Sofia Samatar is the author of five books, most recently the memoir The White Mosque. Kate Zambreno is the author of nine books, most recently The Light Room, a meditation on art and care, forthcoming this summer. Together, they have also written a collaborative work on literature, Tone, forthcoming from Columbia University Press. They are both from the Midwest.
In this conversation, Kate and Sofia discuss the Midwest as both geographical region and aura, both location and collective dream. Through literature, film, and memory, they seek to evoke the special quality of a place, and explore the links between weather, landscape, culture, and affect.
SS: Recently, I was reading Space and Place by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. “What is a place?” he asks. “What gives a place its identity, its aura?” He goes on to quote a 1924 letter from Niels Bohr to his fellow physicist, Werner Heisenberg, written at Kronborg Castle in Elsinore. Bohr writes to Heisenberg, “Isn't it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? ...Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak quite a different language.”
As a humanistic geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan is interested in that language: the way objects become invested with the symbolic. For him, this is what transforms an abstract space into a human cultural place. It's an entanglement of the human and the nonhuman, a haunting, a romance. I love that he quotes a letter between two physicists to express this. It speaks to something fundamental about the experience of place, which is so inescapably physical, sensory, and quotidian, and at the same time so steeped in personal and collective dreams.
How would we begin to describe the aura of the Midwest?
KZ: Yes, how is it possible to express with language what Yi-Fu Tuan would call the “spatial feelings” of this place, or places, so embedded in our communal and private memory?
Funny the physicists bring up Hamlet (I like that it is not Shakespeare but the haunted castle that speaks, centuries later). To begin thinking through “the Midwest” as a concept, I’ve been rereading Mark Fisher on hauntology (for that’s how I feel about the Midwest, a sense of being haunted). Fisher is glossing Derrida’s Specters of Marx to think through the ghostly feeling of a certain era of electronic music as well as horror films like Kubrick’s The Shining. A repetition in the Derrida is from Hamlet: “time is out of joint.” Haunting takes you out of the present.
SS: The Midwest is the scene of some major horror films. Halloween is set in Illinois, A Nightmare on Elm Street in Ohio, and more recently the series Stranger Things, with its paranoia and monstrous presences, takes place in a fictional Indiana town. There’s comedy, too, from Happy Days to Parks and Rec. It’s as if comedy and horror form the positive and negative poles of the Midwestern magnet: on the one side, a coziness and placidity, laced with self-deprecation, or the kind of affection inspired by an embarrassing but lovable parent; and, on the other side, an eruption of the gory and grotesque.
This isn’t particularly surprising—the bucolic vibe of the heartland makes the horror more shocking. What interests me is how these energies are entangled with lived experience, how bleak and ludicrous that particular stretch of US-33 feels when I’m riding the bus from the Amtrak station in Elkhart to Goshen, Indiana, the town where I was born, to visit my mother, passing those squat, almost featureless commercial buildings separated from each other by stretches of dry, shorn grass or empty parking lots, the billboards and peeling signs sticking up in the flatness of the landscape, some of them knocked sideways by the wind. The railroad track runs right beside the road. Trains pass, carrying identical crates all stamped with some company logo. It’s a zone that seems made for machines, not humans—nobody can walk those distances, you don’t see anyone, only blurred sketches of people behind the windows of cars. That environment is the scene of some of my happiest childhood memories, and when I go there I’m caught between laughing and screaming. It’s so dreary, as if deliberately ugly, hostile. And then the huge sky. It feels absurd.
KZ: I’m now collaging your ambivalence about this Midwestern landscape—which you write about so beautifully here, as well as in your “Stories of Brown Girlhood” in The White Mosque—with Mark Fisher’s own wanderings through the empty landscapes of Norfolk and Suffolk. There is something about the emptiness of the landscape which lends us that eeriness. But it is also bleak because these are capitalist ruins minus the aura of being from a more mythical place. Time does stop and flatten out at these sites that Fisher, quoting Marc Augé, thinks of as a “non-place” (he is conjuring the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, which is not set in the Midwest, but in the seclusion of the Rocky Mountains, which makes me wonder if when we say “Midwest” we are also speaking of an “American landscape,” or whiteness, as you’ve pointed out to me.)
