A reflection on AWP 15′s panel, “Telling Stories About Your Hometown”
–by Carmen Bryant
Moderator and writer Rene Steinke began the 2015 AWP Conference Panel, “Telling Stories About Your Hometown,” with fellow authors, Eric May, Christine Rice, and David Grant, by announcing, “Some writers choose to embrace their hometown and others run away from it.” The work of Eric May celebrates the culture and the landscape of Chicago. During his reading from his novel Bedrock Faith, one was taken immediately to traveling Highway I57 in Chicago and into the city’s Southside. Christine Rice steered the audience in a different direction reading a selection from Swarm Theory, which tells the story of a boy in Flint, Michigan, trying to help an injured dog near some railroad tracks. The boy walks past “iron gates with paint peeling” and the old Capital Theater, which reflects the condition of the city after the GM plant leaves.
David Grant is an author who prefers to distance himself from his city of Los Angeles. His book Mount Terminus is set during a time many are not familiar with, 25 years before talking pictures. It’s intentionally devoid of the colors and noises associated with the Hollywood of today. This led to an important question about place: “how do you disentangle what you know about a place, the people, or the characters?”
The writers approached this question by identifying different details in a story that can be changed to give the writer more creative freedom. In May’s Bedrock Faith, the all-black neighborhood of Parklane is a fictional place, but he references other historic neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southside, like Morgan Park which is also mentioned in Loraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun. Rene Steinke’s book Friendship is set in a town that is polluted by toxic waste, which greatly impacts the health of families in the small Texas town. The events that happen are based on real events, such as the EPA denying for ten years that there was anything for the inhabitants of the town to worry about. However, Steinke changes the names of the people and the oil company to let the story and characters have a life of their own. When asked what particular memory or imagery inspired their stories? The writers answered with varied pictures of home. Christine Rice draws from the memories of Flint Michigan– the image of train tracks, the pullout of GM, and the escalated crime in the city. The memory of riding a bike through oil fields and seeing florescent fish helped Rene Steinke to go back to events in Friendship. The rituals of a Sunday afternoon, Morgan Park, and freight trains are what brought Eric May to the rhythm and voice of the characters in his Chicago story. Images of hiking in the mountains and silent films were significant for David Grant in creating his alternate version of L.A. in Mount Terminus.
Whether or not the intention was to embrace fully one’s hometown as the driving force of the story, it was evident that the people, sites, and sounds of their hometowns affected the work of all the panelists.
Carmen Bryant is a graduate of Chatham’s MFA in Creative Writing Fiction program. Her work reflects her Southern roots taking scenes from rural Arkansas roads to the urban streets of Atlanta. She currently resides in Phoenix, Arizona.