Southern by the Grace of… Amy Hempel?

I’ve just finished reading an advanced copy  the 25th anniversary edition of New Stories From The South, guest edited by Amy Hempel. My story, Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go, which was first published in A Public Space, and will also be in my collection and in this year’s Best American Short Stories, is included in this year’s edition. As a writer, I’m deliriously excited about my forthcoming short story collection, about having a whole book of my words and no one else’s. As a reader though, it’s always a special treat to have your work included in an anthology or a magazine, because you get to see it alongside other people’s work, and to enjoy the surprise and thrill of new words. It’s like instead of hanging around with you all the time, your story got invited to a party, and came home all dressed up and full of news and gossip from the other stories. I am really excited to see my story in such fine company.  Brad Watson’s Noon, Ben Stroud’s Eraser, Ann Pancake’s Arsonists, and Marjorie Kemper’s Discovered America have really lingered with me (in a good way) since I read them. Go preorder the book so you can linger with them too.

When I tell people I have a story in this year’s edition of New Stories from the South, they typically say two things, in no particular order 1) Congratulations, that’s great! 2) Since when are you southern?

Depending on my mood, people who ask the second question either get a long, rambling response about home and geography, or a pithy since  Kathy Pories and  Amy Hempel say so, that’s when.

It’s a fair enough question. Answers I have given to the question “where are you from?” include: New York, DC, Virginia, NORTHERN Virginia, too many places to name, I’m not sure, I’ve had five addresses in the last two years and I don’t know which one you have but I’ve answered 18 security questions so will you please let me access my credit card information before I cry*

I’ve talked before about the relationship between my own transience and that of my characters, and about the strangeness of being from a place where people are always from somewhere else. But in all my conversations about my own lack of strong geographic roots, and my collection’s geographic spread, I’d never stopped to consider whether or not I was a Southern writer. I spent most of childhood in or just outside of DC, a place often cheekily described as ” a city of northern charm and southern efficiency.” Many of those years I’ve spent in the Virginia suburbs, never more than 20 minutes from DC, never more than 20 minutes from a Starbucks, never more than 20 minutes from a suburban shopping mall, never more than 2o minutes from something named after Robert E Lee.  If you know the DC area, then you know that it’s common for people in the northernmost counties of VA to joke about seceding from the rest of the state, a feeling that’s obviously somewhat mutual, judging by how many people wrote them off as “fake virginia” during the last presidential election. Yet I never take for granted that I live below a line that, no matter how easily and often I cross it, once meant the difference between life and death, freedom and slavery. I am never unalarmed by a confederate flag. Is this a southern sensibility? I don’t know. I spent most of my career as a writer in NYC or the midwest, save a year in the Ozarks, a region I do not even begin to feel qualified to write about.

I went through the stories in my collection with an eye toward the geography, but I had a hard time pinning down “southern” there too: Is a story where a character is born in New York, lives as an adult in Northern Virginia, and drives from there to Boston and back a Southern Story? What about a story that starts on Delaware farmland, stops at a bar in  North Carolina, and ends in a pancake house? The characters would often not sit still long enough to have a concise regional identity.  I counted five stories that took place at least partially in the south, but only two stories that I thought of as “southern,” in the sense that they couldn’t have happened anywhere else– both of them contending with the challenges of a diverse, increasingly urban south mapped on top of old divisions and ideals.

Then I thought about the particular relationship one has to the south as an African-American writer. Is the south an inherent actor in stories where black families negotiate race, and migration,  integration, and intergenerational conflict and legacy? In some sense yes, if only on the level of language. While one of my pet peeves is “ethnic” dialect that doesn’t account for regional differences, it’s true that some southern phrases and expressions have worked their way into the mouths of characters a generation or more removed from the actual south, just as they’ve worked their way into broader African-American vernacular speech.

 In another sense though, to call writing about race inherently southern is doubly reductive– reductive because it erases how long African-Americans have been in places other than the south, and how many ways we got there, and reductive because it allows us to neatly categorize race as a “southern” problem. As an undergraduate, I once wrote a story which deserved to be criticized for being terribly overwrought, but which was mostly criticized because the class didn’t believe that a black girl would be ostracized by her dead white boyfriend’s family because of her race in the suburbs of New York City. “This isn’t Mississippi,” somebody wrote.  Mississippi may have earned its reputation, but that doesn’t let the rest of the country off the hook.

 There’s also a strange way that “southern,” and “black,” come to represent not overlapping groups, but contentious identities. “Southern,” without  a qualifier tends to mean white. I’m working on a project that involves the confederate flag, and more than once I’ve had a conversation something like this:

Person: The confederate flag isn’t about race, it’s about southern pride.

Danielle: How many black southerners do you know rocking the confederate flag?

Person: Well, none

Danielle: Don’t you think it’s reductive and kind of inherently racist to conflate “southern,” with “white,” considering how many black people are southern, how long they’ve lived there, and how much they had to do with building the place?

Person: …

But I have been guilty of reductive views of the south myself at times. Why does Delaware feel more southern to me  than Atlanta? Why do I sometimes persist in associating the south with stereotypes  when I know it to be a place that is urban, rural, and suburban, a place that reflects the ethnic diversity of the country at large? The struggle to define the region, and its literature, tends to open the anthology every year, and is often as interesting as the stories themselves.

So, having tried, and failed, to concisely work through the extent to which my person and my writing have been influenced by the south, I instead came up with this short list:

Serious and Not-So-Serious Reasons Why I am Southern Enough to be in a Southern Anthology:

1) I make a damn good buttermilk AND sour cream red velvet cake, a good spicy potato salad, and a melt in your mouth sweet potato pie. People who don’t know this from experience tend to be skeptical, and while it’s true that my inner domestic goddess only shows up a few times a year, once she arrives, she doesn’t mess around.

