Written by Bryna R. Campbell and William Campbell
Note: “Five Questions” is a regular series in which one or both of us poses questions about a topic relating to the blog’s broader themes. In this post, my brother William asks me to reflect on growing up rural and my experiences living in various parts of the country. – Bryna R. Campbell
W: Q1: Just like you asked me in our first “five questions” segment, what sparked your interest in starting this creative project?
B: So many things! As someone who grew up on a farm, I’ve always harbored this fascination with the ways that rural culture is perceived. Sometimes, I find myself falling into the reductive trap of thinking of rural/urban as this stark dichotomy (it’s not) and I liked the idea of trying to suss out the complexities in an open-ended way. Plus, as someone whose been mostly writing for academic purposes for so long, the idea of writing creatively felt liberating. We happened to start talking about this project at a time that I was beginning to think more critically about higher education (with its lack of full-time positions, exploitation of cheap labor, etc.) and pondering where I fit in. It’s been great to step out of that box and build my writing muscles, so to speak, in a different way. I also just loved the idea of being able collaborate with you! It’s funny how many times we’ve mused about doing a project together, but neither of us seemed to have any time. I’m so glad we’ve just gone ahead and made time. I am finding the process incredibly generative.
W: Q2: So you’ve lived in cities all over the country – Washington, D.C.; St. Louis, MO; and now Portland, OR. I’m curious about your thoughts on living in these different settings and if Portland, OR, is any different.
B: I guess I have moved a lot, haven’t I? It’s amusing to think on that, given how grounded our childhood was – going to the same school that are dad went to; living on a plot of land that had been in our family for several decades. But I suppose moving around a lot isn’t that unusual in today’s economy…
But as for your question, it’s hard for me to explain what each place means to me, except to say that each I have strong affection for each city. I hold this stubborn belief that a person can make any place a home if they try. And that’s what I do, every time I move somewhere. I’m also an incredibly curious person, so every time we’ve moved I’ve embraced the chance to experience something new.
I can say this – when I moved to DC with my (at that time newlywed) husband for a masters program, I had just finished my undergrad degree at a small Missouri college and was living outside of the midwest for the first time in my life. That was probably the most difficult transition I’ve ever experienced in my life so far (new husband, big city, new program, virtually nothing in our bank accounts), but that was where I started to gain a wider perspective and began to embrace living in diverse, vibrant, urban community. We might have stayed there longer if not for it’s downsides – the terrible traffic and high-priced housing…and the overly-political, high paced, culture that seems to weigh the city down, and began to give me a bit of a headache. By the time I time it was time for me to head off to a PhD program I was longing again for the lower-key vibe of the midwest. That’s one of the reasons I chose to move with my husband to St. Louis, where I pursued my doctorate. But St. Louis…I don’t think I’ll surprise anyone if I say that city has problems that sometimes make it a challenging place to live.But my love for that place is deep. What an amazing, diverse, politically engaged community with an incredible history. There are so so many great people in that city, many of whom are working hard to make it better.
We moved to Portland a few years ago for a job opportunity that my husband couldn’t pass up. Because you’ve been here, Wil (and talk about moving here), you know what a beautiful city this is. It has many qualities that I love in a home. I have always taken regular trips out into the country wherever I’ve lived because it gives me space and a sense of balance. Here, it’s fairly easy to leave – and what a glorious wilderness that surrounds us too. I go hiking regularly. There are city parks here where you can hike and be in the middle of a deep forest. I also love the food culture here. In St. Louis, I had started to become invested in the ethics of food and importance of supporting local farming (and after joining a CSA I also realized that food tastes so much better when you buy it in season from local producers). Compared to St. Louis, Portland is a veritable Eden thanks to its temperate climate. I can’t get enough of the amazing produce.
In its own way, Portland also feels more like rural Iowa than anywhere else I’ve lived (except with far more progressive politics). I suppose that may due in part to the fairly large number of midwestern transplants. Plus, all the gardeners and chicken owners make me nostalgic for our childhood, visiting our grandparents farm where we’d gather eggs or find our grandma picking produce.
W: Q3:What’s it like for you when you return to our farm in Iowa?
B: It’s strange. A lot has changed. The last time I went back I drove through a small town about five miles from our family farm and noticed that the old general store is gone. And I don’t mean closed; I mean gone. The store was located in this old brick building that is now rubble. Our grandparent’s house is gone too, replaced by a green lawn of grass – which I’m still trying to process because I have so many fond memories attached to that big old farmhouse. I’m struck by other changes too. There are more large hog confinement buildings than when I moved away. The demographics of the bigger regional towns are changing, with a growing number of recent immigrants living and working at the meatpacking plants. The diversity is bringing greater breadth in restaurant options and shops, which I enjoy. And it may be a small thing, but I still enjoy those big midwestern sunsets whenever I go back.
W: Q4: You’ve spoken about how academia has impacted your view of your rural upbringing. I’m interested in how the reverse is also true? How did your rural upbringing influence your decision to pursue your phd? How did it influence what you explicitly chose to study?
B: I talked a bit about this in my post on my life one year post-dissertation. As I mentioned there, I think when I first went to college I was interested in learning about topics that seemed exotic to me. But during grad school, I became more interested in issues closer to home, and have done quite a bit of research, for example, on midwestern regional artists. But as I already mentioned, I’m a bit stubborn. I have this mission to prove to the world that rural midwesterners are not all backwards hicks. So a lot of my work on midwestern art focused on leftist activist artists.
W: Q5:What are the biggest stereotypes about growing up rural that stand out to you?
B: People outside the midwest ask some pretty funny questions when I tell them I’m from Iowa. On the east coast, it’s seems like people usually assumed that everyone in Iowa lives on a farm (nope!). And the farm they imagine too when they say this – it’s always one of those farms you see on a commercial infused with a warm glow, always with a big barn and jersey milking cows (again, nope!). Another funny thing that happens sometimes is that people think I’ll know their other friend from Iowa, as though the entire state is actually just this tiny town of 200 people. Though I admit, sometimes I have known their friends (or we can find some kind of connection through five degrees of separation). I could go on about the assumptions about rural politics, but I’ll leave that for a future post.