- Taking Leave
- The Lost Potential of Nostalgia
- What Did You See? Truth, Power, and the Boys of Covington Catholic
- The Threshold God
- An Act of Memory That Fails Us
- Two Letters
- All the World Is (Not) a Stage
- Sally Draper at the Ford Rotunda
- Belle Isle Aquarium
- Songbook: For All We Know
- Lighted Field
- Sugarbush Lake
- Of Rumor and Riot
- American Dreamers: Badlands’ Kit Carruthers and Holly Sargis
- Why I Dream of Opening Day
- History, Geography and Renisha McBride
- Where were you when Detroit failed?
- Author’s Q&A / University of Michigan Press
- Ford Road
- Cigars, c1920
- Slide dreams
- Middleville, Michigan c1930
- Middleville, Michigan c1928
- Thornapple River, c1922
- “Automobiles have come”
- Automobile, Barry County, Michigan c1929
- Singer, c1939
- Bennett Park (pre-Tiger Stadium), Detroit, c1910
- (no title)
Or maybe it was simpler than that; maybe Pal had come not for me, but for you. If I draw from the dead ones in order to feel less forlorn in a new situation, why wouldn’t you? Pal might help you in the same way, soften the blow that you had not found a home, but lost one, and we were strangers to you. Your own mother was gone and we were not dogs. (read more)
Presented at the Freud Museum, London, interdisciplinary conference on Nostalgia, (9th March, 2019): https://www.freud.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Nostalgia-Conference_Poster.pdf )
Of all the photographs in the old album, this is the one I return to again and again. A girl hugging her dog on a cold snowbank, a winter tree behind her. A whiteout after a blizzard, made whiter by the fading of the image, while on the print itself, some pink staining on the lower right section. I carefully remove the photo from the album to see that there is nothing written on the reverse of the photograph.
Looking closer, I see signs of scratches from the negative, and faint traces of writing next to the pink stain, a list of numbers as far as I can tell. Someone must have scribbled a bit of arithmetic on a piece of paper accidentally laid over the picture, leaving an impression on the print. These flaws and traces, like outward signs of age, pull us to the surface and make our reading of the picture an act of detection, an investigation of the life of the print itself. Where has it been, who held it or tampered with it, who placed it in the old album, what do the near invisible numbers refer to, what caused the stains? By what chain of family historical conveyance did it come to me, and where will it go after me? Will I be the last person to care about it?
The photograph is a glance at the remote history of a strange girl who would one day be my mother. Here she is in the last days of childhood with her Louise Brooks haircut, her face turned away from me. I am a ‘not yet’ in her story. Sometimes while looking at this picture, I am brushed by a feather of guilt at my own arrival. To look is to violate her claim to a life before me, a private moment with her dog, her right to childhood, play in the snow, the chance of free time before marriage and motherhood.
Middleville, Michigan, her hometown, remains outside the frame of the photograph, but it presses on the scene, as hometowns tend to do. I don’t know Middleville; it is not my town. I visited it less than a handful of times during early childhood and have almost no recollection of those visits. Yet each time I look at the photograph, the suggestion of the town is there, a memory so forceful in my parents and grandparents that it passed into me, a sense of place so familiar that I suffer something akin to a bout of homesickness. Can we be homesick for places that are not our home?
The feeling may be partly explained by the strong presence of my mother in this particular photograph, yet it stalks me when I leaf through the other pages in the album, seeing not only pictures of my mother and her family, but scenes without people, the Thornapple River, farmhouses, dirt roads, an old gas station.
We know that we carry our ancestors in our bodies – in the colours of our eyes and hair, our gestures, the tiniest inflections in our voices. It is as though our bodies remember the ancestors. But I have long believed that ancestral memory inhabits not only our bodies, but our bodies in place. We are sometimes surprised to discover the impact of ancestral places, often places unknown to us, on our moods and emotions. A visit to a previously unknown, old family street corner leaves us giddy or melancholy; walking along the pavement, we feel the dent of earlier footsteps, of passages before our time leaving a residue on the surface of things and inside us. Or there is the power of a house that remains in a family for two or three generations, its rooms and stairs and front porch. There are people in whom place memory is so subtly registered that even as children, they sense the trace of dead ancestors in that house, and then decades later from their own last beds in other, newer houses, recall the textures of the old house, now sold and gone. It seems we carry, perhaps more than is commonly acknowledged, memories not only related to our own pasts, but of people and places we may not have known directly in our own lives. Is this too, a form of homesickness?
So the photograph provokes a referred homesickness in me. Not only do I miss my own hometown; it seems I miss my mother’s hometown. Like all homesickness, this is simultaneously painful and pleasurable, a form of longing that once would have been described, and with some accuracy, as nostalgia. Yet to borrow from Yogi Berra, an old baseball player, we can say that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be. We still smile at that line, but we forget the truth of it.
The word fails me now; it fails all of us. It continues to enjoy great currency, but it no longer provides an explanation for these particular experiences of memory. Yes, we derive pleasure from its current popular usage. We seek out films, music, memorabilia that allow us to swim in its waters, but then many of us work hard to dry ourselves off and break free from what we see as crass and backward-looking sentimentality. This last view of nostalgia has gained acceptance, as a brief look in any thesaurus will illustrate. Suggested synonyms for nostalgia include not only sentimentalism, but mawkishness, maudlinism, melodramatics, mushiness – a host of ‘m’ words to make the whole idea quite unappealing.
Further to these immediate uses, nostalgia has featured in postmodern theorizing in my own field of History where again, it has regularly been viewed as retrograde and politically unproductive. Yet in these various definitions and interpretations, there is only the occasional reminder that nostalgia – the term – started out as a medical classification coined by Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in his “Medical Dissertation on Nostalgia” published in 1688.
Hofer’s piece was a detailed investigation of a malady he characterized as “the sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.” While allowing that notions of homesickness, the German word heimweh and the French mal du pays all went some way to defining what was in fact, a disease, Hofer argued that a medical name, an agreed set of symptoms and effective treatments were required. He settled on nostalgia – “Greek in origin and indeed composed of two sounds, the one of which is Nosos, return to the native land; the other, Algos, signifies suffering or grief.”
According to Hofer, nostalgia was a disease of an “afflicted imagination” that regularly resulted in death. In its early stages, it manifested as a general melancholy accompanied by obsessive thoughts and images of one’s homeland. This caused a “continuous vibration of animal spirits through those fibres of the middle brain in which impressed traces of ideas of the Fatherland still cling.” The increase in activity through the nerve channels where memories of home were stored resulted in decreased blood flow to the other regions of the brain. So in a self-perpetuating course of illness, the obsessive thoughts of home would worsen, while interest in one’s actual surroundings would diminish. As the disease progressed, diagnostic signs included sadness and anxiety, “frequent sighs,” disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, poor blood circulation, heart palpitations, and fevers. Finally, declared Hofer, “by consuming the spirits… nostalgia hastens death.”
