The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 3, 2018

What Does it Mean to be Southern in 2018?

Some aspects of Southern life are nearly universal and date back to descriptions over a century old. Mark Twain briefly joined an ad hoc Confederate militia hunting for Yankees they never found, but in his description of their several-day adventure, after which Twain quit the militia, he describes the welcome and the breakfast the several members of the self-formed militia met at a farm house — a breakfast with eggs, fresh biscuits, grits, and two kinds of pig meat, butter and jam.  Big breakfasts are still a quintessential Southern experience today, and a century from now, Southerners will likely still eat big breakfasts. Southern life was and remains more about who you know than what you know in many areas of life, unlike life in New York, where personal connections open doors, but only competitive competency and some measure of luck keeps one in a job. Laws are more like rules of thumb down here, with privilege playing an unjust role in many individual circumstances, not just in matters related to race and class, but also whether your uncle Bill is still a county deputy. While that politic of relationship may change over time, I don’t expect to see it disappear during my lifetime. Other aspects of Southern life that seem perennial include a deep love for hound dogs, women who pay a great deal of attention to grooming, more than in other regions of the country, and a large gap between publicly-declared moral codes and private behavior — Southerners continue on the whole to sin on Saturday night at the honky-tonk and repent on Sunday morning in the church pew. That cognitive dissonance doesn’t seem headed out of town any time soon, though a girl can hope. The South has always worked hard but values leisure time, cherishing lazy afternoons. And I show myself as a Yankee every time I ask for “unsweet” iced tea — because iced tea without sweetener is just a Southern heresy. None of that is going away in the near future. These cultural phenomena are not universal.  Not every woman grooms for three hours before a date.  Not everyone loves a good hunting dog down here. But they are norms — and the South tends to change slowly when it changes at all.

alabama-trump-supporters

White Southerners two years ago — how many feel this enthusiasm today?

Nobody in the land of political punditry was terribly surprised that formerly Confederate states voted for Donald Trump in the last election.  He was, after all, employing Goldwater’s “Southern Strategy” of race-baiting and xenophobia — and there are enough registered voters in the South who see brown people foreign and domestic as the reason things aren’t working out for them.  They believe their local jobs have gone to immigrants, rather than have been relocated overseas to countries where human rights are not respected.  They don’t distinguish clearly between the Islam of Malala Yousafzai, who got shot in the face by the Taliban, and the Islam of the member of the Taliban who shot her in the face, and rather than assuming that Malala’s Islam is the predominant view of the religion on matters personal and political, they assume, with a great deal of help from a fear-mongering television network, that it is the Taliban’s view that predominates (it does not). The Trump campaign message got rid of the dog-whistle in dog-whistle racism, as nothing could be clearer than declaring Mexican immigrants rapists with “some, I assume, are good people” tacked on at the end — translation: I know Mexicans are rapists, but I can only assume that this is not universal because I only see Mexicans as rapists. His calling women who opposed him “nasty” or  talking pejoratively about “blood coming out of her whatever” — that plays on old-school Southern sexism, applied by those who practice it in either smiling and condescending false chivalry toward “ladies,” and applied aggressively and menacingly toward women who have opinions that differ from their own — like the man from Alabama who called me a “cunt” recently for believing Roy Moore’s accusers.  Most men in the South seem to respect women, though they may not understand them all that well. But for a certain segment of the population of Southern states, the sexism and racism of the Trump campaign wasn’t a bug — it was a feature.  For some Southerners, some white Southerners, Trump’s call to make America great again was a call back to a social system that discounted the majority of the human race as child-like or inherently criminal. Not all Southerners ascribed to this vision of a great America, but enough did.

 

Neither was it a surprise to see a ban on transgender bathroom access emanating in the South. The South likes ladies a lot, but not ladies who used to be gentlemen. Regional fear-mongering made some fear rapists would use this as an excuse (despite a significant number of people reluctant to believe women who come forward to report rape as it is actually likely to happen. That such ideas would particularly take hold in small Southern towns is not surprising. The South was behaving predictably, showing a preference of traditional notions of gender and gender roles over any acknowledgment of changes actually taking place in their own communities. As Hannah Rosin showed in her book The End of Men, where big changes actually take place in what women do and what men do in the South at about the same rate as they do in the North, in the South, the rhetoric about gender remains largely unchanged in many communities — even if the majority of women in a Southern town work outside the home, the rhetoric about women’s roles sound like a reflection of expectations not lived for the last 50 years.

