For those who have never lived in the Midwest and don’t know what it’s like to stay, Meghan O’Gieblyn’s essays can help.
For those who have faith in Christianity and don’t know what it’s like to lose it, the Madison writer’s essays can also help.
The Midwest and Christianity entwine throughout the essays in “Interior States,” O’Gieblyn’s new collection. While the subjects of the essays can range from the novels of John Updike to the “transhuman” movement that believes technology can grant us eternal life, those two things remain touchstones for O’Gieblyn.
O’Gieblyn will read from and talk about “Interior States” at 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at Upper House, 365 E. Campus Mall.
O’Gieblyn’s writing about the Midwest avoids the usual folksiness or cutesiness inherent in many such essays. There are no cute anecdotes about raising chickens or rooting for the Packers here. Instead, she plumbs the complexities of the Midwestern identity, what keeps us here and what compels us to leave.
“It’s difficult to live here without developing an existential dizziness, a sense that the rest of the world is moving while you remain still,” she writes in the book’s opening essay.
O’Gieblyn has never lived outside the Midwest. She grew up in an evangelical family in Michigan, attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and got her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“A lot of what I’m doing in my essays is explaining the Midwest to people who may not have experienced it,” she said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people from the coasts. Some are transplants who grew up in the Midwest and then left. People like that have a lot of nostalgia for this place that they experienced as kids. And then there are readers who have never experienced the Midwest, and are interested in it as sort of an anthropological object.”
O’Gieblyn wants her writing to challenge and complicate the commonly accepted narratives about the region. For example, when the national media write about the Midwest, they use the label as synonymous with “white working class.” But there are many more kinds of communities in the United States — Dearborn, Michigan, for example, has the largest Muslim population in the United States.
It was after attending the conservative Moody Bible Institute that O’Gieblyn broke with her Christian faith. She writes critically about faith, as in her essays on megachurches and the Creation Museum, but avoids the obvious points that a non-believer might zero in on.
“I’m always trying to criticize Christianity from within its premises, rather than from outside of it,” she said. ”As somebody who grew up in that culture and knows the arguments, I’m interested in making arguments that Christians might find persuasive.”
O’Gieblyn initially wrote fiction, using characters and narratives to grapple with themes that were on her mind. But it was while she was an MFA student at UW-Madison that she shifted to writing essays, where she was able to write directly about her experiences.
The essays in “Interior States” are presented out of chronological order. In general, the essays about Christianity were written prior to 2016. Around that election year, with much of the national focus on the Midwestern swing states, O’Gieblyn became more interested in writing about the place she’s lived all of her life.
O’Gieblyn said she didn’t intend for the essays to become part of a collection. Any connections between them just reflected the connections she was making in her mind.
“It wasn’t a deliberate effort to keep writing about these topics,” she said. “It was more of an outgrowth of these intellectual obsessions.”
Even though she has been out of the church for years, she said being raised in faith continues to shape how she perceives the world.
“It’s made me interested in big existential questions,” she said. “If you don’t grow up in a faith tradition, you don’t think about those things and you take them for granted. To believe that, and then to stop, you realize how many of those questions are contingent on there being some kind of meaning in the universe. So those are things I would hope would go on and inform my writing in some way, even if I’m not writing directly about Christianity.”
As for the Midwest, she immediately says “Yes!” when asked if she would ever leave. And not just because of the winters, although that is a factor.
“I’m sure I would miss it,” she said. “I always thought it would be such a gift to live outside the Midwest because you gain such a perspective on a place once you leave it.”