Blog Archives

Pilgrimage: The Nature of Non-Direction

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.DSCN0011

Preview: Read Chapter One of THE HEATHENS AND LIARS OF LICKSKILLET COUNTY

Welcome to Lickskillet, South Carolina.

A town of enigmatic and wild people where five teenagers will confront their futures, their friends, and the town’s dark secrets.

I’m releasing sample chapters to my debut novel which appears in bookstores and Amazon in November 2015.

Follow the link to read chapter one: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/lickskillet-preview-declin-ostrander/

Read more about the book here: https://derekberry.wordpress.com/in-lickskillet/

Enjoy and share thoughts on the page. Share the chapters and news of the upcoming book release!

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Pilgrimage: Train Ride into Heilbronn

After riding the U-Bahn from Stuttgart airport into the main train station (often named the Hauptbahnhof), we wonder through the train station searching for our correct train which we will ride into Heilbronn. A small bird hops on the platform, a black bird, which I find strange to see underground. Element of air trapped under Earth. When we ascend to the above metro station, a dozen or more birds flit past my head. After navigating the station, which is under construction, my Opa and I must dash down the length of the platform to catch the train before it leaves.

Once onboard, we may relax. With my bags stacked next to me in a seat, I press face to glass and watch sunlight paint Stuttgart. We pass through a series of tunnels, each decorated with crude graffiti. If you pay attention, one notices similar tags appearing again on the sides of buildings later. We pass through the city, a corridor of banks, tall buildings, and beer gardens. Then into the suburbs. The houses in Germany appear very similar in form and style, their red roofs slanted and shingled. Very Old World feel, these houses which appear in sparser patches as we inch out of Stuttgart.

Soon the train glides through the countryside. One sees stretches of pasture, geometrically parceled along the ridges of each sloping knoll. Like an extremely well-played game of Tetris, these agricultural tapestries stitch together into the scene of rural Germany. Later on, as we Heilbronn draws closer, we pass the stratified vineyards. The Romans rose the grape vines on various platforms to trap heat in various areas, and the Germans have adopted this step design. Like shelves built into each hillside.

dsc005311                We drive now through my mother’s childhood hometown. Named Laufen. There’s a tunnel there my mother once told me about during a trip to Germany five years ago. They nickname this place The Suicide Tunnel, for when trains burst into the light, they cannot see whether a person stands next to a track, making it easy for an individual to throw oneself in front of the train. I remember years ago I found this place incredibly morbid, a place famous for its suicides. A place made holy through death. But now, an older version of myself reconsiders. Not so strange to find a place disturbing or special, for any place could become this place if a person dies in that place. There is a housing complex back home where a friend died, and still I cannot easily pass this neighborhood without a strange shiver.

Any house may become haunted. Any train track may become doomed. Any graveyard can be made holy for the family and friends of those whom are there interred.

Pilgrimage: Touching Down in Munich

We cruise two thousand feet about an endless fabric of cloud, lumped below us like dried mashed potatoes a toddler has chucked to the floor in a fit of rage. In the distance, the volcanic plume of a nuclear power plant slithers into the sky, beyond that the Alps. The Alps with peaks nearly high as our plane, they tower in the distance. Monstrous craggy silhouettes with a back-light bathed the pink of sunrise.

As our plane descends toward the airport in Munich, we slip beneath the blanket of clouds. The horizon blinks and blinds us. Plane touches down and seventy middle school students on a field trip bust into cliche, which is to say, burst into applause.

On How To Become a Writer

Lecturing in a middle-school classroom two months ago on the finer points of poetry explication—in laymen’s terms, explaining that not all lines in poems are, in fact, literal—I fielded questions from the crowd of seventh-grade would-be writers, half of whom actually liked me (because I was young, the teacher insisted) and half of whom squirmed to be released into the wild frontiers of winter break. Hand shot up, “How do you become a writer?”

The question stumped me because—

1.) Am I writer? Do I get to call myself a writer now that my first book will be coming out soon or do I have to wait until I can pay the rent writing? Writers are mythical creatures, like unicorns, and I’m unsure whether I might call myself a unicorn just because I’ve strapped a spiraled horn to my forehead.

2.) I don’t know.

I tell the young girl the only answer that dings at the front of mind, like a mallet against a carnival strength-test. I say, “Write. Just write.”

