There’s something uncanny about seeing a place near home represented between the covers of a book, whether it’s your hometown, region, current city, or even as broad as your country. You’re almost incredulous to see it named explicitly, as though the writer could not possibly have meant the same place that you lived. But then, as you see it depicted, not only faithfully, but with a keen sense of insight from the writer, you recognize it (as only an insider can), and you know the writer could not have meant any place but here. Then again, it seems strange — not quite real — to see your home in print, especially if it’s only a small city, or a virtually unheard of rural region.
I was reminded of this as I’ve been moving my books into my new home office, and rearranging them on the shelves. It happened that my Canadian literature (“Canlit”) found a place around eye-level near my desk. And so I’ve been looking at it a lot lately.
For me, Canlit offers that keen sense of home that other literature cannot.
I’ve lived in the USA, and recognized some of the regions there that I’ve read about. But the red rocks of southern Utah, the desert of Arizona, are entirely foreign places to me. I’ve been on a literary study abroad to the UK, where I visited the (mainly British) literary landmarks that have been part of my imagination for a long time. I hiked the moors of the Bronte sisters, took a boat in Arthur Ransom’s Lake District. Some of these places felt almost familiar: the natural world around me strangely reminded me of where I grew up in Canada (we share some of the same flora and fauna . . . I even saw a flock of Canada geese while there!). But it was utterly new to many of my American fellow travelers.
While on that study abroad, I happened to discover that the owner of a small bookshop near the rural hostel where we were staying, also taught at one of the near-by universities. When I casually asked — as I was buying my books — what he taught, he told me Canadian literature. There was an immediate connection, not only because I was proudly Canadian (and you’re never more aware of your nationality when you’re living or else traveling in a different country, and I was doing both: a Canadian, living in the USA, on a study abroad in the UK with a few dozen Americans). I’d also studied Canadian literature in my undergrad. When I stepped out of that bookshop, I was elated beyond belief to have found a sense of home, halfway across the world in this home away from home.
But the UK wasn’t really “home” for me. I was only there for two months after all, and traveling considerably at that, often only staying a day or two in any given hostel.
I was later asked by one of my professors what it had added to my reading experience to visit the literary landmarks of the places I’d read about in the UK. I wasn’t sure that I could substantiate it as a critical response. But what was the more profound experience, I think, was to find those unexpected recognitions of home.
How much more so in a literature of your own.
The other day, mid-organizing my shelves of books, I decided I would read a Canlit book. After all, this was my own literature, and it had been awhile since I had picked one up. I chose a book that I’d not read before, but knew from my quick perusal of it when I saw it at a local library book sale, that it was about the current city I’m living in.
As I opened it up and began to read, I recognized not only the city, but particular parts of it as well. And while the book was written over half a century ago, I still could recognize the religious and linguistic characteristics that the writer so poignantly identified. And, like being asked by my professor that unanswerable question, I still do not know why literature in which I recognized home gratified me so much.
Was it because I could say Yes, yes that’s how it is?
Or is it something deeper than that?
As I reflect now, I was asked that question, not as a literary student, but as a creative writer. As a reader, I am in a way visiting a place (sometimes for a long, extended visit, where I feel entirely welcome; but still, I am after all just visiting); as a writer, I’m living in it.
When I see home depicted in fiction, I am living it a second time. And perhaps this keen recognition of home touches the writer in me. I see a place depicted that, to me, is the norm. Ordinary. And yet, it’s written in an extraordinary way: aspects of culture summed up in sweepingly beautiful prose, concise and accurate.
And someone thought it was worthwhile writing about, and were talented enough to do so beautifully, insightfully. Maybe it touches so close to home when I see home depicted — whether as broad as my own country, or as near as a close neighbourhood — because I realize that I could be writing about this place, too.
Question: What is it about reading your own place in literature that is so deeply gratifying?
