Around the turn of August and September 2022, I marked my eighth year of living in Grand Rapids: an odd anniversary to recognize, but an important one. I lived in GR for four years while attending Calvin, and now I’ve lived here for another four years after graduation. I’ve now lived here as long after college as I ever did during college. Every year after college has expanded my knowledge and references of GR beyond what I knew back then. I still spend time in some of the same spaces as my past self, but my routines have expanded to include many more places and neighborhoods. If I live here for another set of eight years, I will have called Grand Rapids home longer than I have called any other city home.

When the Grand Rapids Public Library announced an event with author Silvia Moreno-Garcia, I knew I wanted to attend, and I knew I wanted to read her book Mexican Gothic beforehand. I picked up a copy, expecting to spend a few hours in 1920s Mexico City. But less than a dozen pages into the narrative, protagonist Noemí traveled to a lonely English manor house: geographically located in Mexico but architecturally and emotionally located across the Atlantic. I was confused. This was Mexican Gothic, after all; why did the setting feel so British? Shouldn’t it at least be Spanish, given Mexico’s colonial history?

But my lack of knowledge was preventing me from understanding the truth beneath Moreno-Garcia’s imagination. In a letter to her readers, the author describes her visit to Real de Monte, “Little Cornwall,” a mining town with its own English cemetery and British-inspired architecture.

Mexican Gothic,” Moreno-Garcia writes, “expresses the haunting feeling I had when we drove through Mexico looking at the remains of towns from another era. To know a place, you must look at the land. What the land told me in Hidalgo is that there are ghosts and then there are ghosts. The ones that wear bed sheets over their heads are much less terrifying than the ones left by the sins of our ancestors.”

The book’s setting wasn’t just a reference to Jane Eyre, Dracula, and other British Gothic classics. It was a reference to reality.

After moving to Detroit almost four years ago, my friend Rebecca recently decided to move back to GR. Not long after that announcement, my friend Bekah–who also moved to Detroit about four years ago–also decided to return to GR. Neither friend has lived here in years, and they’re not the same people they were four years ago. They have different relationship statuses, different priorities, different homes, but some of the same friends, same interests, same ways they like to spend their time. They’re still figuring out the places where their past selves and current selves overlap.

“In the particular lies the universal,” wrote James Joyce. Long before him and long after him, writers have been advised to bathe their words in specifics. After all,when we speak in specifics, we are more likely to speak the truth. Speaking in universals tends to yield generalizations and stereotypes–we’re far better off heading in the other direction.

In our particular places lie our particular personalities; fictional characters aren’t the only ones who can’t be described without their settings. We are always marked by the places we call home: the countries, states, cities, and neighborhoods, absolutely, but the workplaces, institutions, third places, and communities as well. Their stories and histories etch themselves into our biographies, shaping us into people who cannot be defined without our places.

Not long after I finished Mexican Gothic, I picked up a book about the Golden Record, the gold-plated disc attached to NASA’s Voyager probes as a message to any curious fellow travelers in space. The record carries both images and sounds: greetings from members of the United Nations, backed by whale songs; sounds of Earth like laughter, dog barks, and automobiles; photos of human life and the landscapes of Earth; and twenty-six selections of music from Bach, Blind Willie Johnson, Goro Yamaguchi, and other artists from across the globe and the centuries.

But if extraterrestrials ever do contact us about the record, we’ll have to shrug about some of the images and sounds they received. The Golden Record committee pulled materials from books, magazines, and content libraries, and not every source kept careful records about the people in the images or making the sounds. The NASA website, for example, mentions Senegalese percussion as one of the music tracks, but the song was actually recorded in Benin, over 100 miles away from Senegal. And no one’s quite sure who’s laughing in the “Sounds of the Earth” segment: it’s probably a man, possibly Carl Sagan (the chair of the Golden Record committee), but we don’t know for certain.

Still, we humans—because of our developed sense of where and when—have a much better sense of the truth than the Golden Record’s potential alien recipients. Forty-five years after Voyager’s launch, people like me click through the record’s contents, and we see and hear an Earth that still looks and sounds like home.

We know that we are products of our places, but we don’t get to choose what parts will haunt our lives. At her GRPL event, Silvia Moreno-Garcia spoke about how the colonial history of eugenics shaped her book’s antagonists: “It’s like a haunting that never ceases.” The belief that some people are more biologically worthy than others does not fade in an instant, and it does not fade from the places it helped create. Ignoring colonialism does not make our world any less impacted by its effects; ignoring redlining does not make problems in education or food access any easier to address. Our settings shape us as characters, and they often provide the conflicts that we need to confront.

In the places we call home, we can only choose the specifics that we acknowledge in public. Our voices are shaped by the settings where we have been and are now. Sometimes the specifics are difficult to speak, like hard, haunting histories, and sometimes those same specifics bring us back to our full selves. Over the years, we collect our place-based adjectives like geotags: rural or urban, native or transplant, homeowner or renter…

When you call a place home, you start to grow into its strengths and weaknesses, and it starts to become a part of you. When two high school friends visited me last month, I found myself translating between my current home of Grand Rapids and my former home of Des Moines. As I compared streets, farmers’ markets, and community theater venues, I heard both nostalgia and contentment in my own voice. I thought about the love I still have for a place that shaped me, and the love I’ve grown for the place I live now.

When outsiders come to our homes, our responsibility is hospitality. Welcome. Introducing them to their new place until their characters and plotlines take root in its soil. Sometimes, as hosts, we need to warn visitors and new arrivals of the ghosts that haunt the place, the troubles and terrors woven into foundations and conversations. But sometimes it is our simple, joyful duty to throw the door open, usher in a new character, and watch the stories that unfold.


Photo courtesy of NASA JPL on Flickr

1 Comment

  1. Marcea Ustler

    Dear Courtney,

    I enjoyed reading PERSONAL GEOGRAPHY. I graduated from Calvin College in 1984 but instead of staying in GR, I moved to Orlando, Florida to teach 10th, 11th and 12th grade English. I didn’t teach English for long, but I have lived within thirty minutes of Disney World ever since.

    While you stayed in GR and I moved away after graduating from Calvin, I recognize myself in your writing even though our actions were the opposite.

    Keep asking questions. Post Calvin is a great place to grow, write and stay grounded.




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