Seems simplistic, sure, maybe a cop-out answer. I could hear already a collective groan as writers-block-guythe students perhaps anticipated an oncoming lecture on the virtues of hard work. But I could not lie: there’s only one way to become a writer, and that’s to write. Ever since beginning education at university, I have flagellated my ego for deciding not to enroll as an English major with a creative writing concentration. Makes sense, to study writing if you’re a writer.

In some sense, however, I have studied writers for years: I read books, essays, magazines, and poetry. Read, read, read, consume knowledge; write, write, write, spit that knowledge back out in a practical context. I mean not to demean the value of a good writing program, though, because if that’s what works, it works. In my experience, writing programs offer both an incentive and time to write. Studying at university as well as back in high school, I had both incentive and time: I wanted to write books and I made time to write books, stories, and poetry.

There are several paths that might help you become a better writer: taking classes, engaging in writing critique groups, or reading “On Writing” by Stephen King. Or you could read blogs like this. But none of that will matter if you never sit down to put in actual work. Morris L. West, author of The Devil’s Advocate and many other books, once said, “In a longish life as a professional writer, I have heard a thousand masterpieces talked out over bars, restaurant tables and love seats. I have never seen one of them in print. Books must be written, not talked.” (http://www.advicetowriters.com/home/2015/2/6/books-must-be-written-not-talked.html)

There ain’t no hocus pocus, no special pill, and no inspiring book: just write. All the rest’s just background noise. You could be a best-selling author or an amateur middle-school scribbler, but writing makes the writer. So you wanna be a writer? Then pick up a pen or place fingertips to keyboard and begin.

[Short Fiction] Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo

Interview with Mr. Talbot Odessa: Transcript Concerning His Personal Theories About the True Cause of Hurricane Hugo

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Just start at the beginning please. Don’t leave anything out.

Pawpaw used to say, the ocean’s about the closest a human being gets to Heaven. ‘Cept the ocean killed his brother back in 1953—this was when Pawpaw and Great-Uncle Hank boozed around France post-war, picking up women and pissin’ into the Seine. Two weeks after Pawpaw met Memaw, they went for a small cruise in her daddy’s boat off the coast of Mallorca, and Hank stayed up deck while my grandparents did the nasty down below; soon, a storm comes and knocks his ass clean into the water, his arms flailing for help. But course Pawpaw’s flailing himself—if you heard him tell the story, you’d be cringin’ more than this—and Hank drowns beneath the vicious waves.

But Pawpaw still swore a love of the sea, could wax poetic about how the current of beauty pulls you under. When I was just six or seven, that’s when it happened—swear this is a true story. Back then, Pawpaw brought us to Myrtle Beach from Sumter on the first vacation we ever had—and I saw them for the first time. The mermaids.

No, real live mermaids. With fins and gills and everything.

And not like that redhead chick from Disney, I mean savage fuckin‘ mermaids. That’s why you came here, right, to ask about the storm of 1989? Well, I was there, just a child at the time. Wasn’t cleanin’ no place, tell you that. Wasn’t moppin’ up blood or vomit from the floor of this club after the high school seniors go home. This was the time of Hugo, ask anyone. For years after, all anyone could talk about was how that storm wrecked the shoreline, but some of us, we know the truth. The true truth about the mermaids and the sea turtles?

Hell yea, they rode in on these big-ass sea turtles. Swear on Jesus Christ, the bible, and Memaw’s grave. Now let me get on with the story: daddy and mama didn’t own no TV, so we thought we was supposed to have a nice, fine weekend. Rode up in the back of Pawpaw’s truck for about two hours, me and my brother hanging out the side of the bed with our arms waving. Loved the feeling of wind in my face, ‘cept the whole ride lasted too long. Daddy and Mama couldn’t come, so it was just us boys and our grandparents.

When we get to Myrtle, we post up in a hotel right on the shore. The Sandy Kingdom, this regal place. Memaw said the place reminded her of the Palace of Versailles, only The Sandy Kingdom was better because it had a water park. We got two big king-size beds, a refrigerator, and a window from which you could see the ocean. Pawpaw opened his arms wide and gestured to the water.

“Look, boys, he said. Just as beautiful as I remember.” Said it just like that. Told you I had a hell of a memory, I can recall it perfectly. “Just as beautiful as I remember,” that’s the exact words that fell from his lips.

