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Texas with a Somewhat Different Eye


by Jerome Weeks 11 Sep 2008

Next week, HarperCollins is releasing State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. Fifty writers tackling our 50 states: The inspirations for this collection were the legendary WPA American Guides of the ’30s and ’40s. (The WPA Dallas Guide and History is still in print; the 1949 WPA […]

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Next week, HarperCollins is releasing State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. Fifty writers tackling our 50 states: The inspirations for this collection were the legendary WPA American Guides of the ’30s and ’40s. (The WPA Dallas Guide and History is still in print; the 1949 WPA Texas Guide was reprinted in 1986 in paperback with a new introduction by Don Graham.)

Some of the author-state match-ups sound inspired: William T. Vollmann on California, the humorist John Hodgman on Massachusetts, Mississippi by Barry Hanna, Jhumpa Lahiri on Rhode Island, Edward P. Jones on Washington, D.C., S. E. Hinton (Tulsa-based author of The Outsiders) on Oklahoma. Some of them, on the other hand, are either very intriguing or perplexing: Ha Jin on Georgia, for instance.

So who’s writing about Texas, you ask?

Cristina Henriquez, the talented short-story author of Come Together, Fall Apart. Daughter of Panamanian parents, she studied at Northwestern University and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, lived in Dallas for a few years — but now lives in Chicago.

The book description states that these essays are not just “memoirs.” They include original journalism. So Henriquez can certainly report on Texas. She did live here for a while, and there’s certainly something to be said for a fresh eye. But it does make you marvel when you see that Austin author Dagoberto Gilb is writing about — Iowa.

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  • I didn’t mean to suggest that only Texans can write about Texas — one of the best novels about Dallas is Don DeLillo’s “Libra.” And the fact is that Henriquez is a talented writer who DID live in Dallas. I wanted to show the divergences, the improbable range, between some author-state combos and others.

  • Matt Weiland, co-editor of “State by State,” e-mailed me.

    Thanks for giving a thought and a care to STATE BY STATE. The backstory about Dagoberto, for what it’s worth: he wanted to write about Texas, and we originally had him slated for that. Would have been great — but I grew up in part of Iowa and had been hearing lots about all the Mexican immigrants working in the cornfields there. So I thought it’d be even more interesting (and more surprising) to send Dagoberto to Iowa to see what he could see there in the fields, and to write about it. Turned in a doozy of a piece.

    I’m sure our choices will tighten many jaws (and many fists besides), but the idea that only a Texan can write about Texas (or an Iowan about Iowa etc) is as narrow-minded as saying that only a king can play King Lear. Sometimes the best pictures are painted by those new to the land they’re capturing on canvas — fresh eyes and a free hand can be a very good thing. In any case we didn’t want the book to be a kind of beauty pageant, with 50 locals in tiaras and sashes crowing about their own states. Sure there is some of that (who doesn’t like a writer in sash-and-tiara now and then?), but it’s much more interesting to mix it up, so we commissioned some pieces by residents, others by newcomers, and others by writers visiting a state for the first time. A cacophony of styles and approaches — just like the U S of A.