When writing a piece of fiction set in the South, race looms a specter in the back of the writer’s mind. The subject of race makes people uncomfortable, but without a frank conversation about how racial tensions and violence contribute to southern culture and history, we cannot hope to write about the true south in any meaningful way. What makes the discourse more difficult, however, is measuring progress: how far have we come as a society? Many people pose that we’ve entered a post-racial phase of history, though the people who claim such things don’t experience aggressions based on racial difference every day. Because racism doesn’t exist as it did during slavery or Jim Crow does not mean that racism doesn’t exist; racism is the skeleton in the closet, the unspoken sentence in a conversation, something that pervades all of our governmental institutions and workplace processes despite lack of discourse. In order to better deconstruct how to incorporate a consciousness of race in your stories, I will speak about the vehicles of race that became most prevalent in three eras.
Slavery Era South Carolina
At the last Juneteenth Celebration in Aiken County, a man arrived with a booth of artifacts from the South Carolina slave trade: these included bills of ownership, neck claps, shackles, and whips. When Charlestowne was settled in 1670, the slave trade already boomed in the West Indies and found a new market in South Carolina. The port city is built upon marshland perfect for growing rice. Subsequently, rice plantations, as well as tea, cotton, and tobacco plantations, spread throughout the Low Country. Work in the rice fields involved grueling labor, slaves often up to their waists in pluff mud. Because of Charlestowne’s popularity, over 40% of slaves passed through Charleston.
Fiction set in South Carolina should be embedded with an understanding of this history. More importantly, books set in this era should embrace this history. Too often books written about the era focus more heavily on the romantic beauty of the Antebellum South, ignoring that the grandiose wealth had been built on the backs of the enslaved. Often depictions of slaves rely on what here we’ll call the Aunt Jemima/Uncle Ben Problem: women are happy to care for their white masters’ children, men happy to serve their masters.
During this era, how was race constructed? In fiction, one sees the most commonly philosophies of race related to hierarchical race: white is civilized and good, black uncivilized and bad. This is perhaps the most commonly understood conception of racism, though the complexities of relationships between white and black communities should be explored in a more nuanced way. For example, white women often viewed their black female slaves as young non-sisters, someone to educate and take care of. Never mind that black enslaved women raised these white women; their white civilized superiority offered an easily paternalistic relationship to exploit. Intimacy plays an important role in this discourse of dominance: white male slave owners often raped young female slaves. But they called these women their “mistresses,” implying a mutually-consensual sexual relations; I assume that the realities of the master-slave relationship made it difficult for slaves to actively defy these men and so were seen more often as submissive.
These relationships often resulted in mixed-race children. “Colored” slaves occupied a different place in the imagination of the white south pre-Civil War. Consider how gradations of race affect the individual’s ability to engage with either white or black communities.
If you were interested in writing a book set in the Antebellum South and interested too in depicting the lives of slaves, I would shy away from assuming the easy character tropes. Especially prevalent are narratives of slaves complacent with their condition, and I think this comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of enslavement. If your characters are struggling for dignity, imbue them with the dignity they deserve, even if the white characters do not. Above all, keep in mind that each day is a struggle for claiming the validity of humanity.
Jim Crow South
“Jim Crow” refers to a set of laws that prevented black Americans from voting and created the adage of “separate but equal.” Not only did these laws disenfranchise black Americans from engaging in civic life, but they also promoted job discrimination, inferior schooling, and substandard public facilities. During this time, the white populations of the South generally constructed race in a similar way as they did before the Civil War. Blackness was a sort of a marker of inferiority, a social stigma worn tight around a person’s skeleton.
During this time, however, as the number of mixed-race individuals grew, the distinctions began to be blurred. This did not preclude mixed-race people from the experiences of discrimination and often violence. Being black came with a deep consciousness of being black during this era, coupled with limitations on that person’s liberty. Race was something more concretely learned through the segregated places that whites or blacks inhabited.
