[Part 3 of the presentation I gave at the Symposium of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.]
Another thing we can do in comics, which is more difficult in print (but not impossible, if our text is digital) is quickly scan for information. Picking out the most important symbols made the themes of each story pop out from the page, so it was easy to create a graphic interpretations of those themes (see graph), but after I did so, I realized that basing the graph on the comics presented, of course, my own bias. I drew far more metaphors for women’s bodies than I drew the visual and physical assaults on those bodies. In the books, the assaults outnumber the metaphors. Sometimes, I had to look away, because the stories were so immersive, in their way, that the rural noir world of Campbell’s Kalamazoo threatened the world I live in, a world in which I have so much privilege that it’s possible for me to look away, even as I’m intentionally fixing my gaze on the subject.
But I also know what a privilege that is; in many senses, the ability to look away from things that may distress you but don’t affect you is the definition of privilege. In the American Salvage comic book, I devoted an entire page to examining my privilege in the face of Campbell’s work, so instead of talking even more about myself now, I want to finish by talking about a colleague of mine, Sarah.
I met Sarah at the same time, in the same place, as I met Bonnie Jo Campbell, on the campus of Western Michigan University in 2002. I asked her for permission to share her story with you and she enthusiastically approved.
Sarah was born in rural Michigan and lived the first part of her life in the physical and emotional space occupied by many of Campbell’s characters, at risk, in socioeconomic distress, in Kalamazoo county. Her parents might have sprung from the pages of Campbell’s books: her father was a schizo-affective Vietnam veteran who would sometimes mistake Sarah and her brother for Viet Cong and hold them at gunpoint in his home. Her mother was a narcissistic alcoholic who brought a parade of strange and sexually inappropriate men into the house. One of Sarah’s oldest memories is of her mother arguing with her flavor of the week and both adults driving away from the house in anger. Little Sarah, perhaps five years old, chased after her mother’s car, begging not to be left behind, but her mother, who thought her parenting was more than good enough, disappeared down the road, and my friend fell into a muddy ditch, where she cried until she couldn’t cry any more, realized that no one was coming to save her, and then climbed out of the ditch and went home to clean herself up. She voluntarily chose homelessness at fifteen, because anywhere felt safer than her mother’s house. Her arm still bears the scar of that tumble into the ditch thirty-five years ago.
Sarah tells people, “If you want to know where I come from, read Bonnie Jo Campbell.” She says, “The thing I have most loved about Bonnie Jo is that I know her characters. They’re real, not fictional.”
Ultimately, Sarah didn’t become a Bonnie Jo Campbell character herself. She finished her master’s degree, recognized that physical separation was the only way to escape her family’s cycle of insanity, and headed out to the Bay Area.
Today, Sarah, the impoverished, neglected, hurt kid with the crazy, unpredictable, unprotective parents, the girl who came up in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Kalamazoo, is the Lead Techwriter for one of the largest internet companies on the planet.
At the same time that I read Bonnie Jo Campbell as a window into a world outside my experience and learned to see situations uncommon to the world of my childhood, Sarah, straddling the blue collar and academic points of view, reads these stories and feels heard. Knowing that Campbell has verbally recreated the conflicts of her origin is almost an assurance, decades after the fact, that someone actually was listening when a small child cried in a muddy ditch for a mother who would never come to her rescue. Decades and miles removed from the trauma of her early years, Sarah cherishes the honest, brutal, funny portraits of the world she knew, grateful that Bonnie Jo Campbell is listening for these voices, delighted that someone is recreating characters she find familiar, giving voices to the unheard and putting the unseen in the spotlight. Because Bonnie Jo is watching, listening, and writing, Sarah’s truth is seen and heard.