Wednesday, April 30, 2014

For military families, the battle for inner peace during deployment is hard-fought.

Lisa Leitz was one of approximately 300 members of Military Families Speak Out in attendance at a September 24, 2005, protest in Washington, D.C., organized by United for Peace and Justice and ANSWER. The groups estimate that up to 500,000 protesters were in attendance.

Assistant professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas

At the same time that my book Fighting for Peace was released, I welcomed my husband, David, home from his fourth lengthy deployment. There was no fanfare and little was done by our community to acknowledge either of our sacrifices while he was deployed or when he returned. There were no military ceremonies to mark his departure or his return; additionally, since this was an individual augmentation [i] I had no spousal support group during the time he was away. Although his year was spent in the Middle East (in a time zone nearly impossible to have a full conversation with Sunday through Friday), mercifully he was not directly involved in combat (this time) and his staff job was low-risk compared with his usual job flying off of aircraft carriers or training students in dog-fighting. Additionally, during this deployment we were able to talk more regularly than the bi-weekly phone calls I was lucky to get (most get fewer) from the “boat.”

However, the deployment still took a toll on us, as it often takes on many military families.

With each deployment I found that my own mental health struggles intensified, and the limited providers available to me via military healthcare only exacerbated the anxiety and depression I faced. Although it is popular for people in the U.S. to say they support the troops, this does not translate into a vast number of medical providers who accept the low-paying military health insurance. I was an early adopter of a smartphone because I’d swing from grumpy to cheery when I would get the email from the ship David sent telling me he was safe each day. During all deployments, my cell phone was glued to my hand; I took it into bathroom stalls, slept with it by my head, placed it on the gym machines I’d use, and carried it into classrooms with me. During the most recent deployment, I could logically understand that David was probably safe, but when I heard of violent protests in the city he was in or Navy accidents in the region, my brain activity seemed to slow as I waited to hear from him or for the dreaded knock on the door by men in dress uniform that, I am grateful to say, never came. Physically, the deployments took their toll, during each I gained significant weight, grayed more, took worse care of myself, and saw the worry lines deepen. After each, I struggled to reduce the high levels of worry and loneliness I felt.

While many people think of post-traumatic stress as a military servicemember’s problem, recent research finds that military spouses’ rates of psychological problems are similar to those in uniform. With lengthy and deadly deployments common in our lives since 2001, spouses’ rates of stress-induced illness have increased, along with depression. I can rationally know that I am not alone; I have known of other spouses whose war-induced-stress caused them to, in their words, “have a breakdown.” However, the picture often presented of military spouses is that of an ever-cheerful wife, fully ready to handle whatever war throws at her, typically with a smile and a willingness to work many unpaid hours to bring happiness to those in the uniform. It has often felt like failure to admit to struggling with the deployments, and that is probably why there are a growing number of military family members whose suicides seem to be war-related. The problems extend well beyond me to many other spouses and partners, and also to military children, parents, and siblings.

The toll of deployments on families must be made visible. Speaking to the Sacramento Bee in 2011, military mom Laurie Loving explained: “It took me 13 months to get my blood pressure down, I gained 40 pounds and went on disability retirement.” Loving’s son had deployed during 2005 and 2006, one of the most dangerous times in Iraq, and she co-founded the California Capital Region chapter of Military Families Speak Out. For family members like Laurie and I, who believed that the Iraq War was illegal and/or immoral, there was no solace in sacrificing for the nation. I have suspicions [ii] that belief in the mission of a war and confidence in military leadership can diminish the likelihood of military servicemembers or their family members developing psychological trauma from deployments. It is logical that disagreement with the necessity of the deployment, with its potential for life, limb or mental health loss, would amplify the negative emotional consequences of war.

While life for most Americans continues unhindered by the foreign policy decisions of our government, for less than 5% of this country, troop movements dictate life. The United States currently has active duty military members stationed in nearly 150 countries, with more than 100,000 still in designated combat zones. The intense OPTEMPO [iii] since 9/11 has only recently started to slow some, but most Americans continue to have the luxury of ignoring the wars and their consequences. Fighting for Peace intentionally draws attention to the feelings of grief and betrayal felt by many in the military during this time of disconnect between soldiers and civilians. In expanding on my own story in this post, I hope I can help more civilians understand what deployment is like for those of us left at home.


