Home & Place as Sparks for Writing



Volume 70.2 contributors Donna Hemans and Carolyn Oliver converse on the issue’s theme of “home” and how their own senses of place serve as sources for writing inspiration in both recent and upcoming work.

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CO: The scope of your essay, “Home Is a Scent,” is very wide. Did the piece begin with this broad set of concerns, or did it begin from a smaller detail, a memory?


DH: For years, I’d been trying to write an essay about the guilt of leaving home.

That’s tied to the section I include about the priest’s sermon in the days before I migrated, which didn’t quite fit in the essays I wrote prior to this one. In 2020—partly because of COVID and travel restrictions, the news, and discussions about who belongs where, what the U.S. is and isn’t, and how the country is viewed globally—I started thinking again about how my perceptions of America have shifted. So the essay just naturally evolved from snippets of memories.


CO: Scent can transport us to another place, another time, but it’s often difficult to describe. How did you approach writing about it in “Home Is a Scent”?


DH: I remember a friend who grew up here but spent lots of summers in Jamaica telling me that the scent of Jamaica lingers on him when he returns home to the U.S. It was funny to me because I had a distinct sense of America as a scent rooted in my childhood, but I couldn’t associate a specific lingering scent with my home country. He knew the scent, but he wasn’t able to adequately describe it. However, he said it was a smell of the outdoors. This idea of the scent of a place kind of stuck with me. Though I can think of several odors that remind me of home, I don’t know that I can say that any one scent feels like it represents Jamaica. Maybe someday I will know.


CO: You write, “home is fleeting, a place we carry around in our hearts and the scents and sounds that linger in our memories.” What scents are particularly evocative of “home” to you now?


DH: At the moment, it’s roasted breadfruit. I was just in Jamaica, and I woke up one morning to the scent of a breadfruit roasting. I immediately thought, That’s the smell of home, and then, Why didn’t I put that in my essay?


CO: What are you excited to be exploring in your writing life these days?


DH: Memory seems to be what I’m exploring in my current fiction project. Specifically, I’m exploring how trauma can lead one to dissociate from certain events. Lots to explore there.


CO: Is “Home Is a Scent” part of a larger book or project that you’re working on? 


DH: Hmmm. Every now and then I think about whether I have an essay collection in me and immediately stop thinking about it. There’s an underlying theme running through my essays, but I don’t yet have a good sense of how they work together as a single book project. Time will tell if they do.



CO: I would love to read that essay collection if it turns out you do go in that direction someday! Do you find that your fiction and nonfiction subjects tend to overlap? Does your writing process differ between genres?


DH: I have been writing about home, belonging, and identity in both fiction and nonfiction. I find sometimes that working through an essay helps me to understand what I want to achieve in a piece of fiction. For example, my essay “How the Past Echoes Through Our Lives,” which was published in December 2020 on the Ploughshares blog, is tied to my forthcoming novel, Tree of a Thousand Feet. In many ways the writing process is the same—I start with a vague idea, a loose sense of where I want to end up, and build on it until it takes shape and has meaning.




DH: In the introduction to the Shenandoah’s Spring 2021 Issue poetry section, Lesley Wheeler describes “Do Not Fail to Yield” as a “poem-as-manual.” Did you think of it this way as you were writing?


CO: This is a found poem, based on words and phrases from the Massachusetts Driver’s Manual, so it definitely has origins there! This form and style are not what I’m usually drawn to, but I read that manual cover to cover twice to be sure I wasn’t missing important safety information (driving makes me anxious—I still don’t have a license!). The oddities of the wording stuck out at me, so I decided to work with the phrases I was drawn to. Eventually they became this poem about risk and grief.


DH: While you’re not writing about “home”—the theme for Spring 2021 issue—there’s a strong sense of New England scenery in your three poems. Do you draw your inspiration from a particular place?


CO: “Frost Heaves” has its origins in a road sign I saw on a back road in western Massachusetts; I didn’t know what it meant. (The frost heaves what? I wondered). “Questions about Bisexuals #4” began when, through the bedroom window, I glimpsed a cardinal in the trees that make a border to the backyard. It was utterly still despite the gale. I’d never seen anything like it, but I guess I should stop being surprised that even our little corner of the world is vaster than I can fathom.


DH: Does your broader work reflect a similar place?


CO: I don’t consciously set out to write about New England, where I live now; or Ohio, where I grew up; or New York state, where I was born and through which I travel often. But those places and their landscapes are enmeshed in my writing simply because I know them; they are places easy to return to. I love traveling (and miss it!), so I’m always delighted when a poem appears out of a new place, but I don’t count on that to happen. Montreal is one of my favorite cities, yet it’s never showed up in one of my poems! Sometimes a detail from a place returns to me years after the fact, but I can’t force it. And then, in a different direction, I often find myself imagining places and times I’ve never been and probably never will be. I like to time travel.


DH: In each poem the landscape and the winter scenes are both hazardous and a place of safety. Is that how you see it?


CO: I think so. I wrote all three poems during one month, January, when the cold really sets in around here, and the light has yet to start lengthening the days in a meaningful way. You’re always worried about pipes freezing and bursting, ice on the dark roads, heart attacks shoveling snow, that kind of thing. And yet winter is familiar. There’s a certain sense of comfort in that, maybe even a sense of satisfaction in enduring it year after year.


DH: I love how something as mundane as a road sign or as technical as a driver’s manual can lead to beautiful poems. What’s the most mundane thing that has sparked a poem for you? 


CO: If flowers are mundane, then flowers, I guess. But I’m working on a poem shaped out of Nextdoor email subject lines, so maybe that’s a better answer, though I’m not sure I’ll ever finish it. For now, readers can find poems, floral and otherwise, on my website, as well as information about three books going to press in 2022: my debut full-length collection Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (The University of Utah Press; pre-orders here), and the chapbooks Mirror Factory (Bone & Ink Press) and Dearling (dancing girl press).

Donna Hemans is the author of two novels: River Woman and Tea by the Sea. Her short fiction and essays appear in the Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Ms., and Electric Lit, among others. She lives in Maryland and is the owner of DC Writers Room, a coworking studio for writers.
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