james c. mckinley jr

Having a Heart, Being Alive

The thing about the Midwest is that is is a place millions of people call home. The Midwest is not a punch line for smug jokes about backwards places. I was born in Nebraska. I have lived most of my life in the Midwest. I have spent the past eleven years living in rural America. I have been largely miserable living in rural America because, as a black woman, it can be really difficult to live in a place where you are the only one, or one of a few people who look like you. 

But, I’ve also made these places my home. I didn’t have a choice. Wherever you live, there you are. In my field, you go where the work is. Or graduate school. Or the boyfriend or girlfriend. Whatever. Right now, Indiana, where I live, is a mess with this religious freedom law that has been passed. Anytime we see legislation like this in the Midwest, people act like bigotry is unique to the center of America. It is not. Racism, homophobia,transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, whatever the hatred, it exists everywhere. Proposition 8 happened in California. In the Midwest, and perhaps the South, people are simply more open about how they really feel.

The Midwest, however, is not defined by ignorance. It has been wonderful to see the force of the backlash against SB 101 from the Republican mayor of Indianapolis, NASCAR, the NCAA, and corporations and other cities across the country. I don’t know what’s going to happen but it’s good to know that this intolerance won’t be swallowed quietly.

I don’t really want to live in Indiana, particularly in light of this legislation but those who know me also know something far stronger is pulling me elsewhere. Let’s call it gravity. In academia, you don’t just pick up and leave. I wouldn’t do that to my students, my colleagues, so I know I will live there for at least another year. I know gravity will probably have me living there for a while longer, until it decides what to do with me. Or until I decide, goddamnit, I am coming to you, sunshine. Get ready.

For now, though, I live in Indiana and I will always be from the Midwest. I have one foot in that state I don’t particularly love, where I have no choice but to call home and one foot in the rest of the world with all the travel I am lucky enough to do. I see your jokes and your snark and your boycotts and the way you dismiss the lives of so many. I wonder if you realize that you’re talking about actual people, many of whom love where they live, many of whom don’t stand for intolerance any more than you do. Maybe a boycott will work because the people who support this kind of legislation and have the power to change it are generally ruled by the bottom line. Disdain, however, probably accomplishes far less.

I am a fiction writer who stumbled into writing nonfiction. Though I had written a handful of essays as a younger writer, I spent most of my time writing stories and trying to lose myself in the lives of imaginary others. I immersed myself in fiction because I had developed a practiced apathy toward the world. Everything was a mess and writing about that mess certainly wouldn’t change it. I also resented how as a woman, it seemed like to write nonfiction, I had to savage my own life to find stories people would be willing to hear. I wanted to keep my stories to myself. 

In 2010 a young girl was gang raped in Cleveland, Texas and in March 2011, James C. McKinley Jr. of The New York Times wrote an article about the poor town, and how this crime had affected its citizens. “It’s just destroyed our community,” one woman was quoted as saying. The article was so tone-deaf it managed to both worry over a town and try to place blame on the victim. In a flush of emotion, I wrote an essay called “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence.” Apathy was no longer acceptable. 

As an essayist, I think about what the essay should do. In writing on this craft, many refer back to Montaigne, his essais, his attempts, how he tried. “I am myself the matter of my book,” Montaigne explained. When he wrote, Montaigne drew from his own life exhaustively, exploring himself. He did so without apology.

When I began to write more essays, I had to think carefully about the choices I would make in exploring myself. What parts of my life was I willing to expose? What parts of my life was I willing to share? I didn’t want to simply bare my pain and have that be enough. At the same time, I was tired of carrying my past around, unexamined. 

Why do these explorations of myself matter? How do I make them matter? How do I make my words more than catharsis, more than mere excavations of pain? 

I’m still finding my way to the answers to these questions. 

There is never going to be a universally satisfying answer to these questions. 

That’s okay. I read the work of other essayists because I love learning, through their words, how they answer these questions. 

In my own work, I am finding answers that satisfy me. I think about the women I meet when I am doing events. No matter where I am, women thank me for talking openly about sexual violence, being a woman, being fat and the challenges this poses in a world that has nothing but disgust for unruly bodies, for being flawed, having a heart, being alive. They thank me for telling the stories they are not yet ready to tell. Sometimes, it’s teenagers. Sometimes it is women in their twenties or thirties. Sometimes, it’s a woman in her sixties who is just now finding the strength to face her past. Sometimes, they are crying or their eyes are red. Their voices shake or they grab my hand or they speak very quietly. I do my best to hear them, to be present in those moments for them, for me. I recognize that they want to be seen and I see them.

I am struck by the overwhelming number of women who have endured one thing or another. I am struck by the many violences to which women are subjected and how deeply those violences can reach. (Is this where I say, not all women?) I see in them what I see in myself when I sit down to write–someone looking for a way to reach out and be reminded that they are not alone, they are not solely defined by the lesser days of their lives.