“Southern” conjures up certain images and characteristics in my mind. Same goes for the West Coast, Upper Northwest, Southwest, New York, and New England. But what about the Midwest?
Since I’m a current fiction contributor in the literary magazine Midwestern Gothic, they highlighted me with an interview last week. The questions they asked, and my answers, made me think about the Midwest and what it means to be Midwestern.
As I told the magazine, I’m 100% a Midwestern gal, and everything I write takes place in Chicago
(usually the North Shore suburbs), St. Louis, or Minnesota. Yet, I don’t know what “Midwestern” means beyond the facts of where I’ve lived and where my imagination resides. I worry that my characters may suffer for it.
Two years ago when one of my completed novels made the agent rounds, I got some eye-opening feedback from an agent on the West Coast. She liked the novel enough to go back and forth with me on some revisions, but she one of the issues that stuck out for her was one I wasn’t sure how to handle. She didn’t find it realistic that my main character’s mother, being from the Midwest, would have cared so much about organic food and healthy living as far back as the 80s. (This is the mother in my story “A Fresh Life,” recently published by Midwestern Gothic.) We spoke about it on the phone, and the agent was stuck on this problem of a Midwestern woman having what the agent felt was a West Coast attitude about food.
I bring up that example to highlight an issue Midwestern writers creating Midwestern characters may face from time to time. Is our region known for certain qualities that we can translate into fictional characters? It’s not like we want to create stock, clichéd characters like some other regional writers may be tempted to do. The “Southern belle” comes to mind. The New Yorker who wears black all the time and doesn’t smile at people in the street. Obviously as writers we all want to get beyond surface generalizations. Nevertheless, my character from the suburbs of Chicago who cares about the chemicals in her food in the 80s felt implausible enough to the agent I mentioned earlier to render the entire character unbelievable.
As a side note, I sometimes wonder if my “Jewish identity” complicates my ability to define what makes me “Midwestern.” People I meet in Minnesota sometimes assume I’m from the East Coast. Is that because I have dark hair, talk fast, and say “oy vey” all the time? I’ve visited plenty of cities around the country and the world, but I’ve only lived in the Midwest. I suppose my ultimate issue now as a Midwestern writer is that I have a strong sense of place, but not a strong sense of “peoplehood” other than my sense of Jewish “peoplehood.” Maybe that’s why my main characters are always Jewish.