Lisa Leitz is author of Fighting for Peace: Veterans and Military Families in the Anti-Iraq War Movement. She is assistant professor of sociology and director of Project Pericles at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. She is married to a U.S. naval aviator who flew missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and she was a speaker on the Iraq War and military issues for the 2004 Kerry–Edwards presidential campaign. 

"Leitz has put together a credible book detailing a movement that works on behalf of the needs of war veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq, and has shifted its own emphasis to speaking out against future wars." —Publishers Weekly

"Lisa Leitz has effectively built on classic articles and books in social movement studies to tell a new story: that of the particular experiences of veterans and their families who choose to break the bonds of military silence. Fighting for Peace offers a data-rich study of how identity development and deployment is critical to movement growth." —Lynne M. Woehrle, Mount Mary University

"Fighting for Peace is a remarkable chronicle of veterans and military families, the military peace community, which was actively trying to stop the US war on Iraq. Leitz's analysis of these groups' efforts brings back great memories of tens of thousands of citizens working together to attempt to end the wars." —Col. Ann Wright, co-author of DISSENT: Voices of Conscience


[i] Individual augmentation (or IA) refers to the military practice whereby members of the military are sent to work in a unit in which they have not previously interacted. This is typically used to fill shortages or because a specific set of skills are needed in a new situation.

[ii] No study I am aware of has examined this issue.

[iii] Operational tempo, which in this case specifically refers to the pace and length of deployments.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Black sexuality, the glass closet, and how the "down low" can never be one specific thing.

Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the "down low"—black men who
have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual—
has exploded in media and popular culture.
Wordle image source.

Northwestern University

Many of the ideas in Nobody is Supposed to Know emerged from hours of watching R. Kelly’s episodic hip hopera, “Trapped in the Closet.” It seemed to me, then, that Kelly’s audiovisual odyssey had much to say to some of the ongoing debates in queer studies, particularly around issues of performance, embodiment, and the spectrality/centrality of blackness in all of these conversations.

R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" consists of 33 chapters
released between 2005 and 2012. View Chapter 1 on YouTube.

Initially, I was most drawn to the depiction of the two male lovers—Chuck and Rufus—who at first glance appeared to confirm and recirculate all of the myths associated with down low. Yet “Trapped” refused the easy moralisms associated with representing the down low. Rather the series staged the infinite imbrications of black heterosexuality and queerness in representation. In other words, and as Kelly’s “Trapped” demonstrates, even though the “down low” typically refers to black men who have sex with men and women and do not identify as gay, bisexual or queer, there is value in exploring how the down low articulates with more general representational practices of black sexuality.

In the book, I engaged numerous pop-cultural texts, which in their content, production, and circulation shaped a way of seeing the down low as a morality tale. In fact, the book’s title takes its name from the R&B girl group TLC’s single “Creep”: “Just keeping it on the down low / Said nobody is supposed to know,” which encapsulates how the down low functions most frequently through mechanisms of rumor and gossip.

Extending TLC’s sonic analysis and turning to the work of Eve Sedgwick, I offer the ‘glass closet’ as a metaphor and analytic to capture how representations of black sexuality are marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. While the glass closet might serve as the grounds on which to explore how down low narratives exploit common sense notions of race and sexuality (namely, that the truth of such things are obvious and transparent), I also turn to ‘ignorance’ as performance and tactic that might crack such an enclosure.

