Voices of the Middle West

Ann Arbor is a Lit town. I knew this in 2012 when I found myself at a farm on the outskirts of town listening Tracy K. Smith read from her Pulitzer Prize winning poetry collection Life On Mars. I knew this when, a month later, I found myself playing soccer with British novelist David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2004. I will know this once again when I sit in Literati’s tiny upstairs reading room, listening to Stuart Dybek read from his short story collections and talk about writing in the Midwest. 

Dybek comes to Ann Arbor, with a number of other top-shelf writers, as a part of this year’s Voices of the Middle West—a festival celebrating writers, independent presses, and lit journals that consider the Midwest their home. I had a chance to sit down with Robert James Russell, Michigan native, author, and co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic (proud host of the event) to discuss the festival and Midwest literature.  

You must be excited to have Stuart Dybek as the keynote speaker. How did you arrange it?  

Absolutely! Not only is he a personal literary hero, but he so perfectly represents the Midwest voice—it’s going to be an absolutely joy getting to hear him talk about the Midwest, our literary traditions, and to hear him read from his work, too. After the success of our inaugural Voices of the Middle West festival in 2014, we thought hard about who wanted as a follow-up keynote, and Stuart came to mind. So I reached out, we chatted a bit about everything, and he graciously accepted.

Who else are you especially excited to have on the bill this year?

I’m going to cheat a bit and say all of our panelists—collectively, we spent a lot of time putting together the panels this year, and I think it shows. I mean, Matt Bell, Laura Kasischke, Alissa Nutting and Anne Valente discussing Fabulism in the Midwest? Yes, please. Caitlin Horrocks, C.J. Hribal, and Marcus Wicker talking about using the uniqueness of the Midwest as a setting in their work? Really can’t wait. We ramped for our publisher panel, too, with some great minds of the industry coming to talk about gender parity in publishing.

We also expanded the bookfair a bit. In addition to return favorites Dzanc Books, Curbside Splendor, Hobart and Ninth Letter, we’ll be joined this year by Graywolf Press, Cream City Review, Two Dollar Radio, Iowa Review and many, many others.  

A lot of Southern Literature points at mysterious, ironic occurrences and misfit, oddball characters to explore Southern values. How do you characterize Midwestern Literature?

I think we share some of those characteristics, but I think the major difference in the Midwest is how quiet we keep, oftentimes keeping to ourselves. We do have characters here, obviously, and we have unique histories and mythologies (birthplace of the automobile, birthplace of the modern assembly line, etc.) that informs a great deal about our lifestyles and, ultimately, our art. We also have an earnestness to us, a genuineness that you don’t see in many other regions. You end up seeing a lot of down-on-their-luck characters in Midwestern literature, honest folks who struggle to make ends meet. There’s a history of blue collar-ness here that lends itself to literature. Folks who hold onto anger that sometimes, after much provocation, explodes; folks trying to hold onto their lives, their families, their land; stories drenched in nature, in living on the fringes.

In an article in The Chicago Tribune you say, “We keep people at a distance and they, in turn, see what they want to: farmers, blue-collared laborers, brooding bucolics removed from the goings-on of the world.” Do you sense an us-versus-them mentality in Midwestern Literature? Is Midwestern Lit hard to access if you’re not from here? 

I do sense an us-versus-them mentality, mostly because for so long that’s how we’ve been viewed when it comes to literature—we have writers and poets who have “made it,” absolutely, but so often they end up in New York or Los Angeles (etc.), and not necessarily affiliated with the Midwest any longer (at least, no one really asked them about it). Of course there are exceptions—Jim Harrison, for example, who wrote about Michigan even when he wasn’t living here—but for a long time, we were farmland, we were flyover states, so no one really paid attention to our uniqueness, our mythologies and histories and how they informed our one-of-a-kind literature. We do not have the glitz and glam of the coasts, sure, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything worth talking about. And I don’t think it’s hard to access—in fact, I’d wager what Midwestern literature often delves into—again: family, maintaining stability, getting by, etc.—are things everyone can relate to in some way, whether they’re from here or not.

Is there a Midwest Lit renaissance happening right now?

Yes, absolutely. People are seeing these stories about the “ugly” side of life, stories about the everyday, about struggling folks, and they’re embracing them. Never before have I been prouder to be a Midwesterner, and never before have I seen so much of us out there in the literary consciousness. 

Voices of the Middle West, Free, Friday, March 20, Stuart Dybek at Literati Bookstore, 6-8pm, Saturday, March 21, symposium, 10:00am-6:00pm, East Quadrangle 701 East University Ave. Ann Arbor. midwestgothic.com/voices/

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