December 27, 2005

Southern Voices

Oh Best Beloveds, I have returned from VACATION, sleepier and fatter and loaded with fine, fine baggages that are brimful of Christmas loots. Tomorrow, I return to WORK. I had a huge epiphany about my Novel-In-Progress while I was stuffing myself sick with ham, and now must rewrite the first five chapters, but I am beginning to get this growing, inescapable feeling that I am "experiencing growth as a novelist." I try NOT to experience growth of ANY KIND as a matter of course, but I am not sure I can help it with this book. This book is turning into a leap, faithwise, and I feel challenged and fairly buzzing with hope and light. Perhaps it is just post-Christmas afterglow, but I don't think so. I think this book....Ah well, I do not want to jinx it. I only hope I can carry it off as well as it deserves.

I am having a discussion on a list serve of mine about WHAT makes a novel Southern Lit, and since I am deeply engaged with WRITING SOME, I wanted to bring the discussion here...

I say: Southern Lit springs from Voice and a SERIOUS sense of place. Just ask Faulkner.
Period doesn't matter. Thematically, it's hard to get clean through SL without at least tapping Jesus or race or both as you go by.
Haven Kimmel, by the way, says she writes it. I accept that. Digression the first: I am having a t-shirt made for myself to work in that says "WHAT WOULD HAVEN KIMMEL DO." If you have read Kimmel's second novel, SOMETHING RISING (LIGHT AND SWIFT) it's an even better shirt.

There seem to be two kinds of Southern Writers; those who can't live here but cannot stop writing about it, and those who cannot live anywhere else and can't stop writing about it.
It has to do with Anger. Almost all Southern writers, are, I think, both angry with the South and in love with it. The ratio of Anger to Love determines which of the two kinds of Southern writer you will be. As I squat here in the Georgia cotton, picking my teeth with a weed, I think it is obvious that I am in camp B. I love it more than I am angry with it, but Lordy, if you think I am NOT mad, then you are buying my veneer. And who could blame you?

I am a southern woman. And NO ONE, not even those flat-faced corpse-eyed guys on WORLD POKER CHAMPIONS, can Veneer like a Southern woman. The problem is, you won't know if we are masking weakness or enough strength to remove you from the earth, yea, verily, you and all your get, down unto the seventh generation, until you get past that veneer. We tend to hide our strengths as if they WERE weaknesses, because to be strong is not... ladylike. It's one of the reasons I love the South, and ALSO one of the reasons I am SO dern mad at it.

And the other reason I am so mad at it is, of course, the racism. One bit of crit I got about gods was that the kind of racism I was dealing with was DEAD in the New South. I heard this from a couple of book clubs of URBAN Southern ladies with 125 dollar haircuts (not counting the highlights, just the CU|T, mind you), and I had to politely cover my mouth with a napkin to keep a loud BRAY of shock inside. They do not live in the same South I live in. (AND YES gods was set in the 80's and 90's and yes that makes a dif)

BUT! Just the other day, at an (educated) friend's (well paying, middle class) place of work, one of her co workers (who looked completely homogenized and American in her ubiquitous Gap sweater and khakis) said, of her engagement, "The only thing that worries us is that by the time we have babies, there won't be any PURE babies left for them to marry when they grow up." Allow me to say, YIKES. And this place of employment is SPITTING DISTANCE from Atlanta. But we are NOT Atlanta, or even a suburb (yet.) We are a small town, and it's like Palmolive, the racism is, Madge. We are soaking in it.

It is a weird and specific thing, Southern racism --- every place has racists, but ONLY in the south is it SUCH a black/white issue. The racists I met in Chicago freakin' loathed EVERYONE who wasn't their personal favorite race. Southern racists are for the most part either whites who hate blacks or vice versa, and then they have this ODD, slightly patronizing but accepting neutrality toward everything else. You almost don't count as a separate race if you aren't black or white, which is ALSO racism I suppose, but not the kind that will cost you a job or a house in the neighborhood or anything TANGIBLE. I'm not even sure it is RACE based -- you would get the same attitude from these people for being a lily-white Yankee as you would for being Japanese.

Digression the Second: We tend to call all Continental U.S. Dwellers who are not Southern, "Yankees." My friend Karen is from PHILLY and insists that means she is not a Yankee, but Oh Honey, oh CHILE, in Georgia she SHORE is. If you aren't SOUTHERN, and you aren't from from California, you are a Yankee. If you ARE from California, I believe the Southern Term for you is "Pot smoking Communist Nutbag."

