Tuesday, October 9, 2007
A Southern Writer? (First posted 9/23/07)
After writing twenty southern mysteries and two southern novels, I am still surprised to find myself on a blog for southern author. I started my career determined not to become one.
You see, at my New York college I took a class on southern literature. The prof started us out with Sherwood Anderson (from Ohio), progressed to Mark Twain (southern?), and finally got to the only three southern writers she felt deserved the title: Faulkner, Welty, and O’Connor.
I wonder how other students found the class? As far as I could tell, our professor regarded the South as a place of hollow, stereotypical people drearily yearning for past glories. When I tried to argue that not all of us were poor, regressive, fundamentalist, foul mouthed, illiterate, or deranged, I was accused of not knowing the “real” South. Me, who had lived here all my life and had four generations of family lying in the same North Carolina cemetery!
I left the class vowing that whatever kind of writer I became, I would never be a southern writer. I could not depict the South that Yankees wanted to read about.
That is still a struggle. There is the South we who live here know and love, and there is the South that the rest of the country believes exists. Sometimes they overlap, but they are not the same.
How can we get past their stereotypes without creating stereotypes of our own?
How can we write about what we love without denigrating parts of the country other people love?
How can we depict not “the South” but the contradictions and varied conditions that exist here?
One December my mother-in-law visited me in Mobile. We spent the morning at the home of a welfare mother whom I was helping to get her GED. We lunched at a local bar-be-cue, sitting among men who wore farmer’s caps and drove pickup trucks from need, not for status. That afternoon we took tea with a friend who was staying at the Grand Hotel in Point Clear. As we left that elegant hotel, Frances said, “You certainly get around.”
Yet all of those are the South I know and love. All of those are who I am. I have cousins who are classical musicians and one who was the North Carolina banjo picking champion. How can I convey all of that without pandering to stereotypes other people have about the South?
The best I can figure, I have to write not just what I know, but what I am.
Years ago before a move to Chicago, my husband purchased a book entitled THE NINE NATIONS OF NORTH AMERICA. It broke down the continent into nine geographic regions as distinguishable as individual nations of Europe, and discussed the mannerisms, values, language, and traditions that set each of them apart. It was a valuable aid to us as we moved among mid-westerners and had to learn a new culture, even a new language. Who knew that some folks called fatback “salt pork”?
Our first Sunday there, two little sisters wanted to know, “What is Barnabas?”
“He’s a boy,” I replied, thinking his blond curls confused them.
“No!” They propped small fists on skinny hips. “We’re half Norwegian and half Italian. What is Barnabas?”
Stymied by generations of Southern mongrel breeding, I stammered, “He’s half Alabamian and half North Carolinian.” They accepted that as exotic enough.
So it is.