Essay by Lauren K. Denton
Writers come from everywhere, yet it seems the South produces them at a higher rate than usual. Here, we tell stories—those we make up and others that have been passed down through generations. Maybe it’s easier—or more necessary—to tell stories down South, to put fictional lives on paper to make sense of our own. My home state of Alabama in particular has birthed a prolific bounty of writers and authors, but that bounty spreads across the region to include writers from all over the south—literary giants of an older South brushing shoulders with contemporary writers of the new South.
With a plumb line stretching from Harper Lee to Pat Conroy to Kathryn Stockett and onto a newcomer like me, what is it that binds all these writers together? What makes their—our—stories similar other than geographical region and a habit of dropping the last G on most of our words? The definition of what labels a piece of fiction as “Southern” has fluctuated over the years but the major elements have remained the same—the priority of family, the pull of home, the closeness of community, struggles over race, and the abiding allure of religion. Not all Southern novels manage to squeeze in all five themes—although some do—but I’d wager at least a couple of these elements are present in every single piece of Southern fiction ever put to paper (or computer screen). Hearing stories of other lives, especially lives that take place in this steamy cauldron of hope and hurt, helps us navigate our own.
First, family. Every family has its particular secrets, truths and half-truths, and those things you just don’t talk about, yet in the South, family comes first. Even when that family is dysfunctional, as are many families in Southern fiction. Rebecca Wells’ The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood portrays a raw and complicated relationship between mother Vivi Abbott Walker and her daughter Siddalee Walker. In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, young Lily runs away from her cruel father and into the welcoming arms of three beekeeping sisters from South Carolina. They form a new family—not of birth but of choice. Regardless of how families are formed, Southern fiction shows that family is the root from which we grow and the anchor that steadies us. It provides us with people who understand us in ways no one else does.
Second, a pull toward home. There are always those who flee the nest and move far and wide, but a great many southerners don’t stray too far from their original stomping grounds. If they do, often they return home as soon as they are able. This propensity for home shows up frequently in Southern fiction. Who hasn’t read a Southern novel in which the main character returns home for one reason or another and once there, sees his or her hometown in a different light? (If you haven’t, my novel The Hideaway is a fine example, but I may be biased.) At one point, I refused to read another book that featured a protagonist returning home. But what happened when I sat down to write my own novel? My main character returned home. After a bit of soul-searching, I realized the pull of home is strong and undeniable in the South.
It seems something about our place of childhood and formative years stays in our hearts, no matter where we are or how old we get. My maternal grandmother often told stories of growing up in tiny Des Arc, Arkansas. Though she’d lived in south Alabama for decades longer than she lived in Arkansas, you could see the wistfulness in her eyes as she spoke about the place she’d once loved so much. Home continues to call to us, even if our new home is elsewhere.
The term “community” can refer the streets, buildings, and parks within a geographical location, but it’s also emotional—it’s what makes a place a home. When family isn’t present (or even if they are), the community around us is who helps escort us through our life. Southern fiction is full of stories that portray a town coming alongside a character and acting as stand-in parents, grandparents, and children. Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap, Olive Ann Burns’ Cold Sassy Tree, Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, and Sarah Addison Allen’s Lost Lake all feature community members who help each other through both difficult and joyous times. Finding one’s place in a community is a hallmark in both life and fiction in the south.
Next is race. There’s no way around the South’s ugly history of racial inequality and turning blind eyes to that pain and violence. But our shameful past doesn’t dictate how we live our lives today. What we love to hear about is people who make a difference, who stand up for those whose voices aren’t heard. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is perhaps the most important novel—Southern or otherwise—to deal with the subjects of race and class and to give us enduring figures who stand for justice and love. Though Southern fiction has evolved over the years, race still factors into contemporary novels: John Grisham’s A Time to Kill; Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Greg Iles’s Natchez Burning. What we love about these stories are the folks who dare to shine light into the dark places.
Finally, religion. Even if you don’t identify yourself as a believer in the Christian faith, I’d venture to say most people in the South find some form of their own religion, whether in song lyrics that speak to the soul, gardening and appreciating the rich soil that gives life, or enjoying family meals with enough relatives to fill a church. Small town or bigger city, you can’t go far without bumping into a church or three in the Bible Belt, and faith, trust, doubts, and fears are familiar and ever-present in our fiction. Kaye Gibbons, Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Smith, and Nanci Kincaid include touches of the divine in their novels, whether in the form of a steadfast believer or someone who questions and doubts but still hopes to find true rest.
The appeal of Southern fiction has only grown with time. It seems every few years, another big Southern novel comes along that knocks everyone on their backs. Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. More recently, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. These books have a reach that extends far past the Southern landscape in which they’re set. Regardless of bestseller predictions, must-read lists, or whether Hollywood decides to put the stories on the big screen, Southern fiction will continue to be about the people, places, struggles, and beliefs that shape our corner of the world.