Enthusiasm & despair go hand-in-hand in Rust Belt literature
The Cleveland Review (CR) bills itself as “one part slack-jawed enthusiasm, two parts nonchalant despair,” which seems less a description of an online literary journal than an unusually accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a Clevelander. CR launched its first issue last January and will release its second on Sun 7/31. Editor-in-Chief Christine Borne and co-founders Camilla Grigsby (Associate Editor), Katheryn Norris (Managing Editor), and Wells Addington (Poetry Editor) started The Cleveland Review with the aim of exploring and nurturing a literary identity for the Rust Belt. This of course begs the questions of what exactly Rust Belt literature is and why even use a loaded term like ‘Rust Belt’ at all.
Borne notes it seems that whether people find the term derogatory or not depends on their generation. Older residents who were part of the workforce when the area was a manufacturing powerhouse seem to dislike the term. Younger residents whose personal history isn’t tied to a steel-based economy seems to find the term more neutral. She reminds that rust doesn’t have to be negative: “Oxidation—rust—is the process of transforming into something else. That’s what I always think of when I think about the term ‘Rust Belt.’ It doesn’t have to be decay. It can be a metamorphosis, a new thing. That’s kind of what we are becoming. These cities [Cleveland, Buffalo, Erie, Detroit] have shrunk. They’re in the process of becoming something completely different that we didn’t have in America before. A shell of a city with big swaths of urban farms and Amish people coming in, like that farm behind the CMHA housing in Ohio City. It’s just very strange.”
Strange, however, can be a good thing. Borne mentions the blog Burgh Diaspora, which has posed the concept of Rust Belt chic. Like Rust Belt literature, it’s kind of hard to explain but easy to identify. She names DJ Kishka as a quick example. “It’s stuff the old-timers would have liked with a new twist on it. If you’ve ever seen the Rust Belt episodes of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain gets Rust Belt chic. I think there’s a potential to capitalize on that, to bring people here who think this place is crazy weird in a good way.”
Borne grew up on Cleveland’s west side, left and worked in publishing for a number of years, and came back. Grigsby grew up in Bardstown, Kentucky, and ended up in Northeast Ohio via Hiram College. Norris grew up in Lakewood, and although she spent time in India as an exchange student and went to college in New Mexico and Maryland, she’s lived the bulk of her life here. Addington grew up in rural Canaan Township, Ohio, and is currently a graduate student at Case Western Reserve University. While each of the four has a unique relationship to the area, they share some common values and goals: a realization that Cleveland and cities like it have unique characteristics that make them a distinctive region, a lack of identification as “Midwestern,” and a desire to encourage the influence of the Rust Belt in the work of both local writers and ex-pats—those who’ve moved away from the region and haven’t returned.
The idea for the journal originated with Borne, who didn’t recognize “any voices that I could identify with. It’s like the Midwest thing. I don’t feel like I’m Midwestern. And people from Cleveland who end up doing something with themselves seem to kind of scrub that Cleveland part out…. Beyond just Cleveland, it’s a really unique area of the country. It’s not rural, it’s urban but it’s not urbane. It’s a very singular sort of place, and people sort of tramp down that influence in their work instead of allowing it to be there…. I think we have different ideas on what it means to be a Rust Belt author. It doesn’t have to be anything thematic to our area, it doesn’t have to have factories in it, but if you’re really writing authentically then your voice is going to have something of where you grew up.”
Borne goes on to say: “I would like to see this region rendered in the same kinds of ways that Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner did the South. I’d like to see the themes of the Rust Belt come out and the stories get told that make this region what it is. For instance, I think we hang on to the American dream a little bit tighter here than in other parts of the country, even when it’s past its prime. I’d really like to see a Rust Belt Cannery Row, which was a very specific love song to Monterey. Steinbeck just decided to write this very short novel set in a specific time in this very specific culture that basically died immediately after he wrote the book. It’s only remembered in that book. That’s what I’d like to see.”
Grigsby notes the myriad of perspectives and stories in cities like ours. “There are people who moved here from Appalachia to work in the factories and African Americans who came from the South and European immigrants—very different backgrounds, all kind of fabrics to work with, all kind of meshed into one.”
The CR editors hope that there are other writers out there who feel the same way they do. With the exception of Jenny, a journal out of Youngstown State University, it’s difficult to find a journal devoted specifically to the stories of the Rust Belt. Regional literature is established in other areas—Southern literature (see Faulkner, O’Connor, McCullers), New England literature (see Updike, Salinger). “There’s some talk of Midwest literature, but I always felt like Midwest was way too broad,” Borne says. “I don’t feel any connection to rural Iowa. I never saw a silo until I was, like, 20. I always felt more connected to Buffalo.”
The four note a number of differences between the Rust Belt and the Midwest. People here are polite, but there is a reserve, a sort of New England sensibility that can make a person still feel like a newcomer 10 years in. We don’t have agricultural colleges; we have urban gardening. Borne adds, “It’s really cool in a way but it scares me a little because it feels like devolution. There’s a video on YouTube of a guy in Detroit who teaches people how to hunt raccoons. I think it’s great to eat food from your garden but I don’t think our future is in agriculture.”
The Cleveland Review is currently scheduled to come out twice a year. Grigsby notes that it could be a quarterly if all of the editors didn’t have day jobs. Having one of the four work as a full-time staff member and being able to pay contributors are on the “It’d be nice” wish list. There are some ways to monetize a literary journal—charging for submissions, advertisements, grants, contests—but the CR editors don’t have any plans in that area yet. Right now, they say, their goal is to put out a quality online journal with top-notch writing and photography. Submissions are open all writers regardless of geography, although Borne notes that she’d like to get more contributions from Rust Belt ex-pats, not just people who live here. “People who live here are important, but we have this kind of wide diaspora, and the people who have moved away do think about where they grew up and do think about their roots…. I’d like to get lots of contributions from people in Erie and Buffalo and Detroit and all over.” She adds, “I just read that there’s more novelists per capita in Park Slope/Brooklyn than anywhere else in the country. What? Are they all just sitting there in the same coffee shops watching the same people? I find that boring. There’s more to America than that.”
There is indeed. And there is more to the Rust Belt than, well, rust. There are countless stories. The Cleveland Review wants them.
Read The Cleveland Review online at: http://ClevelandReview.org.
When Cool Cleveland contributor Susan Petrone is not writing an arts or culture article for Cool Cleveland, she writes fiction. Her first novel, A Body at Rest, was published in early 2009 by Drinian Press. An excerpt from the novel and some of her published short fiction are available at http://www.SusanPetrone.com.