When you’re raised in the South and announce your intention to become a writer, people look at you funny.
They’ll shake their heads maybe and grin definitely, squeeze your shoulder or the soft spot inside your elbow and bless you with a “Bud” or “Sugar” on the end. There, too, will be a hesitation, a loaded pause at after that “Lord help you, Dear” meant as a warning to be wary of the title Southern. Be a writer, they mean, and only that. Any adjective you have a mind to apply will only invite others to do the same.
Writer can become Southern writer can become only a Southern writer.
Yet even this will not explain the uncertain stares that follow an author here. To most, there is no negative connotation to being only a writer concerned with dusty roads and fading churches, the hollers and hills and those either blessed or cursed to live from Virginia west through Tennessee and down to the Gulf shores. Indeed, an argument could well be made that this region has yielded more and greater contributions to American letters than any other, likely due to a uniquely story-driven culture. We grow up with stories here, many of which have never been committed to paper but passed from one generation to the next on creaky porches and wobbling kitchen tables, along with the lessons those stories tell. Faulkner was only a Southern writer, as was O’Connor and Percy, Wolfe and Welty. To our relations north and west, such company would be sought after.
Here, there is an understanding of what it means to be known as a Southern writer. It is to contend with the ghosts.
By this I do not mean the ghosts that walk our woods and mountains, caught in some nether region between life and death. There are plenty of those, though from the tales I’ve heard they warrant more pity than fear. I mean those ghosts which truly haunt us, notions of tradition and justice and the memories of poverty and inequality and slavery, that mire the South in a history we can neither set aside nor escape. I can think of a no more reviled and revered part of our country than this, which I believe goes toward the idea that it is the South that holds many of our history’s sins and much of its graces. The past rules here. It is a place where the ground you tread was made holy by blood and tears, where people will ask of your name, your relations, and the state of your eternal soul in a single sentence, and where you are frowned upon if you dare settle far from the bones of your kin.
This is the setting for the writer of the Southern fiction.
We cast our eyes and our pens upon this landscape with truth in mind. We stare down the ghosts not with the hopes of seeing them vanish, but seeing them as they are. It is by doing so that we stand as intermediary in the breech between Here and Elsewhere, past and present. We are the literary equivalent of the person who will shout down a family member but fight a stranger who tries to do likewise.
We are known as rednecks. Bible-thumpers and NASCAR lovers, animal killers and Tea Partiers. You will find much of that in our stories. You will also find a people whose kindness will strip you of words and whose dignity in the midst of heart-wrenching poverty will convict you of your own deeds. And you will find us as well, these keepers of a present drenched in the past, shining a light into the dark places of the human heart in order to see both its narrowness and its depth.
Our stories are not only of the South. More than anything else, that is what I want you to know. A peer-reviewed study published last April in the journal PLOS ONE used Google trends to analyze the most racist region of America. Their findings suggested not Mississippi or Georgia or Virginia, but an area stretching from Kentucky to the northeast. A recent survey conducted by the Oklahoma Symposium of Racial Studies concluded that the most racist city in the United States isn’t Montgomery or Atlanta, but Portland, Oregon. Slavery and inequality doesn’t just belong south of the Mason-Dixon. Those things built New York city, too. They built Washington, D.C.
Those ghosts are everywhere.
They wander and creep and haunt. And it is the Southern writer who goes chasing after them, because every ghost should be dragged to the light.