It’s striking that Lauren Berlant, in their essay “Genre Flailing”—speaking of the sense of crisis and also humorlessness in the midst of Trump coming to power, leeching through Midwest towns—also uses Augé’s concept of a non-place in thinking of the genres of everyday life.
Is the Midwest, I wonder, as we’re speaking about it here, a genre that deals somehow with the communal (and quite white) sting of disappointment and failure, in the small towns and emptied out main streets that are also the sites of horror films or shows like Stranger Things, set still in the Reagan years? I saw visual remnants of this sting everywhere: in Trump banners overlooking highways, signs on sprawling lawns in my annual August road pilgrimage to Michigan, grumblings by politically and religiously conservative in-laws about how it was impossible to get “anyone” to work.
I was really compelled by the beauty and the quiet and subtle horror of your memories, in The White Mosque, of growing up amidst the “green expanse” of Pennsylvania as well as “lovely, windswept Indiana.” The pastoral beauty of the fields, and the lyricism in which you describe it, undercut by the highways, the parking lots, traveling everywhere by car. It wasn’t until later, you write, that you realized , there was anything oppressive about this landscape. Which connects with our ongoing conversation about the shabbiness of beauty, and the beauty of shabbiness.
SS: This makes me think of your introduction to Maria Judite de Carvalho’s 1966 novel Empty Wardrobes, recently translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa. You begin with your grandmother’s collection of perfume bottles, lovingly describing their “candy-colored glass” and Bakelite flowers. Immediately, you add that the bottles aren’t valuable, though they clearly had value for your grandmother, a single mother who worked at Marshall Fields, who never wore perfume, but kept these minor crystallizations of beauty on a dusty, crowded shelf. In your essay, the bottles have a tragic gleam: they’re heroic, they testify to the wish to shine, to be recognized and accorded value, a mute defiance that also characterizes Carvalho’s protagonist among the decaying ornaments in her antique shop, in the atmosphere of what you call “the God, Fatherland, and Family authoritarianism of the Salazar regime in Portugal.” The sparkle of tawdry things, objects with little market value that have become private treasures, amulets against erasure in a bleak, patriarchal political environment—it’s so Midwest. It suggests that, though the Midwest has its own unique flavor, part of that flavor comes from a structure that can be found in many places, as if any heartland, any space dominated by the authority of God, the Family, and the Nation, is also the Midwest.
Carvalho’s epigraph is a line by Paul Éluard : “J’ai conservé des faux trésors dans des armoires vides.” (“I have been keeping false treasures in empty wardrobes.”) The hollowness and the candy-colored glitter. It’s awful, it’s beautiful, I feel at home with it. I have to draw your attention to a LitHub article, “Lights, Camera . . . Corn: 15 Quintessentially Midwestern Movies to Watch After Fargo,” by Charlie Berens. For each movie, Berens notes MBC (Midwest Basics Covered) and MMM (Most Midwest Moment). Among the basics are grit, long drives, disorienting snowstorms, faithful hardy dogs, talking about love in a bait shop, and plaid. The Most Midwest Moments include “Locals openly mock the main character for not being good at yard work” (in Field of Dreams). My favorite part is the MBC for Purple Rain: “Velvet pants, cravats, and silk ruffle shirts.” With the strikethrough! This genderbending romantic extravagance, crossed out but still present—Berens is right, it’s as quintessentially Midwestern as plaid. The ultimate Midwestern movie has to be The Wizard of Oz, with its yearning for and displacement of color. Or—Berens’s vote—The Wiz.
