Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The #Midwessay: Oindrila Mukherjee, The Things I Might Tell You

We're back for round 3 of #Midwessay coverage starting back up this week, in which we re/visit essays and essayists from Midwestern states and those of us still in Midwestern states even if we live elsewhere. In our first round we published one week in each state, and now we're swinging back through to continue. Up this week is Michigan, coordinated by Ander Monson. Are you a Michigander? A Michiganian? Do you have thoughts or feelings about our fair water-bordered state and its literature? If an essay captures the workings of the mind, what is the mind of Michigan? Be in touch and send us something.


The Things I Might Tell You

Oindrila Mukherjee


If you had asked me what I thought of the Deep South when I was growing up in India, I would have said country music and cotton plantations. If you had asked me about Texas, I would have mentioned cowboys and ranches. California was golden beaches and golden hair. New York was Broadway and bright lights. Even Seattle had, apparently, sleepless people. But if you’d asked me about the Midwest, I would have had no answer. The Midwest was an undefined, unknown space in the middle of America, one I could not conjure up from the pop culture I consumed. Once I read a YA novel in which a girl from Iowa moved to a college in the north east. Everyone there called her a “hick,” a word I hadn’t heard until then. But it reminded me of our own snobbery towards those less cosmopolitan or urban than us. That book also mentioned cornfields. Maybe I thought of cornfields when I thought of the Midwest. But then again, there was no reason to think about the Midwest. I had no desire to emigrate to America and if I did, I would live in New York or LA or DC or Boston. If you’d asked me whether I would ever move all the way to America to live in the Midwest, I would have laughed.   

This July, I complete ten years in Grand Rapids. I have lived in a total of ten different cities spanning three continents, and now the longest I have lived anywhere outside my hometown of Kolkata is right here in West Michigan. A decade later, I still feel like I’m just passing through, but if you ask me about the Midwest now, I could tell you some things about it. 

Midwesterners don’t leave. If they do, they return. To their families and childhood memories. Essays about the Midwest are often about nostalgia. Midwesterners don’t seem to yearn for change. I envy them their contentment with the way things are and their attachment to their roots. Unlike them, I am restless and nomadic, always longing for someplace else. Most people here have families. Conversations at social events revolve around daycare, high school soccer games, holidays with siblings and reunions with parents. I am single, childfree, an only child, and my parents live thousands of miles away. At the time of writing this, I haven’t seen them in nearly three years. 

The Global Midwest project—supported by the Humanities Without Walls consortium of research centers—defines the U.S. Midwest as eight states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. According to the 2010 census, 77,132 people of Indian origin live in Michigan. A 2013 report by Global Detroit and Data Driven Detroit states that of the immigrant ethnic groups in Metro Detroit, the largest segment is the Indian population. 

The heartland is a labyrinth. You can drive for hours and never reach the coast. But it doesn’t matter to people here because I’m told you can’t travel six miles in any direction without finding water. Years ago, in elementary school in India, I learned the names of the Great Lakes. Now, I live thirty minutes away from one of them. Many Midwestern essays are about water. Everyone’s favorite activity seems to involve water. Camping, sailing, swimming. I have never learned to swim. I have never gone camping. At the lakeshore, I find little shops that sell ice cream and eat it on the beach alone, while all around me families make memories that will pull them back to this place years later. I am a loose pebble among all the solid, stable rocks.

On February 22, 2017, Adam Purinton, a 51-year-old US Navy veteran, shot two Indian men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, at a restaurant in Olathe, Kansas, killing Kuchibotla. Both Indians were employed by Garmin. Purinton reportedly yelled, "Get out of my country" before firing. He said later that he had mistaken the men for Middle Eastern. Weeks later, a video surfaced on social media in which a computer programmer called Steve Pushor—who had secretly recorded Indians relaxing in a park in Columbus, Ohio—said, “The number of people from foreign countries blows my mind out here. You see this whole area is all Indian, amazing. It's an amazing number of jobs have been taken away from Americans. The Indian crowd has ravished the Midwest. It's crazy.” 

The first time someone visited my apartment after I moved up here, they took off their shoes, just like they used to do back in India. I was astonished because no one in the south had ever done that. People do that here because they don’t want to get your floors or carpets dirty. Yes, please, I say. Thank You for being so thoughtful. Everyone is nice. All the time. They smile whenever they see you and ask, “How are you doing?” and quickly hurry on before you have to answer the question. No one argues or contradicts or raises their voice. Well, except me. I am blunt and brown and frequently not Michigan Nice. 

From 1990 to 2000, Indians and Indian-Americans became the largest Asian ethnic group in Illinois. The Chicago area has the third-largest Indian community in the country behind the New York-New Jersey and San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose areas. If I drive west, I can get to Chicago in under three hours. The first glimpse of the skyline from the freeway feels a little like home. Even if I don’t go for months, I know it’s always there, just like New York and London and every place in India. It is the America I had imagined when I was a teen, from sitcoms and music videos and The Bold and The Beautiful. 

Midwesterners pick fruit from orchards and bake pies with them. Cherry pies, blueberry pies, apple pies with and without caramel, rhubarb pies, strawberry pies. They also make jams and jellies and their own honey from beehives in their backyards. I buy these from farms off the highway. I ask for them a few times before someone understands my foreign accent but they are always, always, nice. The fruit is mostly tart and a little sweet, like life itself.  

If you ask me about the Midwest, I’ll first tell you about myself. I’ll project my history and desires onto a place that still often feels like a blank canvas. I will compare it to every other place I’ve been. I will highlight all the ways in which I am not a typical Midwesterner. I will generalize and complain and list all the things that are missing. But then, when you ask me again, I will tell you about the antique shops on the lakeshore, the fudge and pasties up north, the sunflower farms and blues bars, the tulip festival and sunsets, and the Diego Rivera mural at the DIA. And I will tell you that unlike anywhere else I’ve lived, here the seasons change. In the spring, the woods and parks are full of flowers, in the summer, the days are long and glimmer with fireflies, in the fall the world is a kaleidoscope, and in the winter, yes, the endless winter, the snow falls and falls and falls, until you hear and see nothing, not even your own history, covering up everything just so you can begin again.   

Oindrila Mukherjee teaches creative writing at Grand Valley State University. She has a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review, Ecotone, The Colorado Review, Salon, and elsewhere. She writes for the Indian magazine and is a contributing editor for the literary and arts magazine Aster(ix). This July, she completed a decade in the Midwest.  

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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