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O Brother, Where Art Thou Contemporary Southern Women Writers?


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In 2018, I was asked to speak at a local university known for its diverse, working-class student body. I identify as queer, southern, and working class, so I said yes. And as a non-academic, not-especially renowned author, I felt like a beautiful unicorn. They were gonna pay me to talk about myself? I could not say no to that. 

After the speech, members of the department took me out to dinner, which was a lovely gesture, if a bit anxiety-inducing for someone who really just wanted to go home to her wife, cat and TV shows. A professor who taught Southern Fiction was also in attendance. On the way to the restaurant, amid the white noise of rain patter and windshield wipers, I asked him which authors he taught in his courses. He rambled off the usual suspects–you know The List. The List of the same old white guys everyone mentions. I won’t name them here. 

“And Flannery,” he said. 

“What about Jesmyn Ward?” I asked. He hadn’t heard of her. I’ll repeat: he taught Southern Fiction. He hadn’t heard of her. 

As they drank wine, ate slowly when the food finally arrived, and continued to discuss “inside academia” topics, the more appalled I became that The Professor hadn’t heard of Jesmyn Ward. She’s one of the most celebrated contemporary writers of fiction and non-fiction. She’s a two-time National Book Award winner and  MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient. Her writing often appears on the list of reading luminaries, such as Barack Obama’s famed Summer Reading List. 

Jesmyn Ward is 1) not dead,  2) not white, and  3) not a dude. Perhaps that’s why he hadn’t heard of her? 

Of course, Jesmyn Ward does not need me to speak for her. I’m aware that writing an essay that frames the absence of her name in many southern literary lists reeks of white savior behavior. But she’s a great example of an affliction that so many white southern readers and writers have, which I call “And Flannery.” You notice this mostly from cishet white men who share their influences in articles or in viral lists on Twitter and the like, but many white women also fall under the spell. When asked who influenced them or which southern writers these folks like to read, there’s a litany of mostly cishet white guys—not all dead, I’ll add. And at the end, almost like an Ann Flanders reminder of etiquette, they add the one woman they can think of. It’s almost always Flannery O’Connor. 

Every time I read such lists, I think: O Brother, Where Art Thou Contemporary Southern  Women Writers?(1)

In fairness, the search algorithm does not favor authors who are not yet well known. If you conduct a simple search of Southern Fiction, you will get the usual suspects. If you conduct a more advanced search of Southern Fiction in a specific state, you will get a little more than the usual suspects, but they’re usually dead. But I work in technology, understand how to perfect a boolean search, and have diversity at the top of my mind when creating lists. As Mimi Thi Nguyen says: “I care, therefore I critique. If I don’t push, the car doesn’t go, right?” So consider this my gentle push to my pale southern brethren to do the same when promoting, recommending, and participating in all things Southern Fiction.

Also in fairness, I get it. I do. Like many literature students, I was blown away when I first read Flannery O’Connor. There’s a recording of her reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” that’s deeply comforting to me because her voice reminds me so much of my Grandma Sue, with her high nasal drone. Like Flannery O’Connor, my Grandma Sue was also a woman who stood out, figuratively and literally (she towered over all her classmates in her Missouri Bootheel one-room schoolhouse). At 15, she stole her abusive father’s wad of cash from his overalls while he was sleeping and ran away to St. Louis, lying about her age to get a job and then saving up enough money to help her best friend Charla escape the rice fields too. People loved her—or hated her—because she swore at people and objects and never took no shit off of nobody—qualities that are typically assigned to men. 

Typically. But only if you buy into the idea that southern women are the sweet, sassy gals(2) you see in most pop culture offerings. As if southern women can only exist at one end of a spectrum: pure trailer trash or southern belle. 

Most of the southern women in my life have veered somewhere in between. They were far from window watchers, clinging to the hope of a husband’s eventual homecoming. They were holding it all together despite the generational trauma of lives bent and twisted by bad luck and bad decisions, their own and others’. They struggled to raise themselves—and often, their families—up out of the confines of their circumstances, some less successful than others. But I guess that all depends on your definition of success. Much of southern fiction fetishizes masculinity.(3) But it wasn’t my Grandpa who worked with his hands. It was my grandmas, those fierce rivals, working at the Maybelline factory in Little Rock. Getting mad and writing notes at the back of the Bible about how much they love and want a man, but how damned hard that man makes it. Having to bury the man who not only strayed but then had a heart attack on his 50th birthday in a “whorehouse” in Memphis (allegedly). They were “Unlikeable Women.” Hell, I’d be unlikeable too if I’d had to put up with my grandfathers’ shit. 