Judaism is seen more as a religious ussue than a racial one to the Southern racist. The Jewish faith is mostly seen by Southern racists as a little STRANGE but certainly not OFFENSIVE --- kind of a PATRONIZING feel to it, as if to say, "Many nice folks are Jewish -- too bad they are so obviously hellbound. Like, say, the Catholics." But, you know, quite a few Church of Christ folks think the BAPTISTS are obviously Hellbound for believing ONCE SAVED ALWAYS SAVED, so it is not RELIGIOUS PREJUDICE exactly. It's more like religious prejudice's second cousin: You can be obviously hellbound and still be considered a good neighbor.

Here in my small town, we have a Methodist church, a Church of Christ, a Jehovah's Witness Temple, and about Nine Baptist churches. Almost EVERY church is all black or all white, or CLOSE to all back/ all white.The closest Episcopal church is 40 minutes away with no traffic. There is NO Catholic church or Temple within a half hour's drive.

There are also BLOOD racists in the south, creatures I have NEVER seen elsewhere, although they may exist somewhere. EXAMPLE: I have a cousin who adopted a mixed race child, and everyone ADORES that cousin and that child---that child is simply family. NO hint of racism in their love for and treatment of that child. I have another cousin who gave BIRTH to a mixed race child, and several of my relations (ones who LOVE the adopted child) will no longer speak to her and treat her baby like a disgusting, leprous worm. The rationale: The BIRTHING cousin has MIXED their personal blood with the blood of another race, and can't be forgiven.

Given all this, how can I NOT be angry? At the same can I not love it? You have to love it, for the way we treat our lunatics, if for no other reason. If you don't know what I mean, read THE PRINCE OF TIDES. There's a chapter in there that sums up the best of us in a nutshell, and HOLY GOD but Pat Conroy understands the love/hate relationship Southern writers have for this chunk of land -- understands it better than most writers breathing.

Ah well, I have spent a lot of time on the worst of us here, but can't give equal time to the parts I love--I am out of time today... I do not read Southern Lit when drafting as it screws with MY voice, but I quit work for Christmas and so finally got to sit down with Paula Wall's THE ROCK ORCHARD. Go read WALL---She understands what is best about us, way down deep in her BONES she understands. I am her new big fan.

Posted by joshilyn at December 27, 2005 10:16 AM

Welcome back, Tulip! I can hear you growing all the way up here (in YANKEELAND), yes I can. In fact I am just a teeny tiny bit squeeing in anticipation. But quietly, so as not to invoke The Wrath Beneath The Veneer.

Posted by: Mir at December 27, 2005 11:17 AM

Prince of Tides. I oculd make love to that books. I have one of the poems from inside it written down the leg of my pants. I kid you not. Pat Conroy is a veritable god of words.

Posted by: Heather at December 27, 2005 11:43 AM

So if everyone else is a Yankee (unless they're from California), what term of endearment do you use to refer to Canadians?

Posted by: Shelley at December 27, 2005 12:29 PM

So interesting! I am a Yankee (who doesn't particularly like that term due to an unfortunate but fierce baseball prejudice that runs through my neck of the woods). I think it is so facinating the differences within our own country. I think we have 7 or 8 Catholic churches and 1 Baptist church in my whole city. I have always had a sense of that southern pride and anger when reading southern writers but I know I don't understand it fully nor could I. Its still interesting, the rules, the masks. Thanks for your take on it, I think people's opinions about the cultural differences are as interesting as the differences themselves.

Posted by: Em at December 27, 2005 12:36 PM

Joss, I must address Shelley's Canadian question...please forgive me for chatting on your blog must be done.

Shelley, I can't speak for everyone, but in my little corner of the South, we all just refer to Canadians by shaking our heads in a fond manner and chuckling and saying "Canadians...God love 'em" So, we don't actually "call" them anything, we just sort of patronize the existance in a loving way. (That's just my two cents from Trussville, AL) Of course, Rick and Bubba refer to them as "Those crazy Canadians", so, I dunno.

Joss - I, by the way, gave the gift of a tequila bottle over the head for Christmas this year....6 times over. And I have already heard from 3 of the giftee's (huh?) who have expressed their new, undying love for you and your wonderful words. Thanks for making my presents the family favorites this year!!!!