Violence pervaded this era. Most commonly we speak about the organized violence of the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist groups, but there existed also a more personal violence. For example, boys were often taught that they needed to be ready to “fight back” in case any black man attacked them; race was tied intrinsically to expressions of masculinity. White men became afraid during this time of black sexuality, the possibility of black sexual dominance, and so response through violence. The organized violence of the Ku Klux Klan, meanwhile, found its causes rooted in fear and dominance. As the lot of African Americans approved (more land ownership, increases school enrollment), they became fear of what possibilities these new citizens manifested.
What about writing about race in the modern South? To understand where we are now, we must consider the collective history of African Americans in South Carolina, the legacies of slavery of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan. Racism persists, but wears a new face. Aggressions occur on a more personal level, played out in job interviews, street interactions, and trips to the grocery store. Blackness is construed often as criminal, connected today with many expressions of blackness including attire and hair style. Through naming these attributes, most commonly associated with black youth, criminal, the South now seeks to equate blackness with criminality. Therefore, a fear or prejudice against someone seems not to stem from race but instead their perceived criminality.
If writing about the modern South, the writer must be conscious of these new vehicles of racism. Furthermore, one should be conscious of the narratives surrounding the criminal justice system, how systematic incarceration disenfranchise young black males through disproportionately imprisoning them for often non-violent crimes. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan persist, but they do not wear their racist titles as proudly: instead, they operate under crusades for morality, family values, and traditions.
In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I wrote about a fictitious southern-tradition group called the Knights of Southern Heritage. In the story, one of their members is accused on lynching the black ex-mayor, though his guilt remains uncertain. One of the ideas I wanted to express was that despite the obvious racist undertones of this group, they were not the most dangerous people in a rural southern town. Who become more damaging are the people operating under the guise of tradition, those that rail against progress or development for the sake of clinging to nostalgic beliefs.
Who become more dangerous are the everyday people: the football team that makes light of depicting black-majority schools as apes (True Story), the man in the grocery store following your son around because he expects your son to steal, the teacher who assumes failure for the black student, the couple that crosses the street when approaching a black homeless man, the woman who touches your hair without asking and thinks it’s so weird, the woman who calls you pretty for the black girl, or the fearful police officer who approaches a black boy for suspicious behavior. These actions tend to have more effect on our lives than the actions of any organized hate group—at least their bigotry is worn proud on their sleeves.
When writing about race in the south, we must observe the invisible barriers, the walls that creep between us like kudzu, and the assumptions we construct based on media-proliferated images. We must be careful not to paint with too broad a brush either about black southerners or even the people who discriminate against them, lest we ignore the ways in which people are most often disenfranchised. We must avoid these generalizations, lest we forget that the characters we’re writing must be human: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We might forget that despite our shared humanity, our experiences based on our race differ not because we ourselves are intrinsically different, but because people treat us differently.
“South is South”: Writing About South Carolina Without Demonizing or Romanticizing Its Culture, Past, and People
The South of the Mind smells like honeysuckles; sometimes Charleston smells like sewage and dead fish. The sun is a warm friend in the South of the Mind, where snow is mere fantasy; last weekend, snow blanketed my hometown of Aiken, and a week before the sun was a bully breathing down the backs of our necks. Either genteel Southern belles or toothless rednecks populate the South of the Mind; South Carolina is populated by a growing diversity of people who do not easily conform to categories. Just like any other geographic region, the Southeastern United States suffers from an image problem, presumptions propagated by stereotypes about the places, people, and culture that overshadow the true nuanced portrait of the region. Perceptions of the South formed through fiction often affect people’s opinions about the South itself. In writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I grappled with representing the small-town South in a way that felt authentic. On one hand, I wished not to construct the South as an overwhelmingly horrible and backwards place and therefore gloss over its positive attributes. On the other hand, I couldn’t ignore its faults. While southern culture and politics does not escape unscathed in my stories, I intend to present a balanced representation—the beautiful, the ugly, and the damned.