This is hardly the nostalgia we recognize today. What happened during the subsequent three centuries? Where is nostalgia the pathology, a set of symptoms in need of diagnosis and treatment? And finally, what might happen if we brought it back, if we countered baseball’s cracker-barrel philosopher by making nostalgia something of what it used to be?
For the first two centuries following Hofer’s dissertation, nostalgia remained a medical concern, although the discourses surrounding it began to change. In physicians’ writings, its meanings crept beyond the immediate complications of homesickness, to include a pathological pining for the vanished past. The typical sufferer of nostalgia, a student, soldier, or other exile, experienced symptoms that belied a confusion between home as a physical, geographical place and home as a remembered, imagined place. People afflicted with nostalgia might see ghosts, hear the voices of dead loved ones, shift from past to present without being aware of it, or even lose the ability to distinguish between the two.
This link between nostalgia and memory was identified early and most evocatively by Immanuel Kant in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View (1798). Kant noted that when homesick people revisit the places of their youth, “they are greatly disappointed in their expectations and so cured. Though they think this is because everything has changed there, it is really because they cannot relive their youth there.” Kant’s point can be read as an anticipation of the widening of nostalgia’s meaning and its symptoms. A century after Hofer’s work, homesickness had morphed into a malady of both space and time, an affliction that had its origins in the normally healthy attachments a person holds for remembered people and places, for cherished objects, distant events, and even for the sense memories that would later be rendered by Proust. An image or a piece of music, a voice, a taste, a texture or smell – all of these might have potent effects on the ‘nostalgiac’. Yet if nostalgia had become more complex as a malady, if it began to incorporate permutations to do more directly with memory and the passage of time, it remained a malady. At least until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, nostalgia would be considered an affliction to be diagnosed and treated by physicians.
The diagnostic challenge was to spot an imminent attack of nostalgia in the victim’s descent from healthy remembering into illness. In the century before Freud and Breuer, treatments included purging, sweet wine, opium, restorative sojourns in the mountains, and the avoidance of affective images or musical strains. Increasingly, nostalgia came to be associated with military experience, with French physicians recording its appearance in soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars.
Medical interest in nostalgia increased during the early decades of the nineteenth century, with most physicians agreeing that it bore some resemblance to melancholia, but that it derived, more specifically than melancholia, from the first bonds to people and places in the child’s world. Moreover, nostalgia continued to be viewed as a potentially fatal disorder, one that left discernible post-mortem changes in its victims.
During the American Civil War, doctors diagnosed more than five thousand cases of nostalgia on the Union side alone, a number of these ending in death. In 1863, Doctor Dewitt Peters, a military surgeon, provided a detailed list of its symptoms and progression: “First, great mental dejection, loss of appetite, indifference to external influences, irregular action of the bowels, and fever. As the disease progresses, it is attended by hysterical weeping, a dull pain in the head, throbbing of the temporal arteries, anxious expression of the face, watchfulness, incontinence of urine, and a general wasting of all the vital powers.”
In military camps, activities that risked triggering an outbreak of nostalgia – such as writing letters home – might be forbidden. Camp bands were instructed not to play the 19th century American favourite, Home! Sweet Home! Individual treatments varied from the granting of brief periods of convalescence to the infliction of physical punishment or a swift return to battle, for what some officers considered to be malingering. In this context, nostalgia appears almost as a variant of what would later be termed shell shock or soldier’s heart in the First World War, battle fatigue in the Second World War, and post-traumatic stress disorder after Vietnam.
After the Civil War, medical interest in nostalgia declined, as did the number of recorded cases. One reason for this may be that advances in transport and communications such as steam engines, a faster mail service and telegraph lines, promised to prevent the kinds of extreme separations that seemed to trigger outbreaks of acute nostalgia. But another reason may be that physicians had begun turning their attention to the study of hysteria.
By the late nineteenth century, and continuing throughout the twentieth, while humanity busied itself with railways and ticker tapes, advanced weaponry, war, stocks and shares, advertising, buying on credit, moon landings, and oil prices, nostalgia gradually lost its status as a medical term and disappeared from the professional literature. Johannes Hofer and his treatise were left behind in the dark ages before Freud. But is it remotely possible that in his seminal Mourning and Melancholia (1917), Freud passed up what may have been a last opportunity to rescue the lost affliction from obscurity? Here, nostalgia and homesickness might have been reinvented for the age of the “talking cure,” granted a place in our individual and collective experiences of memory and loss, in the pathology of melancholy and the psychology of mourning.
Certainly, the term did not entirely disappear from psychoanalytic literature, particularly in works of a historical bent. H.A. Kaplan (1987) noted that in light of Freud’s work, “nostalgia changed to become a variant of depression, an acute yearning for a union with the pre-oedipal mother, a saddening farewell to childhood, a defence against mourning, or a longing for a past forever lost.” Erich Neumann (1949) suggested that nostalgia is a form of alienation, perhaps the result of a longing for company and bearings during the Jungian project of individuation. As he put it, “being oneself is a wearisome and painful experience.” Donna Bassin (1993), a photographer and psychoanalyst, widened the definition of nostalgia to include an incomplete form of mourning for a past that has been idealized.
However, for most of the 20th century and especially during the fifties when Freudian theory was, in its own turn, sometimes crassly popularized, the historical meanings and usages associated with nostalgia were finally mangled beyond recognition. As a lay term, its chief purpose became the performance of sentimentalism, the parcelling out of discount memory via television, advertising, heritage theme parks, and souvenir markets, all aspects of what we might call the ‘nostalgia industry’. As such, nostalgia became kitsch, trivial and often reactionary: hardly the stuff of a meaningful engagement with the past or the workings of memory.
Today, if we search medical or diagnostic manuals, we don’t expect to find nostalgia listed as a disease. This may not be an altogether negative outcome. As a historian, I see little benefit in returning nostalgia to these manuals, especially if that means fixed sets of quantifiable symptoms, diagnostic tools or treatments. I tend to side with French physician Charles Lasegue who as early as 1875, signalled the eventual demedicalization of the term, declaring that as nostalgia lacked any “pathological unity”, perhaps it had always been more of a medical fantasy than a disease. “Mal du pays,” Lasegue wrote, “has more to do with poetic elegies than with medical descriptions.”
Moreover, it is clear that a growing number of psychologists are beginning to examine nostalgia as a feature of the self that can have therapeutic value. This indicates another shift in the history of nostalgia, moving from its construction as disease and medical label in Hofer’s work, to a somewhat fading disorder in psychoanalytic discourse, to something that may ultimately be viewed as an adaptive response to loss and change. In other words, as a source of healing, rather than disease.
