Flannery O’ Connor’s bespectacled glare still inhabits Southern Writing
Bless their hearts. Agents, editors, and publishers love their categories. It’s part of their tribal language. They are trained to promptly stuff readers and authors into the proper box. They call it a genre as if giving it a short French rolling sound makes it seem sensuous and sophisticated—like a new lover whispering in your ear on the subway. Strict classifications exist in the imprints of the Big Five World.
Fortunately, the real world exists elsewhere.
In the Deep South, where the bespectacled Flannery O’Connor inhabits every literary tick, our narrative is dynamic. We’re marching far beyond the cynical stories of the 20th Century. Authors have dumped the askew pastorals on their asses.
In The Coming, Daniel Black rhythmically peels back the horrific truth about the slave trade and reveals the courage and pride of Africans. Patrick Phillips’s creative non-fiction, Blood at the Root, exposes decades of socially-accepted “racial terrorism,” and Southern cafés and clubs vibrate with the slamming lyrics of contemporary poets like Bethsheba A. Rem—Queen Sheba.
Cultivating new voices also requires broadening the definition of Southern writing.
Gisele Firmino splits her time living, teaching and writing in the Southeast and Latin America. Her debut novel, The Marble Army, is set her native Brazil, but the family conflict, the rebellion, and the stirring pampas setting give it the appeal of a Southern tale. The Fontes are rooted in their fertile lowland home. Antonio, the father, manages the mine. Rose, the mother, tends her household. But when their oldest son, Pablo, is lured into the youth revolution of the 1960s and disappears, their life is overturned. Luca, the youngest, is now coming-of-age as his home and nation are tearing apart. The characters and the country are transformed but not always in a way the reader welcomes. The heartrending intrigue spans any cultural gap and links this Latin American historical thriller with the South.
Tragedy unites us all.
The people’s pain in the Kashmir Valley perplexes Americans. Sadly, most folks couldn’t point it out on the map, much less describe the regions agonizing history of colonial rule, rebel insurgents, and boundary disputes fought under the threat of nuclear war. Yet over the past twenty years, Atlanta and other Southern cities have become home to a large community of South Asians, and their stories are seeping their way into the culture. Soniah Kamal, a Paul Bowles Fiction Fellow at Georgia State University, was born in Pakistan, raised in England and Saudi Arabia, has lived in several states, and now resides in Georgia. An Isolated Incident, her debut novel, was a finalist for the Townsend Award, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and is an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah embodies the ideal voice of the new millennium, as Zari Zoon’s compelling journey from haunting disaster in Kashmir to the promise of renewal in America is a rewarding tale for those eager to read outstanding fiction.
We are connected by stories of the hero’s journey.
Yet in the new millennium, the hero isn’t always represented in a conventional fashion. Robert Chatham, the protagonist in Bill Cheng’s first novel Southern Cross the Dog, is far from typical. We follow him as boy receiving his first kiss under the Bone Tree, touched by the first rain drops of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, to a troubled man at home in 1941. The route Cheng creates for Robert is rashly unpredictable, two or three notches past quixotic, but his skillful prose and nagging imagery coerce the reader to trek alongside Robert through the work camps, brothels and remote swamps of the Depression Era South. Perhaps Cheng’s novel is so remarkably peculiar because he’s far from the stock southern author. He was born and raised in Queens, received his MFA from Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn. He’s an Asian-American from NYC writing historical fiction about an African American in the South. He willfully steps outside his box to portray the grief and passion of others. There’s not a better means to bind us all together.