by Jas Faulkner
The Southern US as it exists in the minds of anyone who lives elsewhere is a collection of tortured memories of required texts from
high school, stereotypes that have been perpetuated by the media, and assumptions of regressive attitudes towards everything. Thinking, reading, writing southerners everywhere know that there is more to who and where we are than the Faulknerian stygia that passes for home in Yoknapatawpha County. We know about our excellent research programs in nearly every discipline at our universities, we know about our lively arts communities, we know about the movers and shakers who put their all into making the world a better place.
We know this, we really do. Yet all it takes is a big happening in the lower southeastern corner of the country to hit the news and we’re all watching, cringing and praying that the individual with dead eyes, a misspelled protest sign and a gimme cap will not have a southern accent. There is that unmistakable dart to the heart that is felt whenever the stupid character shares my dialect. It is the reminder that no matter what I or any of the people who share my region of origin say, the default mental association will always be somewhere in the neighbourhood of some mouthbreathing progeny of married first cousins named after an Old Testament character and often accompanied by his pet rooster, Lester Maddox.
What is interesting is how this idea can sometimes twist on itself like a moebius strip. Years ago, I participated in the books section of a forum attached to a largish new media outlet. One of the editors from that site posted a list of her favourite southern authors. She included Carolyn Chute, who was born in Maine and seems to have lived there most if not all of her life. When I brought up the fact that Chute was from Maine and set all of her fiction there, the editor countered that she was a southern writer because she wrote about poor people. Head? Meet Desk!
What makes a writer a southern author? Would nativity in the lower southeastern thirteen serve as an automatic qualification or is there some sort of deeper cultural underpinning that puts a writer in the same section of the grand Venn diagram of arts and letters as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty? I would suggest that it takes more than poverty to make a writer southern. It is borne of a certain sensibility. Poe may have originated from Massachusetts and Bierce from Ohio, but their saturnine works depicting battles, both real and imagined taking place in the oppressive heat and cupidity of the US’s fertile delta makes them Southern hounds of the highest order.* To be a southern writer means one has the ability to suggest the direst of things, ideas that would make your sainted grandmother weep and to write it in such a way that the reader can still picture the clear, almost sparkling gaze and the Mona Lisa smile accompanied by the unchanging modulated tone that suggests butter would never melt in this mouth.
In writing this, am I suggesting that southern arts and letters is simply a more filigreed version of classical Russian nihilism? Have we, as a region, given up trying to disabuse everyone else of accepted conventional wisdom takign the path of least resistance with the employment of a textual bloodthirsty grimoire coupled with an insouciant, “Shucks, y’all!”? It may be that all of the above holds true for many writers. For others, the oddment of being southern coupled with whatever we are pursuing at the moment serves to create a degree of literary cache.
Whatever the case, whatever the challenges, it is a club that welcomes anyone willing to come to the the unpaved roads that are indeed dusky even in the heat of midday. Come to the dark side. We have all the good pie and iced tea, y’all.
*I leave it to you to decide if I attempted a bad double, possibly triple entendre or not.