Although all novelists writing in English must confront the hegemonic power of the language and the violence committed by its speakers both in the physical and intellectual realm, writers in the South wrestle with a particular complex past. Because our past brims with violence, exploitation, and continued inequality—trends that today perpetuate new forms of oppression—we cannot paint the South in its antebellum grace. Too often we portray the South as blood-less cotton fields and pristine plantations, southerners sipping sweet tea while seated in rocking chairs as the breeze tickles the backs of their necks. Conversely, we also tend to focus only the brutality of our past without taking into consideration the hardships of southerners. In order to truly have a conversation about how to write about the South, I think we should confront a few topics. Over the next few weeks, I will pen short essays on the intersection of fiction and other topics, how these topics pervade our culture and therefore our stories. Though I may choose to write more essays than I currently intend, the topics include race, development, politics, religion, and family.
While engaging these topics, I hope to challenge myself to think more critically about how I construct my own “South of the Mind” in my novels and short stories. The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County is only the first book I intend to write about the South, which tackles all of the above mentioned topics, but as I write about different cities in South Carolina and beyond (I am now writing about North Carolina, gasp!), I hope to show how nuanced each region truly can be. The “South” is merely an idea—a construct formed by unconscious popular consensus—in much the same way “Africa” is merely an idea for many Americans based not in any actual knowledge or experience (See Chinua Achebe’s “Image of Africa” for confirmation of this). If you have any comments throughout the series on what ways portrayals of the South are fair or unfair, please share them. Likewise, I must contend that I speak primarily for South Carolina being born and raised in the state. Let us write with our minds and hearts open. See you next time for a frank talk about the South and its history of racial oppression.
Today, I drank coffee with Medusa’s little sister,
whose hair does not slither, but rather rises buoyed,
a cotton-candy flower blooming into sugar-rush and sick.
She drinks espresso in a single gulp.
She tells me that just because her face does not stop men in their tracks,
the way her sister’s beautiful face causes men to become immobile,
struck still as stone statues in their bumbling awe,
this does not mean she remains permissive to their stares.
The absence of serpent heads does not make her victim. She too
courts lightning inside of her.
She too some days feels like a monster,
shattering mirrors with shrieks of desperation.
She too knows rage’s name, kisses him like a grandfather.
She too has been scorned, but her hair
does not scare away the boys who whistle, only melts in the heat,
a sticky pink mess of fake sweet.
I encountered a mob of frenzied students
in the throes of a musical number.
Each face stretched into song, arms angled toward sky
like a tuning fork attempting to channel thunder’s vibrations.
They danced a choreographed can-can,
legs pumping and kicking scissor-snaps.
They grab my hand, implore me to join in,
and I shrug, tired this early in the morning.
I cannot sing the song they each know every word to,
and if I tried to mimic their dances, I would end up
always half a beat behind, trying to blend in,
my face stretching into smile.
Who’s musical fantasy was this anyways,
that requires so many unwilling participants?
Two leather-jacketed lovers sway in the center of our spectacle,
spinning by themselves.
Oblivious to the circus elephants marching behind us, a plane flying in loops above us,
and the rain of confetti floating fast like a penny dropped from atop the Empire.
The lovers do not look to see if we’ve got the moves right.
They’re not even dancing at all.
So, you want to win a poetry slam? Listen closely, and I’ll tell you exactly what you need to do.
For those uninitiated into the ancient art form of spoken word, ‘Slam’ is a competition invented by Marc Smith (So What?) in 1985 at this joint called the Get Me High Lounge. Poetry at the time was pretty crazy—people were bellowing elongated vowels atop bar stools and generally doing whatever they pleased. The conceit of the poetry slam was to get more people into seats to experience poetry, which is the main problem that poetry confronts—its serious public image problem.
Conjure the poet, the black-turtle-necked, finger-snappin’ intellectual speaking as if in a trance words describing their daily bowel movements and the fresco-palette of the setting sun. Slam poetry has in recent decades sucker-punched poetry back into the public spotlight, made it spectacle to see, not just a hobby for snooty would-be-rebels. Poetry slam is energetic. Scoop up the love of words and the search for truth, slap that together with theatrical Umph! and you get Slam Poetry. Almost like reciting monologues, almost like delivering a Pentecostal sermon, almost like political protest, but not exactly like any of that, the art of Spoken Word has grown into an international phenomenon.
