.
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The Strangest of the Strange: on the Wisconsin #Midwessay
Not long ago, in an interview about my book, Tomboyland—a collection of essays about the Midwest, and my home state of Wisconsin in particular—I said something about the essential queerness of the essay. It’s an idea I keep coming back to. The essay is a queer-ass form, by which I mean it’s a form that takes many forms, that fucks with form; that’s fluid and weird, neither one thing nor the other. The Midwest is like this too. Like the things my essays return to—gender and class and the body and home—the Midwest is an indefinite thing, a place whose borders are murky; whose boundaries are questioned, defined and redefined. It’s a place whose identity is complicated. And by complicated I mean incongruous—a series of contradictions that can’t be reconciled, a problem that can’t be solved.
The Midwessay, then, as Madison, Wisconsin’s Garbage sang, is the queerest of the queer. It digs into the contradictions and incongruities, revels in all that murk. To be Midwestern, it knows, is to be in the middle, and of the middle. To be flyover country, a vast expanse between the coasts that outsiders perennially attempt to define and always get wrong. A place that, for many, is defined by leaving. The longer it’s gone, the more the Midwessay returns, trying to make sense of itself from a state of displacement. It’s not one to make bold statements (Who am I to say? The Midwessay asks. I’m no expert). But it keeps asking the question, knowing it’ll never find the answer.
My Midwessay is the Driftless Area of southern Wisconsin—the strangest landscape in the strangest Midwestern state, the landscape that made me. It’s an F5 tornado that destroyed a small town and spared another. It’s a story built on destruction—of guns and booze, the clearing of old-growth forests, the violent displacement of Indigenous tribes—and on rebirth. It’s the stories we tell, and the ones we don’t. It’s the things we never say. Of course it’s a road trip, too—the scenery changing from farmland to forest to freezing winter city in a matter of miles. It’s a journey, is what I’m saying. It’s going somewhere. It’s getting out of this town, and it’s perpetually going home.
You can read about the Driftless in my book, or in this excerpt. Better yet, you could get in the car and head there yourself. Come in the summer to avoid the snow, and to catch Bob Uecker on the radio. Watch the construction on 90. Once you clear Chicago traffic, you won’t be far away. You might see the ghost of the GM plant in Janesville, where my grandfather worked, or the farm near Monroe where my grandmother grew up. If you pass through Mount Horeb, my hometown, check out the trolls carved into tree stumps on Main Street. Get a beer at the Grumpy Troll, the bar I once tended. Order the cheese curds, obviously. But don’t tell anyone your secrets. Small towns can’t keep them. Stop at the House on the Rock, the weirdest place you’ll ever go. When you reach the Driftless—you’ll know it when you get there—stop for a while and take in all that strange beauty. Puzzle over it, but don’t try to figure out where it fits. Just try, if you can, to inhabit the mystery. Of this place, of this moment, of this body that holds you.
Melissa Faliveno is the author of the debut essay collection Tomboyland, which Wisconsin Public Radio called "a love letter to the Midwest, celebrating its strength and complexities." She likes this assessment. Born and raised in small-town Wisconsin, she lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the 2020-21 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill. Website: www.melissafaliveno.com.
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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