As a kid who only ventured into Detroit when my father was in the mood for a Tigers game or the jazz festival was in season, my early experiences with the city were pretty limited and sheltered. When I hit grad school, I developed a big fondness and interest in the place, and grew to acquaint myself fully with its downfall, current issues, and slow revival. A Detroit Anthology, one in a series of Rust Belt-centered anthologies from Rust Belt Chic Press, sheds a closer and brighter light on the city from a variety of angles.
I’m gonna start with what I didn’t entirely love about the collection so that the great stuff will seem as great as it truly is. What’s nearly permanently attached to a project in which writers write about their own town to, presumably, an audience of outsiders as well as other natives, is a desperate defense of the city’s reputation, situation, and true identity. The problem with this, I think, is that writers are immediately drawn to that use of the 2nd person, the “we” from which no collective approved the statements or ideas. No “we” is truly speaking, and what happens is a hero complex, or maybe a soapbox complex, in which one person stands up for an entire city of individuals who all have their own take on the issue. Isn’t that the end goal of this book? Totally. But there are pieces within it that seem to undermine the whole project with a vicious, adamant, and desperate-seeming defense, which is a turn-off by human nature.
Anyway, with that aside, there are some absolutely incredible pieces of writing to celebrate within the confines of this anthology. Some of my favorite Michigan writers are in here, like Peter Markus, Jamaal May, francine harris, and more. One of May’s poems, I think, makes for a good version of the problem of local defense (or maybe attack) of a wide misunderstanding of the city and its deal. Here’s a bit from “There Are Birds Here”:
There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
May goes on to keep pulling apart similar nonexistent metaphors and showing, without attempting to speak for the whole city at once, how local truisms are puffed up and exploded in the public eye as people who don’t understand the city try to find meaning and grounding.
Along with a wonderful selection of poems and more lyrical-minded fiction, there are stories here by local Detroiters about themselves or others they know closely. This, to me, is some of the meat in this anthology. What better way to understand a city through art than to read well-told stories of life in the city? What better way to research? What better way to contextualize a work of fiction or nonfiction? And that’s the best part — we want to assume that these stories are true, and they probably (mostly) are, but if they aren’t, that makes them that much more genuine. That’s how stories, true or imagined, should exist. I love that.
There is a geography here, pieced together by these accounts and voices, these street names and neighborhoods. Local or not, you come to understand the city from a variety of angles. A map is strung together by the time you’re through reading.
Of course, there is a wealth of well-research, very readable and enjoyable nonfiction here, too. Interesting takes on suburbanism, on statistics and histories, on the Joe Louis Arena, and on others who have written about the city. There is an entire conversation in here, broken up into Acts and sectioned into parts about the music, about the automobile, and always about the people. Because, really, what’s Detroit without Detroiters?
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C.J. Opperthauser co-edits Threadcount, a journal of hybrid prose. He blogs at http://thicketsandthings.tumblr.com and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.