We are who we decide we are

(published in The State, Columbia, SC 12/3/2006)

Is there any such thing as a Southern writer? Is there even a South to write about?

There are those who think the South is a place no longer apart, a region absorbed finally, like the fluid in a blister, back into the body politic we call America.

I am not among them.

I tend to take the question literally. The real South is my personal geography of mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, all stained by our dark particular natural and human history. This is the habitat of almost every poem and essay I write.

For this reason ” what I would call the undeniable fact of place ” the South exists as clearly as any other ground on the planet.

As a region, we have a climate, latitudes and altitudes. We have native plants and animals. Our mountains are rounded by millions of years of erosion and our rivers flow either to the Atlantic or the Gulf.

We are not merely a cultural construct, something to be fretted over by novelists nervous about their sales declining if they are labeled “Southern.”

The South is not merely a market region. It is an ancient collection of bioregions bounded by the limits of where kudzu winters over.

The Mason-Dixon line? That’s about where the Wisconsin glacier started retreating 15,000 years ago. Hilton Head? It was a barrier island long before it was a real-estate dream.

What I’m suggesting is that the more interesting question is ‘How do writers in the South define themselves?’ Hal Crowther, the universal-genius husband of novelist Lee Smith and author of such books as ‘Cathedrals of Kudzu’ and ‘Gather at the River’, says Southerners are a stubborn people and that we should never let anyone but ourselves define us or our region.

In his essay ‘The Tao of Dixie’, Crowther tells about ‘Good Ol’ Girls’, a stage collaboration among novelists Smith, her friend Jill McCorkle and Nashville songwriters Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman.

When the show left North Carolina and opened in New York, the “Broadway big shots”thought it wasn’t “Southern enough.” Crowther explains that the producers in New York wanted every good old girl to be Mammy Yokum.

The women created for the show were “too pretty, too smart, too normal.” New York wanted “four grits-eating grannies with big hair, bad teeth and banjoes.”

I know about banjoes. My latest book was about the Chattooga, the river James Dickey’s novel ‘Deliverance’ was filmed on. New York didn’t want my book. They said it was too regional a story.

I would never argue there is no South, but I believe the definitions drawn by others outside our borders are always much too narrow.

My ideal readers have seen ‘Deliverance’ and recognize someone they know among the Atlanta adventurers or the mountainpeople who assault them, maybe both.

I write with this double South ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Good Ol Girl’  mind.

So we Southern writers must take our own stand: Our genetic material might be from Aldo Leopold as well as Erskine Caldwell.

We are Starbucks as well as the vanishing country store.

We can trade in our corn whiskey for lattes, eat sushi instead of cornbread, and the South will still survive.

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