08/08/2012 12:25 pm ET Updated Oct 08, 2012

When They Say You Have No Culture: Talking Applebee's, Passing, and Self-Acceptance With Memoirist Lacy M. Johnson

"The problem with midwesterners is that you have no culture."

In 2006, a young male New Yorker said this to Lacy M. Johnson, author of the stunning and thoughtful memoir Trespasses (Iowa) in which she tells the stories of three generations of family making their way in the rural Missouri.

Early in her book, Johnson re-creates this encounter for us; lets us know that the New Yorker came to this conclusion after a drive through the "heartland" of America. Then she repeats the insult he believes closes his case:

"Applebee's is not culture."

In winning fashion, Johnson's memoir refutes the supposition that her hometown's culture is equal to the sum of what a stranger can see through his windshield. That despite the omnipresence of chain businesses in her town, there is a world of ritual and memory, love and struggle and creativity, that is native to her community alone.

Yet, as Johnson says and thinks in the text:

It's all very American. And by this I also mean the regional chain of grocery stores, the Wal-Mart, even Applebee's, even though that's all he sees. Like algae on the surface of a pond. To get the clean, fresh water underneath you have to break through that surface. My culture is like that, I tell him. And for the first time, I believe it.

I believe it, too. For in the prose poems, the lyric recollections and re-creations, and the family interviews that comprise Trespasses, we follow this former Wal-Mart checkout clerk back to the country, back to the daily routines. Because culture is about more than where you go for Happy Hour, we explore the family farm. We experience the vivid memories of her grandparents and parents, like the moment electricity first lit their home, or when the grandfather beheld a newborn lamb and knew God existed. We follow Johnson to church, and into the clutches of strange boys. We learn what it's like when the older sister, who loves a black man, is suddenly persona non grata. And we learn what it's like when the great fear, and sometimes the great reality, is that you will be seen as less than -- as "trash" -- and no amount of store-bought clothing will change that fact.

A powerful epiphany of the book is when Johnson learns to stop squelching her natural voice and write in the mother tongue, the one that is as authentic and real as anyone else's. For these are her stories. These are her family's stories. This is her culture. One that is unique and regional, yet very American.

I asked Johnson to share a bit more about writing Trespasses.

Could you tell us about how the encounter with the man from New York gave you fuel, and what you'd share with him, now, if you could?

This encounter gave me fuel because it made me angry, because he was an outsider and yet I saw so much of my own attitudes and beliefs in his. What does he know? I found myself thinking long after the encounter was over, even in the days afterward. It couldn't be true -- can any place be cultureless? But at the time, I couldn't think of any particular ways in which he was wrong. At the time of the argument, I had spent so much time trying to get away from my home that I hadn't really taken the time to look at it very closely.

The argument forced me then, as it still does now, to think not only about what "culture" means, but also how it is perceived and how that perception has evolved. Because the New Yorker is defining culture through the lens of his own experience: if he expects five-star restaurants, Broadway plays, museums, ethnic and racial diversity...w ell, no. He won't find that here. He won't find urban culture here at all, really. But that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

When I go home now, the first thing I see is the same first thing anyone sees anywhere: big box stores, fast food chains, the outposts of giant corporate conglomerates. But when I went home in 2006 to conduct the interviews that I used as material for this book, I realized that there's a pre-corporate culture that still survives there. It was there all along, but I just didn't know how to recognize it in my immaturity. The sad thing is, I'm not sure how much longer it will survive.

You write about "passing" -- that while in graduate school, you took great pains to
pretend to be something you felt you weren't. What was this experience like? Do you ever still feel like you're passing for something else?

I always feel like I'm passing a little bit. In graduate school (though also even before that, as an undergraduate) I always felt as though people were at any moment going to find me out for a fraud. Even now, I can't walk into certain restaurants, or clothing stores, or automobile dealers, or open houses without feeling like I'm getting "the look." Less and less in recent years have I caught myself trying to be something I'm not. I don't cover my tattoos when I show up for job interviews. I psych myself up before waltzing into whatever restaurant I please and try to explain my appreciation for cold hot dogs and Cool Ranch Doritos to my dinner companions, who may or may not give me "the look."

As I try to explain in the book, I don't think passing is a good thing. I think it perpetuates an unjust system of privilege and oppression. I think a tremendous part of the privileges I currently enjoy have come from the fact that I can easily pass as a middle-class white woman when I need to: I'm pretty, I have good teeth and hair, I'm well-spoken and thin. Would I be where I am today if I looked differently? I'd like to think that my success has come from hard work, but I also have to acknowledge that hard work pays off differently for different people. So, I've tried to stop using that to my own advantage, and instead use it to leverage opportunities for others.

Tell us something beautiful about your hometown. Tell us something ugly, too.

Here is something beautiful: After I'd gotten my driver's license, I used to walk home after school and drop my bag inside the backdoor, and take my dad's truck out to this abandoned dock at the lake. The narrow dirt path leading to the dock didn't look like much from the gravel road: no sign or mailbox to mark it as the way, the path itself just barely wide enough to let the truck pass between the humps of tangled brush, the knotty branches scratching both sides of the truck -- like fingernails on a chalkboard, like cats fighting in the barn -- passing just under the enormous oak tree, the branches bending and breaking against the roof of the truck, which would finally emerge into a wide grass lot. Maybe that lot was privately owned. Maybe someone owned the dock. But no one claimed it except those of us who never crossed paths, who left only beer bottles, bottle caps, cigarette butts behind as artifacts. Some days I backed the truck right up to the water. Other days I walked to the dock's edge, avoiding the boards that buckled with mold and rot, the water trying to claim them, and sat down on the last solid board, and let the lake water lap my feet as it lapped the shore. I had no purpose, no imminent chore. There was nothing between me and the water. Nothing between the water and the air. If I had a religion at the time, it was this.

Here's something ugly: there was a girl a few years ahead of me in school. After she graduated, she came out as a lesbian, and suddenly she was no longer seated in restaurants, or if she was seated no one would serve her; she was turned away at the doctor's office and the pharmacy, and the grocery store, and the bank. I think she finally moved away.

What is something we should know if we ever work at Wal-Mart?

Mostly just don't do it. Working as a cashier is a really shitty job: people are rude to you all day and your bosses evaluate you based on how quickly you move customers through your line. You're standing on your feet for eight hours with only two 15-minute breaks and a half hour for lunch. They make you memorize cheers and do them every morning before the store opens. After all, you're supposed to be very excited about your shitty job! And then no one seems to mind when the supervisors sexually harass young women, especially if the women don't make any formal complaints. And then they seem to mind a lot, but somehow it's the women who get shuffled into other departments, and the whole matter gets brushed under the rug. On the flip side, you get a 10 percent discount and a generous stock-purchasing plan, and if you express any kind of ambition at all, they'll train you to be a manager of just about anything.

Without a doubt, the best part of working at Wal-Mart is that you get to see all the weird shit people buy. Once this Mennonite man and his son came in to the store and bought a flashlight, batteries, and a pack of condoms. And I thought, "You're not even allowed to sew zippers in your pants, what are you going to do with those?" As fun as these invasions of privacy might seem, you also have to remember that you might work at Wal-Mart for years and years and never earn much more than minimum wage, which until 2007 was somewhere in the neighborhood of $5.00 an hour. Can you imagine? A whole day at the register and you've earned less than $40 bucks, and that's before they deduct for taxes and the generous stock plan. At the time, it was the best job I had available to me, but now that I've got other options, you'd better believe I take them.

This post may also be read on Harlem Bookshelf.