Many times during interviews I am asked the question: Do you consider yourself a Southern Writer? (Yes.) What makes you a Southern Writer? (I just am.) No really, read my answer here.
It is a question I’ve had to put some thought into.
Recently, my husband gave me a book to read. He does this every now and then usually something to do with sports. Sometimes I get through them. Sometimes I don’t. Though even he didn’t predict I would fall in love with Woody Hayes. Maybe because growing up in Alabama made me understand Woody’s passion. I knew why he called Michigan “that school up north” and would rather run out of gas on a cold night trying to reach the state line than pay one cent in state tax to the seat of his rival.
When he pulled up those hash marks during a fit of rage, I understood. Okay, he shouldn’t have hit that opposing player. But I understood the passion behind it. Just saying. But I regress.
My husband told me Truth in Advertising reminded him of my writing style, which I thought was strange as, in my mind, I am a decidedly Southern writer and John Kenney is a New Yorker. Though I will say, after my first trip to NYC last April, I could be an expatriate following in the steps of Truman Capote (without the snark) and the young William Gay (my idol).
I saw a little of what my husband was talking about, mostly in Kenney’s dealings with the family dynamic in the novel. Many of my stories deal with the dysfunctional family. Flamingo Funeral’s central theme asks the question: What drives family loyalty past the point of common sense?
So what makes my book distinctively Southern? I can’t say it’s the theme. Obviously. Nor is it the dialect. Kenney uses the Boston dialect in Truth in Advertising, yet he doesn’t bill his book as Northern literature.
Maybe it’s this: In Flamingo Funeral, Gus’s kids and extended family don’t even question what they will do. The right thing (pronounced riite thang) is pounded into their skulls from birth. It doesn’t matter that Gus beat the hell out of his children, that Jen had vowed to never go back or that what Gus has requested is as my mother would say, “the craziest damn thing I ever heard tell of.” It was what Gus wanted.
Jen questions her cousins’ choices, but knows in her heart she would have done anything her father had requested, too.
We were raised to honor our father and mother —
no matter how crazy they turned out to be.
And there, I think is the answer. Southerners embrace their eccentricities. We are the home of the blues, New Orleans, Florida, Flo Rida, Hank Williams, Hank Williams, Jr. Hank Williams III, Nelly, Tullulah Bankhead, 11 Presidents, Odetta, The Allman Brothers, Condoleezza Rice, Hank Aaron, Elvis, Faulkner, Williams, Capote, O’Connor, Welty……..
I am a Southern writer because – I am Southern. It’s ingrained in me like the heavy accent of rural southeast Alabama that I never shook. It runs through me like kudzu. It’s living and writing within and about a place of beauty and warmth and eccentricities unique to the South.
It’s growing up amid tumultuous times and coming out changed and better for it. It’s embracing a history both fascinating and horrifying and believing that we can learn from that history and make life better for our grandchildren.
It’s following in the footsteps of every elder I ever knew who sat around the porch on Saturday afternoons and told and retold the family stories always making them funnier with each new telling.
It’s looking at the hard, gritty facts of life with a bit of humor because, well hell, what else can you do but laugh?