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The Place of Place in Our Writings

Joyce Carol Oates gives an acceptance speech at the opening of the Jerusalem International Book Forum on receiving the Jerusalem Prize on May 12. Image: Porter Anderson

To Start in a ‘Nowhere Place’

Overnight, we’ve had news from Wales of the win by Guy Gunaratne of the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize [1] for writers 39 or younger. Gunaratne’s debut novel, which also was longlisted for the Booker, is In Our Mad and Furious City [2]. In the States, it’s published by Macmillan/FSG.

And in his comments on winning the award, which carries a purse of US$38,347, Gunaratne made an intersting point about place–his own place, in a sense, and where it lies in his work. His reference to Neasden is about the northwest London suburb in which he grew up. He said:

“After winning this prize, my mind really just goes to all the other writers, or aspiring writers, who are writing from a place similar to where I began. A place like Neasden, somewhere I always thought was a nowhere place. But to make art out of the world, the language, the voices I grew up around I always felt was important. That’s all I tried to do with this book.”

The book’s politically charged story is set in northwest London and has to do with young members of minorities in London’s vast, swirling mix of so much glorious diversity–a reality sorely strained by the Brexitian bigotry that grips the UK–and the European Union with it–with unresolved hostility.

And I was struck in Gunaratne’s remarks with his concept of his home turf, his calling it “a nowhere place.” That’s familiar to many of us. My own childhood haunts in the Methodist backwaters of my father’s ministerial career seemed (and still do) like very nowhere places.

What’s impressive to me now, in looking at his book, is that he found a way deep enough into the “nowhere-ness” of his background to realize that it seemed to be right where his work needed to land: it reflects today’s struggles in which whole populations in some of the most advanced places on Earth–London, for God’s sake–feel that they’re growing up “nowhere.”

It takes a lot of perspective to get to that. You have to climb way up into the tree of your own personality to get a high enough view. It’s not easy to see your own milieu for how it might resonate with others. Granted, there can be many complex emotional and psychological reasons to write, or not, about your background, your origination, “your people,” and so on.

I once bought a large, arresting photo for my mantelpiece by a gifted artist named Timothy Sellers once. Its title is “You Will Be Found in the Place Where You Were Born” and it’s a fleeting self-portrait, the artist sighted, vulnerable for an instant, in a dense tropical greenhouse environment, an organic entity spotted on the way to some kind of unavoidable, entropic appointment.

Maybe the right question isn’t whether we can ever go home again, Mr. Wolfe, but whether we can ever really get away.

Joyce in Jerusalem

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

As a provocation today, I’ll tell you about something that would seem to be another author’s long, successful flight from home for tremendous accolades–and how tightly she held onto “the place where she was born” when she got there.

Joyce Carol Oates was given the Jerusalem Prize for literature at the opening of the Jerusalem International Book Forum on Sunday evening (May 12), feted with lavish appraisals of her work and music of Mozart, his 15th quartet. And it was striking to see Oates at the podium, standing in the temple-like interior of the auditorium there in Israel, giving an acceptance speech about discovering reading as a child in Lockport, New York.

Her main influence–in fact, the only family member who knew books or culture and who could have gotten her to a library–was her paternal grandmother, Blanche. Oates credits Blanche’s generosity and care in introducing her to reading–and giving her an Olivetti typewriter at age 14. As Oates had some early successes in school with her writing, her grandmother’s comment, she told us in Jerusalem, was one many of us heard from such steadfast mentors in our earlier years: “I knew you could do it.”

After Blanche died, Oates learned that her grandmother had concealed a Jewish background. The trauma of what had brought the family to the States, of course, was enough to make many hide it. But in a peculiar turn of events, Oates had grown up without any real contact with the Jewish element, however subtle, in her own backround.

And yet there she was, standing before us. The mayor of Jerusalem made an eloquent statement (“King David wrote the Psalms here, David Grossman is still writing here”), and then turned to hand Oates this major literary honor from another nation. There were hundreds of people in the house to hear her speak, the place was absolutely packed–and it was her first trip to Israel, at age 80.

The award ceremony, like the conference, was held at the Jerusalem YMCA. Hardly your Village People video, the Young Men’s Christian Association in Jerusalem is a stunning landmark, an opulent, towering complex directly across the street from the stately King David Hotel.

What had happend to place in this instance? Oates, so far from the place she’d been born, thousands of miles from Niagara County, stood onstage in the heart of Israel tossing off an intriguing line about her childhood devotion to reading: “When I was little,” she said, “my ambition was to grow up to be a book, not a writer.”

And Oates talked of how events in Europe, “so terrible,” may have “compelled my ancestors” to seek life in the New World and then to live, as her grandmother Blanche, apparently had done, without history–”not only Jewish history but any history.”

Place erased.

Joyce Carol Oates had journeying not to a spot she knew but to an ethos–a national honor embraced in faith–that may have prompted a grandmother to send her to piano lessons and encourage her to write, to be the person she is in the place we have always found her, in those books she wanted to be.

And so I’ll ask you: Do you “know your place,” as we say?–usually that’s a derogatory comment, but it doesn’t have to be. What does place mean in your work? If you were “found in the place where you were born,” where would it be? How far from a place has your writing taken you? Or how close? And what does it mean to your stories when you get there?

At the Jerusalem YMCA, May 12. Image: Porter Anderson

About Porter Anderson [3]

@Porter_Anderson [4] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [5], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [6] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [7]