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'Prairie Silence' Reconciles Small Town Life and Coming Out

The appeal of small town living to some is the very thing that drives other people away – the very close connections to your neighbors. That is, while the sense of community can be very strong, it is also difficult to live with a secret when everyone knows everyone else.

That was a tension Melanie Hoffert felt, growing up on a farm near the tiny town of Wyndmere, North Dakota – and felt even after she left for the big city of Minneapolis.

"My secret that I carried, it forced me into this constant contemplation about the world as I understood it," she says. "So in other words, here's the world playing out in front of me, but I know there is something different going on inside of me."

Hoffert knew from a young age that she was gay, but never felt able to discuss it with those closest to her. So when she felt a pull to return home, her inner conflict came back to the surface. Hoffert describes it as a “Prairie Silence,” which she describes in her new memoir of the same name.

"When I would go home, I would just completely go silent and it was physically impossible for me to talk and to tell the truth," she explains, "and so that was something that I sort of went home to explore, why is that and how can I break out of that silence."

She says it took a long time to reconcile that inner "silence" with being home amongst the people who loved her the most and knew her for so long - mostly because of fear over how these confidantes would react to her secret.

"I knew intellectually, particularly with my family, that there would be unconditional love," she says. "But the secret and the silence just had me.  And still do."

The book comes out today and also explores what is happening to isolated rural communities across the upper Midwest. Hoffert, who works for Teach for America in Minnesota, explains it was also an opportunity for her as a "rural expatriate" to reconcile her thoughts of home, love and faith.

"Writing the book has helped me evolve a great deal, both in terms of writing through things and having personal breakthroughs as well as sharing pieces of the book in progress with different people in my life," she says.

You can hear more of the conversation as supplemental audio below, and read an excerpt from “Prairie Silence" here.