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May 14, 2010

You've Got a Little Something On Your Shoulder

Kate Hart
You might recognize that massive chip on my shoulder. It's shaped suspiciously like Arkansas.

I'm proud of where I'm from. Northwest Arkansas is beautiful. My university town is progressive, friendly, makes the "best place to live" lists every year, and offers culture on par with many big cities. In just the next few months, we'll have visits from Pulitzer prize winners, Broadway shows and spiritual leaders.

But. It's Arkansas. So you know what that means.
  • "Y'all wear shoes down there?"
  • "You have all your teeth? Really?"
  • "How many pairs of overalls do you have?"
  • "Have you slept with Bill Clinton?"
  • "Walmart is evil."
  • "Thank god for Walmart."
  • insert some slam on Hillary Clinton and/or Mike Huckabee
  • "Oh! 19 Kids and Counting! I love that show!"
  • "Oh! 19 Kids and Counting! I hate those people!"*
Seriously, I know I shouldn't take it personally. I'm not a state tourism delegate. More importantly, who gives a damn what other people think?

But a little voice in my brain, based in part on experience, worries that my degree means less in the eyes of others because I got it here. That agents will see my address and immediately tally points against me. That future editors will roll their eyes and insist I use "proper" diction in my dialogue. That future readers will criticize my book not based on its merits and faults, but on the fact that I unapologetically say "y'all" and "fixin' to."

I know. If I'm looking for it, I'll find it. I try not to, honestly, and no, I'm not using my residence as an excuse for query rejections. Furthermore, I know no matter where you're from, you have these issues to an extent. Every state has its stereotypes... and you might know the Arkansas state motto: "At least we're not Mississippi!"**

Yes, this is real.
I so wish I were kidding.
But yes, stereotypes often have basis in truth, and let me tell you, no one cringes harder than me when we manage to yet again embarrass ourselves on national television. When the Weather Channel finds the most toothless, barefoot, overall-wearing Bubba to interview after a tornado. When my fellow citizens ban adoption by unmarried couples. When renovations move the governor into a triple-wide trailer. When the football team blows yet another game.

So I found editor Molly O'Neill's recent post "On Belonging" very interesting. At the end, she asks, "Who or what or where do you belong to, in a way that transforms you, that makes you your best self, that makes you more whole?"

It brought to mind a recent car trip. The road climbed up through the hills around the Verdigris River in Oklahoma, and I told my mom, "I don't know why, but I'm a hill person." I was born in Tulsa and went to elementary school in St. Louis. I love all kinds of landscapes: New Mexico deserts, Wyoming mountains, Oklahoma plains, Central American cloud forests, beaches anywhere.

But at heart, I'm a hill person. Something in my soul settles down in the valleys. The Ozarks, the Ouachitas, the Kiamichis-- those are that place that make me whole. As Molly put it, "Ownership. Belonging. You could call it connectedness, too."

So that's why I get twitchy when people start the hillbilly jokes. It's kind of like family-- I can make fun of us, but no one else can. And that's why I seek out examples of beautiful Arkansas and Oklahoma landscapes to share. Why I jump up and down when I find out agents Holly Root and Jason Allen Ashlock both graduated from college the same year as me, just an hour away. Why I was psyched to find out the Oxford American is based in my college town. Why I rejoiced to hear the adoption law had been repealed.

And that's why I donated to support flood relief in Tennessee. We lived in Nashville for just a year, and moved there in part because of the hills. It's been five or six years since we lived there, but I still felt connected-- and furious at the lack of media coverage.

It made me realize that chip on my shoulder has a different shape than I thought. It's not defined by borders, or topography, or region. It's defined by the feeling that your home is less important. That according to the national media, severe weather goes from Texas to Illinois, mysteriously missing five states in between. That you live in a "flyover state."

And it's not just a southern thing. At risk of playing the Katrina card, it's the feeling that because you are "wrong" in some way-- education, economic level, accent, race, whatever-- you're less worthy of news coverage.*** That feeling affects everyone, everywhere, at some point, and sometimes, it brings you together. Case in point?

The writing community's amazing reaction.

Almost $60,000 in flood relief funds have been raised by the generosity of writers, agents, editors, and fans.

Where the media failed to move the chip on my shoulder, the writing community has succeeded.

Regardless of physical location, regardless of "standing" in the publishing business, regardless of race, color or creed, the writing community is just that: a community. It's an important place that transforms us, that makes us our best selves, that makes us "more whole."

Even as a tiny unpublished piece of it, I'm happy to belong.

Do The Write Thing For Nashville is still going strong. Head on over, bid high and bid often-- and tell Myra, Amanda and Victoria what amazing people they are for organizing it.


