“When I speak of writing from where you have put down roots, it may be said that what I urge is ‘regional’ writing. ‘Regional,’ I think, is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art. ‘Regional’ is an outsider’s term; it has no meaning for the insider who is writing about life.” -Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story
When I write, I try to pay close attention to where I write and where I’m writing about. My nonfiction so far has focused on Arizona and the American West, where most of my life has occurred. But I had never thought of myself as a regional writer until a nonfiction instructor encouraged me to look into my university’s Place Studies program. I don’t think of myself as a regional writer, but I can understand how someone could read the hundreds of stories I’ve written about how great Flagstaff is and think I’m a regional writer.
I’m guilty of this too. From my vantage point, Ted Kooser, Mohsin Hamid, Eudora Welty, and Michelle Cliff are regional writers because they focus on places (Nebraska, Lahore, the American South, Jamaica) which I have few, if any, firsthand experiences with.
Eudora Welty offers a more useful observation when she writes, however briefly, about the perspective of the insider. She points out that the term “regional writing” is useful only for readers who are outside the writer’s perspective. Decades after she penned those words, the literary community has become wholly global, working in physical and online spaces. No one writer’s insider perspective is independent of outside influences.
Globalization’s consequences are rapidly becoming more visible for those who do not experience it directly. Climate change, free trade agreements, military investments, and world trade organizations force more and more people to emigrate. Similar forces are behind the reactionary anti-immigration ideologies that have proliferated or, more accurately, become more active again. Many writers are aware of this fact; many writers and even more readers are immigrants or the children of immigrants. One of the limits of defining writers regionally is that, more and more, literature is transnational.
Sometimes readers refuse to acknowledge this. Sometimes readers use their lack of experience with a given writer’s region as an excuse to exoticize and categorize. Doing so risks reinforcing a kind of literary colonial gaze, making a spectacle of subaltern writers for the colonial center to consume and monitor, shelving authors based on place of origin (nationality, immigration status, religion, race, ethnicity) rather than subject matter, genre, or form. Again, I have also been guilty of shelving authors this way.
More than ever, literature is a transnational affair. Many writers have inherited a multitude of regions. Their lived experiences, their insider perspectives, often reflect the broad expanse of roots these writers claim.
Eudora Welty adds that “whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will never be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.” If this is true, then no truly regional writer exists. In a globalized world, no region is isolated enough for a writer to inhabit it independently.
This is not to suggest the literary community is a global village or that writers should act as free-floating clouds. I could not have written Fatimah Asghar’s wonderful poem “If They Should Come for Us” or Ted Kooser’s collection The Blizzard Voices or Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us or Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist or any of the hundreds of short stories and essays published in 2017 so far by authors both rooted and rootless. I cannot write to inhabit another person’s space; to do so is to be a tourist because I can return to the safety of my own region the moment it becomes convenient. It is better, as Welty implies, to write from the murky inside I inhabit now, not for an outsider’s diet but for the global readership that any published work has the potential to reach.
Welty, Eudora. The Eye of the Story. Vintage International, 1990.