A few days after 9/11, our fifth-grade English teacher had us spend an entire class period writing a fictional story about what happened in New York. Being Minnesotan kids, most of us didn’t understand and couldn’t totally appreciate what happened that day, but we were nevertheless scared of some unknown people from an unknown place attacking our cities. Free-form writing was supposed to be our release.
I remember writing a story about a happy family from India that moved to New York because they loved America in early September 2001. In my story, the family was out sightseeing on 9/11 when the towers went down and their uncle lost his leg because he didn’t run fast enough and was crushed in the rubble (facts/precise detail about what exactly happened was unclear to me at this time). My story ended with the little girl central character visiting her uncle in the hospital where he told her not to be scared, that everybody in America has been nice to him, and that it is the terrorist, not the Americans, she needs to fear. Obviously, a 10-year-old’s story of an immigrant’s 9/11 experience is nothing if not idealistic.
The only thing my fractured story had in common with the essays contained in Toni Nealie’s collection, The Miles Between Me, is this American, post-9/11 fear of “the other.” Moving from New Zealand to the U.S. just two weeks before 9/11, Nealie faced the real struggles of being an “other” in a country so crazed to stand united within itself.
Between these essays on place and what “home” means to someone navigating the rules of citizenship, Nealie’s essays delve even further into the world of motherhood and its peculiar identity, her family’s possible criminal past, to the future she sees for her sons, two boys from the same parents with different skin tones. Nealie’s work offers more insight into the idea of place, home, and family than almost anything you’ll read this year.
Kati Heng: Can you give me a time frame for when these essays were written?
Toni Nealie: They were completed last year, but most originated when I was completing my MFA. Some began ten years ago, but fragments morphed into quite different essays. I’m happy that I kept bad early drafts—line or paragraphs that I coaxed into fully fledged essays.