Cathryn Hankla’s Lost Places: On Losing and Finding Home (Mercer University Press, 2018) collects essays on place, memory, and time, to explore the question, What is home? Meditations on landscape, identity, the body, our environment, and domestic spaces are woven with personal and family history upon a weft of literary, social, and art criticism.
Hankla’s finger underlines a name on a map. She offers images that root her to it. Residents of Western Virginia will find many of them familiar. The Hollins professor has lived in the region her entire life: roaming the great outdoors of Tazewell County, finding holes in a renovated granary west of Lexington, converting a downtown loft in Roanoke, living among the diverse community of Old Southwest or amidst the critters of the Catawba Valley. But there are spiritual homes that beckon her as well, notably New Mexico and Colorado, which each have essays devoted to them.
Across the fifteen essays, and even within them, decades blur. Experiences and investigations eddy, and as if upon a complex and mysterious current, the reader floats among them and toward some greater understanding of what we all seek.
Lost Places will be available at Book No Further, and Hankla will launch the book at the downtown bookstore on April 28. In anticipation, and to acknowledge the April 2 publication date, we visited with the author.
BOOK CITY ★ ROANOKE: Lost Places feels like a collection of essays, but it’s a very tight collection. Did you conceive of it as a memoir at first or did it grow from the individual pieces?
Cathryn Hankla: I think the best descriptor of this book is memoir-in-essays. A few of the pieces were first written as stand alones, but I didn’t do anything with them because I couldn’t figure out what they were, exactly, and probably at the time, early 1990’s, no one else would have either. Those essays evolved through revisions after I had more understanding of the larger questions I would trace. A number of place-centered pieces coalesced around larger themes of seeking one’s place in the world, which is not necessarily a physical place, but which often means locating one’s identity in relation to spiritual or ethical moorings. The world has a way of throwing bad fish at you. Sometimes we hardly recognize ourselves in all of the identities we’re given from outside ourselves. Pushing back with self-definition is difficult.
BCR: The book prompts a sense of dislocation, not of placelessness, but of timelessness. Over how many years did you work on it?
CH: Places are overwritten with different layers of time. There’s a constant slippage in our lives. The stars we’re gazing at are in the past, and our bodies, abodes, age through time, overwritten with different thoughts and experiences. My decision to weave time, picking up on connections and images, comes from recognizing that timelessness is as much a part of life as is time. Time might seem so important and inevitable, but we’re always thwarting linearity with our memories, dream lives, and story telling. I was also working through observations of my mother as she reached old age; she exclaimed many times that she didn’t psychically feel any different past 90. She felt worse physically and said she hardly recognized her own face in the mirror; there was a disjunction between her outer and inner realities. This is always the case with us, but it becomes more pronounced as we age. I was also working and wondering about long relationships that shift form over time. Basically staying put as I have in adult life has meant that many relationships have had to transform over time, like planets always in orbit but sometimes nearer, farther, or even retrograde.
BCR: Across those layers of time, you lost your mother and you write of an early divorce and a breakup, of your father’s post-war experience. That’s a lot of tough territory. Where there particular passages that you struggled with?
CH: The thing I struggled with most was how to present my own lived experience and emotional life without becoming artificial in the telling or impinging too much on the lives and feelings of others. The hard things you mentioned—the aftermath of war for my dad, my divorce and break-ups, Mother’s aging and dying, and the things we depend on to get us through, such as belief, friends, work, acceptance—I think a lot of people can relate to these markers of living and tell their own stories in their heads as they read my story. I love that my mother will always still be alive in the book.
BCR: How did your vision as a poet help at those points?
CH: My poetic sensibilities helped me stick with the many necessary rounds of revision. I’m used to overhauling and refining (refinding?) what I’ve written again and again, but on a smaller scale in a poem. The work was tedious at times, and it seemed unending. I finally had to pick a point in time beyond which I would not write, because I’d gotten to a style of inclusion of parts of my ongoing daily life as I also focused on the past, making circles. I was so electrified by that stylistic idea! But then, getting off the cycle, out of the labyrinth I’d made, was as hard as escaping the karmic wheel. Things happened and kept happening….
BCR: What did the form of the memoir allow you that poetry doesn’t?
CH: I rarely have written directly about my own life in poems, or at least when I’ve tried it has readily morphed, and something of the same thing happens when I write fiction. Poems are stranger things, amalgams of voice, rhythm, imagined experience, graftings of observations set into the restrictions of form. Most of the time when I say “I” in a poem, it’s not the person anyone would recognize.
