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

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.

October 27, 2010

Freedom of the Pressure — on being pushy down South

Confederates don’t haggle.  They rarely wag their fingers.  They walk demurely toward the end of the line, rather than trying to find their way around it to the secret back entrance.

In New York, I was never the pushiest woman I knew.  I was always somewhere toward the sixtieth percentile in pushiness — not a wimp, not Ophelia drowning, but neither boorish nor crass.  I was tenacious but not a bulldog.

a graphic for my 10.0 on the Richter Pushometer down here in Mississippi

Down here, I’m so darn pushy in comparison to others that I might as well be belting out, “I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Rose!”

An example — I went to my local Home Depot.  The website of the franchise was offering free delivery for yard furniture last spring, and I wanted to buy some.  My local Home Depot had a policy of charging an $80 delivery fee.  I talked to three managers, was never rude, but I insisted that the policy didn’t make sense, that they should waive the fee so that the store could get credit for the sale locally, keep everyone employed in town by having such sales, just give me the discount.

As I said before, people down South don’t haggle. They think it’s impolite, pushy, to ask for any kind of a discount.  Never mind that they are underpaid in comparison to their professional equals up North, never mind that capitalism is always, always the art of the deal, and they believe in capitalism.  Never mind that in New York, people just know that only chumps pay retail, that asking, re-asking, and re-re-asking for a bargain doesn’t cost a penny.

Solemnly and reluctantly, the head manager finally gave me the nod after two hours of tense negotiation — tense on their part, not mine, because for me, this was just business as usual.

Whenever I come in there, store clerks still, almost a year later, tell me, rather in awe, “I remember you! You’re the lady who got free delivery!”

They don’t say it admiringly.  They say it respectfully, fearful I’ll ask for something new once more.

I ask for jobs.  I learned this in New York.  I walk up to people who have the power to give me work and just plain ask, whether there has been an advertisement or not.  If they say no, I’m surely no worse off.

Down South, this is rare.  And yet — let’s look at their absolute all-time favorite archetypal heroine:

"As God as My Witness, I'll Never Go Hungry Again," (and I don't mind being pushy wherever it suits my purposes.)

Katie Scarlett O’Hara Wilkes Kennedy Butler is the most pushy woman in American fiction, barring no Yankees.

Here are some pushy things that, just off the top of my head, I recall Scarlett doing:

  • She demands Rhett Butler take her out of a besieged Atlanta and slaps him when he tries to kiss her.
  • She shoots a Yankee renegade.
  • She throws dirt on Emily Slattery and her Carpetbagger husband (I forgive you, Scarlett, and I would have done the same).
  • She steals her sister’s beau (and a bunch of other girls’ beaux as well).
  • She starts a lumber mill and beats the male competition by starting a rumor mill about them as well.
  • She gets convict laborers to make her business more profitable, because the overseers of the convicts can legally push them to work harder. (not nice, but incredibly pushy.)

That’s just off the top of my head.  I’m sure if I re-read the novel, I’d find out another dozen examples worth mentioning. Scarlett seemed to believe the axiom “Nice girls go to heaven; pushy girls go everywhere.”

So why — if this is the idealized and celebrated picture of a Southern belle, are all the people around here not pushy, often even push-overs?

Older people say around here, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

The New York Yiddish diction in me comes out and I say, “What?  You want I should catch flies?”

Flies are attracted to garbage.  Forget flies.  Give me a job.  Give me a discount. Pay attention to me.  Take me to your leader.

I am honestly trying to adapt here, but if there are people in the South who think that it is better to be forever Miss Congeniality rather than Miss I-Got-Exactly-What -I-Wanted, I’d like them to explain to me why.

I see people down here who are surely better liked than I might be –although I think honestly that most people think I’m an interesting character and are very, very kind to me — who are never insistent or aggressive in going after particular rewards or restitution.  Honestly, they remind me of the Reconstruction-era dowagers depicted in Margaret Mitchell‘s novel in contrast to Scarlett — the women who starved in gentility, who lost everything but their demure penury, trying to make a lady-like living by hand-painting china.  And yet, perhaps I am more like Scarlett O’Hara than any of the ladies I meet in that I insist, I demand, I just won’t take no for an answer.

If this is wrong, I hope someone writes a comment here and explains to me what I’m missing.  If someone can explain to me why pushiness isn’t Southern but Scarlett O’Hara is so celebrated, I want to know that, too.  It is my general observation that those who ask not receive not.  Why don’t Southerners generally go after things the way New Yorkers do?  The motto of the State of New York is Excelsior — “Forever higher,” where we want our profits and hopes to go.  In Mississippi, it is Virtute et Armis — “By valor and arms,” but what by valor and arms?  Which victory? I don’t think passivity is very valorous, and arms can be borne, but what are you shooting at?

Wasn’t it a Southern Civil Rights worker who said, “If they’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right?”

I exhort you, Mississippi.  I had a dream, and I dreamed it for you, Scarlett!

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