As I discuss in the second chapter of my book:

I mean ignorance in at least three ways: one, the state of not knowing; two, the act of willfully ignoring; and three, in the black vernacular sense of describing something or someone who engages in socially and/or politically problematic activity. Ignorance, in the black vernacular, represents the very opposite of being politically correct; it is an affectively charged descriptor for those who act shamelessly. (72)

Again “Trapped” becomes a useful meditative text. As Kalefa Sanneh (2007) wrote in a review for the New York Times, it “represents raw artistic vision at its best — which is to say, at its most willfully ignorant.”[i] While there are myriad examples in “Trapped” that demonstrate the multiple ways I take up ignorance as an analytic (many of which I explore in the book), here I would like to take a little more time and space to think the two concepts—the ‘glass closet’ and ‘ignorance’ together vis-à-vis a brief discussion of the “crack.”

Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions for a “crack” that articulate a relationship between the sonic and the visual: “1. A line on the surface of something along which it has split without breaking into separate parts: ‘a hairline crack down the middle of the glass’ and 2. A sudden sharp or explosive noise: ‘a loud crack of thunder.’[ii] One could imagine that ignorance might act on the glass closet such that it produces a crack. Or put differently, ignorance might expose the vulnerabilities and flaws in what appears to be the impervious regulatory regime known as the visual.

Yet the crack, as a sonic term, also gestures toward how ignorance might make use of “sudden” or “sharp” sounds to negotiate the conditions of a glass closet. That the sonic—think here of the numerous depictions of opera singers shattering glass with the sheer magnitude of their sound—can contest and intervene in the visual is not a new idea. But in the context of this discussion, suffice it to say the crack seems to function both as the mechanism and the effect of ignorance on the glass closet.

While I do not want to imply that sound is the only way to intervene in an imagistic field, it is important for my purposes here to underscore the crack’s multiple resonances, which parallel both the content and the approach that I take up in the book.

In as much as I demonstrate that the down low can never be one particular thing, neither can vision, or hearing, or any of the other ways one defines sense.


C. Riley Snorton is author of Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low and assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

"C. Riley Snorton has written a stunning new chapter in queer theory. This book magnificently extends Eve K. Sedgwick’s concept of the closet to grapple with race, sex, and secrecy. Building on concepts like the ‘glass closet’ and examining the dynamics and geographies of the down low, Snorton makes the startling claim that the down low is not a set of hidden practices but that it actually constitutes the staging of the conditions of Black representability. This is a very important book and it will have an immediate impact on the study of race and sexuality."
Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure 


[i] Kelefa Sanneh (August 20, 2007). “Outrageous Farce from R. Kelly: He’s In on the Joke, Right?” New York Times. Music section. Accessed online

[ii] “crack” (2014). Oxford English Dictionaries. Accessed online

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The definition of academic freedom, for many, does not accommodate dissent.

Associate professor of English at Virginia Tech

Academic freedom is often a diversion from the free practices of academic labor. It does not yet fully accommodate dissent. In many ways, as the essays in the collection The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent illustrate, academic freedom is a byproduct (and progenitor) of deeply conformist institutional cultures. It can be an administrative convenience, a high-minded diversion, a platitude, or an appropriated symbol.

Academic freedom—in practice, anyway—has never fully accommodated dissent. Well before the McCarthy era, the most infamous period of restricted speech, academe was hostile to people of color, women, Jews, and queers. Nearly a century later, the hostility toward these groups has not yet disappeared.

These days the most visible site of debate around academic freedom is the Israel-Palestine conflict, in particular as it is approached through the movement for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. BDS—the academic boycott of Israel, specifically—has become a passionate topic on campus. Since the American Studies Association (ASA) passed its boycott resolution last December, BDS has been discussed passionately off campus as well. 

Analyzing the boycott

Let’s look at the praxis accompanying the discussion. Those against academic boycott, both on and off campus, have consistently invoked academic freedom as the reasoning for their position (though some confess loyalty to Zionism as a motivation). A boycott, the argument goes, would restrict the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and impinge on the exchange of ideas so crucial to scholarly life.

This assertion has consistently been unmasked as fallacious. Academic boycott is careful to distinguish between institutions and individuals. Some have observed that the distinction is functionally impossible, but only individuals who consciously participate in advocacy for the Israeli state would be affected. Boycott transfers responsibility to the individual, but never targets her for preemptive exclusion. In this sense academic boycott is consummately reactive.

