Truth, I Dare: the Complicity of the Southern Novel
One thing that has occurred to me as a Southern novelist is the absolute necessity of identifying and redefining harmful tropes in Southern literature. For far too long, we have come to expect the same tired and way overused cast of characters from our writers: the abusive mothers and the drunk and/or racist fathers rounding out our ignorant and myopic nuclear families. While racism, abuse and alcoholism is, of course, an issue in the South, it is an issue everywhere in the country and in the world. My problem really is that tropes, in the end, become stereotypes, the way we view people and cultures that might be foreign to us. Take, as a random example, India. Chances are, whatever you know about the subcontinent is what you’ve read about the subcontinent. Fact is, the face of our region and our culture is defined by our writers. And so writers need to take responsibility for their depictions of our culture and our people.
The South, you see, is not a stereotype. Nor are Southerners tropes. This should go without saying. And yet it requires saying and even repeating. Understand, I am not a Southern apologist. I know our sins, our weaknesses and our history, the good and the bad, and I know it all well. This is not about apologetics. This is about the long-overdue need for an honest discussion of where we are as a region and as a nation. You see, there is a far more sinister outcome to all of this: that such often propagated depictions allow the rest of the country (particularly the rest of white America) to continue to view and use the South as a scapegoat, a means to excuse themselves from the advantages so much of America has gotten from the institutions of slavery and systemic racism. For going on 50 years now, Southern writers have, consciously or subconsciously, allowed our great country to excuse itself from its past and current sins. And for America as a whole to address its long-standing racial and class issues, we must be honest about who we are. This is why I chose, in A Curious Matter of Men with Wings, to write a family that does not fall into these expected tropes, a family that does not tear itself apart, but instead clings to each other to face down the external forces that dare to separate them. Because this is the family I know, the family I was lucky enough to have. Albeit one of many families. But one I feel is necessary to portray. This is also why I sought to illustrate the South in a microcosm, complete with all the good and the bad, the horrors and the beauty that accompany that, and why at the heart of the novel an interracial love story is what redeems them all in the end, a sort of a heralding back to the very thing that makes Southern culture “Southern,” while offering a hope for our future.
The other day before a speaking engagement at the Pat Conroy Literary Festival, I took my mother to MJ’s Soul Food Restaurant on St. Helena Island (which for my money, is the best damn food you can put in your mouth), and as I listened to her go on and on about how the fried shrimp and collards was the best fried shrimp and collards she had ever eaten, it occurred to me that the only substantive difference between Southern food and soul food is who is eating it. And it occurred to me later that, if we are going to be honest about who we are as Americans, we must first start with this kind of honesty. An honesty that has been admittedly hard to come by, especially as we, the good people of the South, and white Southern writers particularly, continue this lethal segregation, even by way of how we view the South in our minds and portray it on paper, by way of how we continue to view ourselves in terms of black OR white, instead of what the South really is: black AND white. A beautiful symphony that has gifted us all with the divinity of jazz and blues and rock ‘n’ roll and the best food in the world and the best storytelling tradition in the world.