In Between Monuments
Writing and rebuilding what a place means.
Recently I had the incredible pleasure of being interviewed by David Naimon for his Between the Covers Podcast. You can listen to the episode here. Rarely have I been given the space, time, and deep attention that this conversation afforded me to begin with transition and move through time, place, language, and the non-human in a way that felt like it really captured what I’m trying to do with *gestures wildly* all of this.
I’m hugely grateful to David, and my whole West Coast writing family, that really made this happen (looking at you, Seventh Wave, Gabrielle Bates). When I first announced to my East Coast community of writers that we were moving to Portland, the skepticism was palpable. In the small rural valley in which I lived, where dozens of colleges (five in particular) jockey for students, faculty, and bragging rights, there was the sense that this was the mecca and I’d be foolish to leave it, especially without a job lined up in Portland. To this day, when people ask me why we moved here, I don’t feel I have an answer that satisfies. I’ve never known exactly where I would feel most at home.
“Who has the rights to the story of a place? Are these rights earned, bought, fought and died for? Or are they given? Are they automatic, like an assumption? Self-renewing? Are these rights a token of citizenship belonging to those who stay in the place or to those who leave and come back to it? Does the act of leaving relinquish one’s rights to the story of a place? Who stays gone? Who can afford to return?”
These words are from Sarah Broom’s memoir The Yellow House. The book is about Broom’s early life growing up with her 11 siblings and her mother in a house that continuously fought entropy in New Orleans East before the Katrina’s cataclysmic flooding and a soulless city demolition, but to call it a memoir doesn’t feel quite right (and I do really enjoy memoir, this is not a slight). It feels more like a work of geography to watch Broom locate her experience of New Orleans that exists so far outside the public’s popular understanding of what New Orleans means to a nation.
Some writers become aligned with a city or town over the course of their lives. Ursula K. Le Guin, for example, lived in Portland, Oregon for 54 years. When you google “where in Portland did Ursula Le Guin like to go?”, the first result is a wonderful and in depth Street Roots interview she did toward the end of her life. I think this says a lot about a person and their relation to place. Biographies are so often focused on the relationships between families and writers, writers and lovers, people and other people, but rarely do we get a clear sense of where this person liked to spend their time. What small corners of a city captured their imagination, and what’s happening there now? If a biography is written in that way, like Broom’s, it becomes more of a living text, as those places will still exist long after the people who knew that writer are gone. They will continue to have a life, the writer being only one part of it.
So far, it’s been difficult for me to feel aligned with any one place or city. Sure, there’s Canton, thinly veiled as Catania in the title story from my collection “A Natural History of Transition”; western Massachusetts, where I plugged into the clot of universities that grow swollen on the vein of tuition like a tick; the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, perhaps the place closest to my heart, which I’ve not found the ability to write about yet; and, increasingly, Portland, the city Le Guin once walked and lived while writing her fantastic worlds, where the big explosion that captivated her was the eruption of Mount St. Helens, while the big explosion I’ve watched is the unmasking of white supremacy in the face of gains made by Black and Indigenous residents of the city. Just a few days ago the beautiful bronze bust of York, the enslaved Black man who traveled with (and played a crucial role in the survival of) Lewis and Clark, was torn down after many months of being defaced by unhappy white settlers who resented the statue replacing a monument of a white man who they had never heard of. That former statue featured a journalist who opposed women’s suffrage and supported the decimation of indigenous peoples in Oregon; he stood tall in his topcoat and extended one stone finger into the distance toward land he felt needed to be occupied and purged of any inherent understanding of itself.
The bust of York, meanwhile, was only a guess at what he might have looked like by a sculptor who remains anonymous. York gazed out with great melancholy at the surrounding trees in Mount Tabor, the park where I walk most days, his almost imperceptible smile stemming from the suspicion that his presence would not be tolerated for long, or amusement at witnessing, for however short a time, how controversial he still is in this city of those who look away.
What I’m Reading
The Nine Guardians by Rosario Castellanos. Translated into English in 1959, The Nine Guardians is Castellanos’ better known semi-autobiographical novel (at least, this is what the internet tells me — I’ve never heard anyone talk about Castellanos). Much of her writing, Nine Guardians included, revolves around the plight of the Mayan people in Chiapas, Mexico, where she grew up, and where her wealthy family’s land holdings were seized and redistributed by order of the Mexican government to the landless poor. I’m not finding Nine Guardians quite as arresting as what I think is her masterpiece, The Book of Lamentations, with its many layered narratives and voices, but if you’ve never heard of Castellanos I highly recommend reading more about her and how she spent much of her life writing nuanced and complex stories about the dispossessed (among whom she did not count herself, so it seems).
Annulet, my new (to me) favorite journal, is open to submissions of poetry, prose, and criticism.
Guernica is doing some interesting things: they are open to emerging writers only until August 6. They are also accepting submissions across genres for “DIRT: A Special Issue”, which is just what it sounds like. Deadline September 1.
My book A Natural History of Transition, published by Metonymy Press, is available now.
First time here? Subscribe below. You can find more of my work at calangus.com.