But then, as the nation polarized during and after the 2016 election, and intellectuals read Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to understand what hit them, something shifted. Almost exactly a year ago, women all over the country, including in the South, marched in pink hats to reject the rhetoric of Trump and his political agenda for women, not just for women. When Trump signed an (unconstitutional) Muslim immigration ban, thousands of people spontaneously ran to the airport to protest, not just in places where one might expect leftist radicals, like San Francisco and New York, but at Atlanta and Kansas City airports as well. Was it Southern to reject the idea that Mexicans were rapists and Muslims? What had happened to the people who had overwhelmingly voted in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri for the Trump agenda?

tiki torch nazi

How many Southerners felt these men spoke for them?

Then, in Virginia, after a group of out-of-town Nazis arrived in Charlottesville to terrorize (and kill one of) their political opponents with the explicit approval of Donald Trump, who called them “very fine people,” it was as if a switch flipped. In that same Virginia, which had voted for Trump in 2016, the state flipped like a cosmic morality lesson.  Not only did they take the governor’s house, the lieutenant governor’s house, and the attorney general’s job, they (pending a court battle) seem to have taken the Virginia House of Delegates Republican majority away.  But it wasn’t just that the tide turned against Republicans. A man whose girlfriend had gotten shot ran against a pro-NRA candidate and won. A transgender candidate won against a man trying to ban her from certain bathrooms and won — not while talking about gender, while talking about traffic problems in the community. And multiple candidates of color won against overtly racist candidates. It was as if Virginia was as good as its slogan: it really was for lovers, not haters chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

 

And then there was Roy Moore, bless his heart.  He wore a cowboy hat inspired by Toy Story, waved a gun around at his rally, excused his predatory sexual behavior with teenagers by saying he always got a girl’s momma’s permission to date a high schooler before he did in his thirties, who got compared to Jesus (!) by pastors who saw him as a persecuted victim when (Republican) now-adult women came forward despite death threats (!) to talk about his sex crimes against them, and rode a horse he didn’t know how to ride to go vote for himself on election day.  He got beat by a guy who prosecuted the Birmingham Church KKK terrorist bombers The first Democrat to serve in the United States Senate to serve in decades just got sworn in a couple of hours ago.  Alabama’s politics have been ugly for quite some time, rife with corruption and race-baiting, much uglier than the good nature of most of the people of the state, but now, they have elected a man who is a pillar of the community and who has just hired one of the few African-American chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill.

take it downWhat happened to the South? My own wonderful town, New Orleans, took down the Confederate monuments. They did this despite death threats to construction crews assigned to the work and menacing demonstrations by white supremacists from out of town — though not so far out of town as the Charlottesville protesters. KKK poster boy David Duke lives fifteen minutes away from what used to be called Lee Circle.  And New Orleans elected its first woman mayor.  Atlanta elected a black woman mayor. And when climate-denying crazy bag-lady-with-a-nice-blonde-blowout Ann Coulter asked whether having a lesbian mayor caused Hurricane Harvey to hit Houston, Texas resoundingly rejected her remarks. Yes, I’m talking about Texas, a place as Republican as a Mercury Astronaut drinking Tang astride an electric bull while Ted Nugent plays guitar!

Something happened in the South last year.  What exactly was it?

I have a theory. As a carpetbagger, I have had an outsider’s point of view as I reside below the Mason-Dixon line, and consequently, I believe I witnessed a cultural realization, however incident-specific and/or temporary it may be. As I observed earlier, the South talks a serious game of rigid cultural morality, but they don’t live out that morality as preached. In his book Everybody Lies Seth Sephens-Davidowitz confirms, for instance, that while Southerners are much more likely to say they don’t like homosexuality and don’t believe they know people who are homosexual, the South watches as much gay porn as the North does. While Southern pulpits speak passionately against heterosexual promiscuity, and pews are usually filled with people to shout “Amen,” the five states with the highest rates of STDs are all Southern. It’s as if Southerners like the abstract idea of an all-hetero-virgin-before-wedding-night community, but in life, they are not prepared to live out the moral standards they claim to espouse for themselves and want to impose upon everyone in America. Could it be that this gap between actually living out the imagined cultural standard in sexual matters and the standard itself exists in other parts of Southern thinking about social norms?

