South by Midwest

Flash fiction—prairie-style—from novelists Jonathan Lethem and Aimee Bender, plus an interview with Jeff Martin, editor of the new collection Imaginary Oklahoma.

Illustration by J.P. Morrison. Reprinted by permission of This Land Press.

Not a single one of the 46 contributors to Imaginary Oklahoma, a new collection of short fiction that circles around the idea of what Oklahoma might be, is from there. But that hasn’t stopped them from creating what Davy Rothbart, another non-Oklahoman, calls a “complex, playful, and sincere love letter” to the 46th state.

Imaginary Oklahoma grew out of a regular series in This Land, Tulsa’s terrific biweekly print magazine on “the story of Oklahoma.” It includes everything from coverage of Oklahoman Bradley Manning and the Wikileaks scandal, to event guides, personal essays, documentaries, and podcasts.


The Morning News: What inspired this project?

Jeff Martin: The whole idea began when I took a trip down to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas. They had an exhibition of Ed Ruscha, an artist who was born in Nebraska and spent most of his youth in Oklahoma City, but moved to California in the 1950s and became a kind of quintessential California artist. I saw a piece that he did called No Man’s Land, a painting with a giant question mark stretched across a barren landscape and a silhouette of Oklahoma in the upper left corner. He was making a statement with that piece that resonated with me, and I started to think about the national identity of this place. We were defined by things like the Dust Bowl that happened many, many decades ago, but what was our current national identity? I wasn’t able to fill that void, so I started thinking, “Well, if I don’t know what it is, what do other people think it is?” And that’s when the seed was planted to have other people give commentary on this place.

I’m also a huge fan of Lydia Davis, especially her most recent omnibus of stories that came out a few years ago, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I was reading that a lot during the conceptual phase of this project, and I was really taken with the idea of brevity and what you can do with that. I’d gotten really burned out on this “Six-Word Memoir” phase we had a couple of years ago, but I’d always been intrigued by great, super-short flash fiction and she does it, I think, better than anybody as far as contemporary writers go. Padgett Powell is another great writer who does the same thing. I’d be remiss not to mention the impact of Davis’s writing on this book. Between her and Ed Ruscha, they were the creative parents of this project, in a way.

TMN: How did you source the contributors?

JM: I began thinking about who I like to read—I read the Best American Short Stories anthology every year when it comes out, so I started looking through past volumes and pulled people like Rebecca Makkai and others who I’d really liked in those collections. Then I started just looking through my bookshelf—I love Jonathan Lethem, I love Aimee Bender. I started contacting them all to see if they were interested, thinking that probably half of them would not be at all, but almost everyone I asked was enthusiastic and gave it a shot, or suggested someone else. So I got a great direction from every single person I asked.


“Ma Bell’s,” by Jonathan Lethem

Summer of 1976 I stayed with my cousin whose stepfather ran a restaurant called Ma Bell’s in Tulsa. A telephone on every table and you called your order into the kitchen, nice gimmick at the time. The minimalist T-shirt had the name in a pleasing sans-serif, canary yellow on a blue tee. I recall the city only as sprawl, incomprehensible to my sense of urban compression. My cousin and I played golf in the horizontal blaze of a hundred-degree August afternoon, cowed after three holes. He was thirteen, I was fourteen. The next summer he visited me in New York City. I reciprocated for horizontal bafflement with the best verticality on offer. We visited the World Trade Center. Instead of taking the elevator to the tourist level at the top and paying for the view, we decided to sneak our way to the highest level we could through office corridors, to see how high a level we could attain and still get to a window for a view. I think we topped out somewhere in the eighties. It hadn’t hit me until writing that last sentence that Oklahoma and Manhattan are cousins-by-terrorism. Ma Bell’s is gone (broken up, I’m tempted to say) and so is his mom’s marriage, and a lot of other things, but my cousin remains my cousin and he still plays golf.


TMN: With globalization, chain restaurants, strip malls, are states even that distinct anymore? How would you describe Oklahoma as different from anywhere else?