Almost every major city holds a regular poetry slam. I happen to co-host the Holy City Slam right in the heart of Charleston, South Carolina. Beyond that, there are also regional slams—these often offer more money to get the best in the surrounding states to come out to compete. From there one sees larger and larger slams, including the National Poetry Slam and International Poetry Slam. Got no idea what I’m talking about? Here are some videos from recent slams that have taken place in the United States including the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, the Southern Fried Poetry Slam (which the Holy City Slammers took part in), and CUPSI.
But you didn’t come here to hear me sing the praises of poetry slams, did you? You don’t care about the history or the atmosphere. You just want to win. So the ULTIMATE secret to winning a poetry slam is…
Go to a poetry slam. There really ain’t much of a secret. Because judges are randomly chosen from the audience and because those judges’ tastes vary so much, there is no one style of poetry that will appeal to everyone. I know, it’s disappointing for me to lead you on like this, to hype up this great secret and then drop your expectations off a sheer cliff. But I will share an even better secret with you.
The Poetry Slam is a trick. It’s a game. We just people to come out and read and experience poetry. I mean, poetry is awesome, but it has a serious image problem. People think poetry is boring. Until individuals take the plunge and experience the magic and healing of spoken word for themselves, they can’t know what they’re missing until they take that first plunge. So we dress poetry up like a sport, give it a competitive edge so that poets will bring their best and most polished work to the stage. This forces the poet to memorize and practice and hone their skills until they can stand on stage and deliver the best damn poem the world’s ever been. And the audience is inspired, and they will give the poets incredible scores, HURRAH!
But we don’t hold the poetry slam so we can hoist the winner on our shoulders and praise them for their literary efforts. Of course, the winner is usually an awesome poet who kicks verbal ass, but that’s not the point of the poetry slam, nope. The secret is, poetry slams are about YOU. We want YOU to have a great experience, to leave the venue feeling inspired. Maybe you might even pick up your pen, find that old notebook you’ve so long neglected, and start writing. Then comes the healing, the gush, the plunge, the heart-explosions, the gut-spillage, the brain splatter, and the love of poetry.
We want poetry to grow in our communities, to touch lives. We want to give poets the opportunity to grow in their careers and be paid handsomely for their work (one problem poets confront is that the public generally believes that art should be a public service and the artist a financial martyr). But it remains difficult to convince venues and parties to pay poets unless the audience and public believes poetry is a viable form of entertainment.
Hence, poetry slams.
Oh, what could it be? A baseball game? A boxing match? A NASCAR race? Not exactly.
But it can just as entertaining, imbued also with a consciousness you won’t find in any other type of competitive sport. Our strongest muscles are our lightning-fast tongues and at the end of the day, we want to make you cry or smile or laugh or feel SOMETHING. So that’s the real Ultimate secret of the Poetry Slam, that, as Allan Wolf said…
“The points are not the point. The point is the poetry.”
This week has been so far incredible, and now I’m gearing up for a slightly quieter week of writing and editing and putting my head down so that the copy-edit of the final draft of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County can be finished.
I got a poem published in RiverSedge, a lit journal based out of the Texas-Pan American Press. I will update on which poem got published once the journal is released.
Recently, I also received publication in The Southern Tablet. You can read my poem here: When You’re Sixteen In a Small Southern Town. It’s a fun poem about childhood and growing up, which is probably one of my favorite non-slam poems I’ve written recently.
On Saturday, I got the honor of being in my hometown newspaper The Aiken Standard. Entertainment writer Stephanie Turner penned an awesome feature about my first novel, my burgeoning poetry career, and my creative process. I was very happy at work that morning as several people approached me, having recognized my picture from the article. It’s been an interesting summer in Aiken, SC, because I always felt like in Charleston, people know me as a writer and in Aiken, people don’t know me as anything. But that is starting to change, and I hope only I can remain humbled and grateful about the opportunities afforded to me.