Only when I peeked under his arm out the window, I didn’t think the ocean looked too pretty. Cloaked in gray-sky like some old antique smothered by dust, the tar-black ocean whipped the shore violently. The beach stood nearly empty, the wind whipping up belts of sand. “Dang, guess people don’t come round late summer,” Pawpaw said. “Guess we’ve got this whole place to ourselves.

My brother was around the age he started to play with himself and think about girls in a sense that didn’t involve them having cooties. You know: little hairs on his giblets and his voice doing that thing where it goes up and down, breaking like a ceramic plate. I didn’t like so much the idea of sleeping in the same bed as him, for obvious reasons.

“Grab your trunks, boys,” Pawpaw said. “We’re going down to the beach.”

Memaw decided to stay upstairs and read. “I just enjoy looking at it,” she said.

We changed into our trunks and headed down with Pawpaw to the beach, walking barefoot cross the parking lot. Once we got to the ocean, the sand lashed us something fierce. “Damn, that wind’s strong,” Pawpaw said. “Must be sandy season, and that’s why no one’s here at the beach.”

Not a damn soul in sight, not for miles in either direction. My brother Lincoln barged toward the waves that crashed huge and  swallowed chunks of sand like some hungry beast. Plastic shopping bags, empty aluminum beer cans, and torn bits of net swirled in the dark water before us, carried by the crests of breaking foam. The entire beach, littered with trash; we couldn’t figure out why. Till I saw Lincoln go in that water. Soon as he leapt into an oncoming wave, something threw him back out. Something with scaly hands.

I screamed. Pawpaw came round to tell me, there’s nothing to worry about. Lincoln seemed to think he got pushed back by water, didn’t see no hands. But I saw ‘em, and they would too. Pretty soon, I realize all this trash, the ocean’s spitting the trash back onto the beach. Cigarette butts, glass bottles, and fishing hooks. Even a pair of lady’s underwear, the kind with a little string that sits in the butt-crack.

See, you wanted a story about beach conservation, well, this story’s just right for you. They sent you to the right man, oh boy. Because see, that’s what the mermaids wanted. To save the ocean. That’s why they came onto land that wretched day.

So I was sitting on a dune minding my own business, trying to rub the sharp grains of sand from my eyes, and Lincoln yells, “Someone’s coming!” Sure-nuff, there’s this pair of men riding up in a golf cart. Only it ain’t a golf cart but instead some kinda military vehicle, you know, like the ones from M.A.S.H. You ever seen M.A.S.H.? I miss that damn show. I recall, when we first got our TV, it was on some channel, and I kept getting all excited; only my Daddy says, M.A.S.H. went off the air years ago. Anyways, these men were driving toward us and screaming. I couldn’t hear what words they were saying, cause they was far off, but it sounded pretty bad.

“Looks like they want us off the beach,” Pawpaw said. “Best listen. Come on, boys.”

By this time, I was feeling pretty weird bout the whole thing: we ain’t ever been able to afford any fancy hotel room before or no vacation to the beach. But here we were, mid-September, at Myrtle Beach. All the kids at school, they used to say, I go to Myrtle Beach every Spring and every Summer. But family never got to go until the weekend of the hurricane.

We walked across the parking lot, and the two men climbed out the Jeep. They ran up to us and started yelling. “Get out of here?” “What the hell you think you’re doing here?” Stuff like that.

Pawpaw puts his palms on both our shoulders and looks the men square in their faces, says, “These here my grand-kids, and I’m showing them the beach.”

“Sir, you can’t be here right now. You know there’s a storm coming.”

Pawpaw pointed to them clouds black as death and said, “Them clouds ain’t nothing? Let me tell you about the clouds they used to use in trenches. Them Nazis… ” He trailed off. Pawpaw liked to claim he was in the Second World War, but he was only an ambulance driver working in Italy.

“Sir, it doesn’t matter what you think. You ain’t heard of this hurricane? Hugo’s supposed to blow this whole city away, and you wanna bring kids here. You got to get in your car and get out.” One of the military men began waving his arms wildly.

Then I saw the strangest thing. The waves began to break, split apart like the Red Sea at the hand of Moses. Two walls of water blast up into the air real tall-like, and then I saw ‘em. The beastly creatures stood on their tails and slithered up the beach like humanoid serpents. Straight biblical beasts, them mermaids were.

