Midwest authors discuss Midwestern culture in their books at Prairie Lights virtual potluck

Six Midwest authors participated in a “virtual potluck” hosted by Prairie Lights to discuss their 2020 book releases.


Tate Hildyard

The Prairie Light virtual potluck is held over Zoom on Sunday, December 6, 2020. Prairie Lights is hosting a group of six Midwest authors to talk about the books they published in 2020. (Tate Hildyard/The Daily Iowan)

Jenna Post, Arts Reporter

On Sunday evening, six Midwest authors gathered around the warm glow of their computer screens, each eating classic potluck dishes including cheesy potatoes, cheesy pasta casserole, and cream cheese dip. 

Presented by Prairie Lights, the virtual holiday potluck gave artists the opportunity to share their insights and discuss their most recent books, all of which were published in 2020.

From romance to personal essays to a choose your own adventure book, a wide range of topics and genres were covered, but feelings about Midwestern culture were a common thread in each author’s writing process.  

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Lyz Lenz, an Iowa resident and former columnist for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, said her books, Belabored and God Land, explore what it means to belong in the Midwest.

“The Midwest has a specific culture that resists a definition because we’ve all met those old Midwestern people who hate it when you put them in a box even when it’s accurate,” Lenz said during the event.

Lenz said that Midwestern culture is rooted in white norms. As a result, she said, those who deviate from the norm have their status of being a “real Midwesterner” questioned.

Several of the authors challenge the notion of dominant Midwest culture with their books’ characters or personal experiences.

In How to Fail at Flirting, author Denise Williams’ heroine is a biracial woman from Iowa finding love in Chicago. Williams said the character’s personality was influenced by the reality of what it’s like to be a biracial woman in Iowa, and that experience doesn’t disappear by living in a diverse city like Chicago.

Rachel Mans McKenny, who teaches composition and public speaking at Iowa State, said her main character was also influenced by growing up in the Midwest. In an interview with The Daily Iowan prior to the event, McKenny said she wanted to play with the idea of a girl who doesn’t fit the “Midwest nice” cultural norm.

“I think we have so much of a culture being kind, or finding a way to couch our feelings in a way that’s comfortable for other people, so I wanted to see what it was like to write a character who did not like to do that,” McKenny said.

Mia Mercado can relate to not fitting into cultural norms in the Midwest, she said, because she’s half-Filipino. Her book, Weird But Normal, is a series of humorous personal essays about her coming of age experiences.  

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Author Riane Konc also took a humorous approach to the culture of Midwestern life with her book, Build Your Own Christmas Movie Romance. The choose-your-own-adventure book satirizes the tropes of small town Christmas movies.

Konc said that living in the Midwest, where there aren’t many mainstream cultural touchstones, caused her to develop a more interesting and universal comedic voice.

McKenny was excited to talk with authors who shared her Midwest experiences and said she’s a fan of each author.

“Having the chance to be part of the literary culture [online] right now is exciting in that way,” she said.