BASS 2012: Roxane Gay, “North Country” from Hobart #12, April 2011

I rented my new home—a former dry-cleaning business converted into an apartment—over the phone. There are no windows, save for the one in the front door. The apartment, I thought, as I walked from room to room when I moved in, was like a jail cell. I had been sentenced. My new landlady, an octogenarian Italian who ran the dry cleaner’s for more than thirty years, gasped when she met me. “You didn’t sound like a colored girl on the phone,” she said. I said, “I get that a lot.”

Overall, this story covers well-trod ground: a woman still affected by a painful past starts over again and experiences excruciating loneliness until she gets out of her own way and allows an opportunity for connection. But it’s beautiful reading: smooth prose, with imagery that’s interesting and compelling.

In her Contributor Note, Gay talks about her time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula obtaining her PhD. The harsh weather was only part of it; people really did make some assumptions based on the color of her skin. But she also found more, as we usually do when we’re willing to actually look. So she wrote it into the story, “a love letter to the North Country,” in which narrator Kate faces similar issues while adjusting to her new job teaching structural engineering, with all its equations and processes that makes sense:

“Are you from Detroit?”
I have been asked this question twenty-three times since moving to the area. In a month, I will stop counting, having reached a four-digit number. Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa. They will nod and exhale excitedly and ask about my tribe. I don’t know that in this moment, so there is little to comfort me.

I’m sure it wasn’t fun at all to live through, but it’s pretty hilarious to read about.
And it underlines Kate’s isolation, following the stillbirth of her daughter and breakup of her relationship. Then there’s the Indian colleague who keeps inviting her to try his special curry. No wonder she’s pretty guarded even when logger Magnus shows signs of being a good guy.

What worked for me is the pull of opposites: the engineering professor and the logger, concrete vs. trees, head vs. hands. Then there’s the use of inside and outside, already alluded to in the reaction to her race. It’s carried further by the description of Magnus’s trailer:

Magnus lives in a trailer, and not one of those fancy double-wides on a foundation with a well-kept garden in the front, but rather an old, rusty trailer that can be attached to truck and driven away. It is the kind of trailer you see in sad, forgotten places that have surrendered to rust and overgrown weeds and cars on cinderblocks and sagging laundry lines. The trailer, on the outside, is in a fair amount of disrepair, but the inside is immaculate. Everything has its proper place.

This is mirrored at the end, when Kate finally stops testing how hard he’ll let her push him away and lets him in: the logger builds an igloo for the structural engineer, and lights a fire inside.

I have to admit I’m not completely objective, though. I’ve been enjoying Dr. Gay’s essays in The Rumpus for a while now, and just last night – after I’d already written most of this post – was comforted by her live-tweets of the debate (I find I can’t watch the debates this time around, they just make me angry). So some of this imagery I’m raving about, by another writer at another time, I might find a little treadworn. But come on, who can resist an igloo?