Yet while I hope for that therapeutic recasting, I remain nostalgic for nostalgia-the-ailment, or shall we say, condition. This may be, in part, to do with the fact that nostalgia has both pain and pleasure – in what is often described as its ‘bittersweet’ character. The Italian-American psychiatrist, Pietro Castelnuovo-Tedesco, captured this character in an essay on reminiscence and nostalgia (1980): “Nostalgia is sweet because the original object or event gave pleasure and because the pleasure is enhanced through idealization. It is bitter not only because it cannot be made to come back, but also because, even in its original setting, it contained conflict and disappointment.”
This, to me, recalls the tenebrous complexity of nostalgia and preserves its role as ailment, even as it may also lend itself to healing. So I miss the condition that with or without a proven pathological base or unity, may still be experienced as Johannes Hofer first described it: an “afflicted imagination.” A condition that precisely because it is poetic and elegiac, makes history itself the stuff of life experience. A condition that speaks to each person’s unsung passages in time and space, recognizing the intense meanings we attach to home, childhood, family, community and place. Like it or not, nostalgia attends us – in our leave takings and returns, our weathering of continuity and change, and our inevitable losses. For all these reasons, and more specifically because it is about the strange entanglements of history and memory, nostalgia should be as interesting to historians, as to psychologists and psychiatrists.
We might ask what became of its sufferers when nostalgia disappeared from the medical literature. My suspicion is that the world is full of what we used to describe as nostalgia cases. They live in the countryside and in towns and cities, loosely strung like blinking fairy lights. There may be acute cases, triggered by life events such as loss, grief, trauma or exile, but there may also be chronic cases, people constitutionally predisposed to an obsessive attachment to the past. Their symptoms have been subsumed under new diagnostic categories, so this is not to say that people suffering from nostalgia cannot find help. However, this particular experience of memory – still so widespread – has lost importance in the treatment rooms and we are left searching for spaces to speak about it.
Finally, collective nostalgia may assume highly political form, affecting groups or nations at particular historical conjunctures. Long before Brexit, before Trump’s toxic slogan (“Make America Great Again”), most political players knew how to tap their citizens’ nostalgic tendencies. Here, nostalgia becomes a dangerous shorthand in which the past is idealized and its violent inequalities are erased. So if we are to use nostalgia productively, we need to understand its political potency, and use it critically to engage our pasts – good or bad – in the present.
But for me, nostalgia’s lost meanings remain worth recovering. After all, what Hofer described was a manifestation of our all too human predilection for longing. More specifically, our longing to be less alone. Our longing for something/someplace larger than ourselves and before ourselves. A chance to contemplate our irrecoverable past times, places and people, some directly remembered, some only traces felt when we encounter the old rooms and houses, old photographs, the historical debris of those long gone.
If our nostalgic longings might be reconceived as memory with its critical healing powers restored, in other words, as the working through of what we have lost, then nostalgia may yet prove a condition worth having.
During the twenties, so a story goes, Clemenceau, shortly before his death, found himself engaged in a friendly talk with a representative of the Weimar Republic on the question of guilt for the outbreak of the First World War. “What, in your opinion,” Clemenceau was asked, “will future historians think of this troublesome and controversial issue?” He replied “This I don’t know. But I know for certain that they will not say Belgium invaded Germany.”
Hannah Arendt recounts this story in her 1967 essay, “Truth and Politics” a philosophical analysis of the relations between truth, lies, fact, opinion, and power, one that gains new relevance in the era of Trump. Nearly every day, there is an event or tweet that might recall Arendt’s essay and its detailed demonstration that the problem of “fake news” is as old as the problem of power itself.
So to last week’s shocking example: the harassment of Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder, by a large group of high school boys from Covington Catholic High School (Kentucky) taking part in this year’s March for Life, or what I prefer to call – in my own take on truth and politics – the annual march against women’s reproductive rights. Yes, I willfully own that I was critical of the MAGA-capped boys from the start.
The first videos to emerge gave me my Clemenceau truth: I know for certain, I said to myself, that this was an incident of racist bullying and harassment. I saw an older man with a drum, surrounded by laughing white boys, some of them mocking Native American chants, some making tomahawk-chop gestures. I saw the boy who blocked the older man’s path. I saw locked eyes and the chilling smile of he who believes the space is his to control. As a woman, I know that look.
Now, I have seen the longer footage, showing events before and after the incident. I have heard the conflicting accounts. So you may ask, do you still have your Clemenceau truth? And my answer? I do. My truth is that this was, indisputably, a racist aggression by white Trump supporters against a Native American elder.
This is not to say that I discount the other videos and accounts, the highly charged situation in which the event occurred, the presence of another group, the reported thoughts and actions of many who were there, including the key actors. What is more, I understand that what we call testimony, the act of witnessing, the capacity to say something happened because “I saw it with my own eyes” – all of these are fragile and fraught with problems. Those of us who were not there are second-hand witnesses. We can only approach the event as something mediated by smartphone videos and the accounts of first-hand witnesses.
Throughout the week that followed, new accounts emerged, not least that of the student who stood face to face with Nathan Phillips. Having hired a PR firm, the boy released what was clearly intended to be an authoritative account, the account of a white male voice, however young, taking control of the narrative. For a moment, I thought of Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, as teenagers and then as adults. I wondered who the boy from Covington would be in ten or twenty years. Then came the network television interview, something that would not have been granted a black or brown boy in similar circumstances. Yet there was the boy from Covington again, asserting his knowledge over other knowledges, enjoying this key privilege of whiteness in order to deny what we had seen. He wore his privilege with ease, even if he lacked the tools to understand it.
With each passing day, new video emerged, swinging the pendulum of public opinion back and forth. Soon our armies of media commentators, hardly a Native American among them, retreated to that middle ground, the ground seemingly occupied by the centrist voice that begins by stating that we must see all sides, but ends by taking no side at all. This lack of courage mattered, because soon Trump weighed in, tweeting predictably that the boys had been “smeared” by the “evil” fake news.
So here’s my truth: I still see a young man with a smug smile of white entitlement blocking the path of an older man. I see the difference in skin colour. I see the difference in age. I see the MAGA hats, emblematic of misogyny and racism. I see that Nathan Phillips is terrifyingly outnumbered and that his drum can do little against raucous teenage jeers. I think of the hate speech and crimes that have escalated since the 2016 election. I recall the long history of my home country and its treatment of Native Americans. Then the recent history of Trump’s joking references to Pocahontas and Wounded Knee. I see, in sum, an appalling moment of racist harassment that will go down in history, along with the Neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, as a signal example of Trump-era race hatred.
