When Your Hometown is the Last Place to Accept Who You Are
Kait Heacock on Returning to Yakima to Launch Her Book
You can’t go home again, I reminded myself as the bus glided across the last stretch of highway and entered the Yakima Valley. All around me was brown earth—the land yawning back to life, hills stretching with relief from the snow packs that weighed them down this long winter.
My book launch took place at the indie bookstore that has been here—miraculously—since I was a kid obsessively scooping up copies of Hemingway and promising my parents someday I, too, would publish a book. There was a weight to this launch event I hadn’t felt at the others. It was not as prestigious as participating in San Francisco’s Litquake Festival, not as affirming as sharing a Powell’s event with my mentor Kevin Sampsell, not as “oh-my-goddess-is-this-happening?” as joining my living writer idol Michelle Tea in LA. This event was significant because it felt like a coming out party, both as a writer and a queer person.
Yakima sits in the middle of Washington State, far from the verdant, progressive utopia of Seattle. It is the desert here. “Trump/Pence” signs dot the landscape. When I open up HER on my phone to check in on the singles scene, the app turns into a game of “Where did all the queers go?”
I was a classic small town girl who escaped to the city. Anyone who returns to her hometown as a markedly different person is viewed as worse than an outsider. She’s a traitor for rejecting the values that surrounded her as a kid. I once returned home for a visit from college and overheard a stranger say with the cluck of his tongue, “She must be from Seattle.”
I showed up to my reading with butch hair, almost the same cut as my dad—a man in his sixties who has spent the bulk of his career in the car business, who loves Survivor and football with the same fervor I do Sleater-Kinney and Rebecca Solnit. A friend of the family greeted me in the bookstore by saying, “You cut your hair even shorter. That’s it, right? Now you’ll grow it out.” This same person talks to me often of God’s plan to find a husband for me. Her recognition of my stereotypically queer hair was a thin veil for what she was really thinking. In her mind, my hair will grow back as I grow out of this “phase” and return to the heteronormative behavior my small town expects of me.
Two adult men who knew me as a child made comments to me about my appearance: evaluations of my attractiveness at an event meant to honor my intellectual and creative achievements. This is the experience lived every day by females, no matter their profession or accomplishments. When I return to my hometown, I am reminded that my worth as a woman is often rated on a scale of one to pretty. I am more acutely aware of this each time I return home looking different, first with no makeup and now with barely any hair. I keep distorting myself with the hope that it will result in people focusing more on my writing than on my smile or my legs.
I felt very seen as I took my seat in front of the room. I sat before an audience of people who were like a panel representing my childhood: those I grew up with, my dad’s friends, my sister’s mother-in-law. Mr. Burns, my former English teacher and the person sharing the stage with me for the night, sat down beside me, his eyes also on me as the event began. I was no longer the mousy girl hiding behind long hair, writing short stories rather than speaking my mind. He introduced me with a sweet story recounting the last words he spoke to me when I graduated high school—“I’ll look for your book someday”—and I basked in the warmth of the spotlight.
As the reading progressed, I felt increasingly at ease. At one point, I surprised myself with a passionate outburst about all the women behind famous husbands. I talked about the work that goes unnoticed, the support these wives offered without receiving honor, awards, celebration. There would be no Nabokov without Vera, I reminded the audience. No Raymond Carver without Maryann. As a single woman with a day job trying to manage a writing career, I wish I had a doting partner to carry me through those bleak moments of self-doubt, make me dinner, and listen to me rant about another rejection letter. “I should find a wife,” I told the audience.
“Well, it sounds like you need a loving husband,” Mr. Burns commented before correcting himself, “Or a wife.”
I smiled and shrugged at his words like a coy actor avoiding commenting on her sexuality to the paparazzi. I wasn’t saying yes, but I wasn’t saying no. From an outsider’s perspective, this probably seemed like the slightest of gestures, but in it, I felt the weight of years of repressing my true self from my parents, of tamping down my queerness the moment I set foot in Yakima city limits.
As I signed copies of my book for elderly poets and hugged people who have watched me chase this dream for over two decades, sometimes at the expense of a stable job or long-term relationships, I reflected on how they had shaped me. The book I was signing was a result of this town. I may be different now, but my writing will never escape living the first 18 years of my life in small towns and the next 12 trying to outgrow them.
One shy teenager, hair like a curtain, approached me and asked me to sign her book. She is a current student in Mr. Burns’s creative writing class. I asked her what she likes to write, and she told me she doesn’t know yet. I recommended her books—by female authors—and encouraged her to keep trying.
I want to write books to show those quiet girls there are whole worlds out there where we can look how we want and date who we want and live life on our terms. But I don’t want that world to be found only in fiction. I want it for my life too, and not only when I’m in Seattle or another big city. When I return to Yakima to celebrate the launch of my next book, I don’t want my queer hair to cause the biggest stir of the night; I want my writing to.
Later that night, as my parents and I watched a home movie from an Orlando vacation when I was five—with an all-pink wardrobe and sponge curler hair—my dad made a joke about how I hadn’t given him grandkids yet. My mom half-turned to him and said, “She gave us a book, Marty.” With those words, she reminded me that home is more than a physical location, and no matter how different I am from the girl who grew up in this small town, I can always find my way back to it.