David Giffels is on a journey to understand America, and for the Akron-based writer, that starts in Ohio. He’s traveling around the state, working on a new book in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.
Giffels is trying to get a better sense of what’s changed in Ohio, and what it says about our country as a whole. He said he has written so much about Ohio in his career, first as a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal, then as an author.
He was casting about for a new idea. His agent kept telling him that Ohio seemed to be at the center of conversation, politically, culturally and socially with people not really listening to each other. After much discussion, Giffels said he came to agree that despite all that he had previously written about Ohio, the story had not come to an end, and this was “an important time to tell Ohio’s story, especially by way of the fact that Ohio has always been this very reliable barometer, we get called the bellwether, and we’re this battleground state.” When you come right down to it he adds, “this time around, it seems like [it’s] more than how the election is going to go, but really kind of to the soul of who we are right now.”
Driven by people, not politics
Giffels stresses this is a book about people. In 2004, as a Beacon Journal columnist, he spent six weeks travelling the state on a similar project. He intentionally did not ask people how they were going to vote. However, in most cases, they told him, and he said, “there was something very Midwestern about it. It was almost like they felt they needed to share.”
Giffels said he wanted to do the same thing this year, and he wanted to make sure he wasn’t stereotyping anyone.
Picking up where the Hard Way left off
One of Giffels’ previous books, "The Hard Way on Purpose” was a collection of essays about coming of age in the Rust Belt as the first generation to know only the downturn in middle America. “This book is very much informed by that,” Giffels said. That book galvanized for him who he is based on where he comes from, but also “who an entire generation and region of people are by way of where we live… and what we’ve come through.” Giffels said he recognized that Ohio and the Rust Belt are misunderstood and overlooked most of the time “until it comes time to test the political waters, and then we get beset upon by journalists and politicians coming here… to find out what makes us tick.”
The five Ohios
Giffels plans to travel to what has been defined as the five Ohios which reflect a cross-section of the country.
- Northeast Ohio which is densely populated, very urban, post-industrial
- Northwest Ohio which is more midwestern, rural, much less populated
- Central Ohio including Columbus, the only fast-growing city in Ohio; the rest of the cities are either stagnant or losing population
- Southeast Ohio or Appalachia Region
- Southwest Ohio, the region around Cincinnati which is more like the south
According to Giffels, all these different parts of the state can tell very different stories. He’s plotted a travelogue to “go to those places and understand what they reflect about the national picture, within the neat boundaries of my home state.”
The focus on Ohio
Giffels believes the local focus by writers recently on Ohio and other states and parts of the country is in some way a reaction to the homogenization of the U.S. culturally over the last decade or two. “We tend to be less social people in sense of place and more tied to devices. It’s almost like the civic commons is in your phone.”
He feels the sense of place has change and has become more “urgent” for writers to continue to represent what makes each place unique and “how unique places form a country that is not one single flavor from coast to coast, but rather has different ways of seeing the world.” He feels a lot of writers who are focusing in their writing on a sense of place are doing so with a moral purpose to define their places from within and not be influenced by “the clamor of the marketplace of ideas.”
As one example, Giffels cited J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” That setting could be seen in one way as a very backward place, with people at fault for their own misfortunes. However, Giffels feels that by humanizing one family the way Vance did, and putting a lot of ideological thought into why his family is the way it is, Vance does a good service to the story. Giffels feels it also puts out a call for writers to tell their own stories. Giffels said he’s trying to put out his own narrative.
The Akron perspective
Giffels was born and raised in Akron, worked at the Beacon Journal and teaches now at the University of Akron. Does that provide him with a perspective that others from outside might not have? “If there’s an advantage to spending your whole life in Akron, Ohio, it has to be wrought with a certain sense of irony,” he half-joked. “But it’s true… one thing I recognize now is that someone like me can tell a story with a deep authenticity and a deep understanding of people whose story can’t be told by somebody not from here.”
With all seriousness he added, “There are a lot of advantages to spending your whole life in Ohio. We can tell the story of a place that doesn’t get represented often enough with the nuance that’s important to understand, especially if you know you live in a place that has something to tell the rest of the nation.”
David Giffels’ new book will be focused on getting a better understanding of Ohio, and in so doing, a better understanding of our country. We’ll be checking in with Giffels every month over the course of his travels to talk to him about what he’s finding.