On the bus yesterday, I rode eight hours up from Boston, watching the snow accumulate along the sides of the road. Piles and piles of it, growing along the highway. Here, in Aroostook County, the biggest county east of the Mississippi and the northernmost county of the continental United States, spring is a long way away. I went for a walk today, trying to balance my body on the crust of ice atop the four feet of snow. When I postholed, breaking through the crust to the soft stuff underneath, the snow came above my knee.
It’s beautiful up here. Today, as I walked the sky turned lavender as the wind changed. Even a quarter of a mile into the woods, I could be hundreds of thousands of miles away from the nearest civilization. It feels like I am. I’m writing in a little office, a view out the window of the snow and the pines, but with no idea how I’m going to connect this to the internet. I’m hoping to set up a dial-up internet connection. (If I’m posting it, it’s because I have.) Doing it old school. Cause that’s just how I roll.
This was the point of coming up here. Among the points. Solitude and silence are a writer’s lifeblood. I’m hopeful, given enough time and silence, that I’ll be able to accomplish something extraordinary.
One of things I’ve been reading, or was reading before I came up to the frozen north, was the biographies of Nobel Prize winners on the internet. It’s an odd thing to do, I know. I’ve always been a compulsive prize follower. I back-check Original Screenplay Academy Awards every year the Oscars roll around. When he found me poring over my encylopedia’s list of the Pulitzer Prizes for fiction, my dad said I should rethink my degree in chemical engineering.
There have been only four women writing fiction in English to win the award: Pearl Buck, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, and Doris Lessing. Shockingly, all of them were products of two cultures, the marriage creating a third culture, its own. Pearl Buck was the child of missionaries in China, thrown out by the Boxer Rebellion, and she spent her life writing novels about China and the intersection of Asian culture with the west. Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing were both raised in countries that were not their own—Gordimer in South Africa and Lessing in Iran. They both spent their adult lives wandering, hunting for a home, and interpreting their experiences through their fiction.
Morrison inhabited her own space as an African-American writer, finding that space on either end of the hyphen in the divided word. It’s bold of me to claim that she inherits the assignation of a third culture, but more and more as I read my favorite African-American writers they find that same space where Morrison lives, balancing the demands of their home culture and the alien culture in which they live. That’s the tension that occupies her as a writer. “I don’t belong here,” she says. “I don’t belong anywhere else, so I have to stay here. You can’t tell me this home is mine.”
It’s encouraging for me to look at these writers, and have a moment of recognition. They were successful as writers and as women precisely because they didn’t belong. Precisely because they occupied that place of homelessness. They found that tension and they lived inside of it and they used it to create art. Instead of fighting against the feelings of loneliness, of loss at leaving a place I loved, I can use those feelings to inform my work. The point is to transform the woundedness, to come through it, and to end up on the other side in great joy.
As Toni Morrison herself so eloquently said, "My project rises from delight, not disappointment."