I’m glad I stopped by for this post, after having missed so many. I’m halfway through writing a flash fiction piece right now, marking the first time I have ever explicitly mentioned Edmonton (being a place I have lived near and sometimes in for most of my life), or any specific worldly location, for that matter. My initial thoughs were: can I write that? It feels like something somebody else would write about. My own perceptions likely differ so much from that of others’. I felt a sort of reverence in not wanting to treat the subject with my own prejudices let loose, lest I portray an Edmonton that wasn’t really Edmonton at all, or that might fail to connect with local readership (or perhaps worse, paint a blackened picture of the place for somebody unaccustomed to its inherent light, either). In spite of these initial misgivings, I reminded myself that my perspective has inherent value when well expressed, and it is the individual nature of my perspective that can make this type of writing interesting to read. I pictured myself sharing the flash fiction with my local writer friends and considering how they might react. Upon reflection, I decided that delving into the world of another person’s perception of one’s home is a sort of fantasy. I believe good fantasy joins great relatability with great imagination, and reading about home is one way to achieve that, given that the setting is automatically relatable, and that experiencing somebody else’s honest perspective is an imaginative exercise. Ultimately, as a writer, I feel responsibility and vulnerability in writing about home, but I acknowledge that any writing requires responsibility and vulnerability in some manner.
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I’m so glad you stopped by for this post, too! Any time you’re able, I’m happy that you can! 🙂 How interesting that you’re in the process of writing about place in fiction. The questions you asked yourself resonated with me. I liked particularly to hear about your vulnerability in writing about place, and the hesitation in doing so, and ultimately, your resolve to do it anyhow, knowing that your unique perspective has inherent worth. After all, that’s what all the best writers do: write from their own, unique perspective — the way they see things — regardless of whether it’s different from what others see (and it often is). And how realistic, the envisioning of your writer group reading it. Some of the most difficult pieces I’ve shared with others are ones in which the readers had some inside knowledge of the subject, knowing that they might see it totally different than I did. I like what you wrote about fantasy: I had never thought about that in relation to writing / reading about place, but it totally makes sense. All in all, you’ve given me a lot to think about with my own writing. Thank you for commenting, and sharing your own particular writing and thinking process!
Heather, I was struck by this recent blog entry because when I am in a place where something that I had read about happened, I look to see if it looked how I had imagined it. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but what a great treat to be there and experience the place even as had the author. So, this response was really motivated by what you said about what it had added to your reading experience.
“I was… asked… what it had added to my reading experience to visit the literary landmarks of the places I’d read about…. I wasn’t sure that I could substantiate it as a critical response. But what was the more profound experience, I think, was to find those unexpected recognitions of home.”
The having been there experience added everything: place, feel, colour, context, and a gut-level relationship with the author among other things. When in Paris a year or so ago, we stayed in a quintessential french flat overlooking a large round-about street junction. There was a bistro-bar on the other side of the street, and a bakery just down the block. From this vantage point, I relived many books that I had read that were set in Paris and the feel of the story came back to me in many cases, not the least of which was Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”. The Bastille is not there now but when you look upon the area where it used to be, There it is.
I recall reading a John Irving novel some time ago, where he was describing the area around Lonsdale Avenue between Spadina and Young Street in Toronto. It is an area where I grew through my pre-teen and teen years. I felt like I was home. His description felt just like “how it was”. When I drive through there now, it seems so much smaller somehow. Elizabeth Hay in her recent novel “His Whole Life” struck a very gut-level chord with me when she described the cottage area where the characters spent a good deal of their time. I could close my eyes and see exactly what it would look like, smell like and feel like. My own cottage experiences took me there to “the unexpected recognitions of home”.
Thanks for taking me “back there” for a while today when I do really know that “there is no there there”, or is there?