I raise the spectre of Charlottesville deliberately, because within days of the Covington story, we are nearing the moment when someone, a pundit or a racist president will announce that there were “fine people on both sides.” Readers will recall this notorious description Trump gave of the march which ended in the murder of Heather Heyer, a young woman protesting the actions of Neo-Nazis in her town.
To return to Arendt and her Clemenceau problem, one she analysed in far greater detail than can be offered here. But the key point, for our purposes, is her insight about truth and power:
It is true, considerably more than the whims of historians would be needed to eliminate from the record the fact that on the night of August 4, 1914, German troops crossed the frontier of Belgium; it would require no less than a power monopoly over the entire civilized world. But such a power monopoly is far from being inconceivable, and it is not difficult to imagine what the fate of factual truth would be if power interests, national or social, had the last say in these matters.
What did I see? What did you see? What did we see? Yes, these questions require us to examine our own identities and positions in history, and in the present constellation of power. But more importantly, and as Arendt’s essay seems to anticipate, the distinction between truth and falsehood now demands deliberation on a daily basis. Its protection is a responsibility shared by all of us.
I assert the following: Belgium did not invade Germany in 1914. There were not fine people on both sides in Charlottesville. The smiling, chanting, tomahawk-chopping boys in MAGA caps were not innocent of a racist aggression against Native Americans.
“Why not sense that, incarnated in the door, there is a little threshold god?” (Gaston Bachelard)
I’m a man now and I can’t help but feel grateful to Deanie. She was fighting for our corner of time and place, our unprepossessing box house on the edge of Detroit. I recall her kindergarten enrollment for which Dad had to drag her across the door sill. I can still see my sister in her little girl party dress for first day, one spindly leg fighting to remain inside the house, the other leg on the porch. She turned sideways and pressed herself tightly against the door frame, her right arm outstretched along the wall inside the door, left arm along the exterior wall. When Dad removed her, finger by finger, from the brick facade, I saw that her left hand had razor-fine scratches, each one a sliver oozing bright red. It took weeks and a few sessions with the kindly school psychologist before Deanie stopped hugging the house and battling each morning. (read more)
Set 50 years in the past, Kathryn Bigelow’s film, Detroit, is an act of public memory, an excavation of a brutal history specific to the time and city in which it took place, yet recognizably American, immediate and unfinished. But public memory is inherently positional and political, and almost always as much about what we forget as what we remember.
In 1967, I was eleven and living in a white suburb on the edge of Detroit. In the waves of wild rumor that reached us in suburbia, it was said that among the 43 people killed in the city that July, three young black men had died in an exchange of sniper fire at the Algiers Motel. Although it was little more than 10 miles away, I had never heard of the Algiers. But it was a name made to lodge itself in the mind of a child, and so you might say that a first memory of the event, false as it was, took hold. The following year, we moved farther out from Detroit, and the memory receded.
Years later and an ocean away from home, I read John Hersey’s book, The Algiers Motel Incident, and the dismantling of childhood certainties gained pace. First and foremost, the three young men who died in the Motel that night had names: Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple. And Hersey’s book told me what Bigelow’s film is now telling the world in the age of Black Lives Matter. This was no sniper incident, but rather, another episode in our long and tragically unfinished history of police violence against African Americans that repeatedly goes unanswered in the courts.
But here is Bigelow’s forgetful omission, her failed act of memory. She does not show what may be the most important outcome of the Algiers Motel incident: the People’s Tribunal, an unofficial court organized by local activists, and recalled recently in an important video interview with Rev. Dan Aldridge.
A powerful counter-narrative to the failure of the American justice system, the People’s Tribunal was planned as a mock trial to be held in Detroit’s Central United Church. Leaflets published beforehand invited Detroit residents to “watch accurate justice administered by citizens of the community. Witness the unbiased, legal action of skilled black attorneys. Review and watch the evidence for yourself.”
Attended by more than 2000 Detroiters, a gathering of family, friends, local residents, and the press, the Tribunal heard detailed survivor statements, most of which had been excluded from the official pretrial examination on the grounds that they were “irrelevant” to the case. The jury included Rosa Parks and author John Killens. Tribunal organizers argued that “the Black community needs to see that the type of justice we receive in Recorder’s Court is the same kind that is meted out in Mississippi… We invited the international press because we wanted people all over the world to see what it means to be a Black so-called American.”
Hersey interviewed a number of participants, including family members. Eddie Temple told him, “I was there as a witness, actually as the person who identified my brother at the morgue. It had a tremendous value, in that it exposed to a large number of people what had happened there… This place was really packed. People were interested in it.” Those who attended recalled the silence that descended on the church hall as witness after witness testified.
Afterwards, the symbolic murder verdicts secured, Dan Aldridge captured the importance of the Tribunal when he wrote that it marked “the beginning of a new level of thinking in Black America. Black people are telling white judges, white juries, and white newspapers that we are ‘hip’ to your tricks. That Carl Cooper, Auburey Pollard, and Fred Temple have not died in vain. Their deaths have been the signal that flashes injustice in America.” The Sunday after the Tribunal, Central Church Rev. Albert Cleage gave a sermon entitled “Fear is Gone.”
As a white historian of Detroit and its suburbs, where race, perhaps more than any other issue, determined the shape and locations of my life, I believe it is right to speak of these events, most especially to other white people. If that is the case, I have to support Bigelow’s objective, as a highly skilled filmmaker, to treat them on film. But if our accounts stop short, if having shown brutal violence inflicted on black bodies, we never leave that terrible motel to show the response of local activists, then what has been achieved? Perhaps we may shock a few white people who, despite a nonstop train of recent deaths, have failed to open their eyes to the problem of police violence against African Americans. We most certainly will not shock many black people, a fact pointed out by at least some critics who rightly question the motives and/or usefulness of the film. See, for example, Angelica Jade Bastien’s review which describes Detroit as “a hollow spectacle, displaying rank racism and countless deaths that has nothing to say about race, the justice system, police brutality, or the city that gives it its title.”
Remembering and forgetting. Yes, the act of memory is difficult. But if white historians and artists will not move beyond cinematic, stylized violence to acknowledge and support the resistance that followed, then we must ask ourselves whether we too, are the problem. Are we content to remember black suffering as shockingly as possible, but simultaneously content to forget empowered black responses, voices, anger, agency, and self-determination in the face of that suffering? Without the People’s Tribunal, the story of the Algiers Motel is incomplete. And that matters.
