Anna G. Larson, Published January 17 2013
Claiming her roots: North Dakota native writes about coming out in a small town
What: Melanie Hoffert’s author reading and
book signing for “Prairie Silence: A Memoir.”
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Zandbroz Variety, 420 Broadway, Fargo
Info: The event is free and open to the public. For more info, contact Greg at (701) 239-4729.
MINNEAPOLIS - Melanie Hoffert’s dinner plate is still a topic of conversation when she visits her hometown of Wyndmere, N.D.
In Wyndmere, most people aren’t vegetarians. People ask questions about her food, which usually consists of a dinner salad or mashed potatoes when she’s at a small-town café.
But people keep quiet about their problems, their fears, their shames and their secrets. Hoffert calls this quiet disposition “prairie silence.”
She shares her greatest secret and pays tribute to North Dakota’s land and people in “Prairie Silence: A Memoir.”
For many years, Hoffert didn’t know she was in the process of writing a book. It took about 10 years to complete.
In that time, she wrote simply for the love of it and later realized that she had material that could work as a complete body of work, Hoffert says.
“As a writer, that sort of timeline presented an interesting challenge because my relationship to the work was always changing as my life unfolded,” she says.
For Hoffert to write authentically, she had to write about things that were lingering in her life. One dilemma she felt she could write about was how to tell the state of North Dakota that she is gay.
“There was a silence I had carried in my life for years,” she says. “I had to write through that.”
Hoffert’s family was supportive of her authoring a book, but she had trepidation.
“I don’t think that it’s the most comfortable thing to have my personal life exposed, but that is likely a natural reaction given that I write about the silence I’ve carried,” she says. “And when I revisit the pages today, I feel somewhat removed, less nervous because now the book is its own entity with its own journey to take.”
So far, feedback is positive from North Dakotans who’ve read the book, Hoffert says.
“It’s been sort of shocking to me,” she says. “I think I was more a barrier to myself than anyone.”
Hoffert’s long-time friend and former baby sitter, Jennifer Manstrom, says she’s proud of the book. Manstrom appears in the chapter “Flow.”
“She was one of those children who always had wheels turning in her head,” Wyndmere resident Manstrom says. “It’s beautiful writing.”
Even though she moved to a larger city, Minneapolis, Hoffert has stayed true to her spirit, and that shows in her writing, Manstrom says.
“She was curious, inquisitive and spiritual – one of those children who always had wheels turning in her head,” she says.
Manstrom particularly enjoyed the “beautiful, magical” picture of North Dakota Hoffert paints in her memoir.
“I think people are going to read it for the love song to North Dakota,” Manstrom says.
Besides the beauty of the land and its humble, Scandinavian people,
“uff da,” corn-filled air, small-town cafes, hotdish, AM radio, John Deere trucks, grain elevators, The Forum, and other very Dakotan elements appear in the book.
“I think ‘who wouldn’t want to live in North Dakota?’ ” Manstrom says.
The book focuses on Hoffert’s return to Wyndmere to help her family with the harvest. The experience is weaved with accounts from her past and thoughts of her present to form a story of self-acceptance and hometown pride.
Authoring the book, Hoffert says, helped her evolve and, as a result, find peace.
“But I don’t know that I’ll ever be completely at peace, but that just means I will continue to grow,” she says.
Love, like self-acceptance, is chronicled in the book. Readers catch a glimpse of her seven-year relationship with current girlfriend, Nancy, in “Sheets and Lights.” Nancy brings beauty to Hoffert’s life, she writes.
Hoffert hopes the book will give courage to anyone who feels differently from everyone around them, as she did for so many years.
“Ideally the book will be a catalyst for people to have the conversations they’ve needed to have in their lives,” she says. “And I hope it doesn’t take them twenty years, like it took me.”
She’s resolved some of her silence, but Hoffert says she’s still nervous about people reading her book, especially local people.
“I’m absolutely terrified to be honest,” she says. “I’m fearful of people’s judgment.”
When she’s in the Fargo-Moorhead area this weekend, Hoffert is most looking forward to speaking at a private writing class at her alma mater, Concordia College in Moorhead.
She says her love of writing was born at the college.
“I think it will be surreal to sit with writing students, all these years later, to discuss the process of writing with my book in hand,” she says. “It will be a full-circle experience for me, particularly because in the book, I unearth so much of what I was grappling with silently in those very same chairs, so many years ago.”
Hoffert holds an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and her work has appeared in literary journals. She lives in Minneapolis and works for Teach for America.
“Prairie Silence” is available wherever books and e-books are sold, and locally at Zandbroz Variety and Barnes & Noble.
Hoffert will speak at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 at Common Good Books in St. Paul, 38 S. Snelling Ave.