“In the South everybody’s got a story, a long, elaborate, rambling, subordinate-clause-filled, bullsh–it-laced, possibly even entirely made-up story.”
—Diane Roberts, quoted in book review by Jay Watson in The Southern Register, Fall 2009
“Tell about the South . . . What do they do there? How do they live there? Why do they?”
—William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
“The South is what we started out with in this bizarre, slightly troubling, basically wonderful country—fun, danger, friendliness, energy, enthusiasm, and brave, crazy, tough people.”
—Bill Maxwell, “There’s no place like the South,” St. Petersburg Times, reprinted in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Huckleberry Finn floats down the Mississippi river on a raft. After Jim and Huck narrowly escaping slave-catchers, the raft runs up against a sturdy steamship, which cast Jim and Huck into the wild river. Somewhere northeast in Georgia, Flannery O’Connor sweeps through her front lawn and directs a flock of peacocks. Vibrantly colored, their feathers fan out like graceful spokes. South of her peacock sanctuary, a barn burns in Yoknapatawpha County. The history of southern writing is one of strange stories populated by ghosts and off-kilter characters. When one sets out to write a novel one considers “southern,” as I did when I began writing Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, the writer hopes to unsettle the narrative of the south.
Two interesting cliches emerge when I discuss The South (as a concept and place) with writers who did not grow up here. The first is the romantic view of The South borne of Antebellum dream: plantations lush with magnolia trees drip with beauty and Spanish moss. Somewhere down the road, a simple man plays a simple song on a homemade banjo as he sits on the front porch of a wooden shack he built with his own two hands. This version of The South is a quiet and wondrous place in which the potholes of the racist and violent past have been paved over. Sometimes southerners too conjure this vision of The South, though not everyone is self-deluded about the flaws of this place. Flaws flood unbidden the second popular fantasy of the non-southerner’s South: in this South, every person is a toothless hillbilly carrying sawed-off shotguns, driving too-big trucks, and fulfilling redneck cliches. In the second cliche of the South, houses fall into disrepair, tractors stampede through downtown, and cow-tipping offers the pinnacle of entertainment for any bored teenager.
Neither of these visions of The South prove true, which is why those who do not live in The South tend not to write about it. To them, it is a boring landscape of stereotypes. But read Faulkner. Read O’Connor. Read Toni Morrison. Read Twain. Read Pat Conroy. You will learn The South is a stranger landscape than it seems, a place that demands to be both criticized and celebrated.
When I set out to write Lickskillet, I wanted to write a “southern” story but rather than rely on the southern tropes of the past, I sought to draw from my own life. I grew up in the suburbs. Mundane hatred outweighed intentional racism. The neighborhood Bi-Lo parking lot offered a sanctuary for chainsmokers. The woods brimmed with promise of bonfire parties that never quite materialized. We lived lives informed mainly by imagination. Although violence became a footnote in personal and family history, rarely did these events occur in the light of day. Instead, everything is hidden.
Perhaps for this reason I chose to set my first novel in a fictional town, in which the dirty aspects of the town’s history could be contextualized as unreal. I don’t wish to tread on too many toes, though maybe that’s an unwise anxiety. One runs the risk, when writing anything incepted by personal experience and observation, of revealing too much. These days I live in Charleston, SC, a city made well-known in recent months due to the racist and horrendous actions that have taken place here. And this, I think, is an important consideration: in the same city as horror may appear, so may hope. So may love and family persist. Secrets litter Charleston like cigarette butts: the Starbucks across the road from College of Charleston was once the place where the gallows stood, the school library is built atop a graveyard of free blacks, and the charming downtown Market is referred to often as the Old Slave Market. Here the present interacts brutally with the past. Ghosts linger on every street corner.
In the second chapter of Lickskillet, a character named Aron King recounts a well-known local ghost story and laments that younger kids no longer carry on the tradition of sneaking into the so-called haunted house. According to lore, a rich Yankee recluse locked his mad wife in the attack until she eventually plotted his death– the details of where the authorities found his decapitated head, however, have been muddled by multiple re-tellings. In this geographical space, stories determine identity as strongly as do personality traits. Each character is haunted by the history of the space they inhabit. During this particular chapter, Aron develops a sense that the ghosts of his hometown have become irrelevant. Even the glorified past, often gilded in southern literature, is now falling apart; quite literally, the house is crumbling. Each time Aron and his friend Blaine return to the house and climb to the attic, their ritual smoking spot, the floorboards threaten to buckle. Always, disaster and darkness resides just off-stage.
