What the “Midwest” Means (Essay Daily)

A new piece from Essay Daily, as part of their “Midwessay” project:

The Meaning of the Midwest

For years I’ve felt ambivalent about living in the Midwest—neither proud nor embarrassed. This is not about the place. I live in Minneapolis, with its writers and culture and nature and somewhat affordable lifestyle. My ambivalence is about the term “Midwest,” which is often used as shorthand for “Not New York” or “Not L.A.” 

Living here was never part of my grand plan, and I’ll admit that at times it’s depressing and lonely. At one low point, I wrote a satirical proposal to change the name to something else—The Bible Belly, The Nation’s Creamy Nougat Filling, Deer-Stained Highway to Nowhere. Anything seemed like an improvement.

Even though I grew up here it didn’t feel like anything I belonged to. The word evoked covered wagons and sodbusting and tilled acreage. It had little to do with the 1980s pop culture and globalism creeping into our small town.

A name is a narrative distilled, and the Midwest felt like someone else’s. In a sense it is: The word is usually used by outsiders. When we use a word to define our own group, it can be a powerful tool for constructing our identity. When someone uses it to define your group, it can be a weapon for taking that identity away.

That said, some people love the name, with its anti-elite ring. To others it implies irrelevance and distance from the white-hot centers of the culture. Here in Minnesota there is an ongoing effort to brand our state out of the Midwest by calling it the “North,” much to the chagrin of Canadians. 

Optics aside, the term itself is feels anachronistic. Technically it’s a geographical term, but our geography is increasingly complicated and fractured.  A couple years ago, I edited an anthology for Belt Publishing about Minneapolis, which is not exactly Lake Wobegon, but also not far from it. In the collection we had poems and essays from people who’d arrived here from around the world—Laos, Somalia, Mexico, Jamaica, Haiti and on and on. It was impossible to get all the voices from all the different communities, but we tried, and now these immigrant and native stories sit alongside stories.

All of which is to say the Midwest is changing, and from here, it looks anything but monolithic. Our divisions are many: Norwegians and Swedes, African-Americans and Africans, rednecks and flower sniffers, nativists and Native Americans, hunters and hikers, foodies and hot dishers, people who wear shorts all winter, and people who aren’t insane. And most importantly, Minnesota nice vs. Minnesota ice.

The Midwest is all these things.

The Midwest none of them.

The only thing we all agree on is Prince, who’s as Midwest as they come.

Read the online version here.