KZ: When Joyce Carol Oates reviewed Empty Wardrobes for The New York Review of Books, she took aim at my introduction, which she found tonally off, especially that line you quote. What does a fascist regime, she seems to say, have to do with a novel of a widow’s interiority, and the suppression of women of an older generation, of the constraining structures of patriarchy and capitalism, which produces so often docile subjects? I too feel at home in it—but what does it mean, to feel at home in it? There’s a dread attached to it for me as well. Like, when I was just in my childhood home this past August, driving through Illinois, the stoic eyes of the same split-levels in that 1970s suburban subdivision, thinking of my mother, a housewife, and the clutter of her many collections, all of the examples of handiwork, their geometry and beauty, but also clutter, her own framed needlepoint, colorful quilts made by great-grandmothers on the backs of sagging couches, stiff from years of washing. The Beatrix Potter ceramic figurines, kept still in a glass case, twenty years after my mother’s death. The Christmas Lladro figurines that her mother-in-law, my grandmother, gifted her every year. Like the kitschy enclave of tiny porcelain figurines in Baum’s original novel. Perhaps like what The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale would collect, once she became a farmer’s wife (too dire?). I guess this gets into our recent conversation about collecting versus hoarding, thinking through Dodie Bellamy’s essay on clutter and memory, “Hoarding as Ecriture.” It’s not a surprise that Bellamy is also from Indiana. I feel that Midwest collecting approaches the hoard, out of what—economic precarity, survival instincts, the craze of hominess?
Because I was thinking of you, returning to Goshen for your writing conference this weekend, yesterday I read a couple essays published online by Rachel Yoder. She writes, “I associate Midwestern insanity with the weather, an omnipresent system of pressures and movements, an atmosphere inside of which I had once lived.”
SS: I think we’re moving toward that peculiar atmosphere. It does have something to do with pressure, with repression, and also with the landscape, and this makes the Midwest we’re reaching for a particular one, one that shares features with Carvalho’s Portugal or rural Pennsylvania, but isn’t precisely matched by them. It has to be far from the ocean, from the mountains. It’s where the land goes on and on, where nothing protects you from the weather. That weather is extreme, continental: hot summers and cold winters. Violent blizzards, stifling heat, tornadoes. I think we’re talking about a rural and suburban white Midwest, where there’s a sense of isolation, where the windows look out on endless fields, or where people go into town and see the same familiar faces, many of them relatives. A feeling of changelessness, as in Rachel Yoder’s essay, where her father tells her she’ll never change, “and, moreover, change itself did not even exist.” For some, the thought of such changelessness is suffocating, monotonous, deadening; for others it means permanence, rootedness, calm. Either way, it exists in contrast to the coasts, where change is expected, where things move with frantic energy: people, ideas, fashions, money.
This is a myth. The Midwest changes, like any other place. What interests me is the endurance of the mythical Midwest, the way the story of the static, dependable heartland has become fused with the flat, regular fields and uniform housing developments. The straight, even horizon is like a strikethrough. So much goes on beneath that line, but it’s erased, it doesn’t come into the mythos, a dynamic I was very aware of as a college student in Goshen, knowing its history as a “sundown town,” where Black people were forbidden to own land or be on the streets after dark. We, the Black students, used to joke about it, though we were there, and my father had been there too, attending the same college as a Somali immigrant in the 1970s, working at Goshen Rubber, which has been bought out twice and is now owned by Parker Hannifin, which no doubt still employs immigrants like my dad, many of them from the thriving Latino community that makes up nearly a third of the town. The power of the myth, of the strikethrough, prevails despite these very real changes. I remember walking around Goshen after dark, laughing with my friends, out of place in the town where I was born, finding no entry point in a myth that seemed manifested in the falling snow that covered and stilled the streets.