My theory is this: A lot of Southerners liked  the rhetoric of Donald Trump until somebody tried to live it out. Getting rid of Mexicans (remember — they’re rapists) might sound good until you see the picture of a child crying while his mother gets handcuffed by ICE. The idea of embracing something called “white pride” sounds appealing until you see those terrorists in khakis and Tiki torches attacking non-violent protesters in Virginia. Swaggering around calling women nasty sounds great until you realize the people calling others nasty are nastier than the accused women, and maybe you elected some. Banning transgendered people from bathrooms sounds like common sense until you meet an inoffensive customer at the big box store who isn’t allowed to use the restroom, and a mannish-looking biological woman gets arrested for using the ladies’ room, and all of a sudden what seemed like common sense seems unneighborly and unnecessary. We are more than fifty years since John Lewis crossed the bridge in Selma. A lot of Southern white people have forgotten what lived-out Southern bigotry looks like in person, and it isn’t great , it isn’t American, and seen up close, it won’t make America great again. Having seen it and confronting its real implications, many Southerners are quietly and privately revising their commitment to Trump’s stated values.

There are counterarguments to what I am saying.  The voters for Roy Moore were overwhelmingly white, and the voters for his opponent, newly-seated Senator Doug Jones were disproportionately black. Trump’s base has not eroded so much that he does command respect from about a third of Americans polled, and a lot of those people live in the South.  But a lot of people who weren’t involved, weren’t paying attention, shrugged their shoulders, talking about not trusting politicians are now paying attention, asking questions, getting organized, and going out to vote.

If making America great again means splitting up families, shaming peaceful members of the community who expose the truth of gender and sex in the South, insulting women who work and express opinions, and revering as contemporary role models people who fought to keep slavery, increasingly, Southerners are doing what Huckleberry Finn did when confronting his conscience about the runaway slave Jim. A month ago, when Steve Bannon said, “there’s a special place in hell for Republicans who don’t support Roy Moore,” Kyle Whitmire, an Alabaman journalist whose columns are picked up by multiple newspapers in the state, tweeted the famous words from Mark Twain’s great American novel out of the mouth of Huckleberry Finn in response to Bannon: “All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.”

This quotation from the novel about the moral growth of its unlikely hero suits the South in this time as perhaps never before. The South seems to be saying to itself “all right then.” Transgender people are against God’s law, and normalizing their lives is sinful? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.  Gay couples want a wedding cake for a marriage or a respectful mortuary for a funeral, and gay marriage is unscriptural? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Women ought to know their place and not try to run things — after all, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not suffer a woman to teach”? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Treating undocumented immigrants is unpatriotic, and breaking up their families is legal? All right then. I’ll go to Hell.

The South as a whole may NOT have questioned the overarching validity of abstract stated goals of the campaign of Donald Trump, but one person by one, Southerners are walking away from the MAGA rally. Racism still exists in the South.  Sexism and homophobia still exist in the South.   An abiding belief that poor people are lazy still exists here, too. But Southerners are just not mean enough as a group to really get behind the lived-out oppressions this administration intends to enact if left unchecked. Perhaps more Southerners who voted for Trump heard “drain  the swamp” and thought the Donald had correctly diagnosed a problem, and he had conveniently blamed people that most Southern whites consider “other” for all of it. But when it comes to solutions, this administration offers few of them that Southerners seem prepared to abide.

All right then.

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April 11, 2015

Y’All Are Cordially Invited, All Y’All!

Calling all fans of this blog,of cultural assonance and dissonance between North and South — Monday, April 20, 7 pm, at the Powerhouse Theater in Oxford, Mississippi, on the corner of University Avenue and Fourteenth Street, I am inviting you all to a word party.

My book, The White Trash Pantheon, which sets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South, decries  idolatry and excesses of white privilege, and is above all, filled with fun and humor, with prosody and twang, is being released by Vox Press.

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm!  Come on down!

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm! Come on down!

The party is being called “A Moonshine Cotillion.”  I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of actual moonshine, but the moon will be shining, I can guarantee that.

If you attend, there will be refreshments, bonhomie, and a dash of ribaldry.  There will be reasons to laugh, hopefully not at me but with me.  I have written these poems with a heart for the heartland.  I promise that my intention is to enjoy the South, to slap the snooty off classical literature while retaining its edifying qualities, and to uplift an American vernacular, all in the tradition of Mark Twain, who like me, had an existence both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line.  His Huckleberry Finn is an edifying book, but it also found light-handed ways of telling the truth about people’s hypocrisies, about injustice, about Southern paradox.

I hope The White Trash Pantheon approaches Southern living in a parallel way.  There are times where I am making fun of somebody’s momma, but it isn’t your momma.  It is Oedipus’ momma, though she talks with a drawl when she interrupts her own funeral like Tom Sawyer did.

