Joyce Carol Oates Goes Home Again

The celebrated writer returns to the town of her birth to revisit the places that haunt her memory and her extraordinary fiction

"For residents of the area who have gone to live elsewhere, it's the canal—so deep-set in what appears to be solid rock ... that resurfaces in dreams," says Oates. (Landon Nordeman)
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Am I really here? Is this—possible?

Fifty years since I’ve left Lockport, more or less—and now for the first time I have been formally invited back to “speak”—I can’t resist telling the audience that I hope this will become a custom, and that I will be invited back again in another 50 years.

Scattered laughter, murmurings. Is “Joyce Carol Oates” being funny, or—ironic?

Gently ironic, in any case. For truly I am tremendously moved and my eyes are welling with tears, and I am particularly grateful that my brother, Fred, and my sister-in-law, Nancy, are here tonight in the audience—all that’s left of my immediate family.

My presentation is informal, improvised, laced with “gentle ironies”—in fact, it’s this very memoir of Lockport in an early handwritten draft. The audience seems appreciative, as if they are all old friends/classmates of mine—as if I am one of them and not a visitor who will depart in the morning. More than once I’m tempted to shut my eyes and in a feat of verbal legerdemain recite the names of long-ago classmates—names as deeply imprinted in my brain as the street names of Lockport—a kind of valentine-poem, a sentimental homage to the past.

At the end of my talk, amid a wave of applause—warm, welcoming, buoyant—I am presented with a framed pen-and-ink drawing of the Lockport Public Library, by gracious Marie Bindeman, the current director of the library.

How I wish that my mother, my father and my grandmother Blanche Woodside were here with me tonight—that they were alive to share this extraordinary moment. How proud we are of you, Joyce!—for pride is the lifeblood of family, recompense for hardship, endurance, loss.

Unexpected questions from the audience: “Do you think that there is a teleological purpose to the universe, and do you think that there is an afterlife?” Yet more unsettling: “Do you think that you would be the writer you are today if you’d had a middle-class or wealthy background?”

These questions, that seem to me not at all Lockportian, stop me in my tracks. Especially the second. Beyond the blinding lights, 800 people are waiting for my reply. In the exigency of the moment it seems that they really want to know, Without Millersport and Lockport—would there be “Joyce Carol Oates”?

Joyce Carol Oates’ recent novel, Little Bird of Heaven, is set in a ficticious upstate New York town that bears a strong resemblance to the Lockport of her childhood. Photographer Landon Nordeman is based in New York City.


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