Posted by: Angela at December 27, 2005 1:19 PM

Being in exile makes the LOVE for the South grow, well, faster than Kudzu. The longer I am away the more romanticized it becomes. But even when I am able to look at its faults, there's still no place else I feel at home. The South gets in your bones and becomes a monkey on your back...either one that makes you so sick you can't wait to shake it or one that so completely addicts you to its slow seduction that you would never think of even wanting to shake it. And Tulip, I personally cannot wait for my next hit.

Philly is Yankee. Canada is Yankee. In my family, even California is Yankee...crazy dope-smoking nutbag Yankee, but still. If it ain't Dixie, it's Yankee. God Bless 'em. ;)

Posted by: Amy-GO at December 27, 2005 1:37 PM

My father left the South at 17 to work in the factories in Detroit, but we'd visit; my brother married a girl from, and lives in, South Carolina. You speak sooth. (Though I once saw Eudora Welty on the Today show, after listening to a young man run on and on in response to "What do Southern writers have in common" wrap it up with "Well, we all live in the South.")

The poet David Mura has an interesting take on race in America, though. His parents are Japanese-Americans, and his dad was interned in a camp in Alabama (who knew) where the teenagers were allowed to take the bus into town on weekends. This is the 1940s in Alabama -- where should he sit? Folks up front said it was fine for him to sit with them, folks in the back were calling "Come on back, honey, you can sit with us." And Mura says it taught his dad several things about being Asian-American (of which I remember, of course, two of the three) -- one is that you can sit up front, but you should realize you are never going to drive the bus. Another is that you can only sit up front as long as you agree to pretend there is no one in the back. He was brought in to speak on a campus in this northern town which was having racial troubles, and it's amazing how useful it was to triangulate the discussion.

(Feel free to say a LOT more about Something Rising, Light and Swift. I'm teaching it the second week in January and would love to walk in with a few insights in my back pocket.)

Posted by: rams at December 27, 2005 1:45 PM

For me, my anger with the South was SO strong, I SWORE I wasn't even a Southerner--despite being born, bred, and reared there. Yeah, I have some issues.

Okay and THEN... I moved to Yankeeland. Well, before I did, my friends and acquaintances at home said, "Oh, you'll get on real well there. They like real outspoken, tell it like it is women up there."

Uh huh.

What I've discovered:

1.) I'm a SOUTHERN as the day is LONG. OMG How did I ever, ever miss that about myself??? Denial ain't just a river, I tell you. And anger? Is some serious stuff.

2.) No one really appreciates straight-forward, tell it like it is women, but I can't BE anyone else. So there ya go.

3.) Living elsewhere allowed me to begin writing about the South. I wake up with the smell of my home lingering in the sheets from my dreams. And although I still have flashes of ANGER about my homeplace, I have also found a fondness, a dearness that apparently I've harbored all along.

Sad. It's quite sad the strange relationship we have with the dear old South. [which WILL rise again. Damn shame we got our asses kicked, let me tell you.]

As for the Yankee issue:

Me and my family only refer to Yankees as those folks living in the Northeast whose bloodlines may well include boys who fought our boys in the Civil War.

If you live outside the NE, you might well be all right. [Unless you're a pot-smoking Communist hippie, in which case... well, you're happier than we are.] Midwesterners, for example, we like right well. They have awful good manners, even if they are a bit reserved. And Canadians are just Canadians. We don't get many down our way. And Yankees, well, bless their hearts, they can't help God didn't have the Grace to have them born in the South, so you have to overlook them.



Posted by: Alicia at December 27, 2005 2:14 PM

"We tend to hide our strengths as if they WERE weaknesses, because to be strong is not... ladylike."

That sentence puts me so in mind of my late paternal grandmother (a Southern lady, of course!). If you didn't know her well, she came across as fluttery and indecisive and sweet and subservient, but she was absolutely one of the smartest and strongest women I ever knew. I think of her in my mind as a immovable hunk of granite wrapped in a fluffy layer of pink cotton candy. Anyone who saw only the pink fluff and tried to run over her full-force was in for a surprise when they saw what she really was inside. I adored her - can you tell? :-)

Posted by: DebR at December 27, 2005 3:39 PM

As I wrote on the list back on Friday when I started the Southern Literature thread, "I think Southern women tend to be well-veneered. If they are weak, and many are, there's this ability to mask it. Yet, the closer one gets to a weak Southern woman the more the peeling and layering begins to show wear and tear."

I live in a Southern house made nearly entirely of red oak. My husband and I can't drive a nail into the wood without bending the mess out of it. The wood is so hard that everything has to be predrilled otherwise it breaks or bends without fail.

