Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Michael Chabon on Being Where You're At

Along with David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, I consider Michael Chabon absolutely essential reading.  While each is perhaps best known as a novelist or author of short fiction, it is their respective forays into literary nonfiction which I read and re-read consistently for inspiration.  (The novels and short stories are purely for my inner self which does not belong to anyone but me...so there!)  Recently, Chabon was a guest blogger at Ta-Nhehisi Coates' blog over at the Atlantic and while his post on his rediscovery and renewed obsession with hip hop is a great read (who else would use Borges to explain why Wax Poetics is so seminal to postwar American culture?), his 10 January 2011 post made me both think and smile.  Here are the bits that spoke so loudly to me, but please read the whole post at the Atlantic site:

The real Telegraph Avenue runs straight as a steel cable, changing its nature more or less completely every ten blocks or so, from the medical-marijuana souks of Oaksterdam, past the former Lamp Post bar where Bobby Seale used to hang out (now called Interplay Center, where you can "unlock the wisdom of your body"), past Section 8 housing and the site of a founding settlement of the native Ohlone people at the corner of 51st Street, past the Niebyl-Proctor Marxist Library and Akwaba Braiding and a buttload of Ethiopian restaurants, ending in an august jangle at the gates of the Cal campus, and I guess that for a guy who likes hanging around the borderlands--between genres, cultures, musics, legacies, styles--the appeal of Telegraph lies in the way it reflects a local determination to find your path irrespective of boundary lines, picking up what you can, shaking off what you can, along the way. But can you claim a home in a nameless place, at the edge of a wandering border?

Or is your "hometown" only, ever, the place where you grew up? For me that would be Columbia, MD, from shortly after the late-'60s opening of that "planned community," in a vast stretch of former tobacco country south of Baltimore, through its idealistic heyday of the 1970s. I haven't been back in years, and at any rate could never hope to return to the Columbia where I grew up, still exuberantly dedicated to becoming the hometown envisioned by its founder, James Rouse--multiracial, multiethnic, ecumenical, economically diverse, green and heavily playgrounded and bicycle-friendly, fulfilling the promises of the American experiment one neocolonial tract house at a time. That Columbia, to the extent that it ever existed anywhere but (at least) in the imagination of one little white boy, has long since faded away.

Maybe your hometown is always an imaginary place: the home of your imagination. If so, then mine--at its best, at its most vivid--whether the vanishing rainbow of Columbia, or the shifting restless polycultural territory manifesting in the joint between Oakland and Berkeley, is a place a lot like this place right here, a place to which people come most of all, I think, because they want to live around people who are not like them, because that is the very thing they have most in common, because they are dedicated to the self-evident truth articulated in one of the founding documents of my hometown, that it ain't where you're from, it's where you're at.