There is no evidence that academic boycott systematically limits an Israeli scholar’s ability to travel and conduct research. On the other hand, engagement with Palestine has repeatedly proved deleterious to one’s professional development. It has long been a truism that speaking in support of Palestine is an excellent way to forestall tenure or promotion. Some scholars have been fired for such support, and dozens have been incessantly harassed and subject to campaigns for their termination.

The question of academic freedom, then, should be trained on those who have been punished for speech or advocacy. It is usually directed at those in the camp of the oppressor, instead. Academic boycott never acts on a person’s expression of views, but on his actions. Does he perform at the behest of the government of Israel? If so, he is actively participating in the subjugation of Palestinian students and scholars and thus subject to boycott.

In short, boycott is not a contravention of academic freedom, but an expression of it.

The tactics of those opposed to boycott affirm the importance of the movement. Beyond the turn to government elites and university presidents, a strategy I call “the appeal to authority,” four states have introduced legislation that aims to defund departments whose memberships have any ties to the ASA. The legislation would also disallow universities to provide travel money and research support for members of an organization that has endorsed academic boycott. It is clear which side presents a legitimate threat to academic freedom. 

Rethinking academic freedom as discourse

Often lost in arguments about BDS is a fundamental question: what of the Palestinians? Their rights to speech, assembly, and organizing, in both Israel and the Occupied Territories, are severely limited, in many cases nonexistent. Far from shutting down scholarly interchange, boycott implicates institutions whose practices suppress the academic freedom of an entire class of people based on nothing more than biology.

BDS, then, is a terrific framework for approaching academic freedom as a discourse above and beyond its functional role, which has never been comprehensive. Discursively, academic freedom can easily rationalize dispossession of rights, in the same way that the vocabulary of civil rights has been appropriated by conservative politicians to conceptualize white men as the true victims of American racism. For this reason (among others), I’m tepid about academic freedom as a right. I consider it more productive to think about academic freedom as an idea constantly in flux, whose practice is not always aligned with its ideals.

The preservation of academic freedom as a rights-based structure, in other words, shouldn’t be the focus of our work. We should focus on the development and maintenance of just labor conditions and the disengagement of our institutions from the exercise of state violence. Academic freedom is important insofar as it protects our ability to do this work. When it doesn’t offer such protection, then it becomes just another high-minded slogan, the type university administrators love to evoke to conceal the ugly side of university governance.

To put it in simpler terms, we shouldn’t trust “academic freedom.” We do better to apply to the term the same scrutiny we direct at the phenomena we study, a process academic freedom supposedly insulates from recrimination. Yet recrimination is common. In the end, only when academic freedom is sufficiently anatomized can it perform its inherent promise.


Steven Salaita is associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is a contributor to the edited volume The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent.

For more on BDS and academic freedom, see Sunaina Maira's recent post to the UMP blog.

"The public space of higher education is under siege. The Imperial University interrogates in brilliant detail the nature of such attacks and the hidden structures of power and politics that define them. But it does more in providing a passionate call to rethink higher education as part of a future in which learning is linked to social change. A crucial book for anyone who imagines the university as both an essential public sphere and an index of what a democracy should be."
—Henry A. Giroux, McMaster University

"Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s The Imperial University charts the many ways that institutions of higher education fail to meet the needs of students and the teachers who instruct them. It’s a wonderful, stimulating and anger-inducing book."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The BDS movement and the front lines of the war on academic freedom.


Professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis

In December 2013, the American Studies Association announced that it had endorsed an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions, following two years of discussion in the association and based on a majority vote by the membership in support of the boycott resolution. The announcement was a historic one, as the ASA was only the third national academic association in the U.S. (following on the heels of the Association of Asian American Studies and the Association for Humanist Sociology) to adopt the academic boycott called for by Palestinian civil society and academics in 2004. The resolution—which, unlike other resolutions on political issues adopted by the ASA, had actually been put to a referendum by the full membership—unleashed a firestorm of national and even global proportions. All hell broke loose, as many had predicted, and the Israel lobby unleashed a campaign of vilification and intimidation against the ASA, its leadership, and its members. The resolution even had ripple effects for international affairs, with John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu expressing concerns variously about the impact of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement on Israel’s credibility on the global stage and the “peace process.”

