Searching for Home in Florida: A Conversation between Caylin Capra-Thomas and Sarah Shermyen

Georgia Review graduate editor Sarah Shermyen recently spoke over Zoom with GR contributor Caylin Capra-Thomas about finding home, Florida, and our understandings of beauty. This is an edited version of that conversation. Capra-Thomas’s essay, “Somewhere Like Here but Better,” and Shermyen’s review of Charlie Hailey’s The Porch are both available in the Spring 2024 issue.




Sarah Shermyen (SS): Both of us are considering human relationships to place. Through your mother’s attachment to where she lives now, you investigate wanting to feel bound to a place: is that a desire to change with a place rather than it becoming a static memory? To not return and feel you’ve missed something? To avoid the feeling that you’re no longer changing in sync with it?

Caylin Capra-Thomas (CCT): If the place could talk, it would say, “this isn’t the same girl that was here last time.” When I go back to places where I’ve lived and left, I notice the new business or what is missing. And it shouldn’t be a surprise, because places are changing without you, but every time I manage to be surprised by it. It makes you think about the passing of time, that things are different and I’m different too. I like the way you put it, the realization that you aren’t changing in sync with it. You’re not there to track its changes as you grow and change. For some reason, so many of us harbor this expectation that a place is going to be just as we left it, and of course it never is. There’s that section in To the Lighthouse, “time passes.” It’s about the interior of that house and the furniture and essentially what time looks like passing in a place without people there to mark its passage. I think that there’s something about that passage in To the Lighthouse that I’ve carried with me for a long time. It has created an interest in this idea of places that have held us and what happens to them when we’re no longer in their embrace.

Sometimes you don’t even realize the way a place and its particularities are inscribing themselves onto you until you’re gone. I think that’s the experience that I have had with these dreams that I have about places where I’ve lived. The dream alters and merges them and creates a pocket of them that didn’t really exist. I think once I start dreaming about a place, it’s evidence that it’s still in me. You grew up in Alachua County [where Gainesville, Florida, is]. There have been so many versions of this essay and in each one I’m working out my relationship to a particular place in a particular time of my life. The place becomes a scapegoat for all this other stuff. It is an easy scapegoat because it can’t talk back, not in the language that I speak anyway.

SS: Because you are talking about where I grew up and where all of my family still is, for me Gainesville is a place that I mark time against. I visit it enough to notice the changes without them becoming overwhelming. I can recognize the Gainesville and Cassadaga that you write about, but I also found recognition in the section where you talk about being in Massachusetts and foraging with your mom, the beauty there. I love, in the essay, when you realize that you are cataloguing all of the ugly things in Florida. That section on foraging reminds me more of how I think of Gainesville and Alachua, because I’m doing the inverse of cataloguing the ugly. You realized that ugly things happen everywhere. I think I started from that idea and decided to seize on my memories of picking wild blackberries. Meanwhile, keeping track of ugliness acts as a way to reinforce or symbolize our bad feelings about other parts of our lives.

CCT: I think our relationships with places are very similar to our relationships with people in that there’s an alchemy or a chemistry that happens between everything that you bring to a place and everything that a place brings to you. The tendency is for people to think of place as this static vessel. And it is itself an active force as much as a person is. When two active forces meet one another, sometimes you click and sometimes you don’t.

Place is almost like fragrance, right? People talk about how there’s a perfume’s profile, and then there’s the way it smells on your skin. I think that that captures that highly individual relationship that everyone has with a given place, that notion of person/place chemistry.

SS: I think that’s perfect. I love where you talk about arriving to Gainesville and deciding to try to think of it as being beautiful. That resonated with me because growing up, I thought, “I live somewhere beautiful.” My grandfather was displaced from Hungary by WWII and would always say, “we live in paradise.” I wasn’t quite at his level, but I thought, “this has to be great because this is where people go on vacation.”

You talk about looking at nature and deciding, despite the flatness and the dinginess of the evergreens, you’re going try to see it as beautiful. We are so trained to idealize a temperate zone, and because you’re in the subtropics, it’s a shift. I think that I have made the effort to reprogram my brain to the beauty, but there are also things you can’t control. Your descriptions of being allergic, clearly allergic, to something in Gainesville, that you are sweating all the time, that the clothes do not work for you—for me, that is the experience I had of moving north for college and leaving Florida. I thought the lack of sun would be better for my pale skin. And then I moved to New York City and realized, I do not have adequate circulation to stay warm here. Apparently, I actually love humidity, because in the cold my skin and hair hate me. I romanticized the cold and then I lived there and I realized, this doesn’t work on me. You mention that you should have learned to “acclimate,” though I think both of us realize there is a limit to our ability to do that. The book I reviewed, The Porch, places a large part of the destruction of Florida on the inability of people to acclimate.