I know I am an atypical Southern woman, but I'll take (and be) a red oak woman over a veneered one any day of the week. I think that's what Third Wave feminism asks of Southern women as well.

Posted by: Sabra Wineteer at December 27, 2005 5:36 PM

I love this discussion and you have added more here. :)

Posted by: Tiff at December 27, 2005 9:46 PM

Y'all have certainly covered it here. I'll only add that I was brought up to call California "the land of fruits and nuts" but now that I've been there i can see that description was all about the orchards, not the people. Heh.

Posted by: Anne Glamore at December 27, 2005 9:54 PM

Well, it is just pure synchronicity that my husband's most oft-employed term of endearment for me is "pot smoking communist nutbag." Except for "bunny." I still don't get the logic of calling me bunny. Because I am the least bunny-like object in the history of the entire universe. Also, the pot smoking part, since having grown up mostly in California, I think pot smoking is something for old annoying white people. Like, say, my parents. Which is why I rebelled with beer. And tequila.

As for Canadians.... well, round bacon. I mean, what is that ABOUT (ABOOT)? It makes as much sense as calling me bunny.

Here is what I learned about an hour after dinner today:

An eleven-year-old girl can projectile vomit in a straight line absolutely perpendicular to the floor and drench her mother's entire sweater from neck to hip at a distance of six feet.

It probably goes without saying that this was knowledge I was happy to live in ignorant bliss of. Praise the Lord for allowing someone to invent Tide with Bleach. And Mr. Clean with lemon scent. And washing machines. Also: mops.

And yet, I am kind of okay with it. Like being drenched in puke just made me feel a little heroic and transcendent, since my response was just to laugh at the whole Fellini-ness of it, even though it was freaking gross. This is probably a symptom of sleep deprivation.

Well, okay, a beer would be a fine thing right now. Too bad all we have in this house is sake, which was not my idea because that just isn't what I am yearning for like, ever. Especially the part where it kind of smells like nail polish remover.

Maybe I need another tattoo.

Posted by: Cornelia Read at December 28, 2005 2:44 AM

Come on over, Cornelia. I've got lots of beer.

Joshilyn, as a Southerner who spent 26 years in Georgia, left for eight, then tentatively returned, I can so relate to everything you are saying. I never knew how much I loved the South until I left, and I never knew how much I hated it until I came back.

And my writing? O gawd. I've been avoiding writing about the South for years, but now I'm finding myself neck-deep in it--it's like slow sinking quicksand that's been pulling me in bit by bit. I've struggled against it, but now I'm good and stuck.

O, and E-spouse read gods in one day last week (while he was supposedly sick, though I think he was fine for the last few hours--he just didn't want to get out of bed and leave your creation). He adored it. Thank you, again.

Posted by: Edgy Mama at December 28, 2005 1:45 PM

Finally, someone tells it like it is. Here, I am in the middle of Alabama. Born in Birmingham, but raised in a small obscure town. I am a Southern woman through and through, I was taught to speak my mind and fling barbs through a smile while my voice drips with honey. The thing I hate though is that anytime anyone mentions Birmingham (television mostly), they mention police dogs. Ummm, I believe there were many many more other places that were just as violent at that time.

I know that I can never move from the South. It is in my bones, blood and the very air I breathe.

Posted by: Robbie at December 28, 2005 2:59 PM

I'm gonna try not to smear my hometown but there is, among the college-educated, what we call TOWNDELETEDTOPROTECTGUILTY racism. That's when an individual objects to a person of african descent rising above their appointed station and is manifested by devaluing that person's accomplishments and making sweeping generalizations (e.g. we should not promote from within so often, XXXX is not a rigorous academic field, or of course the mayor had to appoint a XXXX person for political reasons) -- so it's really the tiptoe thru the tulips of racism. It stays on the very PERSONAL side of the spectrum or WIDELY SKIRTS a subset of the population (e.g. members of a given RACE) to generalize about all people in a much LARGER subset of the general population.

On the other hand, there is someone in my neighborhood with a truly grotesque lawn jockey and I am trying to figure out how to steal it and paint it white.

Posted by: Ellen at December 28, 2005 6:11 PM

I am TOO a Yankee! You misunderstand... I said people from Chicago aren't Yankees--they're midwesterners. Calling them Yankees is akin to calling people in New Mexico "southerners."

And you are, BY FAR, my favorite southerner...

Posted by: Karen Abbott at December 30, 2005 10:42 AM