Written by Bryna R. Campbell and William Campbell
Series Note: We are very excited to introduce “Five Questions,” a regular series at Un/Settled in which one or both of us poses questions about a topic relating to the blog’s broader themes. In this inaugural post, I ask my brother William about the connections between his professional pursuits and his rural identity. – Bryna R. Campbell
QUESTION 1: William, you have a very active professional life in Chicago. You work full time in a non-profit job. You are also busy writing your first novel. Given these demands, what sparked your interest in collaborating on a blog about rural identity with your sibling?
A few reasons actually. When you approached me about this idea originally, I remember gravitating toward this tension between our rural upbringing and our urban lifestyles. Although it took us months to land on the eventual name of the blog, this feeling of being unsettled really resonated with me as something I wanted to explore. At times I’ve felt honored to grow up in a rural setting while other times I’ve found myself resentful for missing out on the opportunities that so many others took for granted. I found this project the perfect parallel to the book I’m writing. Taking place on a farm in rural Iowa, my book explores life in a rural setting where I am unashamedly drawing from my own memories. Or maybe I’m just in that proverbial point in my life where I start to get more nostalgic. I’ve moved beyond the escapism of my college and post-collegiate years into what I hope is a more mature season where I can look back on my experiences at least a bit more respectfully (though never fully objectively). To be honest, though, I think the truest reason was that this project was a way for you and I to connect again. I think we had so many similar perspectives growing up, though we lived life 6 years apart. I mention this in another post, but for me Unsettled is a bit about family and returning home. I like this idea that I’m unsettled with my familial relationships and this blog is a way for us to return to a sibling relationship.
QUESTION 2: Partly because we share a common background, we spend a lot time talking to each other about respective experiences growing up on a farm. You’ve told me privately that your childhood experiences are a source of creativity. What role does your background in rural Iowa play in the novel you are writing?
I started to get into this in the answer above, but it plays a pretty crucial role. One of the first scenes I visualized when I had the idea for my book was of a kid standing in front of a sea of corn. While standing there, a breeze blows through the corn, rustling the leaves like they were whispering. The kid reflects on how they’ve always felt like the corn was somehow watching them, listening to them – that the field itself was somewhat sinister. Though I never really had this feeling as a kid growing up, I do remember wondering at times if some kind of animal was just inside the first few rows, waiting to pounce on me. The novel takes place on a farm where what you imagine can come true (but not necessarily comes true). Growing up I would bike for hours around our circular driveway dreaming up with adventures in my head. Playing either a superhero or a magic-wielding mage, I was always the protagonist in some escapist fantasy. On TV, I always saw these kids with neighbors so close by or towns with so much available, but we didn’t have any of that; so I made up my own adventures. I wanted to so badly to either be someone special or to find out that life was about something more than what the country life offered. I would be lying if I said I didn’t shut the closet door sometimes and hope that I could walk through the other side – just like Lucy Pevensie – into my own Narnia. So I asked myself – what if I created a place where this could actually happen? What if I created a farm where my adventures could come to life? As I write my book I’m intentionally bringing in moments from my own imaginary adventures from childhood. In this way I am bringing to life those adventures from childhood.
QUESTION 3: I am curious to know if you see yourself as a Chicagoan or an Iowan. Or perhaps, both? You’ve lived in both locations for large parts of your life, and while both are in the midwest, both are also quite distinctive.
It’s funny you use the word “midwest.” Though rural identities and experiences aren’t unique to midwestern states, that’s where I associate this word “rural.” I see myself more as midwestern rather than Iowan or Chicagoan. Both places continue to be foreign to me, though both have deeply impacted me. I pull more to the shared identity of midwestern because I recognize certain values that are shared regardless of rural or urban settings. Values such as kindness, hospitality, and hard work. I know you live in Portland, OR, and that’s actually my dream location. I hope to move out to the Pacific Northwest, and I’m interested in the differences of rural experiences in those spaces distinct from our own Iowan upbringing. But at the end of the day, I recognize the deeply midwestern identity in me.
QUESTION 4: Do you think you’ll ever live somewhere rural again? Why or why not?
Maybe, but only if its in a place I can feel safe. And not safe as in there’s some axe murderer hanging out in the woods. No, safe in the sense that it’s a progressive enough community to accept my husband and me as a gay couple. I have no interest in putting myself alongside people who aren’t sure how they feel about gay people. It’s my priority to live alongside neighbors who are welcoming and inclusive. But I do wish sometimes to have a cabin out in the woods in a close driving distance to a mid-sized city. That would be wonderful. Ironically, that kind of rural setting isn’t in the midwest. I visualize it more in the pacific northwest as I mentioned earlier.
QUESTION 5: What do you miss most about your childhood in rural Iowa? What do you miss the least?
The most? Probably the open spaces. I know it sounds cliché but there is something about the big sky that’s stuck with me over the years. Living in the city can get kind of claustrophobic at times. Also, the easy parking haha. I mean…you can just pull over anywhere and you’re done. No parking meters. No parallel parking. Nothing. I think there’s a whole blog post in that topic alone. Living in the suburbs, parking is even MORE expensive because every little town sees it as a cash opportunity to charge for overnight parking on the street. Ridiculous in my opinion, but what can you do?
What do I miss the least? I don’t mean this to sound derogatory to anyone, but probably small mindsets. This definitely isn’t true of everyone in rural Iowa, but there are people who can’t see further than the cornfield down the road. For them it’s hard to imagine needs and desires of people of different cultures or different styles of living. This results in often racist commentary or straight up homophobic perspectives. Like I said, this isn’t true of everyone by any means. But this kind of mindset is probably what drove me away the most.
Header Image: Photo by Bryna R. Campbell, all rights reserved.