Read the Article here: Aiken Poet Completes First Novel.
Poetry, too, has blessed me this week with an incredible energy. On Wednesday night, Nova (a fellow poet and my significant other) and myself drove up to Greenville, SC to compete in a small slam hosted by Moody Black. I was happy to catch up with my poet family, especially one brother who is about to join the Navy. The event stoked my love for the spoken word art form and taught me just a little bit more about the competitive side of poetry. Check out the slam winner Annie Lee, picture below.
The very next evening, I attended an open mic at MAD Studios in Augusta. I have featured here before and love the venue. This week, Bilaal Muhammed blessed us with some poetry. Augusta Poet Laureate SleepyEyez Carter was instrumental in bringing out many of the city’s poets and performers for an evening of high-energy love. During that evening, I learned that both Sleepy and Brotha Trav (the previous poet laureate) were heading to Atlanta on Saturday.
I called to ask if I could tag along. I performed as the spotlight poet at Urban Grind’s “Do You Lyric Lounge?” I also got invited back next year on August 2015 to perform as the feature. I am slowly building up a calendar for 2015, based around the same time my book will be released!
On top of all this great news, Germany won the WORLD CUP. I celebrated by buying some new books. In the coming week, I’m going to start blogging more frequently so I can give more full thoughts on the events and happenings I’m experiencing. On July 22nd there will be the Holy City Slam in Charleston (hosted by myself and Matthew Foley) which I will blog about before it happens. Also, we are having a small poet’s party tomorrow evening at a local pool– The Poetry Potluck! The other big news is the Word Perfect show in Charleston on August 14th, which will take place at the Charleston Music Hall.
“May Not Be Suitable for Children” should be my pen name, plastered across every short story, poem, and novel I write. There arises a dilemma in writing young adult fiction for teens, even for older teens, in that you must purposefully censor the content, language, and context of the story. At the same time, you want to commit to a certain degree of realism in your portrayal of teenagers—they cuss, take drugs, and make poor decisions. But at one point can the pursuit of depicting something “real” cross the line into commercializing the controversial? While editing my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, these questions have plagued me.
Young Adult Lit in general has begun catering to younger teens, from ages 12 to 15, and with that comes a certain sacrifice of material. Violence becomes cleaner, romance becomes chaste, and the 14-year-old who might be a bundle of angry hormones speaks proper as a British butler. On the other hand, there exist plenty of YA novels that explore the dark and gritty. Thirteen Reasons Why explores the suicide of the protagonist’s sister. The Perks of Being a Wallflower highlight sexual abuse within the family and contain scenes about drug exploration. Probably one of the books that takes on the most criticism for dark material is Crank, which details a girl’s descent into meth addiction.
The controversy has already been much discussed in blogs and articles, asking whether YA is TOO DARK? Here are some opinions on that, but here too is my opinion.
As edits began on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I began to have these exact conversations with my editor and publisher. After we reviewed some of the scenes in question, I agreed—some of these existed purely for shock value, the I can’t believe they might do that moments. Some were clearly inappropriate, though others existed for very particular reasons.
I’ll give an example: one character in the novel struggles with abuse in her relationship. In the first draft, I merely hinted at this dynamic and in subsequent drafts I wanted to bring the conversation of partner abuse to the forefront. So I employed the Toni Morrison school of realism and left nothing to the imagination, which created a powerful though perhaps horrendous scene. Was the scene necessary to show the horrors of abuse or could have I implied my opinion in some other way? In the end, I removed that particular scene because I believed that the character could convey her unsettling experience more easily herself. I could explain why domestic abuse was a terrible thing without actually showing domestic abuse, therefore in some way glamorizing that sort of violence.
