All photos courtesy of Chris Dennis.

I deleted my Facebook over a year ago. For me, it was the last of the brain-eating media to go. I thought it was benign, that it held nothing of interest to me and therefore couldn’t be instrumentalized for the postponement of getting out of bed in the morning, or reading past paragraph one. 

But for the period of time in which Facebook was the only social media on my phone, I must’ve been the number one voyeur on the West Frankfort Community page. I was on the East Coast, far from home, and dealing with a classic case of the Freshman Blues. It kind of felt like I’d never been more invested in my “community.” Or the part of my community that was cursing the “low life trash degenerates” who stole three ATVs from the Recreation Association a couple summers ago, and reposting a statement from the Herrin, Illinois, Police Department asking people to please stop calling 911 to report the “lewd photos” of one of its officers that appeared on Google when you searched up the town. 

I deleted my page pretty quickly and haven’t looked back. But that era of hyper-local hyper-scrolling did give me a couple of gifts: this ProPublica article by Logan Jaffe about the purposeful racism of Anna, Illinois, and this essay by Chris Dennis about the perils of isolation in Eldorado, Illinois. 

The latter essay, as it turns out upon re-reading, has been alive in my head for the past two years. The way Chris writes about addiction, incarceration, and sinking in then pulling out of “working-class dystopia,” validated a lot of my images of home. In the distance created by college, I think I even let that essay fill in some gaps. 

In the past two years, Chris has been busy. His short story collection Here is What You Do was published by Soho Press in 2019. He’s written about Dolly Parton for Guernica, and the War on Drugs for Literary Hub. He’s been fully enmeshed in his hometown, working on overdose prevention for the local public health department.  

It was a true pleasure to correspond with Chris. Enjoy our conversation about therapy, sobriety and apocalyptic Pentecostals, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: In a couple of your essays, you speak about the fact that you wrote the title story of your book Here Is What You Do before you’d ever been to jail, when you were still teaching and writing and existing far from the reach of the criminal justice system. 

In one essay, you write about that story, “I felt awash in recognition, as with any song or movie or story that renders an aspect of your life so accurately you feel blindsided by a sudden reversal of loneliness, because someone has articulated something crucial that up until that point had gone unnamed. Except that someone was me. I wrote it about myself, before it had ever happened.” 

I’ve really resonated with that sense of foreboding. I’ve struggled with the feeling that I have but a few paths to choose from, that I don’t have much choice at all, that my unknowable desires will march me right into the kind of life I could imagine for myself as a child. I wonder, what do you think that feeling of predestination has to do with the place you grew up?

Chris Dennis: Oh, what a beautiful question. The sense of foreboding and predestination you mention is one of the most troubling habits I’ve had to overcome, and it has everything to do with growing up in a small town. You know, even while I was getting my master’s degree, family members would say to me, “When you come back home, there are good jobs in the coal mines.” And by that point, I’d already met too many people in college who were preparing for jobs I never even knew existed when I was young, or their parents had jobs I’d never heard of. I’d tell my family, “Did you know there’s a person who just writes press releases for pharmaceutical companies? That’s their whole job, and it pays more than the Peabody Coal Company!” Up until graduate school, the catalog of possibilities for a good life was so small in my mind. I’d only seen people doing a handful of things, and nearly all of those things made them unhappy. Suffering at a job that didn’t value you or the work you did was supposed to be a gift, especially in a county with one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States. Where I’m from, the wild people, the rebel-minded people, they end up in jail or high or drunk or dead. If you wanted to exit the matrix of rural consciousness, there were only a couple ways out. If it wasn’t the spiritual narcotic of evangelicalism, it was drugs. The fight for your own imagination is a hard one, because rural life also sometimes prides itself on a culture of scarcity, so wanting more than what a place has to offer can make you seem ungrateful, and arrogant. I hate to say it but country people also like to put you in your place if you’re saying something that doesn’t make sense to them. I’ve got a better answer for your question though, and it’s probably the best answer. My therapist said to me recently, and I’m paraphrasing here, When someone is having a fear response, or they feel threatened, that anxiety creates a negative self-narrative. You begin to look for evidence of the negative self, which can often feel like future-telling, or mind-reading. So it starts to appear as if the spectre of doom is out there waiting for you, but it’s not. The call is coming from inside the house. Of course this blew my tiny mind, and probably saved my life a little, because that foreboding sense of future-telling—encouraged by a radical Pentecostal upbringing full of apocalyptic narratives—has been part of my identity for as long as I can remember.

