Here Is the Forge

  • By Zak Salih
  • August 2, 2021

How “home” made me who — and what — I am.

Here Is the Forge

“Home,” goes the oft-quoted line by T.S. Eliot from his Four Quartets, “is where one starts from.” My starting point is the town of Burke, in Northern Virginia — a home that, in many respects, I never entirely left. In fact, several Sundays a month, my partner and I make the 35-minute drive from our rowhome in Northeast DC to the soft-spoken neighborhood street on which I lived for the first 25 years of my life.

One of the great good fortunes of never have strayed far from home as an adult is the ease with which I’m constantly reminded of (haunted by, might be more apt) the people and moments and places and events that brought me to where I am now, in the summer of 2021, writing this short piece just a few months after the publication of my debut novel.

How can you escape history when it’s everywhere you look? When you see it through car windows at stoplights? When you can’t help but explain it to your partner, who will always, to some degree, be a stranger in a strange land? When your past is just as palpable as it was when it was your present?

There’s Pohick Regional Library, where I spent Sunday afternoons (sometime under duress) searching for sex scenes in adult fiction and unconsciously learning about language instead. There’s Books, the long-gone comic store where my mother spent untold fortunes supplying her son with subscriptions that would meet their eventual fate in basement storage bins. 

There’s Lake Braddock Secondary School, with its Tetris-block rooms and hallways, where I met the 11th-grade creative writing teacher who told me to never stop writing (and for whom, 22 years later, I would make a personalized copy of my novel).

And there’s the house itself: “a serious house on serious earth,” to borrow from Philip Larkin. The rooms where I would read-read-read comics and tabloids and news magazines and library books and textbooks and the Washington Post Book World. The basement office, with its electric typewriter and desktop computer on which I wrote-wrote-wrote short stories of shuffling ghouls and rampaging aliens and violent justice visited upon high-school tough guys. The bedroom, in which I would think-think-think about the writer I wanted to be while listening to DC101 and WHFS on a clock radio.

Much is said (too much, perhaps, and too loudly) of the sterilization of suburbs like Burke. All that aluminum siding and HOA-overseen landscaping in danger of insulating the creative mind from the complexities, the messiness, of the “real” world.

When writers are often popularized as hardscrabble creatures of the cities, thriving on noise and chaos and danger, we wonder: What kind of writer could spring from such generic, placid streets?

But without this region, this town, these streets, this house, and all their attendant memories and experiences, I would not be where I am today. I would not be a writer.

Here, among the relative comfort and privilege of a DMV suburb, is where I had the freedom to let my imagination roam, to apply pencil to paper and fingers to keys, to think and read and write and learn and grow.

Here, I tell my partner on our drives back to DC, is the forge.

[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter's House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]

Zak Salih is the author of Let’s Get Back to the Party (Algonquin). His writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, Foglifter, Epiphany, the Chattahoochee Review, the Millions, the Rumpus, and other publications. He lives in Washington, DC.

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