My thoughts, UJ
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Hi UJ! I previously had written the first half of a fairly substantial response to you when I left my computer and, coming back, found it had been inadvertently deleted! I’m returning to re-writing it, finally. And while I think that sometimes the first writing is the best, I’ll try my hand a second time. 🙂
First of all, I’m so glad that you enjoyed the post and that it resonated so much with you! I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote when you said, “The having been there experience added everything . . .” Difficult, still, for me to describe, but I think you did it nicely when you said you felt a “gut-level relationship” with the writer. Something you said in passing also struck me, and that is how when you visit a place, you looked to see if things were as you’d imagined them to be. I think that’s one of those things that occurs whether we’re conscious of it or not, and the trick is to be conscious of those similarities (but perhaps especially differences).
What a treat that you were able to re-live some of your reading while in Paris! I wonder how it would be to re-read some of those books now . . . would you have the flat you stayed in somehow imprinted in your mind?
If I could answer the question again from my professors, I probably would talk more about how my experience of a place either lined up with or was different from my imagination while reading. And, as I write this, I wonder if that reading imagining would change when coming back to it, now. (I don’t think I can read Thomas Hardy’s novels, now, without recalling some of the rural landscape we travelled to.)
I don’t know if there is a “back there,” as perception always seems to be changing. But I’m glad you were able to relive some of those reading moments, and that you shared them here. Thanks for your comment!
If it’s historical fiction set, say, in my hometown of Pensacola, Florida, I thrill to the discovery of “what used to be” and the people who developed and created the little northwest Florida city I loved and knew so well. For example, Dorothy Walton, the widow of one of the Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence, once lived in the old section of town about the time that Andrew Jackson was territorial governor. Later, I found the house, as well as the tombstone for her grave in old St. Michael’s Cemetery across town. Other readings told the stories of early Spanish settlers whose names reside as street names downtown; I was almost startled to realize that these names had been real, live people in the 1500s-1700s. I could go on and on. Now, stories of old Seattle, Chief Se-attle, the origin of Pioneer Square and the first settlement on Alki Point intrigue me as much.
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That’s so neat about finding the intersections between what you read in historical fiction, and then discovering some of those landmarks — the house, the tombstone — in your own town. The closest I’ve done that to “home” was in connection with family history research, and finding the old homes, churches, and tombstones of ancestors. It somehow allows the past to come alive in a way that’s difficult to describe. That’s neat about the street names, too. I’ve often thought of doing the reverse, and looking up some of street names in my city that have names of people I’m unfamiliar with to find out who they were and why significant. Thanks for your comment!
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I haven’t read MANY books from my home state, except Children’s Literature, for example, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elizabeth Enright, Carol Ryrie Brink (her family was from WI), and for an adult writer, a bit of Aldo Leopold. I tend to go by state more than the whole of USA since it’s so big. I feel like I enjoyed L.M. Montgomery’s writing so much more after having stayed on PEI for a week and a half. I do agree that having visited a place, or being familiar with it in a small way, makes the literature come alive. I even had the experience of taking a reenactment 18th century women’s clothing class with my oldest. We made garments authentic to the period, sewing many of them BY HAND, which they would have also done. Anyway, what does this have to do with books? 😉 Well, I found myself understanding so many more things in books I would read about women’s class division, duties of women, and the clothing and tools of that era. It was AMAZING. Visiting a location or a time period or somehow being immersed in the actual environment does add so much.
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That sounds like a substantial reading of “home” to me, Amy! 🙂 And I totally agree about the US is so big, it’s best to go by state . . . Canada is similar in that way, though could perhaps be grouped more by region than province, depending. A huge indicator of the difference regions here is based on the differing landscapes . . . and the weather! I’m glad you brought up about PEI – it’s one of the most true-to-life places I’ve read about and then visited. That’s so neat about reenactment of making the clothing by hand, and your added appreciation now while reading, knowing the amount of work it is, what it entails. I wonder if there are other similar immersive experiences that could enhance the experience of reading in a similar way? I’m going to have to think on that! Thanks so much for commenting, Amy! (And if this huge winter storm has hit where you are in Wisconsin, I hope you are weathering it well!)
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