Jackie Kennedy, Ray Bradbury, Suburbia, and Me (Belt Magazine, July 21, 2017)
“Drifting snow, a near whiteout. Left at the end of our street and then over two blocks to a particular mailbox, the one next to the big highway that led to Detroit. Leaving small footprints in the snow to be dusted over by more snow, I passed dozens of box houses strung with Christmas lights, many switched on to make the blizzard festive. Newly built, each house had cost less than $12,000, and favorable 30-year mortgage deals had been given to young family men who came back from the War. As I walked against the wind and flurries, I brimmed with love for the streets of “ticky-tacky.”* These were the last years before my distrust of the place began to set in. Each driveway boasted an oversized Ford or Chevy, now disappearing beneath thickening white. Engines silent on cars owned by the people who made and sold them. Detroit, you were quiet that day. Did I dream you? Your glorious skyline, your elegant department stores and grand movie palaces, were lost in the blizzard.” (read more)
“It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood: memories relating to our childhood may be all that we possess.” (Freud, Screen Memories, 1899)
Read Sally Draper at the Ford Rotunda (published by Eclectica Magazine, October/November, 2016)
Belle Isle Aquarium is the winner of Streetlight Magazine‘s 2016 short fiction contest.
Nina held her hand as they moved slowly through the large gallery beneath an arched ceiling of sea-green glass tiles. From one walled tank to another, each lit from within, one framed neon scene to the next, their girlish faces were illuminated by these poor fish. She was sure the rhythmic dropping mouths were supplications. “They’re saying something,” she tugged Nina’s sleeve. “No, that’s how they breathe,” Nina said. (read more)
Each parting in life diminishes us in some measure, and we may pause to wonder if it is the last one. Time and events will intervene sooner or later. Accidents. Illnesses. Cells age and mutate. Breaths become shallow. Hearts begin to skip beats. We die a little every day. (read more)
“In an unknown world at the edge of Detroit, there is a green diamond ablaze beneath the sky. We, the young ones in this place of pattern houses, call it the Lighted Field.”
Read more of this sketch, one of a series about the Lighted Field in Garden City, Michigan, published as part of the Narrative Map project hosted by Great Lakes Review.
The homemade docks at Sugarbush promise firm ground, a stone path leading to a cottage, a mother and father, a clearing in the trees, and a gravel road back to town, because life asks to be lived. (read more)
This essay appeared in Belt Magazine (July 22, 2015) and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
For an easier read, please see PDF version here: Of Rumour and Riot
This essay appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal (November 4, 2014)
If Badlands is a story outside history, as Malick claims, then Kit is bent on creating one for himself, a history of himself, or failing that, finding a memento to stand in for a history that will go unnoticed and unsung, as our histories tend to do. “I’m going to keep it for a souvenir,” he says finally, of the stone. “Or maybe one that’s lighter,” he adds, tossing the heavy stone away and reaching for a more portable one. These are the scenes that, true to Malick’s wish, prevent my “winking” at his character’s expense. I feel, with Kit, the sadness and futility of our attempts to mark our own passages. Memento mori: remember that you must die. Perhaps more to the point: remember that you must be forgotten.
To read in pdf: American Dreamers (BLFJ)
(A version of this essay appears in the Fall 2014 Issue of Cobalt Review) http://www.cobaltreview.com/
Born in Detroit in 1892, my grandfather was a Tiger fan all his life. For more than half of the twentieth century, decade after decade, from Cobb to Kaline, he saw the great players. By the late forties, before I was born, he was known to say, “Get me a seat on the third base line. I want to smell George Kell’s sweat.”
I was born in 1954, into the era of transistor radios, when Grandad would sit at the backyard picnic table with his radio and a Drewrys Beer, the one with the Canadian Mountie on the can. I thought the Mountie must be listening too, as the tinny little radio crackled with the play of the game, delivering it into hot, late summer afternoons. I remember Tiger Stadium, the 1968 season and Grandad fighting back tears that same year, when my parents told him he had grown too frail to sit through a game downtown. He died two years later. For several seasons, I continued to commune with him, whispering the results after games and glancing up at the sky, the way we sometimes do with dead people.
From girlhood then, the Detroit Tigers were my team but I did not prove as faithful as my grandfather. I didn’t mean to be unfaithful. It’s just that thirty years ago, I married a Brit and moved from Michigan to London, after which first the Tigers, and gradually baseball itself faded from my thoughts.
At the start of 2012, before the old year’s Christmas decorations had been put away, unfaithfulness finally knocked at my door, bringing my already ailing marriage to a crashing end. Lies, cheating, bitter words. Indoor fireworks to match Fourth of July at the ballpark. Followed by the back and forth of futile phone calls, then when those dwindled, by pacing the kitchen floor late into the night, lights out, pausing only to stare out the back window at our empty yard. Sometimes I sat down beside the dog on her mat, burying my face in her big furry neck, hoping for some kind of comfort there.
Eventually the pacing slowed, giving way to hours on the sofa, silent tears, grief, sleepless nights, wondering, and regret. Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” This may be true of baseball, but in matters of love, sometimes it’s over before it’s over. We got together too young and it has to be said, stayed together too long. And so we parted badly and in pain. In the end, there was no ninth inning rally, no effort, no belief; only the slamming of doors.
But I’m not here to talk about all that. Not really. In time, we may be kinder to one another, but our story will never turn to anything better than sad. No, I’m here to tell you something about baseball, about what happened later, during the spring and summer that followed, as I began to look for respite in the world outside my dead marriage. I concentrated on work. I tried to kindle new friendships and rekindle some old ones. These efforts were tentative at first, and results were uneven. You’re up by a game or two, but then you’re down. It’s a long season.
Some evenings, I came home tipsy on cocktails and fully convinced I was having a ball as a single woman; other evenings, I came home to a cold house, played old Sinatra ballads about broken hearts and sat down beside the dog. She showed concern and licked my face. At one point, I subscribed to an online dating site, but as soon as I began receiving responses from other members, I recoiled in terror and closed the account. “I think the online dating experiment showed me I’m not really interested in a relationship,” I told a friend. “You’re just not ready,” she answered. As though readiness were a natural, expected progression. I tried to believe, but decided any ‘dating’ would have to occur as part of ordinary daily encounters, so when I met a nice fellow at a party, I stepped up bravely. We agreed to meet for dinner a week later. There followed seven days of dread, followed by an evening that had all the charm of a dentist appointment. I dated two or three others after that, less enthusiastically, and well, let’s just say that I really ought to apologize to the guys involved for wasting their time.
