LITERATURE of PLACE

Events take place.
  —N. Scott Momaday

Northern State Hospital, Sedro-Woolley, WA. Photo by the author.

A Note from the Author

Scott Russell Sanders suggests that stories are maps, helping us understand how "the geography of mind adheres to the geography of the earth." He speaks of literature of inhabitation, in which the writer’s work is to inscribe a place with stories.

 

"The surest way of convincing your neighbors that they, too, live in a place that matters," Sanders writes, "is to give them honest and skillful writing about your mutual home."

The irony of modern culture is that our desire to connect with one another through literature—even the necessity of marketing our work so we might share it—often leads us to disembodied cyberspace and away from incarnation, in which we live with our feet on the ground and our eyes upon the actual world where we are planted. Barry Lopez, in his essay on literature and place, bids us to go even deeper than merely observing our surroundings. He invites us into what he calls a "storied" relationship to a place.

Some books, some poems, are “place-ier” than others. These works evoke a particular city or geography, ineluctably; their words are infused with the mood of that land, be it that of the author’s provenance, or just somewhere that lives powerfully within her mind.
                                                                         
Jennifer R. Bernstein

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As fiction writers, we don't merely write about a world, we create a world. Robert Pogue Harrison tells us that without logos (word), there is no place, only habitat. No domus (home), only niche. No dwelling, only subsisting. "In short," he says, "logos is that which opens the human abode on the earth."

Surely the natural world doesn't need words to exist. But humans need our stories. We live by stories, which help us move through the world in a meaningful, caring way. Literature of place is a matter of kinship. I hope, in my own work, to transcend the notion of "setting," to reveal a landscape that moves, breathes, suffers. To leave the reader with an abiding sense that the story could not have occurred in any other place. The people, the events, the landscape—the place as a whole—are inextricably woven together.

Some years ago, I attended a small gathering led by Dan Allender on the theology of place and identity. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Not the name of the town where you were born, I mean. You're from smell, from sound. From blowing wind or rolling trash or TV dinners or barren, logged foothills. From the scent of creosote or perhaps the shadow a high rise. You don't have a story—you are a story."

I am from many places. My younger years in southern California led to a fascination with Spanish colonial history, research which drew me to the mission ruins of Baja California. Over several years I traveled with a biologist and herpetologist who showed me what I might have otherwise missed in my study: the particulars of cacti and desert trees and birds and snakes, the geological forms of a place that looks dead to the eye—yet can suddenly surprise with tiny, exquisite signs of life for one who is willing to get down on her knees and look closer.

For the last three decades I've lived in rainy Washington State. You might say I'm now from moss-covered trees, railroad crossings with faded signs displaying long-forgotten town names, tulip fields that bloom with snow geese in the winter, low clouds, and an abandoned mental asylum with brambles climbing into broken windows where patients once longed to climb out. It's an overshadowed and misty place, but still I remain fascinated with the literal and metaphorical desert places in our lives.

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