KZ: I just looked on this communally aggregated map of historic sundown towns by state, and the suburb where I am from, and where my father still lives, Mount Prospect, Illinois is listed, as well as all of the neighboring suburbs (and the project interestingly lists Goshen, Indiana as a town to “transcend its white supremacist past.”) The testimonies on this site make for a haunting narrative. In In Oak Park, Illinois, where so much of my family lived (I think there’s been a Zambreno house there for a century, still standing), “a minister and long-time resident of Villa Park recalled that, ‘In those days, blacks didn’t dare cross Austin Avenue to live in Oak Park.’” The Oak Park page quotes the Wikipedia of the chemist Percy Julian, who invented the birth control pill. His family was one of the first Black families to move to that suburb in 1950, the house being fire-bombed and attacked with dynamite in the first two years. To speak of the creeping mythos of this Midwest, as a concept, it is necessary to situate these suburbs and rural areas as historical, and even quite contemporary zones of white flight, from the increasingly big bad city, of the desire to keep out anyone perceived as outsiders.
There’s an interview I read online with the actor Adam Scott, who was Ben Wyatt in Parks and Recreation and also stars in Severance. And although the fictional spooky town of Kier is not in the Midwest (I think it’s supposed to be upstate New York), but it feels Midwest somehow, maybe because of paranoia,this sense of wanting to keep out anything uncontrolled. In the interview, Scott refers to the “Midwest style of thinking” that he was familiar with, that he sees in the TV show. I guess I’m trying to move from the idea of the atmosphere, the weather, and the landscape, to the style of thinking produced from these forces. Staying at my in-laws’ McMansion in Michigan this summer, I was spooked by the sprawling vertiginous lawns, some still dotted with Trump signs, these suburban enclaves that are aggressively white, upper middle class, and politically conservative, the sense of everything thinking that they are living the good life. We have spoken about the shininess of the bubble, everything so aggressively tamed and controlled, even the lawns. On the man-made beach outside of the man-made lake in my in-law’s exurban subdivision, they have recently dragged all of the seaweed from the lake because it was icky, basically. Better for the children to be able to swim. They put these trip-wire traps for the Canadian geese so they don’t dare shit on the beach. It’s designed to make everything clean, for humans, not about the outside world at all. Isn’t this so beautiful, everyone seemed to say. I wrote to you, when I was staying there, that I realized when I was growing up in the suburbs, we never spoke about forests. There were no forests. There was only the "woods." And the woods was the only wilderness; it was the patch of trees where acts were hidden, where violence or the elicit was possible. We were supposed to be protected from the woods.
SS: Yes, the style of thinking—it has something to do with this protective impulse, a cozy vibe that can reach gargantuan, sinister proportions in the form of miles of sheared-off lawn. Maybe the Midwest is haunted by the strikethrough, by everything that’s been shut out. I’m thinking of Dodie Bellamy’s essay “The Endangered Unruly” here; it’s about the artist Mary Beth Edelman, and opens with the Midwest, with the fact that Bellamy and Edelman grew up six miles apart, in Hammond and East Chicago, Indiana respectively. “Rust Belt Indiana is a place nobody comes from,” Bellamy writes, “and nothing interesting ever happens there.” She’s thrilled to discover an artist from there, from the non-place of her childhood, an artist whose images of naked goddesses Bellamy approaches “with a mixture of excitement and mourning,” because these collages have been struck through, deliberately forgotten by contemporary feminists who are embarrassed by Edelman’s feral, utopian, 1970s spirituality. Bellamy longs for “a kinder, kinkier, crazier, more naïve time, when sex and spirituality and politics were linked, when women painted their bodies and ran around naked together.” I picture these women holding their rituals in the woods, the forbidden woods. Bellamy and Edelman are united by this desire, which seems distinctly Midwestern to me: the craving for an unruliness that’s been outlawed, trimmed, and sanitized, a wildness that struggles for existence in both humans—women especially—and the landscape. (I’m reminded that this is also the core of Rachel Yoder’s novel Nightbitch: the crazed longing for wildness, the incandescent fury of the young mother trapped in suburbia with a young child, doomed to strive for cleanliness, niceness, correctness, forbidden to howl.) Bellamy doesn’t call it Midwestern desire. But she does remark on her “regional affinity” for Mary Beth Edelman, despite their class differences, which she also describes in the essay, how her mother was a part-time janitor while Edelman, a dentist’s daughter, grew up taking Saturday classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She recognizes that there is something Midwestern that links her to Edelman, which she associates with a gruff, down-to-earth attitude and simple tastes. “The intolerance for BS, the sick humor—I imagine she’s impatient, like me, and loves stuffed cabbages.”