It didn’t matter where or how they turned up, clearly there were men out there. All shapes and sizes and characters of men. They were out there, all right. But I began to see that my reaction had little to do with who they were or might be. I realized that I didn’t want them, didn’t need them at all. It reminded me of my best Christmas morning when, aged ten, I sat at the foot of the twinkling tree and unwrapped my first pair of figure skates. Wearing my own skates, soon I would glide across the ice, free and alone. When I was a kid, skating often made me think about baseball. I loved the game, but I wasn’t much good at it. I was good at ice skating. I liked to imagine that the skater, moving down the river or across the pond, was like any player in his fielding position, or on the pitcher’s mound, or at bat. There was a loneliness in baseball that was part of its appeal. Throughout childhood summers, when I watched the Tigers, I sometimes dreamed of snow and my dad freezing the backyard to make a rink for me. In winter, practicing my spins on the ice, I dreamed of Tiger Stadium.
Sometime in late August 2012, many months after my husband had moved out, perhaps during the period I was figuring out some of these questions about dating, friendship, and what to do with myself, I began to notice the baseball standings. They appeared every Saturday in my British newspaper, so it was a weekly reconnoitre at first. The Detroit Tigers were leading the division. Soon I was checking every result on the Tigers’ website, where I found there were photos and highlights. I began tracking coverage in the Detroit papers, learning about the players.
It was new to me, but it was powerfully old to me too. Following baseball was, again, like ice skating: a sense memory, a stir of knowledge, a movement that slips into your body and never fully leaves you. By the time of the 2012 pennant race and World Series, I had subscribed to Major League Baseball television and was streaming the games on my laptop. Okay, we lost in four games; I had barely returned to baseball and watched just a fraction of a season. But for a few precious weeks, I had fallen back into a pleasure so deep that I knew I would be there for the next opening day.
Winter came. I wasn’t a girl in Michigan anymore, but once again, I thought about baseball during the cold months when all the ballparks were quiet. I worked, saw my friends, went out and about in London, got used to coming home alone and liking it. There were, and always will be, hard moments. When there is nobody to tell; nobody to call. But these are no harder than another person’s hard moments. I was looking outside myself again, remembering what Humphrey Bogart once said to Ingrid Bergman – that lovers’ problems “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” And anyway, for my pleasure, I had a complete season of baseball waiting for me when the snow melted and the ice skaters hung up their skates.
And so to 2013, my first complete season in many years. My subscription granted me each and every game on my laptop, but of course the night games and west coast games appeared in the small hours here. For some night games, I moved the laptop to my bedside, typically drifting off to sleep during the middle innings. The cheering crowd or animated announcers woke me for crucial plays. But I lived for the day games, which would arrive about dinner time in London; I cooked and ate with the laptop on the kitchen table, and was regularly joined by my son. A Londoner by birth, he persists in calling the games ‘matches’, but he now knows the difference between a sinker and a slider, can give the ERA for any Detroit pitcher, batting averages down the line-up, Miggy’s home run count. Like baseball fans anywhere, we sat in the kitchen and cheered, complained, argued about calls. In between innings, we looked up baseball rules, stats and lore.
During some games, my son and I spent excessive amounts of time peering into baseball’s living room, its domestic space – the dugout. We desired the company of the players; we analysed the character of this one or that one, or the relations between them. Like a pair of homeless people outside the picture window, we hungrily watched the talking and teasing in the dugout, the summer boredom, the camaraderie, the ups and downs of the game inscribed on the players’ faces. A diminished family, we secretly longed for more than was reasonable to ask of your baseball team. But somehow, the Tigers delivered.
Steady and reliable, these guys turned up 162 times. Yes, one of the most compelling aspects of baseball is its season, its 162 games. Readers of sports journalism may remember Thomas Boswell’s lovely book, How Life Imitates the World Series. In the opening chapter, he quotes Earl Weaver on the baseball schedule, “This ain’t a football game,” Weaver says. “We do this every day.” Boswell claims that this is “baseball’s great blessing and the source of its richness: you play it every day.” He suggests that the 162 games produce a micro-culture of regularity and balance. “The sense of elemental sanity and order that we sometimes feel around baseball is not entirely a romantic wish; the game has, at its core, a distinct therapeutic quality.”
Having entered the 2013 season following a period of personal loss and upheaval, perhaps I submitted Boswell’s claim to a small, private test. I make no sweeping claims, but I can confirm that for me, the frequency of play, the episodic quality of home and away series, the removal of clock time, the old-fashioned uniforms, the grass and the baselines, the ghost of my grandfather near third base, the summer heat, the lights, the balls fouled off into the crowd, the 1-2-3 innings, the long and narratively complex innings, the strike counts, the arcane signs from the coaches, the impenetrable relationship between pitcher and catcher, meetings on the mound, the occasional bench-clearing fight, the endless statistics attaching to each player and each situation, the lazy inaction on the field punctuated by bursts of brilliance from a batter or fielder, then the return to a quiet game in the middle of a hot afternoon – all of these elements burrow inside the person who watches with any kind of regularity. They slow a person down, cause her to live in the moment, cause her to feel close to the players who turn up every day. She comes to care about them, mothers them, sisters them, gradually forgets her age and falls giddily in love with one or two of them. She sends little messages throughout the season, if only in her thoughts. Fans and messages. It’s a powerful element in baseball culture. We talk to the players and imagine they hear us.
Towards the end of the regular season, I was out for dinner with a friend. He asked me why I didn’t show much interest in dating. I told him that at least 162 times a year, I’ve got nine guys in the field, and at least eight of them are willing to go to bat for me. A few weeks later, the Tigers lost the Pennant to the Red Sox, and for the first time in many months, I was lost and lonely again. But I had things to do and the feeling slowly passed, leaving a residue of post-season melancholy.
My divorce will soon be final. I used to find it hard to imagine life without him. Not anymore. I’ll be fine, having understood that many good things do, and should, come to an end. Fortunately, baseball isn’t one of them. Dear Tigers, I’m back, communing with my team and my grandfather too. While winter lasts and the cold winds blow, I’ll keep busy. Maybe I’ll try a date or two. But between you and me, I’d rather go ice skating and dream of opening day.
(Editorial piece for the Detroit News: August 13, 2013)
“Where was I? I was living quietly in the suburbs, officer! This bankruptcy business has nothing to do with me!”
This is the answer I once might have given, before I looked into my fifties childhood in Garden City, the history of our all-white neighborhood and its relation to Detroit. Now, I consider suburbanites to be deeply and historically implicated in the state of Detroit, its economic decline of some six decades, its present crisis and uncertain future.
During the first suburban boom of the 1920s, Garden City was marketed as the “sun parlor of Detroit.” Realtors went door to door downtown, in search of customers for newly subdivided lots. Buyers were told that “children might be raised in safety, far from the maddening crowd, the factory smoke and the city’s noise.” When Garden City became incorporated as a home rule city in 1933, its separation from Detroit was fully established, along with its identification of itself as a living space that was emphatically white and anti-urban.
