I left my hometown in Washington at seventeen, riding the Amtrak Cascades line south to Seattle and then the Empire Builder east. My father hugged me goodbye on the gray platform. It was, as always, raining. You know what they say, Meg, he said. You can never come home again. Those words confirmed the worst of what I’d already suspected and secretly hoped. The rest of the world seemed so much bigger, and besides, I was gay. I wanted to be a writer, a queer writer, and I believed that I couldn’t be both of those things in the place where I’d grown up. Who would read my stories in the little towns I knew so well, the ones standing sentry at the edge of the Sound?
These things are conflated to me: to be young and queer, to be fearful, to leave your home, to feel that your stories do not exist. That you do not exist. I ran from the Northwest, throwing myself recklessly, hopefully around the country. I didn’t want to feel the way I had when I was fourteen or fifteen, my queerness making people around me uncomfortable, making me suspect. I did what so many young queers do–I went to find my people.
But even as I tumbled into new lives and towns, I kept writing about the Northwest. My characters had mildew growing in their shoes; they knew the sound of the water licking back the stones on the shore, the smell of skunk cabbage in deep woods. And they were queer; they were struggling and triumphing in turns, living in the places I’d left behind. I wrote the Northwest without thinking about it, and I wrote the characters I’d always wanted to read.
In the early spring of 2012, I was living in a railroad town in Minnesota, where I’d been given a fellowship to finish my novel. And I had finished it, one night in April, quietly and without fanfare. The yard filled up with soft and steady snow. Down the narrow street I could see sparks flying as the neighbors built a bonfire, and each of the faces that gathered around it was someone else I didn’t know. I saved the first full draft of Call Me Home, went to bed in the little house, and then sat up in the dark, gasping for air, another panic attack. I was sick at heart, lonely, full of doubts about what my life should look like.
Where do you want to be, Megan, I asked. What do you want to do? It had been twelve years since I left Washington. My answer surprised me entirely. I want to go home, I thought. I said it out loud in the dark, and then I said it again.
In two months I was driving west, my desk–the only piece of furniture I owned–upright on the backseat. I thought it would be humbling to return, that everyone would assume I was in trouble, or that I’d given up. But it was both smaller and bigger than that. The people I loved shifted to make room for me again, buoying me up between them. The air smelled of woodsmoke, like it always had. I starting sleeping through the night.
Perhaps it was writing the book that made me see that what my father said wasn’t true; it was the opposite: You can never really leave. All of those years of moving around, and when I sat down to write, I was still seeing the Skagit Valley. I was the one standing in my own way, keeping myself from stepping into a future I had been too scared to allow myself to imagine.
When Call Me Home was published, I feared it would be dismissed for its violence and its queerness. That is the greatest gift I have been given–to instead watch my characters meet readers with respect and grace. To know that we are living in a world now where the story of a young queer man trying desperately to understand himself is not considered a threat, but a narrative of a powerful life.
Our narratives piece together a history of our world that, could we read its entirety, would be more nuanced and complete than any chronology. The queer stories I longed for when I was fourteen or fifteen were being lived all along–and now it is my responsibility, and yours, to write them and to read them. To write the less-told stories of the Northwest, of who we are. We write and read the world into becoming, all of us. In James Baldwin’s words, “If you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it.” I know where I live now. It took me a while to realize it, but look at us–we’re growing up. We’re still and always becoming.
Portland author Megan Kruse won a 2016 PNBA Award for her novel, Call Me Home. She shares this essay with us in celebration of the award. Look for essays from the other winners on this website in the coming weeks, under the tag “2016 PNBA Awards Winners.”
Megan Kruse’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at a party at Broadway Books in Portland on March 8 at 7:00 pm. Please join in for cake and merriment!