JM: That’s the whole point, in a way—I didn’t know how to describe it. In some ways, I still don’t. Many states don’t have an identity. Maybe at one point they did. Maybe Oklahoma’s identity during the Dust Bowl was the most concrete one it would ever have—the same way that Pennsylvania during the height of the Rust Belt boom in manufacturing was when they had the most secure identity, or Michigan when Detroit was the fastest-growing city in America. A person has a prime in their life—maybe there’s a prime in a state’s existence, as well, when everything is clicking. But now the states are so diverse—not just through trade and industry but also in their populations—that it’s more about the melting pot of the country as a whole, with state identities drifting away. (The one exception being Texas, which will always be its own thing, I think.)

But it’s true that the lines are being blurred—and I can’t say that at the end of this book, you’re going to have any more of an idea of what Oklahoma is about. You’ll have at least an idea, but it’s something that never existed in the first place for most people in the United States.

It also speaks to the idea of everyone projecting meaning on to the place they call home. There would be interesting things to write about almost any state in the country. You could take this idea and apply it to every state, though it probably works better for the places that are lesser-known like Montana or Oklahoma instead of, say, an imaginary California.

I struggled with the idea of whether Oklahoma is a special place. Is it more special than anywhere else? Or am I just thinking that because I’m from here? That’s something that I wrestled with—am I just trying to force a uniqueness to this place, or is it unique? And that’s something that I’ll probably be wrestling with forever.


“Songs,” by Aimee Bender

Oklahoma, shaped with a panhandle and a deep pan, the piece of the U.S. puzzle that I always liked to pick up early and tuck right into Texas. Oklahoma, below the Kansas of Dorothy lore and the one they wrote a song for: I bet half the residents love that musical and feel acknowledged by it and the other half resent it because the song is so damn catchy and they do not like it in their heads while the wind does its actual rushing down the plain. That same wind is a pain in the ass for crops and animals alike. That same wind drives dust into the corners of eyes and down throats. At the corner store, Sadie works at a scuffed counter selling water and snacks and beer and gas to drivers who do not want to stop there. She is not in the friendly or homey area of Oklahoma. She is in small-town transitional highway Oklahoma. She resembles the landscape with a windblown look to her skin and the pale blue eyes of certain skies in springtime. Enough already, she thinks. It is time for a new musical. It is called Tulsa. It does not rhyme with much of anything, but it’s a mantra in her head: Tulsa, Tulsa. Full in the back of the throat, and unsentimental.


TMN: What’s next?

JM: We published about half of these pieces in This Land Press, and half of them are being seen for the first time in the book. It’s been about a two-year project from concept to creation, but throughout the project we’ve done a lot of audio interviews with many of the authors, we’ve done some short films based on some of the stories, and we’re thinking about putting out an iPad app for it with all the multimedia elements combined. One thing we’re toying with is the idea of allowing people to continue the project and submit their own Imaginary Oklahoma pieces.

TMN: Can you think of any Oklahoman writers writing about the state?

JM: Some of the best writers from or living in Oklahoma aren’t writing about this place, but are doing great work. There are writers like Rivka Galchen, who wrote the forward for Imaginary Oklahoma; she grew up in Norman. There’s a great literary biographer from Oklahoma named Blake Bailey who’s fantastic. He just wrote a new biography about Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend, he won the National Book Critics Circle award for a book on John Cheever a couple of years ago, and he’s now Philip Roth’s official biographer. He’s one of the best non-fiction writers around, and next year he’s releasing a memoir about growing up in Oklahoma, which will be a nice new addition to the literature.

On the flip side of that, there’s a great new novel out called A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal. He’s writing about this place and it’s very much a love letter to the city, but there are some very much imagined elements too. He’s written from memory—he grew up here but doesn’t live here now—and there are elements within the book that don’t quite fit the actual physical descriptions of Tulsa. I think that book is the most significant contribution to Oklahoma literature in the past decade or two. That’s a good sign of things to come. The future is bright.

All stories excerpted from Imaginary Oklahoma, edited by Jeff Martin. Illustrations reprinted by permission of This Land Press.


TMN editor Nozlee Samadzadeh is the internet’s only “Nozlee.” She grew up in Oklahoma, loves airports even when they’re miserable, and cooks dinner from scratch every day. More by Nozlee Samadzadeh