I promise to bring the funny.  I promise to bring the delight I take in this magnolia-strewn landscape.  I hold the people I have met down South in high esteem, I promise you.  I have listened to — well, to be completely honest, I have eaves-dropped on — salient conversations down here, and I have found in them the cadence of Tennessee Williams divas in the church hall kitchen, the gritty twang of Faulknerian figures in the garages on the county roads.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

I have seen what Ulysses S. Grant saw in Port Gibson, Mississippi, a town between Vicksburg and the bayoux, a town he encountered on his march to conquer the Confederacy, but in the midst of his scorched Earth policy, destroying all sorts of settlements in his army’s wake, he came upon this sleepy, white-boarded, colonnaded oasis between cornfields and cotton, and when his colonels asked him if they should torch the place, he looked at the church steeple — the one in the photo here, with a golden hand atop it pointing an index finger heavenward, and he declared, “No, don’t burn it.  It’s too beautiful to burn.”

I, the Carpetbagger de tutti Carpetbaggers, I, too, declare that the South is too beautiful to burn.  I am in this world of twang and Tabasco, but I am not of it.  That said, when I look at the springtime trees in bloom, at the gilded glove pointed heavenward, I, too, may stand to admire this landscape.  I would change injustice.  I would open eyes.  But I am not a practitioner of scorched Earth.  I have gone native, as native as a non-native can in the New South.

I am not of the South, but I am in the South.  I am making my official debut Monday, April 20th, as a Southern writer, not of Mark Twain, but after Mark Twain.

Come have a slice of corn bread and some bacon-wrapped sugar sausages. Come have a glass of a substance I will neither confirm nor deny.  All y’all, y’all are cordially invited.  The inestimable honour of your presence is requested.

February 23, 2015

On Holiness, or Why I am the Creepiest Person at My Small-P-Pentecostal Church

I am going to talk to you about my down-home Mississippi country church, but first, I think I should share with you a story about Hasidic Jews, who act an awful lot like pentecostal folks when they pray.  This is a story the Hasidim like to tell about how they worship God:

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov was once asked: “Why is it that Hasidim burst into song and dance when they go to the synagogue? Is this the behavior of a sane group of people?”

The Rabbi explained it like this.

“A deaf man walking by a wedding feast wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the people  clapping and turning in circles? The Hasidim are moving to a melody that is part of God’s creation.  Just because you can’t hear the music doesn’t mean we’re crazy for dancing.”

These two smart, lovely, modest teenagers have rejected the pressures of this culture to look like loose women.

These two smart, lovely, modest teenagers have rejected the pressures of this culture to look like loose women.

To get to Christ the Rock, my Mississippi church, you have to drive down a long two-lane highway past a tractor shop, some open fields, and a place that sells feed for livestock.  When you see the long white fence followed by a hill leading up to a gravel parking lot containing some pick-ups and a beat-up old Christian Academy school bus, a white-steepled building with astroturf outside the front door, you’ve arrived.

As your hand reaches the door knob, if it’s Sunday afternoon after 1:30 pm, you’ll hear Sister Courtney and Sister Jennifer singing soulfully in harmony as sister Kathy plays the piano, brother Delbert’s on bass, and the drummer — I am forgetting the drummer’s name, with apologies, but he’s the guy in the back left of the group photo wearing the tan shirt down below, they are all singing a hymn as if their hearts were about to burst out of their chests from the heady passion of it.

The pews are covered in an industrial floral tapestry, and even the piano wears a long skirt of it.  The ceiling is not high, but it is not leaking.  A man will shake your hand at the door.  He looks hopeful and tired at once, but he is honestly glad to see you.  He leads you into the sanctuary from which this music has already reached you, and you find a seat in one of these tapestried pews next to a squirmy toddler wearing a long skirt and the most elaborate headband you — Yankee heathen that you are — have ever seen.  That headband distracts you for a minute, covered as it is with curled ribbons, lace, and perhaps a feather.  The child’s hair is curled carefully like the ribbon, ornately as a bride on her wedding day.  The toddler is drooling onto a Bible somebody left there in case you came to visit and didn’t own one yourself.

Eventually a woman wearing a long skirt bends to scoop up the drooler with one arm, only half-looking, as she has done this before, and without missing a beat, she says welcome and hugs you with the other arm.

This is my church, now that I’m down here.  And I am the most messed-up person they see regularly in the pews.

In New York, I went to churches where people speak in tongues and pray for the healing of the brethren, sing and cry and shout, but I was never the biggest sinner that entered the front door.  For that distinction, I had to compete with ex-prostitutes, junkies just finished with withdrawal, white collar criminals half-penitent of ill-gotten gains, and a few certifiable lunatics out of whom not quite enough devils had yet been cast.  In comparison to that crowd, I was always prim, tidy, reasonably holding it together on almost any day.

