SOUTHERN AUTHOR? AUTHOR WHO WRITES IN THE SOUTH? ABOUT THE SOUTH? THE NEW SOUTH? WAIT, HOW DID I GET HERE?
Hollywood has a way of reducing a book to one sentence. They call it a log-line. They toss around terms like ‘Coming-of-age tale set in Maine’ or ‘Die Hard in a submarine.” I don’t think in such cogent soundbites.
Having moved all my life, first as an Air Force Brat, then a faculty wife, the fish-out-of-water concept expresses my own sense of belonging. Or not.
If you’re supposed to write about what you know, then being an outsider is exactly what I’m drawn to. I’m the person who wants to, but doesn’t really fit in. When Karin Gillespie invited me to contribute to her blog on Southern authors, I felt like an imposter, despite the fact that I live in the South and spent much of my childhood in Florida and Georgia. If you count seven years in Charlottesville, I have spent more time here than anywhere else.
My outsider role officially commenced in second grade. Having moved from England to Florida, every time I spoke in class, the other kids turned around to stare at me, grabbing the backs of their chairs to steady themselves against the sound of thirty-two jaws dropped in amazement. Was it my English accent? The fish-belly-white-skin? Maybe it was the wildly curly, fiery-red hair that I refused to brush?
I was Carrot Top, but shorter, chubbier, without the fashion sense.
By the time we moved to Athens, Georgia, I’d learned to talk southern, but my hair was still an unsightly mess (one sister refused to acknowledge my existence) and my skin a mortifying morass of freckles. We went to a tiny Catholic school down the street from the Ku Klux Klan storefront (location, location, location) and came to love the town that would later produce R.E.M. and the B-52s.
Athens’ most enduring cultural export, however, as readers of MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL may recall, is the Georgia Bulldogs. For my family, an embarrassingly large Catholic brood adrift in a sea of Southern Baptists, football became a way for us to feel connected. Even if we didn’t have roots that went back generations, at least on Saturday afternoons each Fall, we knew who we were and how we belonged. That Vince Dooley went to our church and drove in our carpool meant we felt connected in an even deeper way, for if the legendary football coach could be different yet revered, maybe there was a chance for the rest of us as well.
The Dawgs were so important to all of us that when we moved to Ohio in 1970, a room of our family’s house would be decorated in red and black, filled with Bulldog paraphenalia and called the Georgia room. Christmas gifts routinely include, to this day, UGA teeshirts, flip flops and car flags. Three siblings have real Bulldogs, one of whom is named Herschel, after the Heismann trophy running back. When my brother Tom, the biggest sports fan of us all, was dying of cancer at the age of 32, he asked that his ashes be spread “between the hedges” of the UGA stadium, and that his funeral conclude with the bawdy, fight song, “LET THE BIG DAWG EAT!”
Something about that request spoke volumes, both of my brother and the way in which the Dawg zeitgiest could both rally and comfort us all.
After leaving Athens, it would be thirty years before I would return to the Deep South to live. Tallahassee, Florida is indisputably the most Southern of Florida’s cities, proving the truth of what they say about our state: the further north you go, the deeper south you get. We are also a football town, home to Florida State’s Seminoles (whose namesake tribe makes other old Southern families look like newcomer wannabees).
Yep, they were here first. Their resistence to having their history rewritten to favor the land-grabbing fish-belly-pale-skinned invaders who sought to displace them is legendary but what I find most interesting – as a migratory mutt from so many places – is how welcoming this original tribe was to outsiders. They harbored (and married) escaped slaves from Georgia plantations, they got along fine with several colonial deputations, it was just wholesale theft (disguised as fine print in treaties that – to this day – they’ve never signed) of their birthright (a.k.a. the pristine wilderness they farmed, hunted and built their homes on) that put their breechcloths in a twist.
Even now, the Seminole Nation is an inclusive bunch. When the NCAA declared sports teams could no longer use Native American symbols, the Tribe helped FSU gain an exemption, viewing the use of their name as a means of allowing their traditional culture to endure, even as so much else in Florida has changed.
I think a lot about what it means to be a Southerner, and what it means to belong to a place. Can I, as a transplant, a geographic dilletante, allow myself to belong here? If so, what does that mean? Do I have to give up my notion – fondly held for so long – that the real South is a place where nothing ever changes?
After all, we all know how many southerners it takes to screw in a lightbulb. A thousand. One to replace the bulb, nine hundred and ninety-nine to go on and on about how much better the old one was.
I’ve loved that notion, that the South I’d found in childhood remained intact. No strip malls, fast food clones or acid rain. We could delete the bigotry, of course, and disappear the Klan, but other than that, the notion of a place untouched by time, trouble, traffic or cancer seemed worth grasping onto, even if it meant I’d always exist on the outside, looking in and hoping what I glimpsed wasn’t a complete mirage.
Only lately have I wrestled with the possibility that my outsider status was also a means of avoiding responsibility. I was on the phone with my sister in Atlanta, who said the recent drought and the water wars between Florida, Georgia and Alabamba reminded her of my novel’s description of similar battles out West.
“It’s too many people. Atlanta can’t just keep growing,” I said, even as it occurred to me that I’d officially become the Southern version of a Zoni, the native Arizonan’s term for newcomers so infatuated with the desert’s beauty that their first impulse was to stop all other newcomers from ever stepping foot across the state border
Pulling up the moat is a common impulse, and obviously not feasible. Yet neither is the head-in-the-sand or hands-thrown-up-fatalistically-against-progress that has enabled so much sprawl in so little time. This being said, there are solutions, fairly easy ones, that could protect what’s left of our water, preserve open spaces and cleanse what’s left of our air while uniting all of us – the old and the new southerners – with a fighting team spirit that could do us all proud.
Perhaps, given poetic license and the creative adaptativity of the Seminoles, who realized that nothing was worth fighting over but the land that gives us all life, perhaps each of us latecomers can decide we are in fact true Southerners, by choice, if not by birth. Even if we didn’t outnumber those who can trace their granddaddies back to the same local farmstead, it’s a communal responsibility to protect what’s most precious from simple stupidity, waste and neglect. Otherwise, those fish-out-of-water stories might become just a tad too close for comfort.
(Sheila Curran’s DIANA LIVELY IS FALLING DOWN was published by Penguin in 2005. Her second novel, LUCY VARGAS IS COMING AROUND, will be published by ATRIA, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.)