The attraction of incorporation was that it further localized municipal power over zoning and public services. Public maintenance, schools, and police and fire departments fell under the jurisdiction of the suburban municipality. The point here is that incorporation allowed for the gains of a growing suburban tax base to be kept in local coffers. In the 1950s, an additional twenty-two new suburban cities incorporated themselves, bringing about a proliferation of local governments surrounding Detroit, each creating a closed political entity, each part of the larger disinvestment of Detroit.
Positioned as it was, less than twenty miles from Detroit, Garden City stood to benefit from post-war industrial and commercial suburbanization. With manufacturing facilities relocating from Detroit to nearby industrial corridors, Garden City’s growth was assured. Soon shops, supermarkets, gas stations and fast food restaurants would appear along nearby suburban strip roads.
Those of us who grew up in the fifties and early sixties recall that many of our fathers commuted to downtown offices; we recall family outings to Hudson’s, the movie palaces around Grand Circus Park or Tiger Stadium. But by the 1960s, these outings had already become less frequent. Take shopping, for example. Between 1954 and 1961, twenty-nine “one stop” shopping centers opened in the suburbs. Eventually, Garden City residents had several malls within striking distance of home, including Wonderland and Westland. Kern’s, Detroit’s second-largest department store, closed in 1959, removing almost an entire commercial block from the city tax rolls. Hudson’s downtown store clung to life until 1983, but its sales began to decline as early as 1954, the losses temporarily offset by suburban outlets at Northland and Eastland.
Suburbanites had less and less to do with Detroit, yet when we travelled out of state or abroad for vacations, we continued to tell people we were Detroiters, not only because nobody had heard of Garden City or the other suburbs, but because suburbanites retained an oddly nostalgic attachment to Detroit, expressing pride in the automotive dream, in our sports teams, in Motown music.
Two points might be made immediately here. First, we were using the city, visiting it, claiming its successes, even as we withdrew from it. In what Detroit’s radical geographer, William Bunge, called “the great American tax dodge,” suburbanization was part of the historical shift of people, money, industry, commerce and resources away from the heart of the city to its surrounding areas, all of which were busily separating through incorporation. Separating and segregating. And this is the second point: how ironic that we should take such pride in Motown, when so few of us had ever met a black person. Suburban Detroit always was, and largely remains, closed to black residence.
Interviewed for David Mast’s 1994 Detroit Lives, Dr. Arthur Johnson, formerly of Wayne State and the NAACP, put it this way: “If you’re thinking about Detroit in the ‘50s, what you call the good old days is a question of who’s talking. I could not possibly want to return to the Detroit of the 1950s… Whites literally walked away from this city, literally abandoning all they had built, rather than make a reasonable accommodation. As a result, we have seen a pattern of economic disinvestment in this city that cannot be matched by any other major city in the United States. When I say it rides on race, I absolutely mean that.”
Watching the twitter feeds in the hours following the bankruptcy announcement, it was easy to spot the suburbanites, many of whom continue to resort to racist interpretations which are more or less explicit. Nothing saddens and disappoints me more, although it comes as no surprise. Suburbanites have regularly blamed black Detroit for the city’s problems since before the disorders of 1967, seeing the violence of that long hot summer and of Detroit’s larger decline as events that had nothing to do with them. As a child of Garden City, and indeed it was a happy childhood, I recognize this great suburban denial, the failure to see the violence embedded in the segregated suburban spaces that were so close to Detroit, and yet so far.
In 1957, the Garden City School Board heard that Packard Motor Company was in a state of liquidation and duly arranged to purchase Packard’s opulent boardroom furniture for the School Board meeting room. I don’t know where that massive board-of-directors table is now, but nothing would give me greater hope than to carry it back downtown only to find it too small to accommodate all the suburbanites eager, finally, to acknowledge our part in Detroit’s history, to overcome the divisions of race, to listen, talk and work together, and become Detroiters again. Call me naïve, but that is my abiding dream.
Amy Kenyon is Visiting Lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of Dreaming Suburbia (Wayne State University Press). Her first novel, Ford Road, was published last year by the University of Michigan Press. A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Detroit News, August 13, 2013.
Ford Road, a new Michigan-based novel by historian Amy Kenyon, tells the story of Kay Seger, a historical consultant to a Los Angeles film company who abandons her career to return to her childhood home in Michigan after the death of her mother. There, Kay rekindles a teenage love affair with Joe Chase, now a Vietnam War veteran and Ford auto worker, and begins an investigation of her family’s past that transports readers to Detroit at the dawn of the automotive age and Michigan’s rural western counties after the settlement of the frontier. In this Q&A, Kenyon, who was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and spent her childhood in suburban Detroit, offers insights into her approach to writing the book and how it was inspired by her own family’s history and influenced by her historical work on suburban Detroit.
The University of Michigan Press: Like Ford Road’s main character, Kay, you grew up in suburban Detroit and became a historian. To what extent is Kay based on you?
Amy Kenyon: In a novel so clearly conceived as a kind of love letter to particular times and places from my Michigan past, this question was always going to be asked! It is fair to say that a number of my own preoccupations – my background in urban history and film history, my enthusiasm for the Detroit Tigers, to cite a few examples – have been filtered through Kay, and to a lesser extent through Joe and other characters. At the same time, Kay is crafted. By that I mean she is subject to the shape and substance of the story and its writing – the language and strategies that come into play.
In a wonderful recent essay titled “What is Real is Imagined,” Irish writer Colm Toibin helpfully described the approach he takes in his own fiction, much of which is set in and around the Irish town of Enniscorthy:
“What occurs as I walk in the town now is nothing much….What happens, however, when I remember my mother, wearing a red coat, leaving our house in the town on a morning in the winter of 1968, going to work, walking along John Street…is powerful and compelling. It brings with it a sort of music and a strange need…I don’t know what she thought, of course, so I have to imagine. In doing so, I use certain and uncertain facts, but I add to the person I remember or have invented. Also, I take things away.”
This is a process I recognize, and in writing Ford Road, it was no less true for Kay than for my other characters. And so, although we can say that Kay casts a shadow that is to some extent shaped liked me, she also has a shape and a life force of her own, derived from the writing of the book, the needs of the story and the course of the narrative, its language and tone. Kay is as much a creation as any of the other characters.
UMP: There is a passage in the book in which Kay and Joe talk about their hometown, Garden City. The town is described as “having no center,” and Joe claims that “Most of the people in this town are terrified of strangers, even though they never actually meet any.” Kay goes on to reflect on the fact that no one seems to want to stay in the town, and she notes that “the story of Garden City is inseparable from the story of the automobile.” Can you explain what Kay means by that statement?