But that’s what makes southern fiction by women so compelling to me. I’m less interested in the revenge and Tough Guy narratives than those about the women who have been at the center of the so-called Tough Guy’s nonsense. 

I guess that’s why I get so annoyed when I read southern women characters in fiction. They’re always a little too sweet or a little too trashy. When written by men, the Traditional Southern Woman usually exists to activate the male character(s), like many other women characters in pop culture. She’s tragic and/or “fridged.”(4)  She’s a set piece, waiting for the man to come home from saving the world or a hard day at work. She appears in the beginning and end of the film, in the middle as a photographic reminder. Maybe, if she’s lucky, she’ll appear in a montage somewhere in the “fun and games” portion of the story.(5) Or she’s a Smurfette, the guy’s girl.(6) Or perhaps she’s a “tough” or a “strong female character” who sounds and behaves eerily like a dude.(7) 

When such characters are done well, the praise heaped on these male authors is often above and beyond while ignoring the fact that there are many, many southern women out there who can also write southern women pretty darn well. But our fiction often goes unnoticed, or it’s not considered as “serious” or “tough” as those from the male perspective. But some of the best writers about the impact of “tragic masculinity”(8) are women writers.

To be a woman is to be at the mercy of a system built largely by and for cishet white men. In such a system, crime often becomes a matter of black and white, good and bad. Literally. Crime from a feminine perspective requires one to expand their notions of what constitutes a crime and what constitutes southern fiction. In my experience, I’d call poverty a crime, including those umbrella topics of food insecurity and housing instability and systemic racism and wage theft and the prison industrial complex and I could go on because I’m a history and sociology nerd (perhaps the use of footnotes gave it away). The scope and wreckage of these crimes encompass whole family systems and generations. If women write more “domestic” fiction, it’s because domestic violence affects so many lives. My most recent novel, Real Bad Things, is partially inspired by the emotional violence (and sometimes physical toward my mother) one particular stepfather inflicted on our family for almost five years. So many of these topics don’t see the light despite their author’s work because the lists inevitably veer dead and white. And as wonderful as those authors are, they can inform but cannot speak to the current climate of the South. 

I also have a hard time reading Flannery O’Connor’s work because of her racism.(9)(10)(11)

No, of course Jesmyn Ward doesn’t need me to come to her aid! She’s a great example to shine a light on because she’s one of our most celebrated living authors. I assume she’s doing just fine. But what about the other southern women writers out there who are trying to get seen and heard? What about the young girls who only learn about women from the lens of a privileged white male perspective? Or the perspective of a dead white woman? Where do they learn about the rest of us out here?

I absolutely hated reading Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school—and his whole ilk (sorry to my New England friends and counterparts). I’d been reading VC Andrews and Stephen King and Danielle Steel. Why would I, a working class girl from rural Arkansas, want to read about old New England? To “dig deeper” and to “appreciate art,” allegedly. I expressed how much I hated reading old dead guys to Mrs. Brown, my English teacher. I was one of those students. Finally, perhaps out of Mrs. Brown’s frustration with me, she gave me I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as an assignment.

Maya Angelou exists on hallowed literary ground, so high that people either forget or don’t know that she was once a poor Black girl raised in Stamps, Arkansas. It feels weird sometimes to tell people that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was hugely influential to me because I saw myself in that book. Clearly we are not the same. But what I learned from that lesson, to Mrs. Brown’s absolute and exhausted (probably) delight, is one that has resonated with me far more than anything the “greats” had to share: If a girl like Maya Angelou could get out of Arkansas, well so could I. The absence of that resonance for so many southern women is what makes me sigh every time I read these lists of great southern writers. 

And to those who would say, but that’s who inspired me, I would counter that it’s because we were all fed a feast of dead white guys, especially if you grew up in the South. But Faulkner and Flannery are not going to pop onto your Twitter thread to thank you. So why not give that attention and money to a working woman writer, one who could absolutely use that attention—especially if you are in a position of power or influence, such as a professor or a well-known cishet white male author or a festival and conference organizer?

If you’re looking for a little inspiration, have a look at just a handful of living women authors working across a variety of genres who were born and/or raised in the South: (12)(13)

