Guest post by Brooks Rexroat, author of Thrift Store Coats.
I’m sitting on the third-floor porch of my Kentucky apartment, watching a storm roll in. I noticed it first in the sweep of the trees, then felt it in the air, sudden pangs of crispness against the daylong heat. There’s a spiral of clouds overhead now; across the way, automatic lights have popped on, lighting each of the a la carte garages some of my neighbors have rented—mostly for the storage of things they hope they’ll use in a house someday.
My own things, and my wife’s, are in a storage container in Ohio. When I lived there, up on the other side of the river, storms rolled in from the back yard to the front. As if we were situated atop some sort of atmospheric fault line, it was common for storms to skirt the property line of my childhood home, sometimes drenching out lawn and not a neighbor’s; sometimes flooding their lot and leaving ours bone dry.
A year ago, I was in Siberia: the storms there arrived on straight, frontier-like sweeps we could sometimes see from half a day away. The clouds could manifest and we knew there was time to catch a bus to town, watch a film and grab dinner, then make it home before the first snow fell.
In both of my Tennessee homes, there were too many buildings around to ever see any weather: I just felt it when I left or heard it rattle against the roof. While a grad student in Illinois I waited for a student who had promised to but never would show up to turn in a final essay assignment, as a derecho blew in. We, the collegiate residents, huddled in a laundry room while the roof of the apartment complex was thrown halfway across Carbondale by a veritable inland hurricane. Since grading wasn’t yet digital, I waited for a week in an electricity-void, sweltering room—my stuff already been packed into my car—and waited for offices to reopen so I could drop off my paperwork and leave for the summer.
Storms arrive differently everywhere. They’re one of the markers of place, and I’ve known plenty of places. As a writer and human, points on the earth have always fascinated me, not just for their sweet variety, but because of their odd penchant for adjusting and manipulating key moments of a life. Just like a storm, an Ohio heartbreak feels a little different than an Illinois one. The Ohio river flows a little different in Huntington than it does in Paducah. The air in Siberia breathes a little bit lighter than the air in Alabama. A coffee in France—well, coffee is just right everywhere.
There are writers who focus on the human condition, or the impact of the spirit. There are authors whose first aim is to manufacture an interesting hardship. There are those for whom stylistic tension or description or relationship is the key to it all. For me, it’s always come down to the land on which someone stands, the examination of how (and why) we move between those places. In those relationships of person to place, we find peace and mercy, hope, determination, desperation and resignation. We find love and loss, forfeit, despair, and stunning strength.
During the last few years, it’s been societally popular to examine the lives of the freshwater people, the flyover folks. I’ve almost always been one of them, save for a few months of grant-funded time on the coasts of Ireland and France. Those were wonderful novelty moments, but there’s something warm and yet limiting about living in the middle of something. The sudden cultural interest in the people of the central states is many-pronged: there’s political blame and academic curiosity and the pure, simple art of the trend. It’s good and it’s bad, fascinating, irritating, illuminating, and sometimes funny.
During my Fulbright time in Russia, I quickly encountered place as an aspiration: most of my students, since they were writing in English, daydreamed all over their pages by writing about an author’s life in New York or a run-in with royalty in London. What they seldom did, though, was write about their own home, the place they knew well and the place the rest of the world so deeply wants to understand, particularly in this political moment. They left the world’s imagination of their home up to the construction of outsiders, while wishing in their texts for an interesting elsewhere. As we discussed this phenomenon in class, I quickly noticed similarities between these young Russian writers and my own students and neighbors in the middle west: in both instances, talented writers dismiss their own homes as uninteresting while the rest of the world longs for truth from the people who know their places best. Too often, we often let others imagine our world for us. Which lends to all those good, bad, fascinating, irritating, illuminating, sometimes funny critiques from everyone else.
I’ve never hopped too far onboard the idea that writers should restrict themselves to examining what they know, but there’s a different sort of license that’s important to remember: it’s worthwhile and important to tell stories from our place, here in the warm and limiting middle of everything.
The Midwestern lit scene that’s fostered so sweetly by Aaron’s excellent publisher, Columbus Press, and others like MG Press, Curbside Splendor, Switchgrass Books, Two Dollar Radio and others, offers permission and occasion for writers to do just this, and offers a long-absent chance for readers to connect with real and important stories from the literary flyover world.
Everything one needs to know about humanity can manifest through the lens of place, and ours is a region that deserves a thought, a conversation, a good read. Fortunately, we’ve got greater access than ever before to the tools needed for such an expedition, even if a storm’s rolled in and you can’t make it outside.
About the Author
Brooks Rexroat was raised near Cincinnati, Ohio at the intersection of the Rust Belt and Appalachia: the crossing point of mountain and farm field, boarded mine and shuttered factory, the water that splits north from south. The importance of place has always surrounded him, and it deeply inhabits his characters.
The son of public school teachers, he went to high school with the children of farmers and college with the children of miners. Then tension between circumstance and the transformative power of education were never far from his mind, which caused him to leave a successful career as a writer, reporter, and editor in order to pursue a teaching life.
After earning a Master of Fine Arts Degree in creative prose from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he embarked on a journey in higher education that has included teaching opportunities at open enrollment community colleges, regional public universities, and rigorous private liberal arts colleges. Now based at Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky, Rexroat was a 2016-2017 Fulbright U.S. Teaching and Research Scholar at Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University in Siberia, Russia.
(Photos of Brooks are courtesy of Chris Everett.)