AK: In some of these discussions between Joe and Kay, I am giving voice to findings in my historical work on suburban Detroit, how suburbanization was bound up with industry, race, postwar housing practices and forms of segregation found in the urban north. I hand much of the critical voice to Joe who, as an auto worker at the Rouge Plant and a blue collar suburbanite, but one jaded by other experiences in life, is well placed to measure the cost of some of these processes. In a sense, and to those of us who grew up in the region, none of Joe’s comments are entirely surprising.
Yet despite her formal training as a historian, Kay is really quite naïve about these questions. So when she finally arrives at that statement – that the story of Garden City is inseparable from the story of the automobile – she is drawing on what she has learned from Joe, but also what she has learned as a family historian. Her grandfather was essentially the last Detroiter; her father was a suburban commuter: both father and grandfather worked for Ford, albeit in very different historical moments and capacities. In tracking their stories, and in setting those stories in what she has learned about Ford, Detroit, cars and roads, indeed in Ford Road itself, Kay finally grasps the myriad invisible ways in which these private and public histories have shaped the spaces and lives of virtually everyone who grew up in that area.
It is helpful here to remember that Kay is a historian, but she worked for Hollywood as a historical consultant. This explains some of her naïveté, but also her somewhat obsessive tendency to read history through popular film and song. As a result, she finds it difficult to disentangle the history of the car and the road from their representation on film, and from peculiarly American ideas about home, leaving home, taking to the road, returning home. For example, Kay’s love of the Orson Welles film, The Magnificent Ambersons, comes as no surprise in this context. The film speaks to her own ambivalence about the American Dream, the small town, and the impact of the automobile on our history and culture.
In Kay’s mind, all of these elements – Joe’s critical commentaries, Ford history, her family history in relation to Detroit and its suburbs; then road movies and movies about home – all of these come to litter the historical highway that is Ford Road.
UMP: As Kay investigates her family’s past, scenes that take place in Detroit at the dawn of the automotive age and in Michigan’s western counties after the settlement of the frontier come to life. How did you research these settings?
AK: A number of scenes – for example, the route from New York to western Michigan followed by Alonzo Shaw in the 1830s, the story of Shaw farm on the Michigan frontier, recollections of baseball in Detroit and the corner that would eventually become Tiger Stadium, the introduction of the moving assembly line at Ford, Detroit’s first auto fatality, and many others – required the time to visit particular locations that provide settings for the novel, as well as a fair amount of reading and research, and finally, approaches to other historians, all of which I have documented in the Acknowledgments.
At the same time, I was acutely aware that I was writing fiction and that I needed to silence the historian in me – that little voice that worries about sources, documentation, quoting and referencing. As a first time novelist, this was perhaps the hardest task initially, but also a pleasurable one, to free myself of the rules of academic writing in order to let the story and the characters carry history as lightly as possible. When I look at particular chapters, I may know that weeks of digging went into the production of a few short passages. But I hope I judged well enough when to let things go, let historical fact be embedded in the story but not directly evident, so that the reader does not feel the burden of my research.
Finally, I was lucky in having friends and family members who generously shared memories and stories. For example, my father told me a great deal about the terms of the GI Bill, buying his first home in the 1950s, and a number of other topics. A childhood friend shared his memories of coming home after Vietnam. These are great gifts to any writer of historical fiction.
UMP: As she delves into her family’s past, Kay stumbles across the lost history of nostalgia. What surprised you the most as you investigated this subject? How much of what you write about nostalgia in the book is real, and what is fiction?
AK: Before I started the book, I did not know about Johannes Hofer, the Swiss physician who coined the term nostalgia in 1688, or his description of it as an organic disease characterized by a “sad mood originating from the desire to return to one’s native land.” Nor did I know much about the subsequent history of nostalgia as it gradually morphed from medical ailment to our current views of it as a kind of bittersweet, personal experience or as a cultural condition.
I found this material absolutely compelling, particularly in light of the fact that nowadays we often think of nostalgia in negative terms, as an experience of memory that is backward looking and unproductive. I wanted to see if I could draw upon this history to restore something, however small, of the positive potential in nostalgia, its connection to how we grieve and remember, but also how we use memory, loss, and the past to move forward. By creating my fictional Dr. Thisroy, his writings and his somewhat eccentric attempts to resurrect nostalgia as a disease, I was asking whether nostalgia might still be part of a positive and therapeutic engagement between past and present. I don’t think the novel provides a definitive answer, but it fantasizes that possibility.
UMP: In the Acknowledgments, you write that two discoveries relating to your own family’s past led you to write Ford Road. Can you describe how finding out about your great-grandfather’s suicide and your great-grandmother’s disappearance compelled you to write this novel?
AK: I originally set out to write a story loosely based on my grandfather’s early life in Detroit and his move to the rural counties of western Michigan. I had almost no information about his life, but I always thought of him as the “last Detroiter” in the family and that interested me as the basis for a novel. So it was specific places that motivated me at first – not only Detroit, Tiger Stadium, and the Ford plants, but also Middleville, the Thornapple River and western Michigan, the streets and playgrounds of Garden City, and finally, the differences between city, suburb and small town – and that is why Ford Road remains, in many respects, primarily a novel about place or what some might call a “regional novel.”
Much of my writing constitutes an attempt to come to terms with this mysterious impact of place, including the absence or erasure of place, on our sense of who we are. In the case of Detroit, I never lived there; as a child, I lived in Garden City, a suburb that had implications for the history of Detroit. There remains much that I don’t know about Detroit, and for me, some sense of loss. This may explain why I can’t seem to stop reading and writing about it, along with a number of other Michigan locations. The fact that I now live in London, an ocean and culture away, probably only serves to heighten these preoccupations.
But it is also true that my attraction to these places came from earlier family history searches – first into my grandfather’s life, but then into the preceding generation with these two mysteries: a suicide on the Detroit side of the family, and a missing unwed mother on the other side of the family and the other side of the state.
I was clear from the start that the real fate of Allie Green, the missing woman, would probably never be known. I was equally clear that any attempt to explain a suicide is fraught with peril, and certainly, in the case of my great-grandfather, no evidence existed to shed light on this event. So in a sense, the novel was created out of my frustration with family history – with the awareness that however hard we search, it remains difficult to get inside the minds of our ancestors, to truly understand their feelings and motivations, how they experienced on a cognitive and emotional level, the times and places in which they lived. Therefore, I felt that the best way to honor them, and these two particular histories, was to liberate myself from the few facts I possessed in order create characters and stories that any reader might recognize and care about.
Virginia Woolf once remarked that where the truth is important, she preferred to write fiction. I wrote in that spirit, in the belief that fiction can deliver something of the truth of our ordinary lives, of how quiet lives conceal tragedies, lonely struggles, painful decisions and loving sacrifices, and sometimes inexplicable acts.
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)