If I were to attempt to describe Lickskillet in terms of genre, I would say Gothic Southern meets Young Adult Tragicomedy. I want an element of strangeness to rule the page and illuminate the lives of characters as they navigate their blooming lives. Each character is a teenager, young and eager to escape the dull town of Lickskillet, and yet they are still connected to the town’s irreparably southern past. One finds this strangeness in specificity: the peanuts floating in the Coke bottle, the kaolin sprayed on truck tires, the pop and sizzle of chicken frying, and the peculiar existence of characters who seem to belong nowhere else but here.
By here, I mean of course The South. The real South, a pulsing and writhing and alive culture. Southern stories carry a burden of unreality, the truth unfolding like some impossible origami. No human stands far from madness. No floor does not threaten to buckle. Illusions waver under the weight of old age. Haunted houses don’t stay standing; they burn down. Traditions do not remain constant; they slip and alter and grow anew. In these vulnerable moments, one may observe the center of strangeness to southern living.
I hope I have balanced the celebration and critique of The South, that I have struck some vein of truth in the stories that weave through Lickskillet. The place comes alive in my mind each time I revisit the novel, the town itself as significant a character as any of the people who live there.
I want my stories to hurt like a sweet tea toothache. Remember, they demand of the reader. Taste the blood-soaked dirt. Stick your face in it. And then sit on a porch at night in South Carolina and whistle in tune to crickets.
“Art is craft, not inspiration.” —Stephen Sondheim
“Sometimes you’re writing to learn how to write a book.” -Julia Fierro
Somewhere in the center of a dark forest stands a cauldron bubbling with black-tar potion. Magic-muse juice percolates within the cast-iron bucket, fumes of inspiration rising toward the night sky. Writers-become-pilgrims trek through this forest every year in search of creativity, the end-all-be-all-cure-all medicine for frustrating writer’s block.
Or perhaps we might imagine creativity in a lighter setting, a golden fluid imbibed by the gods of Olympia. The mind’s ambrosia. Perhaps a secret, clear formula hidden in the storage cache of Dr. Jekyll’s laboratory.
When writers converse about creativity, we tend to mythologize the trait as something almost-unattainable, as something holy—manna falling from Heaven. Words dangling like strings from the fingers of God, alighting like snow on the tongue of a poet or novelist. We tend to engage with hefty, lofty metaphors in order to ensure others that creativity is a sacred attribute.
But creativity is a myth, indeed, if we cannot discuss concretely what we mean when we utter the word. Where does one acquire this magic muse-juice? Give me coordinates, longitude, latitude.
Maybe creativity is not a secret at all.
Creativity is a muscle.
Creativity is a habit that must be cultivated, strengthened through continuous use.
Much like the formal tools of writing—syntax, spelling, grammar, word choice, etc.—one becomes better at using creativity the more one engages with its practice. Practice being the operative term here.
I mean not to malign certain would-be writers, but I have encountered again and again English majors (with creative writing minors) who proclaim their intentions to float into the hallowed halls of author-hood post-graduation without having ever truly written anything. Maybe a story or two, a half-finished manuscript, but nothing more. They harbor the belief that one day, with degree and good juju, they will emerge as writers like a butterfly from a cocoon. Except that they never built a cocoon in the first place.
One must practice a craft in order to learn the craft. Creativity works the same way. I should preface also that “being a writer” doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve published a book or will publish a book; publication is merely process validation for story-slingers, not the goal in and out itself. Writers write. If you write, then you are a writer.
When learning about writing—whether that means taking a creative writing course, interning at a publishing house, or reading blog posts like this one—one becomes aware only of the craft’s silhouette. This is akin to reading the autobiography of Michael Jordan in preparation to become a basketball player; a more playful analogy—a man reading the Kama Sutra so that he may become a master lover without ever having had sexual intercourse. Learning craft from a source outside yourself is merely supplementary education: writing will teach you to write better. Editing others’ stories, that’s even better.
