Writer Amanda Page edited a collection of essays about the city that's constantly in conversation about itself

Worthington resident Amanda Page grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, but her history with Columbus goes back to her childhood, when her family would drive north to see the Christmas displays at Lazarus.

“In Portsmouth, there are two types of people: people who drive to Cincinnati to shop, and people who drive to Columbus to shop,” Page said recently by phone.

In high school, Page drove herself to Columbus for movies, music and other cultural happenings, and she made the city her home off and on in the ensuing years. Around 2011, she was about to move to Alaska when she got the flu. “My mom drove up to make me soup, and she was like, ‘I can't do this if you're in Alaska,’” said Page, a writer and educator who instead moved to Columbus and has been here ever since.

All along the way, Page has witnessed Columbus constantly talking about itself and wondering, in particular, what type of city it will one day become. And so, when Page was tapped as editor of The Columbus Anthology, a new book co-published by Ohio State University Press’ Trillium imprint and Belt Publishing, she knew the collection would necessarily wrestle with ideas of identity and place. (A book launch event originally planned for April 2 at Two Dollar Radio was canceled due to coronavirus-related closures, but plans for a virtual launch are underway.)

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That constant quest for identity can backfire, of course, with local entrepreneurs regularly claiming to have come up with something that will put Columbus “on the map.” “What they've done, at least from my perception, and from talking to friends of mine around the country, is that's what we're on the map for now,” Page said. “And the idea that we need an event to create our identity is also, I think… interesting.”

The Columbus Anthology, on the other hand, doesn’t read like a futile quest to sum up the city in pithy, marketable ways. It’s an exploration of the various aspects of Columbus culture — music, art, poetry, food, sports — told through a diverse range of authors that includes Hanif Abdurraqib, Maggie Smith, Alive columnist Scott Woods, Will Evans, Barbara Fant, Bela Koe-Krompecher, Steve Abbott, Ruth Awad, Amy Turn Sharp and others (plus a cover illustration by Noah Van Sciver).

“In talking to a few other editors from [Belt’s City Anthology] series, one thing that really is emerging from those conversations is that a lot of cities have a narrative thrust upon them by the national media,” Page said. “These books are an opportunity for people to speak for themselves.”

One common thread that reappears throughout the collection of essays and poems is the idea of Columbus as a city that welcomes others, whether it’s Abdurraqib reflecting on the way the diversity of players on the Crew SC reflects the multicultural fabric of Columbus, or Mandy Shunnarah (a self-described “half Palestinian child in a family of Alabama rednecks”) writing about the “magic” she now associates with the city. “Columbus is the city that allowed me to escape and welcome me, as I am, with open arms,” Shunnarah writes in her essay, “Buckeye to All That.”

“In the Appalachian communities that I'm from and am familiar with, it's a lot harder there to come back when you leave because there's resentment,” Page said. “And there are cities where you're never going to be seen as someone who can claim the city as your own. Columbus is just not like that. … It’s a welcoming city.”

The anthology is also chock full of poetry, and that balance is no coincidence. “It's really a poet's town, and I love that about Columbus,” she said. “I mean, in terms of an emerging identity, there's one for the taking.”

Still, Page stresses that the collection is by no means the last word on Columbus. There’s more to be said, and more aspects of the city’s culture to explore — OSU football, for one. “There's no Ohio State football in there whatsoever, which I've been told is a huge oversight, but there just wasn't the right piece about it,” she said.

“Thinking of it as a piece of the conversation and not as a definitive ‘this is what Columbus is’ anthology is really key,” she said. “It exists because of the voices who are already doing the work here.”