2)I was the co captain of the JEB Stuart High School junior varsity cheerleading squad. Somewhere in my closet, there’s a letter jacket that says JEB Stuart on it. It took me a long time to work through the balance of pride and shame I felt when I looked at it. In high school, I wrote an NAACP ACT-SO award winning essay about what it was like to go to a 70% minority school named after a confederate general. That experience was also the jumping off point for the first short story I really “finished,”– Robert E Lee is Dead, incidentally, the last short story in my collection.

3)I like country music. A lot. It actually seems odd to me to put this on a list of “southern,” things, because if you asked me to make a “southern” soundtrack, it would probably include a lot of southern hiphop** and blues.  If you asked me to associate music with Tennessee, you’d almost inevitably get this. The first time I lived in a place where there were more country music stations than anything else, it was in Iowa. Though when my Bronx-born mother caught me watching CMT, or lingering too long on the country stations on the radio dial, she would shake her head and mutter we never should have moved to Virginia, the truth is country music was at the time wildly unpopular among both my black and white classmates as well. Blame it on fake Virginia, I guess.  But, country music seems to be alive and well in the collectively imagined south, and the literary south, and the south seems critically important to a number of country music performers. *** So yeah, sometimes I find the politics of country music, or the presence of a confederate flag in a music video, grounds for changing the channel, but frankly, since I’ve challenged myself to put my money where my mouth is and not buy or sit and listen to music that’s racist, misogynistic, or homophobic, I turn off a lot of pop, rock, hip-hop, and r &B too. **** I liked the Dixie Chicks before it was pseudo-political to do so, I twice fell in love on the advice of Johnny Cash, I had a longstanding hatecrush on a certain country singer so appalling that I’ve been advised not to mention it in public*****, I broke the Patsy Cline cd in the jukebox  at The Foxhead by playing it too many times******,  I shake my head at the popification of country the same way I shake my head at the commercialization of hip-hop.    I don’t know if country music ever was more earnest than other types of music, but at least it generally remembered that it was trying to sell you an emotion, and not just some shoes or body glitter. I liked that. I like that country can laugh in the face of being “classy”– not classy in the “raised right,” don’t be rude for no good reason, give your seat to pregnant ladies, sense of the word, but classy in the way we equate class with decorum and decorum with blandness. I like it when people don’t use their indoor voices and aren’t afraid to make justified scenes and aren’t afraid to tell you what a good deal they got on something, and hey, hot sauce really does make everything taste better, so if you want to carry some in your purse, I’m not mad at you. There’s a reason people tend to say things like “I like all music except rap and country,” and a lot of it has to do with the type of people who are presented as aspirational, and the type of people who aren’t.

4) I once watched a Nascar race in a bar while wearing a Budweiser bandana, and no, I don’t want to talk about it.

5) If that’s not enough for you, call me sometimes and I will make you a real mint julep with fresh mint simple syrup. Since I have no porch, we will have to drink it on my tiny southern balcony, while watching the rush hour traffic go by.

*In my defense, this conversation happened in the middle of a move, right after that moment in the move when you survey all of the stuff still somehow left in your living room, decide the only way that you or any of the rest of this stuff is getting out of the apartment is if someone shows up to carry all of it, including you, and collapse on the floor.

** This is not actually either of  the songs I most intuitively associate with North Carolina, but it will have to do, because I’m not going to subject you to even becoming aware of either of the inexplicably ubiquitous songs that were popular the summer I spent in North Carolina

***Seriously though, country music, I’m going to need you to cut it out with the nostalgia for the confederacy. Lady Antebellum? That’s your band name? Whatever, I am still looking for musically talented individuals for my future bands “Radical Reconstruction,” and “General Fremont’s Mistress.”

****Except at the gym. The gym needs Trina. And sometimes, Akinyele. If you don’t know who these people are, do not google them.

*****His name rhymes with “Moby Teeth”

******If you ever find yourself thinking you have met the love of your life, and during that same point in time also find yourself spending a lot of time in trailer turned into a bar, drinking PBR, and playing the Patsy Cline CD in the jukebox over and over again until the damn thing breaks, because you really need to hear Crazy  or I Fall to Pieces one more time, that person is almost certainly not actually the love of your life. Cue The More You Know theme music.

6 thoughts on “Southern by the Grace of… Amy Hempel?

  1. This really speaks to me. Thanks for extending the conversation. I’m perpetually mad at people (Southerners and Northerners) who make assumptions about what is or is not Southern. We’ve got to expand the definition of what is Southern, otherwise all Southerners are white, gun-toting Republicans. (I’m a country-music-listening, pork-eating white Jewish liberal woman born in the South and living in the North. No one ever thinks I’m Southern.)

    Speaking of country (or bluegrass) do you listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops?

    1. Thanks! I love the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I caught their cover of Hit em Up Style when it was making the internet rounds, and lost a few hours of writing time watching their other performances on youtube.

  2. Great blog post and I can’t wait to read your book. I’m a “Southern” writer too and many of your points are ones I often think about myself. I’ve recently begun researching connections between the Southern Renaissance and the Harlem Renaissance (e.g., Was Richard Wright a “Southern” writer?)

  3. i liked “Eraser” and “Arsonists”, and also kenneth calhoun “Nightblooming” is a lot of fun because it’s such a happy story (had read that in the magazine), and yours of course : ) i liked it better than “alcatraz” but not as much as “virgins”.
    but i think the two things that have stuck with me most are ron rash “the ascent”, and also just how so many of the stories have so much poverty as a background. not a theme really, but just very present.

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