Behind the boycott

I had been involved in organizing in support of the academic boycott resolution with the ASA’s Academic and Community Activism Caucus (along with Bill Mullen Jr., Jordana Rosenberg, and Malini Schuller, as well as David Lloyd, Cynthia Franklin, Kehaulani Kaanui, Steven Salaita, Neferti Tadiar, Robin Kelley, Salah Hassan, and many other committed scholars). The idea of a resolution was initially suggested by American Studies scholars who visited Palestine on a delegation I helped organize in January 2011. We knew that the academic boycott would encounter resistance from supporters of Israel and defenders of its apartheid and settler colonial policies who are increasingly unsettled by the growing global BDS movement. Yet the strength of the BDS movement is that it actually doesn’t presuppose a radical politics and relies on the liberal precepts of international human rights law, calling on international civil society—including academics—to boycott Israeli institutions and government-sponsored projects until the Israeli state abides by international law. Simply put, the double standard for Israel upheld by the U.S. must end. The U.S. academy has long been a site where the exceptionalism of Israel has been maintained by self-censorship as well as active campaigns of censorship against any who dare challenge the Israeli state’s military occupation and racially discriminatory policies against Palestinians and non-Jews, as discussed in several essays in The Imperial University. So the AAAS resolution and the ASA vote were groundbreaking events in shattering what Edward Said called the “last taboo” in the U.S. public sphere.

What I had not anticipated myself before the ASA conference in November 2013, where panels and town hall meetings were held to encourage public debate about the boycott resolution, was the groundswell of support for the academic boycott and solidarity with the Palestinian people. What was so moving – and visibly staged for all to see – at the town hall meeting organized to discuss the resolution was the testimonials by numerous scholars in ASA, including untenured faculty and graduate students as well as undergraduate students, about why they supported ASA because of its principled commitment to opposing military occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism. This was most eloquently expressed by scholars working on issues of U.S. settler colonialism and in queer studies and critical race and ethnic studies. It was evident that the resolution was not just a litmus test of where American studies scholars stood on the question of Palestine, but an index of the ASA’s progressive politics and the intellectual shifts in the field to a more inclusive intellectual and political space. That is, the support for the boycott emerged in the context of the growing centrality of antiracist and anti-imperial scholarship within the ASA.

It was also striking to me, as someone who helped found the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) during the Israeli massacre in Gaza in the winter of 2009, that so many American studies scholars and students by then already knew about the boycott’s principles and already spoke the shared language of BDS. Having organized on the margins of progressive movements for so many years, in a context in which the academic boycott was on the fringes of even the Palestine solidarity movement, it was stunning to realize that this political community had rapidly expanded in just a few years and that the ASA resolution simply allowed this force of solidarity to come into being, to announce its presence publicly. This was also evident to me at the ASA conference in November 2012 in Puerto Rico, which occurred during yet another Israeli assault on Gaza, where several ASA members congregated at a table the Activism Caucus had organized to share information about the boycott and conditions for academics and students in Palestine. It was clear that U.S. scholars were beginning to feel the weight of responsibility for U.S. unconditional support of Israel, and the complicity through silence of the U.S. academy thus far.

On academic freedom

One of the major counter-arguments levied against the academic boycott movement is that it silences academic freedom. The rub here is that this counter-offensive is concerned only with the academic freedom of Israeli scholars, erasing the degradation of academic freedom—as well as of other freedoms—of Palestinians. This argument disappears Palestinians, and it also evades the assault on academic freedom of U.S. scholars and all those who speak openly about the Israeli state’s violence and racism, including dissident Israeli academics. Supporters of the academic boycott have thus tried to argue, as elucidated in the AAAS and ASA resolutions, that the boycott enlarges academic freedom for all.

