There are various ways to put writers in boxes. One day Charles Dickens might be in the British writer box, sitting there chatting with Jane Austen or even Kate Atkinson (using a time machine). Then suddenly the box is white male writers, and Charles is looking around wondering where Jane got off to, while Hemingway is there going on about some fish.
Most writers don’t love the boxes. In general, women writers don’t want to be known as women writers, but as writers. After all, we create because No One Is Quite Like Us. One of the possible boxes people might put me in is one I’ve always considered myself outside of—southern writers. After all, I’ve lived large parts of my life outside the south, and what I write about isn’t just this region.
And yet, here I am in Atlanta, at least for now. I was born and grew up an hour from here, going barefoot on a farm and eating watermelon from my grandfather’s field (I could invoke other cliched rural imagery if needed). The fact is, to be a serious fiction writer, we write about human behavior and aspirations as truly as we know how, which we partly know as an aspect of where we come from.
I would guess that the majority of writers write about the place where their feet are standing, and this has been true of me as well. At the moment I’m finishing one novel and getting ready to begin another, and lately I’ve been thinking about the place where my feet are standing, about southern culture, both current and past, about southern history, and about the depth of our sins here.
Last weekend I had several days of vacation on the coast, at Hilton Head Island and in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, and in Savannah, Georgia. These places are historically and culturally captivating and within an hour’s drive of one another. I spent plenty of time doing the vacation thing, drinking beer, drinking coffee, drinking more beer, and I also went bike riding, just barely saw an alligator, and climbed up to the top of a lighthouse.
Besides gators and beers, I came home contemplating southern history and culture. While riding a bike on Hilton Head, for instance, my friend and I stopped to see the Baynard plantation house ruins. It was a reminder that this island, now so developed as a vacation spot, was once a site with wealthy plantation owners, agriculture, and slave laborers. Among the ruins at the Baynard house are the remains of slave quarters, and all the ruins are made of a common coastal building material called “tabby” that contains oyster shells. For me, that one fact intimately ties the slave economy to the coastal region.
While I was in Beaufort, I was also reminded of the darkness of southern history (I don’t mean to imply that all history isn’t dark). Nearby, on St. Helena Island, is a place called the Penn Center, founded by Pennsylvania Quakers as a school for slave children. What makes the school even more interesting is that it was begun in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, for children freed by Union troops on those islands.
When I look at all of this history—moreso, when I feel all of this history—as a writer I think that I come from a place where there is a lot to be said still. For one thing, as a culture, the south has not seriously dealt with the horror of our history regarding slavery and racism. That is yet to come.
But I want to illustrate an additional point of view. While on vacation, I had a meal in an upscale restaurant, with food based on traditional southern cuisine, and the meal was so good I wondered how it was even possible for food to have that much flavor. In Beaufort, I saw the paintings of local artists and drank the beer of local breweries. One afternoon in Savannah, I sat under oak trees hung with Spanish moss, drinking coffee and looking across the square at the house of Flannery O’Connor, a writer of Irish background.
My point is that the south has been a horrible place, and yet it can be a righteously wonderful place. If I consider myself a southern writer, I wonder if this doesn’t give me something in common with Irish writers, who might say “We come from a place that has been fucked up beyond any rational comprehension, and yet we are tied to it and love so much about it.”
The American south can evoke those same feelings. That may be useful for a writer.