  • Alabama: Yaa Gyasi, Angela Jackson-Brown, Ashley M. Jones, Imani Perry, Gin Phillips
  • Arkansas: M Shelly Conner, PhD, Casie Dodd, Amy E. Elkins, Ayana Gray, Penni Jones, Laurie Marshall
  • Delaware: Jo Ann Balingit, Cristina Henríquez, Sarah McBride
  • Florida: Tina McElroy Ansa, Ellen Byron, Jaquira Díaz, Gale Massey, Dantiel W. Moniz, Steph Post, Raquel V. Reyes, Deb Rogers, Lori Roy, Aisha Saeed
  • Georgia: Regina N. Bradley, PhD., Tananarive Due, Jessica Handler, Tayari Jones, Shanna Miles, Wanda M. Morris, ZZ Packer, Laura Piper Lee, Carolyn Prusa, Shay Youngblood
  • Kentucky: Leesa Cross Smith, Deesha Philyaw, Joy Priest, Shawna Kay Rodenberg, Savannah Sipple, Jacinda Townsend, Kayla Rae Whitaker, Crystal Wilkinson
  • Louisiana: Destiny O. Birdsong, Sarah M. Broom, Tiana Clark, Ladee Hubbard, Erin Entrada Kelly, Bernice L. McFadden, Alys Murray, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, Faye Snowden, EM Tran
  • Maryland: Casey Cep, Lauren Doyle Owens, Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Barbara Kingsolver, Robin Kinzer, Stephanie Parent, Julie Smith
  • Mississippi: Exodus Oktavia Brownlow, Mary Miller, Leah Nicole, JM Redmann, Natasha Trethewey, Tiffany Quay Tyson, Jesmyn Ward
  • North Carolina: Kianna Alexander, Katherine Faw, Leah Hampton, Devi S. Laskar, Meagan Lucas, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Cassie Manns Murray, Toni Newman, Julia Ridley Smith, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle
  • Oklahoma: Rilla Askew, Chloe Flanagan, Joy Harjo, Heather Levy, Vanessa Lillie, Jamie Mason, Teresa Miller, Shauna Osborn, Dea Poirer
  • South Carolina: Dorothy Allison, Nikki Finney, Savannah J. Frierson, Signe Pike, Ciona Rouse, Eden Royce, Dori Sanders, Dorothy St. James, Synithia Williams
  • Tennessee: Amy Cipolla Barnes, Monica Brashears, Tiana Clark, Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne, Anjali Enjeti, Amy Greene, Nichole Perkins, Mary Laura Philpott, Meredith Russo, Erica Wright
  • Texas: Amina Akhtar, Isa Arsén, Cynthia Bond, May Cobb, Meg Gardiner, Amy Gentry, Katie Gutierrez, Attica Locke, Tembi Locke, Ire’ne Lara Silva, Rosalyn Story, Elizabeth Wetmore
  • Virginia: Yasmin Angoe, Rebecca Elswick, Kelli Jo Ford, Nicole Glover, Ashleigh Bell Pedersen, Leslie Pietrzyk, Deanna Raybourn, Lee Smith, Kristin Wright
  • Washington, DC (14): Camille Acker, Sandra Beasley, Elle Cosimano, Camonghne Felix, Chantal James, Jamila Minnicks
  • West Virginia: Neema Avashia, Marie Manilla, Mesha Maren, Ann Pancake, SG Redling, Rita Mae Reese

When I put out a call on Twitter for recommendations of writers I may not be aware of, there was an outpouring of love and support. What’s wonderful too is that there were so many genres and personalities represented. I’d love to see that energy carry forward, especially for the more marginalized among our southern fiction family. And the more everyone lifts up our voices, the more able we are to break the search algorithm that only shows us what so many men, even those with the best of intentions, have shown us and taught us for years. 

And if you MUST include a dead woman in your writer list because that’s the vibe you’re going for, well, Maya Angelou, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Doris Betts, Kate Chopin, Carson McCullers, bell hooks, Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Flagg, and Eudora Welty, among others, are right there. (15)

___________________________________

(1) Trans women are women.
(2) https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SouthernBelle
(3) https://lsupress.org/books/detail/queer-chivalry/
(4) https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StuffedIntoTheFridge
(5) https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2017/12/fun-games-section/
(6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smurfette_principle
(7) https://writerunboxed.com/2017/09/02/authentic-characters-vs-gender-swaps/
(8) Hat tip to SA Cosby, who is the first person I know who used this phrase.
(9) https://www.patheos.com/blogs/suspendedinherjar/2020/09/oconnor-not-been-canceled/
(10) https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/confront-facts-oconnor
(11) https://lithub.com/on-flannery-oconnors-chronic-illness-and-chronic-racism/
(12) It’s bafflingly hard to define the Southern United States in 2022. There are many variations, so I’ve gone with the US Census Bureau’s definition. Don’t holler at me; holler at them.
(13) Of course, this is only a partial listing of southern women creating incredible work because I could not fit them all. Sorry if I missed your faves. It’s only due to space constraints. And apologies for any errors.
(14) Not technically a state, but the citizens deserve full representation in Congress.
(15) No, I did not include Harper Lee. If folks don’t list Flannery, Harper Lee is next up to bat.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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