A Sense of Place

Last week, we talked about an idea that I love from a Sheila Heti interview about graduate school – the idea of parallel mentorship.

But, there is another idea from that same interview that I’ve been thinking about increasingly this week. In describing how graduate school never held any allure for her, and how her lines of inquiry were organized around the books she wrote instead, Heti explains,

“If you’re working on a book, the book poses a bunch of questions. Maybe it’s (in the case of my second book, Ticknor) “What were the early birth control pioneers like?” or “What was Florence Nightingale all about?” Most of your curiosities don’t even make it into the book, but you think they will. Moments come where you have to find out about something or you can’t go on. So you start reading in that area (Havelock Ellis, Marie Stopes) and you take in the stuff at a really deep level because your need to know it is at once mysterious (why is Marie Stopes so important to you right now?) and really practical (it might help you finish a scene). I guess the main difference is that you are led down reading paths as you go, rather than coming up with a reading list at the start. And it’s always changing. Then, in terms of how your life is organized around a book, it’s a question of what kind of person you have to be in order to write that book. Do you need to be married, single, traveling, asking questions of other people, alone in your room? What kind of person does the book demand it be written by? You have to become that person.”

Heti becoming a particular type of person in order to be able to respond to the questions posed by her book reminds me of Althusser’s concept of interpellation. But, whereas Althusser argues that we get ‘hailed’ by (assuming a particular identity or social role in response to) social and political institutions, I’ve been thinking about how we get ‘hailed’ by places; how we become different types of people depending on the place we are inhabiting.

The place I inhabit currently is literally, physically, falling apart – the plaster is tumbling from the ceilings, the kitchen cabinet doors are hanging off their hinges, the foundation itself is crumbling. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a boat with a leak, constantly pitching water out to stay afloat–weeding, sweeping, patching.

I don’t feel this way everywhere I go. When I visit New York, I am eager for adventure. I wander city blocks for hours, soaking up the mundane dramas unfolding in the streets, tuck into museums to see exhibits and clubs to see shows, line up ramen and egg cream tastings. In Chicago, I took risks – chatting with strangers, sipping strong cocktails, and daring to look down through the transparent platform at the top of the Sears tower. In Sydney, I felt free floating in a pool high up above the city on the opposite end of the world from everything I knew.


Maybe it has something to do with the anonymity – in a city where I blend into the crowd, I am ‘hailed’ less often. I feel less weighed down by expectations and more free to construct my identity from scratch.

Then again, when I visit these places, I am on vacation. Maybe there I feel differently because I don’t have to worry as much about the dishes and laundry piled.

How about you? Does your identity shift when you travel? Where do you feel most you? Or, do you find that wherever you go, there you are?

Wherever you end up this weekend, I hope you have a great one!


Categories: Identity

3 replies »

  1. While abroad, I created a fake facebook account just so I could join the online groups through which my college’s societies functioned. But before long, this alternate persona- “Queenie Maria” (my school is called Queen Mary) took on a personality of her own. I’d like to think I grew into a new person in London- one with more strength, courage, independence.

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