In her first book, Prairie Silence (published January 8 by Beacon Press), author Melanie Hoffert (Facebook, Twitter) reminisces about her upbringing in rural North Dakota, and discusses the difficulty of “how to tell the state of North Dakota that I am gay.” On March 14th, Melanie read from Prairie Silence at NYC’s volunteer-operated feminist bookstore Bluestockings—where fellow memoirist Chuck Klosterman, also a former resident of Wyndmere, ND, showed up to support Melanie. Out Impact talked with Melanie about her inspiration, her work with Teach for America, and how North Dakota is taking the news.
When did you decide to write a memoir? Is there a particular moment that stands out to you as the catalyst?
Melanie Hoffert: I don’t know that I actually decided, to be honest. The memoir evolved from several years of writing for writing’s sake. After some time, I realized that there were connections within my disparate pieces that could likely work together as a whole body of work. As I started to explore those connections, I realized I had a story to tell that might have relevance to others who were born in rural America, gay, or who were making sense of their early belief systems.
How has your hometown reacted to Prairie Silence since its release? How has the rest of the world?
MH: I grew up on a farm near a town of five hundred people in North Dakota. I didn’t know what to expect from my hometown because, though I’m entirely comfortable with my lesbian identity in my day to day life, there has been something that I’ve never been able to reconcile within myself when I am in that part of the world. And so I have been shocked by the overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic reaction to the book. I’ve felt such love and support from everyone back home. As far as the rest of the world, I’ve had many people email to tell me what about the book touched them. Many of those people also told me their stories, which I’ve appreciated.
A few reviewers have called Prairie Silence a “love song to the Midwest.” Is that a part of what you set out to do?
MH: I didn’t set out with any intentions necessarily… I told my story. And a large aspect of my story is about growing up in rural North Dakota and how, as an adult, I find myself longing for the flat, open landscape of my childhood. I am pleased that it reads to so many as a love song to the Midwest because I do have a great affinity for the land and the people.
It has also been called a “coming-of-age” story—not just for teenagers, but for people of all ages figuring out what they want from life. Can you speak to that?
MH: I’m glad that you draw a connection from my book to people figuring out what they want from life, because much of my story is about my ongoing evolution as a human. I am still, and will probably always be, in constant reflection about what I want from my life and how I want to spend my time. As one does this reflection, I think there is no way to avoid butting up against fears. And writing is one way to walk through fear. So, I think by sharing stories of growth we can build upon each other’s journeys.
Can you talk a little about how you approached what must have been a very difficult, personal subject with such poignant humor and grace?
MH: As I wrote, I tried to stay very true to my voice and write about what was unresolved in my life… so I appreciate that you found both humor and grace in the story.
When you started writing, what was your main goal for Prairie Silence? Was it the same goal as when you finished?
MH: Because the book was sort of born, rather than planned, I am not sure that I had a specific goal. But now that I do have a book, I really want the book to find people who will connect to it in the way I have connected to particular books over the course of my life. I think there are a lot of people who have grown up in a rural area and left, but who still feel drawn back. And I know there are people who struggle with silence around being gay, even if that silence is with some distant uncle they have never told. I hope people will savor passages, reflect on the parallels in their own lives, and even be moved to explore the telling of their own story.
Do you think writing your memoir has changed the way you feel about living in Minneapolis?
MH: One of the main threads in the book is about me going back to North Dakota for a month to live the life of a farmer. As I wrote about that experience, I reconnected to what I felt during that time, which was a deep sense of peace and calm and contentedness, which are feelings I find harder to come by in the city. At the same time, I am also appreciative of the easy access I have to many things I love in Minneapolis… I think the memoir helped me recognize that both the farm and the city feed me, though in different ways.
From an insider’s point of view, what do you see in rural America’s future? Do you think there is any other path?
MH: If you look back eighty years, so much has changed in rural America. Communities used to be formed around main streets that provided for everyone’s basic needs; life just isn’t like that anymore. Given our trend to a more urbanized America, I can’t help but think that stories like mine will become more rare.
Talk about your decision to work for Teach For America. How do you think your background influences your work?
MH: The bottom line of Teach For America’s mission is to ensure that all kids have the ability to reach their fullest potential. For years I have doubted my ability to “be a writer,” and so I know how powerful our internal doubt systems can be in holding us back from what we love. So many kids today have circumstances far more challenging than the experiences that shaped my self-doubts; and so I think it is important for all of us, in our own ways, to contribute to the energies and actions that help people unlock their dreams.
Read more about Melanie Hoffert and Prairie Silence at melaniehoffert.com. Prairie Silence can be purchased through major booksellers across the United States, or select independent bookstores. You can also find Melanie on Facebook or Twitter!
Wisconsin native, Hannah currently lives in Queens, New York. She plans to pursue her
graduate degree in community arts education, and spends her free time cooking, reading,
and listening to ‘80s hair bands.