*Yep. I live a mile from the Duggars. I couldn't care less about their procreation-- but really, does having a public spokesman named Jim Bob really help our rep? Not so much. (I won't get started on his politics, but suffice to say, I don't like them.) I hear, however, that Michelle is a genuinely nice person.

**With requisite apology to my family in Mississippi.

***I don't have room to address the neglect of people in other countries, but yes, I'm cognizant of the fact that the problem is even bigger than I frame here.


  1. you didn't see it, but i just cheered.

    i love you for so many reasons.

    beautiful post.

    i, too, am so awed am humbled by our amazing writing community.


  2. Great post Kate! Makes me want to visit even more.

    When I tell people I'm from San Francisco, I either get "I LOOOOVE San Francisco," or funny looks and dismissed as a super liberal. Or asked if my husband is gay (just joking, he wouldn't be married right *wink wink*). I'm a heathen, over-educated, liberal who can't relate to the rest of the country.

    Or when I say that I'm from a tiny town in MI called Boon (yes, like the boondocks), I get the typical hillbilly jokes, statements about no wonder I left and other not-so-nice generalizations about what is, in my opinion an amazing state and vastly underrated.

    I can't win either way, but I'm proud to be from both places. It's who I am.

  3. This was amazing, touching to read. So nuanced and aware and all that is good in the world. Thank you. :)

  4. Nice job! I feel very similar since GA catches all sorts of Hell to. No, we're not all toothless hillbilly's riding in our trucks to the next Klan meeting. Sheesh! Yes, we did rebuid after Atlanta burned down in the Civil War. Sheesh.

    I still think it's hilarious you live close to the D*ggars! LOL

  5. Great post, Kate. And I agree with Dawn on San Francisco. When people find out I'm from California,they assume a lot about me. I particularly love when they announce how glad they'd be if the state just fell into the ocean. I'm pretty proud of where I'm from, but having lived in different states - Colorado, New Hampshire, and New York - I can appreciate how each place leaves an indelible mark on you. You are amazing, and you should never apologize or feel bad about the things that made you.

  6. I love this, Kate. And I'm inspired to do my own in the near future.

    Isn't it funny how place identities are so compartmentalized? I know I've teased you about Arkansas (but if it helps, I've teased everyone about where they're from :D) but I know it all comes down to the people and the beauty of a place and the way it develops your personality and fills you with pride and wonder. Arkansas can't suck if it has you.

  7. I freaking love this post. I hear a lot of ignorant jokes based on my rural upbringing, but I wouldn't exchange my hometown for anywhere in the world. We can't all live in [insert ideal city here, because I bet everyone has a different answer].

    And I, too, am totally impressed and proud of the writing community's response to the flooding. It's a beautiful thing. Writers are beautiful people.

  8. From hollering 'you lie' at the president while in session to other country affairs, SC is the laughingstock of America like 80% of the time.

    But it's my home and most of us aren't like that. Our public education sucks; it doesn't mean I'm dumb. Do we have an incompetent government? Probably. But this is my home and I love the palmetto state. We have so much amazing history, amazing cities, and amazing people. I go to one of the best public universities in the country, and we're always in the top of having the happiest students.

    I, too, was disgusted by the media coverage in Nashville and have been so happy to see what the writing community has done (just wish I could afford something on the auction).

    Also, thank God for Mississippi ;)

  9. Thank you for this post. It's entirely heart-felt and beautiful. There are also many assumptions people make about Texas (made which I've heard from out-of-state students at my uni), and sometimes, they're tiring to fend off.

    The outpouring of help and donations to Nashville from the writing community astounds and amazes me, too. It's heartening.

  10. Kate,

    I grew up in Oklahoma, now live in Texas, and lived in Missouri in between. The fact that I read AND don't shoot arrows at cars on the freeway often surprises people.


    We have relatives in Nashville, and it's as bad as it looks on TV. Bless everyone that helps.

    My blog, it's occasionally funny.

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  12. Kate, I <3 seeing 'ya'll' typed in emails and tweets from you. It makes me smile and feel homesick. There are some things that make me cringe about Arkansas, but there's plenty that make me smile as well. I'm a porchswing person and that's the first thing I plan to do when I go home to visit.

  13. My dear niece, I am so proud of you!

  14. I love this post and I love you for being this wonderful, brave, and inspiring woman. Oh yeah, no offense taken about the Mississippi remark, since it has never felt like home to me.

  15. Wonderful! So sweet to hear someone stand up for their home. I'm from CA and I often hear a lot of slams for that as well. Including the current Gov (not my fault) and the fact that it will fall into the ocean. UGH.