The memoir gave me a chance to think expansively and connect disparate ideas that I always intuited were interwoven in some way. Figuring out how they connected was like uncovering a mystery and still being amazed.
BCR: We all try to control the world around us when that’s clearly not possible. Snakes get in the house. A neighborhood transitions at its own pace. What about your writing process? How controlled is it? What control do you forfeit?
CH: That’s an interesting proposition, because writers are working to formulate and save, retrieve things and thoughts from the ephemeral. I let go of a lot in this book in order to include some of my own details; on faith, really, that it would add up to something more. But then I found that those details were transformed and highly selected, so it was more the illusion of daily life not the thing itself. A piece of writing is deliberate, but also deft, and it can have this magic, sleight of hand, so that it adds up to something more than its parts. Even the most astute of readers should feel immersed in a book and forget the craft of it. I don’t know if I got there, but I was certainly trying hard. I was trying to keep the surface a bit rough, so that it conveyed more reality.
BCR: There are places you write about in the book that I don’t think a lot of people would want to go. What draws you?
CH: Maybe it’s the challenge inherent in back of beyond places (and people) and wilderness—what’s left of it—that draws me; I like to test myself against environments and find a physical and mental edge to sharpen against. And there is a stark beauty to the high desert regions of this country that cannot be understood unless you enter into it. There’s always a price of admission: It’s very hot or very cold or very windy or you actually have grit in your eyes and sand in your teeth and your tent blows down in the middle of the night. But when you look up from that, having unwrapped yourself from the tent, the sky is waiting there for you like no other sky.
My affinities also come from living in smaller communities where there’s a sense of making what you need from what you have rather than having a consumer-focused life. I worry that no one has that option anymore.
On the flipside, my mother would say that she left me alone in the playpen too long, but I was content there, dreaming. Later on, she let me wander around outside without scripting where I had to go.
BCR: Communities like Roanoke seem to be having a resurgence as viable places for writers and artists to build careers. Perhaps it’s the rising cost of living in larger cities or changes in publishing and markets, but there seems to be less apology for sticking around a place to make it work now. Are you observing the same thing or am I making that up?
CH: It’s a creative act to take control of where you’d like to make a life, isn’t it? Publishing has been changing since the 1980’s when conglomerates started gobbling up the independent presses in New York, and it’s become less centralized, too— that process has definitely sped up recently with the rise of more independent or self-published authors. I do see more twenty-somethings moving into smaller towns and cities, more deliberate choosing of places like Roanoke that suit the individual, rather than groupthink. More of our MFA graduates stick around these parts.
As you know from having read Lost Places, I’m not that fond of ponds so highly populated with frogs. I have been stumbling around in the wilderness a long time and make no apologies. As Howard Finster, the folk artist from Somerville, GA, said, “The art world always knows where to find me.”
BCR: Clearly you did a lot of reading on sense of place and architectural theory. You refer throughout the memoir to some of my favorites. Were there any writers on the built environment who weren’t referenced but you would recommend interested readers check out?
CH: Oh just to read, that would be heaven. There are subjects I’m still intrigued with: theology of place and displacement, ancient astronomy and its influence on structures, which kept cropping up in my research on Chaco Culture. There’s more and more archeology hinging on craft and artifacts, pottery, for example, as a way of understanding ancient people and tracking migration and trading patterns. I’m not sure I can ever wholly leave this subject of space and place behind; environments, landscapes and built structures, somehow measure our lives.
BCR: You very adeptly describe the nature of between-ness in the book’s opening, and that is reinforced as the human condition throughout. Where are you now in your quest for home? Do you have the urge to move on? Or are you staying put?
CH: I’m “here.” Which reminds me, one of my aunts used to answer my question of what she had been doing with “I’ve been being.”
While I’m obviously not a big fan of solving life’s problems with geographic solutions, I always feel restless in my being, even as I have become a fixture in this valley. I come and go, cling, fling, and repeat. I locate myself between, and that is a kind of acceptance of the condition we’re in, as you say (one of my novels is titled The Land Between). As to actual locations, they have become less significant to me, even though I’m hardly through with traveling. I’m still testing some places, wondering whether or not they are more of a home than a spiritual retreat. I know I need both sorts of places, and yet: “The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” Really, Mr. Kafka? I’m beginning to think he was on to something. ★
Hear Cathryn Hankla read from Lost Places:
★ Book No Further, Roanoke, Saturday, April 28.
★ New Dominion Bookshop, Charlottesville, Saturday, May 5.
Read Hankla’s BOOK CITY ★ ROANOKE interview on the release of Great Bear.