Yes, mermaids only. No mer-men or nothing. Just mer-maids, and you could tell they was women cause they had—well you know, women’s parts. Blue nipples on their pale-gray skin, first time I ever saw a breast. Their faces were wicked, jagged teeth like skinning knives jutting from their crooked jaws. Their eyes green like granny smiths. They wore white-green hair long down their backs, braided together thick and intricate. And halfway down, their skin became scales; they became fish with these pronged fins that stuck out underneath them as they slid like slugs up the beach. And they chanted something, foreign words. Afterwards, I swore it was Russians—they must have been communist infiltrators sent by Gorbachev cause he was sore bout the wall that was gonna fall—but Lincoln said their words sounded more like one of them Arab languages.

Anyways, they were chanting or singing. Kinda like in church, a prayer with rhythm. In their hands, they held these long tridents. Like them fancy salad forks you see at Olive Garden, only bigger and pointier.

You writing all this down? It’s important.

So these mermaids came up onto the beach with their weapons and their fishy-bodies, and suddenly they stopped. One was in front, she was the leader, obviously. She moved forward alone toward the two men.

The one man who was mean to Pawpaw screamed into his walkie-talkie, “They’re here. The combatants have touched ground. I repeat, they have touched—”

Suddenly, this screech comes right out the Queen Mermaid’s wicked mouth. And then we hear something, not out loud but in our heads. Like she’s speaking straight to our minds.

This is your final warning, humans. Make amends now. Promise us you will discontinue your campaign of destruction, and we will allow you to live.

But the military men only leapt into the Jeep and began driving away. Suddenly, we heard the rumble of helicoptors overheard and the smack-smack-smack, tap-rapta-tap of bullets. The words from the Mermaid Queen made me shudder, but the gunfire got me running too. I sprinted toward the Sandy Kingdom hotel with Pawpaw in tow, Lincoln a few lengths ahead of us.

Once inside, we stormed the stairs to the third floor and found Memaw. She sat in bed with a book above her face. “Look, Marguerite, we’ve got to leave.”

“But I’m only getting to the good part.”

The entire building shook, wind slapping the walls of the hotel. Rain sprayed from above in trembling blasts. Have you ever got your friends to shove you in a foot locker and roll you down a steep hill? Like that.

We peered over the edge of the balcony. The beach swarmed with mermaids now, the one we saw earlier merely a vanguard. Now a bonafide army of the slippery creatures stood ashore locked in mortal combat with human soldiers. The mermaids moved fast, knocking guns from hands with swift smacks from their tridents. Some blasted lightning from the tips of their weapons, siezing men with electricity. Men tended to remain far from the water, because waves continued to lash forward and drag the men beneath the depths.

The wind picked up. The rain chattered against the window harder. We moved away, backing against the door. We could not go outside, not with the sky damning each building. I crawled forward and could see the expanse of the beach shredded by the destructive storm, the waves of mermaids descending upon shore. We could sea the turtles now too, huge terrapins stomping up the beach like tanks. You ever see that movie Finding Nemo, came out a few years ago, and there’s a turtle in it? Well, nothing like that. They had legs large as tree stumps, spikes rising from their concrete-thick shells.

onU8Y.AuSt.78                To our left, a pirate-themed mini-golf course, its astro-turf uprooted and thrown like a green-brown pawl against the face of One-Eyed Jack’s ceramic statue. Further down, a rollercoaster rusting against the relentless rain, its train bending under the power of sky’s rebellion. To our right, bright-neon signs crashing upon black pavement. Mermaids crawling up the light poles, wrapping their tails around street signs and breaking their stands like fragile toothpicks. They skewered car tires with tridents, overturning vending machines and spilling pinball machines from the arcade, which rode out like life rafts on the rising tide. As the mermaids overpowered the military men with lightning and brute ferocity, they advanced along the street. And the ocean followed them.

We watched as the entire city became Heaven.

Well, that’s it? That can’t be it. How’d you get out?

Oh, you believe me now, huh? Well, for awhile, the bottom floor of the hotel was flooded. We survived on provisions of snacks from vending machines upstairs. Pawpaw bust them open with can of corn we found. We stepped outside after the storm, and the whole city was wasted. Everything devastated in the mermaid’s wake. I seen tornadoes tear through trailer parks before, but nothing like this, nothing like how the rage of sea and sky could scorch a city so good, you wouldn’t recognize its fondest sites.