    :0) Have a great weekend

  16. I think it's really awesome that I ended up reading this post while I'm sitting in my backyard thinking 'OMG Virginia how I love thee.' :P My dad's from Arkansas, I've got a lot of family in Tennessee and North Carolina and we are just by and large a very 'country' family, haha. But I love it 'cause it's us. I think it's easy for people to stereotype states because it's hard to see diversity (I'm pretty sure that makes sense). All I can say is I love where I'm from. And that should be enough for people.

  17. Great post--so thoughtful and true. (and at least you did not have a former wrestler as governor, as we did in MN, haha...uff-da!) As many of your comments have said, every place has its stereotypes, which do not even come close to recognizing their beauty and complexity.

    Also, I agree whole-heartedly: I'm so proud to belong in some small way to the writing community. It is freakin' amazing!

  18. I sometimes feel the same way, about having grown up and living in Missouri. Lots of misconceptions.

    It sounds perfect and beautiful.

  19. I am unapologetically proud of my Canadian citizenship and heritage, but oh do I sigh when people start in on the jokes. Thankfully I don't think most people *believe* that we live in igloos - unlike Arkansas, where I think people who crack those jokes do actually half believe it. And yes I worry that employers look at where I got my degree and wonder what that's actually worth down here.

    It's fabulous that you have raised so much money for such a great cause.

  20. Sometimes there are posts that make you really feel what the blogger was feeling, and I think you did that here. I felt myself talking out loud in agreement with you! My family came from AR a while back (my Memaw rode in a covered wagon from AR to OK!) and we vacationed there quite a bit. I LOVE's absolutely beautiful. And, even though I tease and make fun, when the DH does, I get really upset. It's like a second home for me, I guess.

  21. Wonderful, heartfelt post, Kate. I guess that sense of place is something I think about a lot, b/c I'm aware that every place I've lived--Texas, the Midwest, Canada, Brooklyn/NYC--has vividly shaped me. And I love that fact. I love that I can trace so many different parts of who I am back to the influences and experiences of certain places.

    P.S. For what it's worth, this raised-in-Texas editor says "y'all" and "fixin' to," too. :)

  22. Thank you all for the incredible comments. I wish Blogger would let me reply individually. This may be the longest comment ever.

    Molly: I definitely agree. All the places I've lived, even the short months I spent in Oxford and Costa Rica, shaped who I am. When people knock the places I love, it's hard to not take it personally. And I love that you're keeping the "y'all" alive in New York!

    Laura-- My great grandma did the same thing, minus the covered wagon. Sometimes I wonder if that has a little to do with my hill affinity-- they moved from the Ozarks to the Kiamichis.

    Nat-- I know you've struggled with that, especially during elections. And I know I've said some dumbass stuff to Trin about the Canadian army before, which proves I'm no more immune than anyone. LOL

    Janna-- I lived in St. Charles for 6 years as a kid, and I still have that gut reaction on Missouri's behalf too. :)

    Elissa-- We should play "competitive embarrassing governors." I see your wrestler and raise you Mike Huckabee. ;)

    Sumayyah-- I didn't know your dad was from AR! You're right, re. the diversity. You'd never guess my area has a large Latino and Marshall Islander population, for instance. I guess that highlights the importance of travel in education-- you can't understand someone else's existence until you've experienced it.

    Kristi-- It cracks me up that people elsewhere are like, "I could never live where there are tornadoes!" and here we think earthquakes are so much scarier!

    <3 you Tiff and Donna!

    Thank you Christa!

    Amanda: I love "porch swing person." You should trademark that before I steal it. ;) We'll be the Arkansas-represent in LA this summer.

    EJ-- Sounds like we have the same stomping grounds. :)

    Sandy-- Texas is funny b/c in some ways, the culture encourages the "whole other country" stereotype, which obviously has its annoying affects. We have a ton of Texas family, too.

    Laurie-- I knew you'd feel me with the Dirty South connection. ;)

    Kaits-- "We can't all live in [insert ideal city here, because I bet everyone has a different answer]." That pretty much sums it up.

    Kristin-- I <3 you, and I would love to hear your perspective from Seattle, because I know its stereotypes have got to be obnoxious. LOL

    Cory-- <3 You already know it all. :)

    Krista-- I know you feel my pain. We'll form a GA/AR/SC/MS support groups, and throw in Alabama if anyone's around. :D

    Sajidah-- Thank you so much.

    Dawn-- I love that you named your little boy after your hometown! I actually know a girl named after Fayetteville, too, although thankfully they shorted it to Faye.

    Tahereh-- The feeling is so very mutual.


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