Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Decline of Hoosier Chic*

The recent popularity in today’s literary scene for authors who came of age in central Indiana during the 1990s had by 2004 reached a level at once unexpected and unprecedented. “Hoosier chic,” as it has come to be known, even made a dent a couple of years ago in the world of high-fashion (Versace’s “Simply Maize” collection), pop music (dissipated white-boy rapper Konformz) and most recently on television with NBC’s cancelled but critically-acclaimed “Wayne Street Professionals.” But this spinning-off from Hoosier chic’s literary roots may only signal the end of its emergence in pop culture. Indeed, the roots themselves are not in good shape.

Hoosier chic burst onto the American literary scene with the publications of Emily Roudebush’s novel Snowy Sycamore, published in 2001. A twenty-four-year-old at the time, Roudebush’s first novel told a highly autobiographical story about a watching her mother and half-sister struggle in a racist and highly patriarchal culture. Roudebush’s enormous talent, combining lyricism with a wicked sense of social irony, manifested itself so completely in the first chapter of her first novel that her publishers sent her a $20,000 advance toward the novel’s completion. When asked in an interview in The New York Times Book Review about her influences and previous efforts at writing, Roudebush gave this astounding answer: “I’ve never written anything before. I read Chekhov a while back.”

The Academy Award®-winning film adaptation of Snowy Sycamore appeared a year later, this following the novel’s six months on the Times bestseller list and after the explosion of Hoosier-written novels, short stories and poems.

Jane Fleming, writing in The LA Review of Books, said of Roudebush’s first effort: “The novel’s title, which may well have come from a sixth grade composition class, belies what turns out to be a precocious sense of what it means to live and die in what remains, in spite of television, interstate highways and the world wide web, a complete cultural backwater. [Kurt] Vonnegut may have been born and raised in Indianapolis, but he left. I fear for the future of Roudebush’s talent if she remains in Indiana.”

Vonnegut, always a friend to Indiana even as an expatriate to Cape Cod, does not completely share Fleming’s concern. “Anyone, and I mean ‘anyone,’ who could write Snowy Sycamore is a genius. A genius. In my day Indiana was full of them. And any concern that she may be cut off from the cultural main stream of American culture is ill-informed, bigoted and treasonous.”

It is instructive to revisit Roudebush’s opening paragraph to Snowy Sycamore. The novel emerges in pure order from that sentence as if from a seed.

My mother, who was a grade school teacher in Wiebe, Indiana, birthed me—to my sister’s everlasting chagrin--in a rural hospital on a day when the snow highlighted the previous year’s corn furrows in a nearby field where a Wal-Mart would soon spring, and so all our lives would seem to blow around that structure like snow blown around a dying sycamore.

And from that sentence sprang not only the movie—starring Brad Pitt as the likeable philanderer Mark Boorum, and Halle Barre as the tough-but-conflicted mother­––it also led to Roudebush’s two other novels: Windfall Days and Abducted, which was an unfortunate excursion into crime fiction. Also arising from her words was the entire cottage industry of Hoosier-chic literature. I will only mention a few names: Ryan Mosely, Melanie McDonald, Bud Kruickshank and Reba Chowdry.

Poet and critic Philip Daily has been bold enough to say that Hoosier Chic represents a form of colonial literature, asserting that Indiana’s status of being a cultural backwater and relying on the innovation of others in the arts as well as in field as far removed from them and prosaic as public transportation, give the Hoosier state an exploited status equal to an imperial colony, and that it is struggle against this oppressed status that provides the tension making Hoosier-chic into a viable movement. Derek Wolcott, V.S. Naipaul and Chinua Achebe have reacted to this assertion with an apt level of scorn that is only limited by the general rules of civility. Needless to say, Daily’s thesis needs to go to the scrap heap. And yet oppression has played a critical role in the Hoosier chic movement... at least when Versace isn’t dressing it in camouflage greens and metallic grays.

Of the Hoosier writers here, only Chowdry, born of Pakistani immigrants in Muncie, Indiana, seems to have staying power, and it is her deft treatment of the issues of assimilation and discrimination that seem to provide the energy that propels her simple prose. Her novel, Rashid at the Crossroads, also conveys a living sense of what it means to Hoosier, an accomplishment for which I’m sure all the residents of Indiana must treasure her. Chowdry’s interests mirror Roudebush’s more than any other of the Hoosier clique. I hope her career follows a straighter path.

It is saddest to see Roudebush sink in what may be a flash-in-the-pan career that started a flash-in-the-pan literary movement. In a time when many dismissed the possibility of a serious literary artist emerging from anywhere other than the coasts, she proved us all wrong.

As for the “Hoosier moment” (Frank Kermode’s term) itself, Vonnegut may have the last word: “I love these kids [the Hoosier authors] to death. And I’d love to see a Hoosier literature come into being. But I’m afraid Hoosiers as a distinct people have gone the way of the dodo.”†

*Article originally appeared in The Cage, vol. 12, no. 3, 2007

†This review of the Hoosier chic literary and pop culture movement, as well as the magazine in which it was previously published, is a complete fiction. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental and appear as part of an effort at a Borgesian review of books that do not exist.

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