As a writer, I have always been preoccupied by place and why it matters. What does it mean to be from somewhere, I ask my students, both my American lit students and my writers. In American lit, we are looking predominantly at what it means to be called an American writer–what, if anything, distinguishes AMERICAN literature?
Russell Banks says there are two things that separate American literature from all the rest: race and space.
I’m inclined to agree.
So as we take up our exploration of American literature, we think about those two concepts of race and space and see how they influence the writers and texts we study together.Pretty much immediately, the issue of race becomes clear — first, as a matter of omission –(In Thomas Paine’s “The American Crisis,” Paine writes: “Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth…” My students are rightly indignant. How,they ask, can the colonists compare their situation to slavery? And how, they want to know, can Paine and others call for freedom when there are already enslaved Africans on American soil? — and later, as we read Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and then The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, race as a central theme in American literature is plainly evident.
Currently, we are reading Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!. In this story of Alexandra Bergson and her family, homesteaders on the Nebraska plain, the part of land known in the novel as the Divide, the concept of space becomes clear. The land is as much a character as the humans who inhabit it, try to tame it, cultivate it. So for their journal assignment, I’m asking my students to consider their own relationship to place/space/land. What does it mean to be from someplace, I ask them? Where are you from? How does that influence who you are?
I ask them, what does it mean to be a Virginian (if, indeed, they are)? A Southerner?
To provoke them — I quote Scott Russell Sanders in his book Staying Put: Making Home in a Restless World: “To become intimate with your home region, to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into the local life does not prevention you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places if you don’t have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet.” I ask my students, what do you think of this? Do you agree w/ Sanders? Why or why not?
I am only coming to a deeper understanding and appreciation of Sanders’ words as I grow older, and maybe also as I watch my students and other young people I know become less tuned in to the natural world, less comfortable navigating via landmarks instead of GPS, less able to orient themselves in their immediate surroundings. I am alarmed every time I teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I ask the question, where are Huck and Jim headed on the Mississippi? And I get answers like Connecticut, California, Massachusetts — and this from high school juniors in a Governor’s School, dual enrollment students in my college-credit class.
And in Fiction II, when I teach Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, we have to spend a little time on first finding Morocco on a map, then discussing how it is that Lalami’s characters can go from Morocco to Spain, what body of water they are crossing, why it is that these characters want to leave Morocco in the first place. We talk about the Arabic words, the Muslim religion, and why some of the characters speak French.
I lament the loss of geography as a school subject — even the memorizing of state capitals, the drawing of maps. In our technological world, I’m afraid that maps will become a lost art, and I fear the repercussions.
So, as a writer and teacher of writing, I am constantly trying to reinforce that place matters, that where our characters come from will deeply influence their actions, the way they see the world and move in it.
And Just the other day, I had a discovery. I took an exercise from the book Now Write! Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers, Sherry Ellis, ed. (you can check out or buy the book here) . I adapted Geoffrey Becker’s exercise, “A Very, Very Long Sentence” in which he asks readers to write a 250-word sentence that begins “On a Friday night in _______________ .” I routinely ask my students, usually the beginners, the freshmen, usually at the beginning of the year, when we’re writing nonfiction, to write down that phrase, “On a Friday night in ___________ ” and to fill the blank with the name of their hometown. Then I say, we’re going to write for 10 minutes. I set the timer. Your job, I tell them, is to write one continuous sentence for 10 minutes. Try not to write a run-on. Try to let the details emerge so we get a sense of your hometown on a Friday night. And then we go. At the end, when they share, the results are always worthwhile, often surprising, usually vibrantly alive.
But my revelation was this: I could use this exercise in fiction too. I could use it for students to explore their characters, to help determine what it means to their characters to be from somewhere. And I realized that I could use it for a variety of nonfiction projects. If I needed more place details, I could pull out this exercise and go. I could vary it up — Friday night, Sunday morning, Saturday afternoon. I could see what details emerge. Try it. See what you come up with.