DY: You’re still living in Southern Illinois. Another line from “Eldorado, IL” reads “In the two years it took to find a publisher, I stopped observing the place where I was living and became it.” It strikes me that for someone like you to feel good where you are, you’d probably have to break out of that dichotomy, find a middle ground. What do you think? Are you Eldorado now? Have you found healthier parts of your town to embody? Or are you watching it from a distance?

CD: You know what’s funny is that writing that essay helped me to connect with my community in a whole new way. Once the people around me—even people I didn’t know that well—knew what I’d been going through, and encountered the story of addiction I was trying to tell but hadn’t been able to until that point, they stopped me in the gas station, or Walmart, or in the drive-thru at The Bar-B-Q Barn, to say, “I read your article. How are you doing? Are you alright? If you ever need anything, you can call me.” My god, it changed me to hear people say that. I’d have to sit in my car and cry a little. I’d been homeless, isolated and so lonely, living a transient life in a small town. I was deeply ashamed of myself, and for a stranger to offer to help me was so transformative, and affirming. I felt such a powerful sense of belonging, and community, and I’m just so grateful for that. Being honest and vulnerable about what I was going through made all the difference. I needed the people in my hometown to think I was a good person, and now I think they do.

DY: You’re working in overdose prevention for your local public health department now. I imagine the pandemic is reducing your agency’s capacity on other fronts. What’s it like to be on the ground dealing with the intersecting crises of Covid-19 and drug use? You’ve written about isolation as the cause of your own addiction—has it been overwhelming observing on a community level the way one struggle feeds off the other?

CD: It’s been heartbreaking. We’ve lost several people in our small county to overdose just in the past few months. The overdose rates have spiked during the pandemic. People are really hurting, and they’re using alone, so that there’s no one there to witness if they take too much or there’s something in the drug supply that they’re not aware of. I’d love to use this as an opportunity to say there’s actually a serviceyou can use if you’re getting high by yourself. You can call the number on this website, or message them, and someone will stay on the line with you while you get high, so that if you’re unresponsive afterwards they can send help. This past year, the wave of outbreaks here has been so hard, and like the war on drugs, Covid-19 has become politicized. Rural areas often skew more conservative, so it’s certainly been a challenge to see issues of public health debated as ethical or ideological conflicts, because it compromises our ability to save lives. It certainly feels like two epidemics are colliding in a complicated way, and we’re working so hard to respond thoughtfully so we can reach the people in our area. Oddly, the pandemic has made me grateful for my sobriety. It’s a profound feeling to be of service during a crisis, and it’s helped me to rewrite the story of myself here—when other people are hurting, I can help.

DY: As someone who grew up one county away from you, I’m gonna indulge myself a little here. What do you love most about the area?

CD: Oh girl, I love the Shawnee Forest so much. I’m sure you do too. It’s one of the most magical places I’ve ever been—the waterfalls, the natural springs, the sandstone formations, the birdsongs, that beautiful ring of enormous pines that mark the perimeter of national land. Also there are some wonderful and bizarre junk stores in Southern Illinois. The antique stores here are like a history lesson in the idiosyncrasies of rural thought and culture.

DY: Where do you find community these days? Has the collective move to Zoom provided you with any new entry points to artistic spaces?

CD: I’ve had the chance to attend a few literary events I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Including a thrilling literary craft talk with my dear, writer friend, Maurine Ogbaa, hosted by the University of Houston. She’s such an insightful, strange artist and I love her point of view. She’s someone who writes powerfully about the negative stories we tell ourselves, and how we can piece together another better identity with the help of people who know how to give good love.

DY: Lastly, what are you reading lately? Any recommendations?

CD: Well speaking of the ways in which place shapes who we are, I’ve got a great list for you: Lauren Hough’s Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, I mean, wow, what a painfully honest, tender essayist. A smart heartbreaker by David Schuman called “Model Homes.” Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. Brandon Taylor wrote an absolutely wild and beautiful piece, “this the country.” Karl Ove Knausgaard’s In the Land of the Cyclops. J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. I’ve also been reading a lot of poems by James Tate, which everyone should always be doing. 

Chris Dennis is a writer and public health educator from Southern Illinois. He is the author of Here is What You Do (Soho Press, 2019). Other work has appeared in The Paris Review, Playgirl, McSweeney’s, Granta, Lit Hub, and Guernica. He holds a master’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where he also received a postgraduate fellowship. Twitter: @ChrisDnns 

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