Other controversies arose, as well, such as certain sex scenes and the presence of drugs and especially the level of cursing that some characters undertook. This caused the book to lower the f-word count nearly 100 f-words, which you probably might not notice reading the book. I based this novel and some of the action and the idiosyncrasies of the book on my friends, and my friends in high school swore like sailors. Of course we were always talking about sex and crimes and what we going to do once we broke out of our hometown. That’s part of growing up.
The most important question to ask is, why are you writing? Is the scene, though controversial, serving a specific purpose? I want to write something entertaining but also something educational. You learn not just about science or the South or even about the inner workings of teenagers, but a little something about what it means to be human.
Lastly, another big question: who are you writing for? It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I’m writing young adult literature, but the stigma of writing for teenagers has begun to dissolve. I always wanted to write “literary fiction,” something serious, though you can write serious fiction for teenagers. After all, I was reading Melville and Fitzgerald and Dostovskey and Eggers as a teenager, and even now I’m barely removed from “teenager status.” Over the past few years, YA Lit has trended toward younger readers (12-15), but I wanted to write something for the almost New Adult. And I don’t mean the genre “New Adult,” which has been swamped solely by romantic fiction. I want to for those in-between, people like me. Maybe we’re not ready to read academic treatises yet and still crave the adventure of a teen lit book, though we also want something substantial in our fiction. We wanted to learn something about being human, want to better ourselves through the process of reading.
So, maybe The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County isn’t “suitable for children,” but I hope it’s suitable for you.
But sometimes, our expectations for women contradict, creating a tension between conflicting desires. Women are expected often to be demure, to be quiet, though at the same time then exuding passion through sex. There also exist contradictory ideas about beauty, whether it be skinniness or big breasts or big hips, whatever. People will also expect you to be something, bigger, smaller, smarter, taller, with better teeth. In the end, it’s pointless to actually cater to these expectations.
Therefore, I encourage all women to “fuck what I want.” Just stop caring about what I think women should look like or act like or be like, because I’m not the one living your life, you are. Or what anyone thinks, honestly, because it will just make you miserable, considering the fact that it will be impossible to live up to men’s expectations.
This is the simple message in this poem, which I performed
I am extremely happy to announce the forthcoming publication of The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County.
On May 21st, I signed a contract with PRA Publishing for my first novel. This summer I am working with my superb editor to put the finishing touches on the manuscript, and then we’ll begin a massive marketing campaign. You’ll see reviews, blurbs, interviews, and other creative forms of marketing on this site! The tentative release date is August 2015, though I’ll keep you updated about specifics as the time draws nearer. Find out a little more about the book here:
When Declin Ostrander arrives in Lickskillet, South Carolina, he encounters a town on edge: after a grisly hate crime in their most affluent gated community, the citizens have adopted extreme caution and comical political correctness. The lynching coincides with a series of strange occurrences: the haunted house burns down, the local swimming hole is filled in to make space for condominiums, and a corporate lawyer arrives in town to defend the accused– a lawyer who happens to be Declin’s father. He moves to a new city every six months, sometimes once a year. Such might be the duration of the average hate crime trial. When Declin arrives at Lickskillet High, he struggles to relate with others and must seek out his own identity in the wake of tragedy.
Every town the same: a new racism, a new house, a new you. Declin’s father works for the infamous Knights of Southern Heritage, a cultural group often accused of hate crimes, and though he does not care fondly for the Knights or the victims, he relishes the chance to constantly move from town to town, to essentially recreate himself. The town reels over a central mystery: who killed Francis Jameson?
The book re-landscapes the South as an absurdist menagerie of Southern heritage groups, social segregation, and corrupt local politics. At the center stand the disaffected and aloof teens of Lickskillet, crusading against the humid hum of boredom with reckless mischievousness, post-modern apathy, and redeeming humanity.
Of course, I’ve written a book that is Young Adult (though that term here applies to 16-30 years old) and Southern. I wanted to write a different southern novel, one that didn’t glaze over the potholes of our history and society. Whether I’ve succeeded in recreating the SC atmosphere will be up to you readers come next year.