Category Archives: books
Sitting upon a toilet at a German university—a toilet much cleaner than the typical American university toilet—one reads also superior graffiti. No paltry gang warfare. No jokes about sex with your mother. No homophobic or racist slurs. Instead, radical social and political commentary.
In broad red font: The American dollar is the origin of modern imperialism.
Below this, an argument over the comparable importance of revolutionary theory against revolutionary action (after much back-and-forth, the proponent of theory convinces the proponent of action that both are equally dependent on the other).
An Obey sticker featuring Rachel Carson cuddling with a pug instead of Andre the Giant’s fearsome face.
Below this, a sage quote: When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.
I stand up from my throne and depart from this quiet kingdom.
I ride the bus in and out of town, stopping at any cafe or bar to briefly read White Teeth or work on the new novel, but still I have no yet begun. Not yet. Begun something, I don’t know, not in any tangible way. All of this feels like a dream, and it may be when every person is a stranger. No one exists except for me, everyone else an actor or actress in the background of a silent film. I have long prided myself on this tenuous characteristic of being “out-going,” but I discover this applies only in easy circles. My domain resides in the classroom, the poetry slam, the independent coffee house, not the random bustling avenue where everyone seems to possess direction save for I. Beyond that, each interaction is a cipher: going to the bank, ordering a doener, buying a bus ticket.
You know that feeling one receives in a new places that you do not belong, that the notion of belonging might merely be a mispronouncing of “be longing,” that rather we perpetually long to be something more, some place better, some new party with new faces. We sit on a bench and feel jealous we do not sit on some other bench. We are birds envious of fish, living bodies envious of ghosts. Perhaps that’s the condition of living, to be forever misplaced, we passing tourists of the living experienced. Here quite by accident.
I sit now in the center of the old city on a bright, cool day high upon a grand stone wall overlooking a narrow street where bikes and buses speed past storefronts. Perhaps my mind is still trapped back home, a billion anxieties floating to the surface: a book, friends, parties I cannot attend. While here I am in an odd limbo: two weeks ahead with no set plans, no classes. And so the question arises– to travel, to stay, to meet students, to write– who knows? I am a ship without sails, bouyed by the sea, hoping to land on some beautiful beach, not shipwrecked but harbored by some anchor without a name.
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.