Is this a style of thinking? Along with the yearning for the endangered unruly, this impatience and irritation with pretension?
It’s strange to write about the Midwest once you’ve left. There’s frustration with it, but also a feeling that this place, which seems to be so good at protecting itself from the outside, somehow needs protection from the gaze of outsiders. On my recent visit with my mother in Indiana, I stopped at the soda shop where I used to go in college. The place looks the same: chrome surfaces, dark red booths, a glowing ice cream case. I ate a curious lunch of white pita slices served with a dollop of hummus that rested on top of a small pool of pesto. Afterward, I chose a cherry crisp from a selection of thirteen pies. My lunch was okay but the pie was amazing. The cuisine of small Midwestern towns tempts you to live on dessert. I write this down, it’s true, but writing it gives me a twinge of guilt, as if I’m exposing the Midwest as inferior to the coasts: more ignorant, unhealthier, fatter.
KZ: I remember there was a 24-hour Greek diner we would go to for Christmas Eve off the highway that would have these elaborate cases of massive towering cakes. Sometimes that’s the only thing my mother would eat was a piece of cake at a diner, with maybe a bowl of cream soup, several cigarettes and black coffee of course. But my mother wasn’t from the Midwest. She was from the Bronx and then a small town in New Jersey—she grew up working in diners like that, just like me and my half-sister would work in 24-hour diners. The affect of these places, there’s a shorthand, going to one, a pulsating longing for a world I can never really return to, that I don’t fit into anymore, but that will also never leave me. But honestly, I never ate the desserts once I was an adult. Maybe this is the Chicago or Chicago suburban version of such places, not charming like small towns—maybe I have too much knowledge, that the trembling lemon custards and jellied strawberry cheesecakes lived in those swiveling chilled cases forever, they were basically museum pieces. I wonder, thinking of Dodie Bellamy as well, whether we aren’t really talking about the Midwest anymore, or we are, but we’re also talking about class. As you and I have both been traveling out of suitcases, the past weeks, for various reasons, I have been reading all of the English translations of Annie Ernaux, as I just interviewed her last week, and I felt very certain that not only Dodie Bellamy but Annie Ernaux is from our Midwest as well, having grown up working-class in Normandy, her parents having run a grocery store. In an interview with Lauren Elkin, Ernaux says that she experiences these two worlds, that she both feels apart from, spatially, which connects to our conversation, the place she started from, which she experiences as a poverty, in a way, a violence, and the bourgeois tradition of literature in which she wasn’t expected to have a voice. Remembering being a teenager and desiring more than anything not to be pregnant anymore in Happening, the Ernaux narrator desires intensely to be inside literature but feels forever (because of her gender, her class, and the facts of her body) as outside of it. Reading Ernaux’s books on her mother and her father, thinking of my own grandparents, who ran a grocery store on the West Side, of the grocery store clerks and bus drivers who were our next-door neighbors and also family members, I thought that these were somehow books of the Midwest. Even at the event, I was conscious of my un-manicured hands, my zaftig and always sweaty body, my sometimes rough way of being and sense of humor, and of course me not being able to speak any French! And yet, despite us not being able to communicate with each other, I felt Ernaux was somehow one of us, or at least was at one time. In thinking of simplicity as a style, maybe even a style of thinking (or even Ernaux’s plain style that she calls l’écriture plate), I remember, it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I went to a proper, kind of fancy restaurant (in Chicago), and I freaked out. I was so uncomfortable in that space, in those pretensions, and I guess in some way I still am.