There are other churches in Oxford, Mississippi, where I could go where there might not be too many junkies in the pews, but the creepiness would come in the form of rank hypocrisy.  There is an ethos that some Southern churches have where butter just wouldn’t melt in anybody’s mouth no matter how hot it gets in August.  People in those churches disown gay children, hide pornography addictions, drinking problems, and gambling debts while they sing “The Old Rugged Cross.”  Mark Twain, Allan Gurganus, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams, and John Kennedy O’Toole have all given you a picture of the South which includes such churches, the churches of the regular penitents on Sunday morning routinely hung over from their excesses of Saturday night.  I am not saying those churches shouldn’t exist if people want to go there.  But, see, I am not just looking for a place to wear a cute dress and lord it over people that my handbag is designer.

Let me tell you, though, at Christ the Rock, my Southern church, there are no such people.  Butter melts like it ought to — on a biscuit fresh out of the oven.  The people who attend have no holier-than-thou pretensions.  They are just actually holier than I am.

See these good, loving people?  I am so much more creepy than they are.

See these good, loving people? I am so much more creepy than they are.

The women in this church, once you have gotten over the bedazzled headbands on babies, are not dressed in overpriced designer schlock.  They are dressed femininely and modestly, few ankles, no knees, and no bosoms exposed, unless of course I walk in, in which case butter is melting in my mouth, and I am sweating like a whore in church. I am perhaps in something I could have worn to church in New York, a little short-skirted sometimes, never really whorish, to tell the truth, but not deeply modest like these other women are.  The women at Christ the Rock often don’t dye their hair when it grays or wear make-up because those are not the parts of their lives on which they want to focus — instead they honestly want to focus on the experience of God’s presence.  I, on the other hand, have stubborn grays and stubborn worldliness, both of which I cover up. I wear make-up.  I double-process my blonde. I am not secure enough to show up anywhere looking only like God made me.  That’s the truth.  These women, even the teenagers here, are more secure than I am in that way.

What’s more, the men at this church, they are good guys.  They talk about fatherhood and honestly consider it the greatest joy of their lives to nurture their kids and grandkids.  They act loving, even when they don’t agree with somebody about something.  They are faithful to their wives, wives they met in high school and married the month after graduation, in more cases than not.  They are sober men.  They don’t drink.  They want to be helpful.  They want to be gentlemen, and “gentleman” isn’t a code for white male privilege.  A white man of a certain age who attends this church and whose name I shall not disclose, in this still relatively rural Southern community, has been courting a woman of color with all the respect of the code of chivalry heretofore reserved by white men for white women.  But I shouldn’t gossip.  People don’t gossip at this church.  They actually avoid the sins not explicitly mentioned in the Ten Commandments on top of all the not-murdering-not-coveting stuff I usually manage to accomplish on a good day.

The pastor and his wife, Glenn and Kathy Williams, are incredibly warm and loving.  They run a school and have programs through the State of Mississippi for parenting classes, anger management, and addiction-related issues mandated by the court system for those who have messed up in these areas.  They have plenty of opportunities to judge others.  I don’t believe they have ever judged anybody since I have met them.

The whole church is a place that doesn’t judge.  They tell everyone in the room to avoid sin. That’s a given, and when you’re with women who won’t dye their hair and men who won’t take a drop of alcohol after a funeral, you know you are a sinner.  They don’t have to judge you.  You will judge yourself, you Yankee rapscallion scoundrel, just like the Good Book tells you to.  Even as you judge yourself, you will find yourself unflinchingly loved by them.

The sermons are smart without exception.  However, there was one sermon I remember that I never would have heard up North.  It’s not that it was on an unusual topic, exactly.  Any part of the Bible might be preached about in the North.  But this sermon was punctuated by blues harmonica solos and what small-p-pentacostals call “hooping.”

For those of you who are uninitiated, allow me to paint you a picture:

Preacher: “Now one day Goliath, he met his match, — huh!” (the “Huh” is the “hoop” of hooping.)

[insert a short blues harmonica solo here]

“‘Cause David, huh, he got himself his sling shot — huh!”

[really bluesy blues harmonica here]

“and that Goliath, huh, he was gonna fall — huh!”

You get the idea.  Anyway, it was as Southern as a Southern sermon could get.  If the man who gave that sermon had been flanked by an Elvis imitator and the widows of the Confederacy, it wouldn’t have been more Southern.  A bowl of grits would have gone well with it.

