Contemporary Southern Writers:
Slaves to the Old South
Anyone who’s spent any length of time living in the south knows that history is important to us. In the south, we cling to words like “tradition” and “heritage.” If you search the term “Deep South” on Wikipedia, you’ll find headings like History, Civil War, and Reconstruction. The recent debate concerning the Confederate battle flag only further demonstrated this, immediately prompting the construction of southern-based websites with titles like “Preserving the Southern Heritage” and “History not Hate.”
So why is this? Why, as southerners, are we so obsessed with the past? Is there something hidden in our redneck genes, something wriggling deep in our southern-fried DNA that causes us, as southerners, to cling to the past? One answer might be that as southerners we are so obsessed with the past that we simply aren’t interested or concerned with examining our present or our future. Some might even argue (mostly northerners I presume) that it’s precisely this kind of backward thinking, this constant looking to the past, that has led to the south’s obvious lack of progress, especially in terms of education, pollution, unemployment, and poverty. Regardless of your opinions one way or the other, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that these days young southern writers seem inexorably drawn to the south’s past, rather than its present. Over and over, young contemporary southern writers seem much more content to drudge knee-deep through the south’s bloody history than explore its present. And, when they aren’t exploring the south’s past, they seem much more compelled to rewrite great southern literary traditions than explore the south’s present, or even its future for that matter. Who can forget Susan Lori Parks’ wonderful tribute to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Alice Randall’s rethinking of Mitchell’s Gone with The Wind. Don’t get me wrong. These are all wonderfully creative and skillful books, but as a southern writer in my thirties, I cannot help but wonder why such writers aren’t as equally concerned with examining the south’s present.
Recently, while reading Chuck Palahniuk, I couldn’t help but notice how refreshingly unique and contemporary his work seemed. Being born and raised in the south, with the usual affinity for O’Connor and Faulkner, I began searching Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com for southern writers who presented a fresh contemporary perspective of the south. As I searched and searched, what startled me most was the shear lack of such literature. Instead of modernized contemporary versions of the south, too often I found regurgitated versions of The Color Purple set in a contemporary context. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to find any contemporary southern literature these days that doesn’t contain the usual slew of traditional southern stereotypes that we, as southerners, have all grown to hate. Is racism really as prevalent today as contemporary southern literature would suggest? Is finding a woman on a porch snapping beans really that common in today’s contemporary southern culture? The answer is yes if you believe what you read in contemporary southern literature.
It’s seems to me that, more and more, contemporary southern literature comes off sounding like some Kool-Aid commercial rather than fresh and authentic literature. You know the commercial, the one where the mother, in her attempt to be contemporary, throws out some catchy hip phrase that even the white kids stopped using months ago.
So what, you say? What’s so horrible about contemporary southern writers wanting to inject a certain sense of “the Old South” into contemporary literature? After all, it’s part of our historical heritage. My short answer is that it’s simply inaccurate. By refusing to redefine the contemporary south, we, as southern writers, are obscuring our contemporary perception of the south, as well as perpetuating the traditional southern stereotypes that are all too prevalent in the media. After all, how will we ever successfully transcend the stereotypes inflicted upon the south if we don’t attempt to present a contemporary view of the south that challenges those stereotypes? Of course, there are contemporary southern writers who resist this tendency (Padgett Powell comes to mind, most likely because he teaches at UF, where I received my M.F.A.), but what worries me most is that the few writers who are actually resisting this urge seem to be among the minority.
Could it be perhaps that the south’s past is simply more interesting than our present? At a recent writing conference, a young southern writer in his thirties told me that he’d chosen to write an historical novel about the south set in the 1850’s because, as he put it, “the contemporary south simply [wasn’t] fascinating enough.” Wasn’t Waco fascinating, I thought? And what about NASCAR? Isn’t there a fabulous NASCAR novel out there just waiting to be written, a post-modern deconstructionist take on The Ballad of Ricky Bobby perhaps? All joking aside, my aim here is not to say that southerners shouldn’t write novels about the south’s past, but to encourage young southern writers to write stories that depict the contemporary south.
Why not celebrate a new south—a contemporary south—no matter how glorious or depressing it might be. Let’s modernize and contemporize our vision of the south so that it not only creates a more unique literature, but so that it also depicts more accurately the landscape and culture we inhabit today. Let’s see more of those middle-class white boys with their shiny gold teeth, the ones I see at nearly every stoplight in Baton Rouge, bouncing their honky heads to Mystikal and Jay Z. Let’s see a plumber in line at Starbucks searching his greasy pockets for a purple and gold cell phone with a Honkytonk Bodonkadonk ring tone. Or a redhead belle with a thick Mississippi drawl who buys used women’s panties on Ebay. Spill the bowl of snap beans down your trash disposal. Tomorrow, cut off all relations with your racist cousin Booger. When you see your grandmother, wrestle the mint julep from her wrinkled death-grip and hand her a Strawberry Mango Mint Smoothie instead. Yank your Prozac-popping Uncle Elmer from his rusted pickup, put him in a Honda Hybrid, and see where his drunken adventure takes him. Let’s turn the traditional southern stereotype on its head. After all, isn’t that what a good southern writer would do?