SS: Midwestern style is unrefined—defiantly so. But despite the defiance, there’s a persistent sense of inferiority, an envious gaze toward more sophisticated spaces. This complex, prickly yearning radiates through countless “country kid goes to the city” stories, which often involve the kid moving from the middle of the country to the coast (like my mother, Jay Gatsby was from North Dakota). There is a class undertow to this. Yet regional affinity, as Bellamy points out, seeps beyond class lines. I remember when I was a grad student in Madison, Wisconsin, teaching undergraduates in Arabic 101, I asked the class to describe their roommates, and one of my students said her roommate was a coastie. I didn’t know what it meant. The whole class was laughing. I asked them what a coastie was, and they said it was someone from the coasts, east or west, it made no difference. The student who’d first used the word tossed her hair and raised her nose in the air, pantomiming snobbery. I understood that a coastie was someone with money, whose family could afford to pay out-of-state tuition. “But what does a coastie look like?” They answered promptly that coasties were girls with Ugg boots and North Face jackets. “But you’re all wearing that!” I said. They admitted it, the class was full of young women in this Ugg-and-North-Face uniform, they laughed even harder, they clearly had the money to buy these things, but they still weren’t coasties, they lacked the confidence they perceived in people from the coast, a certain worldliness and entitlement, as they saw it. These students were from flyover country and had never left. They couldn’t buy their way out of that; they were rubes even in the right clothes. Later that year some UW students released a “Coastie Song” online that sparked a controversy when people recognized—and this takes me back to the strikethrough—that the term was anti-Semitic.
Despite everything, I feel that pulsating longing you mention, the persistent tug toward long Midwestern streets, the square light of a window in the blurred, foggy night, the lonely edge of town where the gravel gives way to fields. That dismal, threadbare, phosphorescent beauty. Like nowhere else. I realize that everything I’ve described as ugly here is beautiful, that the source of my attachment is the dreariness of the slushy streets, the hostility of the huge, aggressive billboards. The abrupt descent of the weather, the way it refuses you any comfort. Red, frozen fields in the last light. A trancelike feeling of drift, of crossing the dark and empty roads, of having nothing to do, nowhere to go but the mall.
KZ: I am reminded of course of the return to the mall in “Stories of Brown Girlhood,” an object lesson in beauty, in rituals of femininity. The girls at the dormitory, exchanging the same mythical items of clothing. The child narrator walking down the highway to the mall—flaneuse of the interstate! —sifting through sale items, not knowing yet they are out of date and unlovely, sitting there in the food court, as if drawn in by the fluorescent lighting. And yet there’s such beauty here, at least in the language, possibly also a glimpse of the pastoral in the landscape: “At dawn the clouds are lit from below with fiery pink light. Gold pours through the trees, which appear black, like burnt-out torches.” I wasn’t allowed to walk down the sidewalk on the major street to the mall, but I still did, I would sneak out, and find myself, amidst the rows and rows of plastic earrings in the Claire’s boutiques. I also didn’t understand how to dress, or wasn’t given the means to dress myself, and didn’t understand until later on, as an adult, that the girls who wore North Face or Banana Republic in high school, or knew how to roll their brand-name jeans, were the insiders, and I was an outsider, who dressed in clothes my mother laid out for me from Target and Kohl’s, my mother would buy the outfits straight off the mannequin, which were always too loud, too match-y. I know that Marc Auge situates the mall as a non-space, a generic, transitory realm where individuals are anonymized, but I don’t know if I agree that there isn’t a sort of feeling of place, of intimate dwelling, to the mall, at least as an adolescent girl in the eighties and nineties
SS: Maybe the non-space of the mall gives off something of the aura of the Midwest, if the Midwest functions partly as a non-place, so generically American it seems to have no flavor. A place of the generic, of knock-off brands, of genre flailing, where, in Bellamy’s words, nothing interesting ever happens. A place nobody comes from. But we are from there. And so for us there will always be a strange intensity to this place, a bleak beauty to its flatness, a heady melancholy to its gray and windy streets. I can only imagine that others feel it too.