But the very best part of attending Christ the Rock is the palpable presence of God like the Rabbi Baal Shem Tov talked about, the thing that makes the deaf think the dancers are crazy.  The presence of the Holy Ghost hangs thickly upon us, and while He is there manifesting, we dance, we clap, we shout, we rejoice.  It’s quieter, that presence at Christ the Rock than at some of the places where people get delivered out of years of addiction in one fell swoop or where demons need to be cast out, but it is strong, loving, and real.  As my nose presses to the industrial gray carpet stubbornly, when I feel called to pray kneeling, when the reverberations of the skirt-wearing piano shake, when the sound of glossolalia mixes with the Southern gospel, I feel the delicious sensation of both the Holy Spirit and my own cultural disorientation.  I’m not home, not until the rapture, but I am some place, I’ll tell you what, some place out of the pages of high Southern prose yet unwritten, perhaps written now. I am not raptured just yet, any minute now, surely, but I am in a place far more authentic than some butter-melt-free-mouthing-off place.  I am some place real where there is real welcome.

But meanwhile, in the church, there, I realize that I am a real piece of work.  I drink the occasional glass of spirits, not just the Holy Spirit.  I am not neurotic by the standards of midtown Manhattan, but I am one twisted-up freakazoid for this pastoral landscape.  I wear make-up and urban clothes because I am hiding my unacceptable self. I don’t judge much, but I don’t love as effortlessly as these people love.  Nothing’s in their way, perhaps, from the stupid pomp of this shallow culture — no lip gloss, no eyelash curler, no list of trends, no fashion police, no need to impress the neighbors.

And yet they tolerate my Yankee accent, which, while mild compared to most up North, sounds like Rhoda Morgenstern’s here when I testify to the works of the Lord during service. They tolerate my over-fluffed pretensions.  These people could have treated me like a space alien, but instead I sometimes wonder if I am their team mascot.  If so, I think we must be called “The Carpetbaggers,” and our fight song is about victory in Jesus.

So if you need a good church that will help you hear the music to which you are currently deaf, I exhort you to come to Christ the Rock, 352 Highway 30 East, out in Oxford, either in Lafayette County or Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, take your pick, as people this good surely belong in fiction, though perhaps not in William Faulkner’s novels. Just come as you are. Leave transformed.

January 6, 2015

On Literary Ambition North and South — or Why My Cat is Smarter than I am

I write this on the Feast of Epiphany, having had an epiphany at 3 am, while my cat, very sensibly, is curled up in a basket of my clean socks in my bedroom, sleeping.

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

My epiphany: I am eating my heart out.

My other epiphany: I can read all the Eudora Welty I want to read.  It won’t make me think like a Southern lady when it comes to my personal ambitions.  This lady wrote brilliant, redolent fiction, made a dent in the American language with her words.  She said, “To write honestly and with all our power is the least we can do, and the most.”

That is awfully modest of her.  She was somewhat reclusive.  Me — I write still because at some level, I want to be a rock star at it.

I knew from the time I was young that I was okay looking but nobody’s casting choice for Bay Watch.  I could get invited to parties in Paris where there were supermodels present, but i was the funny one, not the cute one.  I was unlikely to invent something to replace the automobile, to find a sustainable energy source, to form a company that could dominate Wall Street, or to marry a viscount.  But i could write fairly well, and with some practice, and a slew of self-promotional stunts (like this blog), I figured I could make some kind of a name for myself.

Pray for me.  I have issues.  I have always had issues.

“I am called to write,” I still tell myself.  Because I am called, why am i not yet a household word?  Why is there furor over somebody’s twerking and not over my writing?

Furthermore, I cut my teeth in Manhattan, the island of the elevator pitch, the self-promoting capital of the universe, where ladylike modesty is a cover for some kind of Stepford wifery or a sign of mental illness.  Everybody, everybody — even the hot dog vendor and the man sweeping the floor in the barbershop — blows his own horn.  To brag is to breathe.  As a result, it is only the already phenomenally successful people who affect an air of modesty.  This way, people hate them less for winning at the game we are all playing.

But in the South, blowing one’s own horn is considered rude.  Star athletes only half-manage it.  The proper gesture is to look down at one’s toes, then look up, and shrug while saying something like, “Well, I do my best.”

The first time I went to a literary reading in the South, it was the author’s first novel, and he was in a room of unpublished people.  He shook our hands one by one and inquired of us who we were and what we did, then began his reading with an apology, saying he was sorry to interrupt our getting to know one another so he could share a few pages of his work.

Apologize?  Getting to know us?  That’s lunacy to the New York writer!

A possible, maybe typical, stance of a New York writer at a public reading of her first published novel looks like this:

“Good evening.  I congratulate you all on being discerning enough to understand the great occasion of my first novel, and you are ahead of the curve in hipness, better than your neighbors, for realizing my impending greatness.  Without any more delay, let me dazzle you with my prose.”