Often, the first novel you will write is only going to be practice. Maybe you’ll get lucky and publish the novel, but this will be still practice for the next. I was about eleven or twelve when I decided I want to become a writer. On that day I sat down at a computer and wrote a book. Took about a year. A horrible, short, badly-plotted, cliché book, but hey, I was twelve! I forced my mother and fifth grade teacher to read said book, and looking back I can imagine their horror at the violence and pessimism of the story. A year later, I was bored with the manuscript, as children may be, so I wrote something longer, more complex. Still childish, but nevertheless, book-length. Ninety-thousand words or so. In about two years.
This trend of writing sloppy manuscripts continued throughout my adolescence. I was singularly determined to be published before the age of sixteen, and of course I’m overjoyed that I was not published. During that time, however, I learned about craft; I learned about characterization; I learned about the economy of words. I even learned to write query letters and write a decent synopsis. Although at the time my purpose was only to publish these stories, I realize now that these experiments informed my later writing. Even now, I recognize that I am still building up toward something better, a story more precise and beautiful than anything I could create now.
Around the age of sixteen, after having penned six or seven bad novels, I began The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (which was, I should mention, my first foray into realistic fiction after a string of fantasy and super-transgressive noir-crime). This novel too was a sloppy mess, and I spent about two years editing and re-writing before I began sending it out to publishers.
Three years later, I finally got the “yes.”
The above anecdote is not designed to brag on my adolescent ambitions, but only to provide a point. One must write to learn to write. Of course I took a few classes and workshops during these teen years; I scribbled notes while listening to panels at book conventions. But the experiences of story-telling, the ritual of always working on something new, created a habit of writing: now I write almost every day, clocking in particular hours of writing or editing to get the work done. Since writing The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County, I have written three other manuscripts (two of which are serviceable and that I’m currently whipping into shape). Through this, I mean to infer, I’m still writing. I’m doing work.
Naturally I still encounter “writer’s block” or a lack of inspiration, but that doesn’t stop me from getting my work done. Like a runner straining through the pain on his final lap, a writer can be creative without feeling any special inspiration. Therefore, the myth of creativity and the muse, of stories-come-God—I don’t buy it, not one bit.
Writing is hard work. Yes, it is an incredible fun, eye-opening, soul-searching experience, but at the same time, it’s work. The writer must first practice his free throws before he becomes Michael Jordan; for the record, I’m still trying. For the record, I’m still on the community court throwing free throws. Dear aspiring writer: you are too.
There is no secret to creativity, then. There is only sweat.
You want muse-juice? Drink some coffee, some green tea. Chew gum. Crack your knuckles. Then get to work.
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.
For the writer of this wonderful article: “Perfect Day In Charleston, SC”:
This ain’t the first time y’all came here,
your head brimming with expectations of fried opossum
and hillbilly carnival, the specter of the south leaving
such a distinctly sweet taste in your mouth.
But here we ain’t choking on molasses, ain’t passing time
running through fields of corn, listening to country music,
and doing whatever else the fuck you think we do here.
You come to Charleston and smile, congratulate us
on how progressive we’ve become. How our buckteeth
don’t offend you as they snack on sweet taters.
You said something to that effect, didn’t you,
when you praised the southern boutiques built for tourists,
said the south ain’t so bad after all.
You came looking for genteel, so I guessed you miss
the dirt in our teeth, the flames in our eyes, the fight
in our chests, and the holy brains in our skulls.
Cute that you thought a day could do us justice,
that when looking for the beautiful in our city,
you only looked up toward steeples, conjuring
plantation homes in downtown that never existed.
Tell me again how quaint we are, us quiet people,
how we put you to sleep. How you think that condescension
ain’t fighting words.
My good fortune found me sitting down with famous Southern writer and political analyst Henry Cotton III, author of 7 Habits of a Highly Successful Secessionist. He is renowned for works such as A Southern Guide to California: Into the Eighth Circle of Hell, The Five People You Will Meet in Georgia, Chicken Soup for the Confederate Soul, Eat, Pray, Secede, and Three Mason Jars of Moonshine: One’s Man’s Mission to Promote American Values in a Liberal Land.