CCT: I was interested in your meditations in that review about impermanence and transplantation. You talk about how the porch is not permanent and Florida is unlikely to remain with us, at least as we know it now, because so many of us resist acclimation. I’m wondering if there is a relationship between that, and the fact that many Floridians are transplants. Is there a relationship between transplantation and Florida?

SS: Florida is something that you try on for a bit, that you stop at along the way to somewhere else. One of the other places in my life that was formative was New York City, and that is also a place for transplants, for stopping there for a short while. New York is granite underneath, and it’s going to persist and it’s not going to be harmed by that indifference, that lack of settling. And the transplant culture somehow adds to the richness, whereas in Florida I’m unsure. Obviously, I am a descendant of Florida transplants. My instinct is to say that the fragility of the underlying structure of the place, that it is sand that erodes, that it is warm, that it is marshes that get drained, that it is an ecosystem that was not understood and then disrupted means that the constant turnover of people who are trying it on but not trying to acclimate are a problem. In your essay, you make a point of attempting acclimatization before realizing it doesn’t fit, and you move on. The problem is people who allow their idea of Florida to override reality, and the damage that causes. Which is also a very American thing of deciding, “I’m gonna go somewhere, and I’m gonna make it work for me.” One of the problems of Florida is that people go there because they like the idea of it. But the idea of it has never really been based in the reality of it.

CCT: Especially if you’re coming from the North, you’re sick of winter and you go down there, and from November through February, it’s lovely. That’s the weather that you’re thinking of when you think of Florida because you vacationed there at that time. Then you have to stay through the summer if you’re going to live there. The summer in Florida isn’t hugely different from the winter in the North, because either way you can’t go outside. It’s not an outdoors person’s paradise from May through October, unless you have the constitution for humidity. I used to call it “hot winter,” because it’s gray a lot, because it’s always about to thunderstorm (which was great when it did). No matter where you are, you are inside for half of the year. Just pick which half you want to be inside for.

SS: I say I’m from Gainesville. I’m technically from Alachua, and I grew up more rural, with land and animals and a big garden, and I sometimes talk about the seasons being inverted, because I’m used to the growing seasons. There are more crops growing in the garden in December and January than there are in the intense heat of August. Because at that point, it’s too hot. You have the end of the eggplant and the rest is weeds, fungus, bugs. I grew up being okay with the summers, because I was trained to not treat them as being something that could be luxurious. I think that there’s a sense that vacation means being able to follow your own schedule. If you want to be outside at all in the summer in Florida, you have to realize that you need to be back indoors by 10:00 AM, or in a body of water, otherwise you’re going to get heat stroke if you’re not used to it. As a kid who had to do outdoor chores, I was up at 7:00 most mornings in the summers to work outside, which doesn’t sound great to someone who is thinking of Florida and luxury. In the summer, you live like a farmer. That’s the option.

CCT: When you were talking about going to New York and the idea that Florida is vacation land, there’s also the idea of Florida as retirement land. I think the stereotype is of New Yorkers and people from New Jersey retiring in Florida. Even though they move there to live, it’s not that permanent, because they’re going at the end of their lives, so it’s not like making a whole life there. Those are people who are distinctly not used to and are more susceptible to the high heat and humidity, and so those are the people who are also running their air conditioners at full blast all the time because otherwise, they might very well die.

We’ve talked about beauty and ugliness some. Obviously growing up in the North had a huge impact on my ideas of beauty. And it’s something that I was trying to interrogate and reprogram when I was in Florida with varying levels of success. I’m interested in how your childhood and where you grew up in Alachua influenced your own ideas of beauty. Does that play out in your research or in your writing right now?

SS: My family’s been in Florida since 1951. My dad was born in a place called Avon Park in Central Florida. They lived in Coconut Grove in Miami through the early sixties, and then moved up to Gainesville because my grandmother got a job there. I feel Floridian. But my dad’s parents lived next door to me, so I was also influenced by the places they had lived, because I saw them every day. My grandfather was Hungarian and my grandmother grew up between the sea islands of South Carolina and England. She was this amalgamation of South Carolina low country and very English. One of her sisters was born in the UK and has lived there most of her life. When my dad was a little kid, they lived in England for two years and he came back with a strong English accent that he had to lose because he kept getting beat up for it. We have family and friends over there. We would go to England every summer starting when I was six. I felt very Floridian, but culturally I have these very strong English influences. One thing that I realized when I started to interrogate my own feelings about beauty as an adult was that I had completely, utterly romanticized English gardens.