And yes — that IS why half the people in the audience came to the reading — to feel hipper than the people in the apartment next door.  That is the commerce of status in New York.

The South resists such a commerce.  Perhaps it is like the lack of snooty wine shops, the intolerance of the maitre d with an attitude at a trendy restaurant.  Perhaps it is a sense that if words matter, they matter without authorial rank.

I have adapted to this sensibility, taking cues from Bill Clinton, who when campaigning thanked everyone in the room where he was stumping, to the greatest degree possible on an individual basis, before beginning his speech.  I may seem stuck up to you.  However, I can promise you I am infinitely less stuck up than I would be in New York, where my jaw-dropping self-assurance and swagger would make (and once actually did make) Rudolph Giuliani shut his mouth.  The South has not made me a Harper Lee recluse of a writer, but it has made me understand that I was inadvertently offensive when I was just acting like writers do below Fourteenth Street and above the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

But another writer I know, wholly deserving of recognition, both brilliant and beautiful, gracious and personable, just got a moment of fame, and I am jealous.  I have sunk to the level of dissipation that makes me paraphrase a passage from the screen play for the movie The Interview: I am sitting at home, sulking, eating a peanut butter and jealous sandwich.  I have been swimming off the coast of Coney Island, and I have gotten stung by a jealous fish.  I am looking lady Bey in the eye, and I am singing to her, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jealous.”

I hate myself for being jealous.  Instead of being jealous, I should be winning.  I should be world-frigging-wide.  I should be beating you at breathing.  i should have groupies.  But I am sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, typing this.  Pray for me.  I have issues, big issues.  I make you look perfectly sane.

I moan to myself, “But I am CALLED to this!  Why has my career not been one Michael Jackson moon walk at the Motown Music Awards after another?”

And it is now, on cue, that my cat comes and curls up in my lap, purring.  She is so much better adjusted to her existence than I am to mine.  She is called to be a cat.  She is called to chase things like grasshoppers and the occasional bird.  She is called to stretch on the sunny spot on the floor.  Yet, she has no ambition to be the best birder on the block.  She is content to lie on the thighs of her neurotic mistress.  She will eventually go downstairs and drink from the toilet if she gets bored.  Right now, though, it is enough to rub her face against my leg, to flex her claws gently so she does not hurt me.  Why can’t i be more like her?  What kind of adulation do I think I might get?  I was a disappointment to my parents.  Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would be awesome, but i would still have other issues.  Pray for me.

The only comfort I have this evening is that I am quite a lot like one Southern writer, a man so ambitious that he wrote much of his Southern literature up North — Mark Twain.  He made up that funny name for himself because it was more rock-star-ish than Samuel Clemens, which, let’s admit, is kind of blah as names go, kind of gaze-downward, foot-shuffling, aw-shucksing.  But “Mark Twain” is something a steamboat pilot shouts.  He was wildly ambitious, albeit in a rather discreet, Connecticut sort of way, too ambitious for a Southern man to comfortably be known to be by his neighbors down South.

Perhaps if I wore a white suit and bolo tie… Perhaps if I changed the spelling of “Babson” to “Baubson” like Faulkner changed his Falkner.  I found a picture of Twain with a pet cat.  I dare say that little cat on his lap was at greater peace than the man who imagined Tom Sawyer conning the neighborhood boys into whitewashing his fence.  I am looking around here for things to whitewash now.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

December 7, 2014

Becoming a Southern Writer

Simone de Beauvoir wrote “On ne nait pas femme; on le devient.” — one is not born a woman; one becomes one.  What DeBeauvoir thinks is true for women is not what Southerners generally think about Southerness.  One is born a Southerner.  “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” some used to say.  I wasn’t even born in South Brooklyn — so how can I become Southern, much less that paragon of the intellectual Southerner, post-Jefferson — a Southern writer?

This blog surely began about my total and devastating culture shock moving South.  I was already a writer, already publishing a great deal about New York and particularly about the immigrant experience.  I wrote a chapbook of poetry that was about 9/11 and its aftermath, its roots in a cultural tension between Islam and Western values, Counterterrorist Poems, which received some notoriety.  I was a New York writer.white trash pantheon cover2

I decided that the beauty of being a writer is that one has the right, even the duty, to make stuff up.  I am not really a journalist.  I have written non-fiction.  This is creative non-fiction.  But that trend, so prevalent these days, to believe that the modern (or post-modern) writer in America is supposed to be confessing some memoir of his or her experience, I buck that.  Like a New Yorker, I said, “Buck the buck out of you, you bucking buck,” or something like that.  I decided if Mark Twain could move to Connecticut and be a Southern Writer, I could, despite being quite the Yankee, move South and write what I observed and heard and be some kind of a Southern writer.  I have no desire to pretend to be more Southern than I am, but I am interested in all kinds of people.  I do indeed pretend that I can observe people and things in a Southern landscape and respond artistically to them.  Try and stop me if you can.  If I am breathing, I am writing about the South as long as I spend time there.