The amusement rides, broken and bent. The boardwalk crippled, boards ripped up, dock collapsed into the water. I remember seeing this stand, one of those fair-type places where you could shoot targets and win prizes. The whole thing sunk into mud, fluffy bears staring from the wreckage with gouged-out eyes.

Entire buildings collapsed, became a mess of concrete and sadness. Some houses got pushed off their foundations, even the ones raised up on wooden stilts. Church steeples toppled. You ever build a Lego-castle as a kid, a huge castle out of multi-colored blocks that gets taller than you, and then you take the whole structure and toss it to the ground, maybe from some height like the couch or kitchen table, and all the parts explode, blocks sliding across the floors? And you can’t recognize that magnificent castle you built? Like that.

Except there was one thing I guess people never tell about Hurricane Hugo, and that’s this. All the debris lying around the city, it all didn’t come from the buildings. Some came from the ocean. Piles of rotting, sea-soaked garbage. Just stacked in the streets like bodies from a war. Like a calling card or symbol. Or a warning.

[End Transcript]

Review: “Speech of the Masquerade” by Kendall Driscoll

One of my friends and fellow poet recently published her debut poetry collection. I have enjoyed reading the book and listening to Kendall’s readings. You can purchase the book here.

download (13)Kendall Driscoll’s debut poetry collection Speech of the Masquerade explores both the poet’s coming-of-age and her musings on her generation. Sometimes, she’s optimistic about the out-flowing love of her friends and peers and at other times disparaging at their attempts to craft success from empty honors. Her words glint with an honesty that embraces the beauty, rot, and oddities of the world. Many of the poems read playfully, ditties of joy and curiosity, each word a celebration of life’s strange poignancy, while others speak with a satiric bent on humorous pitfalls of our generation.

Certainly, she achieves to both criticize and praise the twenty-something audience for whom she writes. Call it a “guide to being in college and having no idea what to do with your life” and gift this book to every recent high school graduate you know. While several pieces dedicate contemplation to growing up, the power of writing, the meaning of love, and seasons changing, other poems ring with unique experiences and subtly peculiar musings. The poem focusing on how colleges value your academic achievements but not the content of one’s character pleased me very much—I imagine a resume stockpiled with small life victories to matter to us, not to corporate hegemonies. She also offers a valiant defense of live classical music, the triumph of the piccolo over the auto-tune. She explores the lives of brilliant young musicians and the pressure to conform to perfection.

Whether she’s ribbing on resume-builders, writing mock-eulogies to defunct coffee machines, or challenging others to gather the courage to live honestly, Kendall’s voice reverberates with beauty and truth, which according to some poets, are the same thing.

“Kendrick Had a Dream”

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“Martin had a dream. Martin had  a dream. Kendrick had a dream.”- Backseat Freestyles/ good kid, m.A.A.d city

  1. Kendrick Lamar floats above cityscape,

his torso

alight with flaming angel wings.

Flying or falling, he cannot tell. He

wakes in a stupor, his eyes bright as forgotten Heavens.

  1. Kendrick Lamar unzips his pants, and

the Eifel Tower springs from between the zippers.

He proceeds to fuck the world for 72 hours.

  1. Kendrick Lamar stands naked in front of his class.

He is in high school chemistry class, and his Eifel

Tower is now just  a normal phallus. Someone

laughs. Someone shouts, “Bitch, don’t kill my vibe!”

  1. A giant eagle with the face of

School Boy Q chases Kendrick Lamar

through the desert, his legs thin as chopsticks.

As he pushes harder, the Eagle draws closer,

his claws familiar as Compton.

  1. Kendrick Lamar misses a flight to Berlin,

for he lies in a box,

a cedar box buried six feet under the ground, his body

contorting with rage and fear. His head banging

against the top of the box

as he wonders whether he might escape.

He will not escape, not until he wakes

in mid-afternoon, his bed wet

with hangover sweat,

his back still dripping as if he just climbed from a pool full of liquor,

as if only just yesterday

he woke for the first time.

“South is South”: Writing about Race in the South

Introduction

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.

images                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_crow2                “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 images (1)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.

Modern South

What about writing about race in the modern South? To understand where we are now, we must consider the Seneca-South-Carolina-e1277147978526-1024x861collective 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 downloadschools 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 SC Welcomea 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.rural-SC-commerce-competition

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 trailer-parkcomplex 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 gty_Beaufort_south_carolina_thg_130510_wmainof 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.

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