Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Monday, November 11, 2013

what makes a writer "southern"?

I have read a fair amount of Southern fiction of late (Carson McCullers, and Walker Percy, and a few things from a Heath Anthology of American Literature skimmed while at one of my dayjobs). There are plenty of Southern-based writers who probably do not consider themselves Southern Writers. Writing about "The South", I guess, is an important distinction, as opposed to writing about just anything, anywhere. Writing about the fraught relations of the races perhaps qualifies one as a Southern Writer, but this has not been a universal in McCullers's work, for instance, where a few of her novels glance off the flood of awful injustice and move along into other terrible things. *** Is it the land itself as character? The gnarled knuckles of the peach trees and the mulberries, the way slaughtering a hog too early in the season meant the meat would rot before Christmas, and the hurricanes coming like God himself wants to ramp up the dramatic tension with a flood, and the muscadine arbor all recur and recur until they become as familiar as Monet's garden in Impressionism, a backdrop upon which the familiar signs and signifiers of the artistic movement can maintain a consistent subject for the expression of complex technique... *** Sometimes I think of myself as a Southern writer, though I never write about the south. I write about quiet indignities, social disasters, loneliness, isloation, alienation, and all of these things feel Southern. Dogsland is really just Houston in my mind, where I imagine the corrupt, filthy, damp city backwards into time. Winter never comes in Dogsland, except as floods and rains. I wrote one novel with snow as a central thing, and it was based on visiting snow in North Dakota, that part of it was, anyway, and how unreal the experience of snow was to me as a Southerner. *** I grew up in Texas. There's this line dividing Texas where you consider yourself Western, not Southern. El Paso residents - I was one of them for a couple years just as I was entering grade school - would call themselves Texans first, not Southern. They'd call themselves Western. In Dallas and Fort Worth, there was both Westerners and Southerners. Dallas was more like a Southern city with all its institutional racism and political corruption. Fort Worth was more western, where the plains opened up into a big, empty sky, and the roads were dustier, and the cattlemen's mythic shadow lingered on the old Stockyards. I have lived in Georgia, too. I liked it, fine. *** When I was in Europe, people asked me where I was from, and I said I was from "Texas" and I guess that's something a few places have in common. Virginia, Texas, Alaska, California, and the big, world-class cities like New York, San Francisco, all would be recognized in a bar in Berlin, right? They're places inside the country that will have meaning beyond the borders of this one land. Am I a Texan writer? I don't write explicitly about Texas. It is implied in what I write, only, in how it is what I know and what I return to when the page grows long and difficult. I know I am a suburban writer, uncomfortable in close-knit apartments, uncomfortable in crowded streets, uncomfortable off in the hills and empty places and small towns of the world. *** Imaginative landscapes are always an invention. *** Real landscapes are invented, too. What makes the landscape of the South is how communities believe the myths that shape them, right? The mill towns of McCullers were still pockmarked with the disease of racism, sexism, injusticeism. The myths hold still like clocks without hands, always present, always leaning over the town. Fort Worth's stockyards are a tourist trap, now, but the cattle came once and it is important people are told how the cattle came, once, and visitors are told that cattle came, once. People need to know that. People need to know, in the dank southern towns what the confederacy meant, and what all those great-grandfathers and great-uncles ran off to die about; what was that futile death about because it didn't seem like enough to say it was merely about human bondage? The scholars still revolve and revolve around why a bunch of grown men who owned no slaves were rushing to grab the guns and march that the wealthy ones could hold all those lives in bondage as chattel. *** Maybe what makes the Southern writer what they are is that the colorful characters and social contortions and quiet desperations all are built upon an edifice of an invented history, where grown men are desperately trying to explain why so many of them joined a war over slaves that hardly anybody fighting actually owned, and how they lost though theirs was the cause of righteousness. Naturally, as the righteousness of the cause in question was human bondage and ergo a total crock of bullshit and a grave injustice and everyone in those Southern fictions operates in a state of fundamental lunacy because the mind must wrestle with putting two and two together when the foundation of the culture is a series of obvious, ridiculous, and horrible lies.
It's Original Sin-like.
As a suburban writer, interested in suburban themes like loneliness, placelessness, the end of the wild, etc., I share that original sin-like state of belonging to a society constructed upon a dangerous facade. Our grave injustice happens where our products are built and bought and shipped in to us, and all the dangerous side effects that come to us from the distance between the serfs and masters, the oil that is burned to bring us Halloween decorations from across the world, and the communities become political navel-gazers, knowing no one different, gerrymandered into same-like towns, as predictable and ridiculous and insane as every suburban writer before me has elucidated. *** What defines a writer will not be a place. The place we come from will be a point where reason and injustice and insanity merge into a foundation inside of our collective psyches. Original Sin is our true home. The disconnect between being part of something larger than us that is fundamentally evil, the powerlessness to instigate change, and the general acceptance of this state of affairs as the way things are and the way things are done. This is where writer identities begin. *** Sometimes, these points of insanity that create an identity of a place will be places where it is really obvious to others how different things are, in their insanities. And this is what makes Southern Writers so unique, perhaps. The original sin of racism and violence is so easily expressed as ridiculous craziness, a mass delusion of overt and obvious acts of extreme violence, that it did not take a research paper at Harvard to "get" why the tinderbox towns that hang men from lamp posts over tiny slights were a place different from other places in the civilized, American world. It wasn't so subtle as the difference between an exurb and a suburb in the mind of a man. [editorial note: Don't blog before coffee. I mixed up Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy.)

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