His newest work follows the efforts of anti-Obama protestors calling for the secession of 20 U.S. states. It focuses on how by seceding from the Union and creating a new Constitution based on allowing the minority vote to choose the presidency, these states will display what real democracy looks like.
Derek: Mr. Cotton III, what do you think spurred the recent secession movement?
Cotton: Well, Derek, Texas was basically its own country anyways. So, allowing it to break off and swim somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean seems like the best way to settle our differences. As for the rest of the states, it is our divine right to reject our government when we disagree with it. What do you think the Revolutionary War was about?
Derek: Or the Civil War?
Cotton: No, the War of Northern Aggression was not about rejecting government. We were attacked. Our values were attacked. We protected them.
Derek: I see. What are the chief complaints of the states involved? Why would they want to leave the United States.
Cotton: Well, recent research has brought to light that democracy has not been carried out in this land. For example, when a majority of electoral votes goes to somebody I don’t like, there must be a real glitch in the system, especially if that happens twice. For decades, real Americans have suffered attacks on our freedoms and rights. Just the other day, I went down to the Piggly Wiggly, and what did I see? Two men holding hands, infringing on my rights to be a heterosexual.
Derek: How unfortunate, sir. Well, what other reasons might you have?
Cotton: I know you think I’m just some ignorant hick, but I think that we have every right to secede if we want to.
Derek: No doubt. It’s actually in the Constitution. ““Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” one portion read, “that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and institute new Government.”
Cotton: That’s right. People say we’re unpatriotic, that we don’t know what we’re talking about, but if we disagree with the federal government, we actually have every right to secede.
Derek: If enough states leave the Union, will they form their own country, do you think, or will they continue on, each state as a separate, sovereign entity?
Cotton: I imagine a new nation with rise, one that our Founding Fathers imagined, one where we can carry guns to church without harassment. And anybody don’t like it, they can move up North to Yankee-land. We have survived long enough in enemy territory, ever since the Usurpation of Lincoln in the 1800’s.
Derek: Well, I thank you for your time, and I hope everyone buys his new book 7 Habits of a Highly Successful Secessionist. It’s a thrilling read about how you too can secede from the union!
We arrived to eat breakfast, though it was nearly time for lunch. I ordered a black coffee and she a chocolate waffle. For a long time, I sat uninspired with a notebook in front of me, too tired to transcribe what I was seeing. Instead, I contemplated the synthetic webs, filled with plastic spiders, decorating the establishment for Halloween.
Behind me, two couples sat facing each other, enjoying a post-church lunch in sweater vests and Easter dresses.
One woman refilled her coffee cup and sat down, frowning toward the waitress.
“Want some sugar, honey?” asked her husband, pursing his lips and leaning forward.
“No thank you,” she said. “Maybe just some Splenda.”
Tea has always been a very important aspect of my life for two reasons: my mother’s family is from Britain and I personally grew up in the South. I drink tea like it is my job. All tea, of course, is not brewed equally. In fact, the tea we drink in the South is wholly different than tea drank in Britain. I relish both types because I have grown to love both.
Every morning, I wake and turn on the kettle before stepping into the shower. While shampooing and jamming out to The Wombats from my Nook’s too-small speakers, the water is boiling. It has just enough time to cool to the just-right temperature by the time I finish showering and brushing my hair (which I have recently cut short, making this process easier by tenfold.) I cycle through a lot of different types of teabags, so I choose the own for today and let the cup sit with the teabag floating inside.
Mind you, I say they are different types, but really only slight variations on the original. I drink tea the British way. There’s nothing very herbal about it. That sort of tea-drinking experience can be found in Asia. No green teas or papaya-flavored teas. When I brew tea, it’s typically only what I can describe as English. Add milk, add sugar. Stir vigorously. Viola! British tea.
Drinking tea has become an integral part of my morning routine. Sometimes, when I need a little extra kick, I buy coffee. I never brew coffee, since my skills at doing so are sub-par to my skills at tea-brewing. But on a normal day, like today, my go-to beverage is tea. It warms you up, flowing through your veins.