So what did I do? I moved South as planned when my Southern husband proposed to me, and I listened.  I listened to everyone and everything, observed (as evidenced in earlier posts of this blog) the differences between the way Southerners do things and the way I was used to doing things.

I wrote a bunch of poems inspired in part by the simple fact that Southern towns are so often named with classical Greek names — part New Testament, part ancient democracy.  In the South, one finds Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Troy,Thebes, Sparta, and so many other places that testify aspirationally to either a time of early church revelation or noble Hellenic origins of philosophy and golden age.

But if one looks at the towns with these names, there is more Waffle House than Pauline Epistle, more Piggly Wiggly than Socrates under a tree with his young minions dropping knowledge.

Then, there is the Lost Cause Mythology of the South, the belief that (white) Southerners belong to a noble confederacy that lost its way only when Sherman burned Atlanta, that they were sucked into a Yankee capitalist Babylon only after they surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse, leaving behind a halcyon nobility for the grasping, prosaic greed of an industrial economy.  In truth, the South did only begin to seriously industrialize after the war, but as for grasping greed, it is hard to imagine anything more greedy than the captivity and forced labor of many people for the benefit of a very few.  The poor white farmer in the South was surely trampled underfoot during the Civil War, made into cannon fodder for the interests of slave-holding millionaires, but halcyon?  Nobility?  No — it was hard to live in the South for the majority of its residents before the Civil War, both white and black, and it was hard afterwards.  The cause that was lost was neither noble nor mythic.

And lastly, there was all that ancient literature from the older places named Athens and Corinth that I taught my students.  I kept telling them, “The Greek Gods don’t behave like law-giving paragons of virtue.  They are like Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power.”

After explaining this enough, a lightbulb went on above my head — what if the Greek gods were ACTUALLY Jerry Springer guests with unlimited power?  What if this reported nobility evoked by both lost cause mythos and Grecian names were a way to unlock the South?

The light bulb above my head attracted bugs.  I was in the South on a sultry night, after all, I swatted them away and started writing.

I started a series of poems, all dramatic monologues, writing back to classical literature.  My Dionysus was a moonshiner.  My Helen of Troy was a beauty contest winner who ran off with the wrong guy.  My Artemis liked to hunt with Annie Oakley’s gun at night.  The Southern pictures I painted were both based on composite observations, careful, careful listening to Southern voices, and a writing back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  They were at once noble and perverse, simultaneously dignified and slatternly.  I called the collection The White Trash Pantheon.

When I read them aloud for the first time for a Southern audience, as so many of them had been published by Southern literary journals, I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be tarred and feathered.  The Southerners who heard them recognized these people and laughed with me.  It turns out that in the South, “White Trash” is a cultural category that everyone believes exists, and nobody believes they belong to, whether others think they are trashy or not.  In declaring my pantheon of contemporary classical figures white trash, I insulted nobody personally.

A Southern Press, Vox Press, is publishing this collection next year.  At this year’s Southern Writers Southern Writing conference in Oxford Mississippi, I won a prize for selections from the collection, a prize given for not only the best writing, but also for the writing that is judged to be the most Southern.  I have become a Southern writer.

Mark Twain, I may not have worked on a riverboat on the Mississippi.  I may not have been born in Hannibal (another Southern town name with classical world aspirations), but if Tom Sawyer can fake his own death and resurrect, if he can get the whole neighborhood of boys to participate in his games, I feel I have learned from you the recipe for being a Southern writer, anyway.  i have listened carefully.  I have responded to a cultural need to feel attached to legend.  I have, like someone wading out into a river in a white choir robe, allowed myself to be ceremonially buried and resurrected, not in this instance as a new creature in Christ Jesus, which bless the Lord, I already am, but as a new creature in Huckleberry O’Hara, in Rhett Singer, in Blanche Christmas, a newly baptized Southern writer, a witness to things below the Mason-Dixon line, not uncritical — for who among the great Southern writers offers no criticism — but ever lyrical, ever hoping that the great ancients actually start to inform vernacular life, ever watching for the rapture, ever believing, not that South will rise again but that it may actually get up and stretch a bit, walk around and look out in all directions for the very first time, a distinct cultural entity, self-aware and genuinely penitent, and love its neighbor as itself the way I have grown to love the South as my neighbor.

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

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