But what I found most striking—and troubling—about the counter-campaign waged against the ASA in the months following the resolution is that in many cases, it did not rest on an argument based on academic freedom, but on racism and elitism. Many of the vitriolic or agitated letters, emails, and editorials that poured forth by opponents of the academic boycott—some of whom claimed to be critical of the Israeli occupation—was that the boycott was anti-Semitic, targeting only Jewish scholars and the Jewish state. As foretold in the Introduction of The Imperial University, the politics of the AAUP and its president, Cary Nelson, became increasingly more apparent in their public denunciation of the boycott resolution and concerted pressure on the ASA to follow the AAUP’s line. Some articles and letters denounced the ASA for not being respectful of the wishes of past presidents of the ASA who opposed the boycott, charging that it emerged only from a “small but vocal minority” within the association. Other letters and emails were blatantly racist, homophobic, and xenophobic in their attempt to silence and intimidate ASA members and supporters. The racial and sexual politics of the institutionalized apparatus of academic freedom as pitted against an association that had increasingly become a space for radical (and anti-Zionist) scholar activists, and notably academics of color or those working in critical race studies and queer scholars (including those in the ASA leadership who endorsed the resolution), were disturbingly apparent. That is, the academic boycott battle is part of the larger cultural and racial wars in the U.S. academy and challenge to the academic “establishment.” The academic boycott and BDS movement has become a new front in the attempt to move forward the discourse around settler colonialism and apartheid and confront U.S. complicity in imperial and racial violence, linking Palestine to broader structures of racism and annihilation.

I should also note that the opening up of space for discussion of the boycott within American studies and critical race and ethnic studies has allowed many who distanced themselves from public support of the academic boycott and from USACBI to become active proponents of this hitherto risky campaign. There was a surge of support for the academic boycott and a slew of eloquent and important articles about the ASA resolution and the backlash it incited, including by those who had long mobilized in support of USACBI and as indicated by some essays in The Imperial University. This is a very significant and encouraging development and one that happens in every movement as it becomes more acceptable, and it is heartening to see other academic associations engage in their own discussions of the boycott; this is a movement whose time has finally come, if long overdue. But this emergence of a newly respectable progressive cause also poses complex questions about solidarity and struggle, particularly for U.S.-based academics who enjoy professional privileges and access to media that continue to be denied to Palestinian scholars and activists—not to mention basic freedoms. The academic boycott movement has to be mindful to not use the suffering as well as sumuud (persistence) of Palestinians to erect another stage for visibility or celebrity and to remember with humility that the actions of the U.S. academy are small, if significant, gestures. It will take a long time to visibly mitigate the encagement and erasure of Palestinians. We cannot be complicit in the further erasure of those Palestinians who have for years asked us to speak with honesty and courage about the U.S. state’s complicity with their subjugation. But we can continue to push further to challenge institutional and individual complicity, bullying, and self-censorship, and to enlarge movements for solidarity with those—in Palestine and in the U.S.--who have for years paid the price for the collusion through the silence of the U.S. academy. 


Sunaina Maira is co-editor of The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, just released from University of Minnesota Press, and author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City and Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11. She is professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Davis.

For more on academic freedom, see Steven Salaita's post on the UMP blog.

"The public space of higher education is under siege. The Imperial University interrogates in brilliant detail the nature of such attacks and the hidden structures of power and politics that define them. But it does more in providing a passionate call to rethink higher education as part of a future in which learning is linked to social change. A crucial book for anyone who imagines the university as both an essential public sphere and an index of what a democracy should be."
—Henry A. Giroux, McMaster University

"Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s The Imperial University charts the many ways that institutions of higher education fail to meet the needs of students and the teachers who instruct them. It’s a wonderful, stimulating and anger-inducing book."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

As it turns out, you can go home again.

Writer Michael Fedo, whose essays and stories
have been deeply inspired by his roots,
grew up in this Duluth home.

Minnesota writer and author

For all the notoriety surrounding Thomas Wolfe's 1940 posthumous novel You Can't Go Home Again, the title had it wrong. We can go home again.

And in truth, we never leave, because home permanently inhabits our souls. Home is more than place—it is personal, foundational, and it defines us.