When you’re in Europe, there’s the tourism of visiting great houses. I didn’t care about the house: I just wanted to go to the garden. The gardens are the best part. The order of it and the thoughtfulness of the color and the texture. I wanted that at home, and when I was an adult living in Georgia, I would try to recreate that precision and realize, it’s too warm here. Everything grows too quickly and I can’t control it—growth is out of control. As soon as you leave the center of the temperate zone and you start moving further south and it gets warmer, it’s not only that everything will grow too quickly, but you get all of these other things growing that you didn’t plan for, that you don’t know how to classify (weed or wanted?) with your temperate sensibilities. A few years ago, I also started tracking the frequency with which femininity and nature are conflated in the arts. We see nature as feminine. The entire manifest destiny that launches westward expansion in America is based on this idea of “virgin land,” and you go and conquer her. But nature can be troublesome. I started to think, “You know what? If I am linked to nature by my gender, I would rather be a tropical rainforest that cannot be controlled than to be an English garden.” That switched something in me. Now, I want tangled vines. I want things that are out of control. I am rooting for the fact that mosses and lichen will grow on everything that is manmade. In the tropics and the subtropics, anything that a man builds will be so much more quickly subsumed by nature. Finding Florida more beautiful came from wanting to read it as rebellious, of refusing to be broken. We know the Everglades have been shrunk down because we imagined it having wonderful lush soil for growing crops, but that taken land fought back: there’s something called sawgrass that would grow back in, persist, that has these little silica spikes that just will rip into you.

CCT: Amazing. And you’ve got to respect that. I think that’s so great, the idea of Florida as a place, as one of rebellion against conventional Anglicized ideas of beauty.

SS: I do still love an English garden, but I like the untidiness of the Florida growth. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Mandarin, Florida, in the Jacksonville area in the 1870s. She loved it, but she talked about how nature up north is this tidy grandmother who, as soon as she decides it’s winter, is going to sweep things up and she’s going to put down a blanket of snow. And if you haven’t gotten everything in, you’re out of luck. It’s dead and it’s done. But winter and nature in Florida is an indulgent grandmother who can’t really decide if it’s winter yet and so most things are probably going to persist. There’s not this clean demarcation, so things become untidy. Scruffy. As much as I think beauty is itself a good thing, that access to beauty improves life, I push to see beauty as amoral. I try to resist the impulse to assign meaning to the beauty. But I think it’s the same thing with place, the desire to make meaning out of it. So, if meaning is to be made of the scruffiness, I’d like it to stand for rebellion.

You mention your mom clearly having a sense of place, and that you wonder if such a place could exist for you. Do you have a sense of what it would feel like to have a place? Would you want to feel bound to a place or do you prefer the ability to make a home in a number of places? What is cut off when you decide, “this is actually where I am fully myself”?

CCT: I think the feeling that I imagine for having found my place is probably a fantasy. Sort of similar to that fantasy of Florida that people have when they move there and or the fantasy of New York. I think that the feeling of being rooted and being in the place that you’re going to be is probably never quite what you expect. I don’t know that I’ve felt it, and I don’t know if I will feel it. I think it’s one part choice, like the active conscious decision to acclimate. Not to “make it yours” in the possessive, colonial sense, but to enter into a relationship with it. Like a loving, giving, good relationship with a place. And then of course there’s also the fact that a lot of people don’t choose or don’t have a choice. And this idea of searching for place is certainly a privilege, even if it’s an uncomfortable or unsettling experience to go through. That I have had the ability to pick up and move when the place doesn’t suit me is something a lot of people don’t have access to. I have an idea of what being rooted would feel like, and it sounds like the place version of achieving some sort of ultimate contentment or peace. I don’t know that that exists. I don’t know if I’ll feel it. I think whatever it is is not what I’m imagining. But I do hope to someday have a place and stop moving.


Caylin Capra-Thomas is the author of the poetry collection Iguana Iguana (Deep Vellum, 2022), and her poems and nonfiction have appeared in Pleiades, New England Review, 32 Poems, Mississippi Review, and others. The recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Studios of Key West, she was the 2018–2020 poet-in-residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy. She lives in Columbia, Missouri, where she is a PhD candidate in English and creative writing. 

Sarah Shermyen is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Georgia. She has published fiction in Image and criticism in Studies in American Humor. She specializes in American literature, how we define and create regional identity, and the problems of beauty.