Southern tea, on the other hand, is ice-cold. That’s how I like it. What sets Southern tea apart from any other tea is its excess of sugar. The secret to making it is to put in so much sugar that no more sugar can possibly dissolve in the liquid, meaning there may be some sugar residue in the bottom of your pitcher. Brewing southern tea, I tend to use the same teabags (black tea). But the process is different. No milk. Only sugar.
I allow it to brew for far longer, then dump the whole pot into a pitcher where I add about four gallons of sugar. After mixing it all together, we’re done. Simple, right? Not at all. To actually brew the tea long enough while keeping it at the right temperature requires special attention. And the tea-to-sugar ratio is actually more complicated than “a lot.” It all depends on how much you want to make. I’ve got a nose for making tea.
Down here, we call all tea “sweet tea.” That’s it. Only coffee shops and I brew hot tea here. Instead, Sweet Tea rules the land. In Steel
Magnolias, Dolly Parton called it “the wine of the South.” You can’t get it anywhere else but down here, and even if advertised, it’s probably just not the same.
Sweet Tea is extremely important to Southern tradition. If you can’t handle the sweetness, we don’t whether you’re “from around here.”
There are a world of different teas out there, but none surpasses my hot tea and ice-cold tea, simple and pure and sugar-filled. You may have Sleep Time Brew or like to drink raspberry-flavored Lipton. But if it’s “unsweetened for health reasons,” we don’t even want to taste it. These teas exist together in the world, enjoyed voraciously by two culturally disparate groups. Yet what unites them is the simply brewed drink, tea. Fortunately, we Southern children have been sucking sweet tea out of baby bottles, grown up with the taste. We’re not just well-acclimated. We love it.
A friend currently reading a draft of my book The Savagery of Sebastian Martin mentioned that only once did I place the story in my home state. A single chapter takes place as Sebastian travels through South Carolina to escape being imprisoned. I don’t miss the opportunity to poke fun as Salley’s annual Chitlin Strut. While this was fun to write, I don’t think that portion accurately portrays the state in which I grew up.
So, instead, I want to bring forth a much more appalling work of satire. A mostly true one about a fictional town. After finishing the first draft of my second novel (tentatively titled Lickskillet), I realized I had missed out on something. While the plot and characters were fine, I failed to give a lot of character to the town which holds the town name. Why, the town itself is very much a character. In one way, Lickskillet is very unique and mind-boggling, though at the same time it is very familiar. We have met these people, been to these places, and lived in this town.
Lickskillet is the strange paragon of Southeast small towns. Quirky, qausi-historical, and to its residents, home.
Region plays a big part into a writer’s work, I believe. Traveling around Europe two years ago helped me solidify the setting of The Savagery. I could better evoke some of the cities I had previously never seen. My second novel, however, will be set much closer to home. In a town torn by crisis, but united by… simply being a town. I have spliced aspects of several southern towns (and huge chunks from my own) to form what I think represents a type of town not to big, but with personality.
When living in Paris, Ernest Hemingway wrote about Paris. Most of the stories by Mark Twain and Flannery O’Connor take place in the South. Because they lived in the South. They knew the South. I set some scenes in New York in The Savagery, but I might as well have called it Big City, because the story did not revolve around New York. It talked about a single hotel in New York and rarely expanded beyond that limited perspective.
In her short stories and novels, O’Connor shows ever facet of the South. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Because only someone from here can clearly say “what’s wrong with it.” Otherwise, you’re just reaching for clichés. We write about these places because we want to prove everyone else who writes about them wrong. We feel a need to tell “our story.” We have to defend what is attacked while also showing the true chinks in the armor. We simply want to represent our own towns the way we see them.
I am completely starting over with the writing of Lickskillet, to better include how the town functions not just as a setting, but a character. I want to be painstakingly realistic. Even in satire, even while writing humor, you want to tell the truth. Even if it’s about a fictional town, it can tell some sort of truth. Something that will make every person, no matter from where they hail, realize that they have known and lived in this little Southern town all their lives.
What we write about, these places are where we’ve grown up. Of course region affects a writer’s style and storytelling habits. We latch on to the unique rhythms of our own origins. We tend to mimic the sound of cicadas, chirp like crickets, and whistle like a nightingale. This translates to writing and the writing into a story that encompasses a place. Such as the ones we call home.