I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 31, 1939, where I was raised and educated until leaving the city at age twenty-five to attend graduate school at Kent State University in Ohio. I would never live in Duluth again. Yet, five decades later, I am Duluthian to the core.

While at Kent, I was encouraged to write down stories shared with colleagues about having been a folk singer in Duluth. One piece was finally published in a now defunct magazine, but this experience kindled a writing career that for me has resulted in nine published books, countless articles and essays, more than 50 short stories, and a handful of poems. None of this would have happened if not for my early and formative quarter-century in the two-story house at 918 North Tenth Avenue East in the central hillside neighborhood.

There, I was surrounded by first- and second-generation Swedes, Germans, Finns, and several Jewish families. My father was the only Italian resident. I was immersed in these cultural influences; many of the dialects and vernacular would later infuse the conversations of my characters. The ethnic quiddities of Italians and Swedes, Jews and Finns, as well as their customs, foods, and religions would become building blocks to the writerly existence that emerged long after my egress.

My new book, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, contains 30+ stories grounded in Duluth—its characters, its landmarks, Lake Superior. These pieces span 40+ years, and comprise nearly half of all my essays and stories.

When taking stock of a lifetime of writing, I'm amazed by how much of my work has been rooted in the city where I was raised. In contrast, I'm also amazed by how little of my other writings have been connected to any physical “place.” Throughout my extended Duluth residency, I overheard conversations and noted observations that continue to resonate. Though absent 50 years, a plurality of my published oeuvre has coalesced in Duluth.

In the book's introduction, I ponder whether there is something about the city that drives creative endeavor. A cluster of notables have for varying lengths of time made Duluth their dwelling, including Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis, jazz pianist Sadik Hakim, 1950s song lyricist Sammy Gallop, actor/singer/songwriter/television writer/voice of Garfield Lorenzo Music, and even Kojack star Telly Savalas. Of course, there was Bob Dylan, though his family left for Hibbing when he was a tyke. But his awareness of the lynching of three black circus workers on June 15, 1920, from a downtown Duluth streetlamp is the cornerstone of his classic song “Desolation Row.” (I later documented this tragedy in the book The Lynchings in Duluth.)

Since departing Duluth, those years of habitation continue to be processed in my work. I recall how several friends and I often felt at odds with our upbringing. The culture in which we grew up didn't seem to nurture the writer I would become. I don't recall hearing the the cliched encouragement “you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.” Our people sought stability, steady employment, a life absent of risk. I still find myself a bit risk-averse about sending manuscripts to The New Yorker or The Atlantic. But I can't blame Duluth for that. Instead, I sought the comfortable, fitting in with the mainstream, believing instead a high school teacher's admonition that we should be modest, because we had a lot to be modest about.

Despite frequent adolescent irritations with the city—especially late spring snowfalls that canceled ball games and brought despair to this baseball-addled boy—I am grateful to Duluth, my family, the old neighborhood, and the lifelong friends for supplying so many rich anecdotes and characters that have truly shaped and sustained the writer I have become.

Though some may quibble with this, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, is a love letter to my hometown, which as its stories reveal, I have never quite left.


Michael Fedo, Minnesota stringer for the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor from 1970 to 1985, is the author of many books, including the newly released Zenith City (Minnesota, 2014), The Lynchings in Duluth, The Man from Lake Wobegon, the novel Indians in the Arborvitae, One Shining Season, and A Sawdust Heart: My Vaudeville Life in Medicine and Tent Shows, by Henry Wood as told to Michael Fedo (Minnesota, 2011). 

"Fedo’s collection will engage any reader with his fond and frank reminiscences of family life combined with vivid recollections of his native Duluth as it once was and, in many ways, still is. Thoroughly enjoyable."
—Jim Heffernan, author of
Cooler Near the Lake: Fifty-two Favorites from Thirty-four Years of Deadlines

"For Duluthians, this prodigiously chronicled memoir will delight, awaken, and inform you of a place you thought you knew. Rising above the delicious details and references is a story of growing up in Middle America at a time not so long ago that seems of another era."
—Wing Young Huie