I started writing this with a picture of the South in my mind. The picture of South I wanted you to see—charming, drawling, hot and humid and slow. Where time oozes. A lot of that picturesque Scarlett O’Hara bullshit.
Which, if I followed through, would have been a lie.
The problem is that I lived in the South for eighteen years and yet I still can’t fit it into a box. You know the boxes I’m talking about. They’re cardboard and they’re labelled racist and Republican and redneck, and people think them subconsciously when you tell them where you’re from, especially if you’ve already let y’all slip out. Which you should never do under any circumstances.
The problem is that my picture of the South is not a picture you’d recognize. My picture is of trailer parks polka-dotted with lawn chairs and wind chimes. My picture is of toothless old people in Goodwill that call you darlin’ (drop the G). My picture is of nine-year-old me in a cheetah print shirt after church, wearing pink New Balances beside my old dog in the front yard. It’s a weirdly specific picture, detailing everything from the thousands of mosquito bites on my legs to the smell of onion grass between my fingers, but it’s the real picture, and it’s not a lie. It’s not a lie in the least.
The truth is that I lived down there for eighteen years before I moved up North. Before Princeton, the only other time I’d ever been up North was for a band trip to New York City. I’ve also never been farther west than Mississippi. My world is defined by Civil War battlefields; you make dots on the map where boys died, and then you connect those dots, and there you have the geometry of my existence.
Until a month ago, I lived right in the middle.
When I was seven, my favorite move was A Cinderella Story. The Hilary Duff one with Chad Michael Murray. Her name was Sam and her dad loved Elvis (like my dad) and she wore a beautiful gown (for the year 2004) to prom. She also ended up getting accepted to Princeton and drove all the way there from California in a convertible.
Somewhere along the way, I decided I was moving up North too, but not because of the movie and certainly not because of Princeton. I decided I was moving up North to write because I hated the South. The North seemed—and still seems—very glamorous to me. It had cities where I had farms; it had glitter where I had dirt. Thus the small-town-girl-wants-to-make-it-big cliché was kindled within me. So when Princeton shrugged and said what’s the worst that could happen and let me in, it was quite literally everything I’d been waiting for my entire life: The chance to become a writer, and the chance to be surrounded by something other than Republicans.
I don’t know what I was expecting, though, because the movie stopped for Hilary Duff.
Just not for me.
First of all, everybody during orientation week knew I was Southern. Maybe it was because of the alarming number of times I said y’all in a given period of time, or maybe it was because the icebreakers required that we say where we’re from. At any length, if you say you’re from Tennessee, people ask if you like country music. If you say no I don’t like country music, they say but I thought everyone down there liked country music. I also know that nobody really cares about where you’re from. For example, God knows I don’t care about Minnesotans or their minivan stereotypes, which means nobody really cares that I’m secretly freaked out by crosswalks where you have to press a button to pass. But that also means they just connect me with the South subconsciously, like it’s a piece of me that can’t be severed. Which is a strange feeling. They shrug and don’t think any more of it, but for me—to say that I’m Southern voluntarily—that’s a new feeling.
I’m just so used to being around Southerners all the time whose accents are stronger than mine. I never really figured I was one of them.
So here’s an embarrassing secret. Now that I’m at Princeton, I’m suddenly desperate to hear a really nice old lady call me baby as she checks me out at Wal-Mart. I suddenly want to walk into a heatwave of humidity. I want to hear the fuzzy baseball games that play over 104.1 F.M. every evening. And for somebody who supposedly moved up North to write and get away from the South, I sure am writing a lot about the South now that I’m here.
Not Margaret Mitchell’s South, though, and not Brad Paisley’s or Dolly Parton’s. I want to write about the real South. I want to write about the people I left behind. They’re strange and larger-than-life and fascinating. They’re not all racist Republicans (some of them are racist Democrats). They buy harmonicas in Cracker Barrels. They attend Baptist universities even if they’re gay. Sometimes they hold the door for fifteen minutes because they’re too nice to let go. I don’t think people hear enough of the stories like these, like mine, where the narrator isn’t Faulkner or Twain or O’Connor.
A lot of Southern literature is To Kill a Mockingbird stuff—stories about gap-toothed kids running down dirt roads without shoes on. This is fine, especially when these writers are writing about their South, but that’s where the literature begins and ends. I come from a South that nobody has written about yet. I come from a generation of kids going left instead of right, kids who have to reconcile liberal ideas with the blood of the Confederacy beneath their feet, where Southern Lit is a unit in high school English and no longer a living, breathing, moving creation. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but nobody has written about the suburban South or the gay South or the progressive South. Nobody has written about the kids that are contradictions within their culture.
I find that the stories I want to tell, whose characters are almost always struggling to define themselves, don’t work out if they aren’t set in Tennessee or Mississippi or Georgia. I had never written stories set in the South before my senior year in high school, but once I started writing Southern, I really couldn’t stop. Maybe it’s because I lived in the bubble of the Tennessee Valley for eighteen years, surrounded by a culture I never really considered a culture. Maybe it’s because the Southern experience isn’t necessarily tractors and farms. It’s cowboy boots on city streets and Cherokee words everywhere and passive-aggressive churchgoers. It’s intermingling threads of poverty and wealth and race. It’s the history of the world summarized beneath a humid summer sun, a case study for humanity, a thesis statement for what it’s like to be alive.
Stereotypes will never do this place justice.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not moving back. All I’ve ever wanted is to be doing what I’m doing right now: writing in the North with a Princeton-funded Wilson jacket on. I don’t think I could live down South again if you paid me, unless said payment was equivalent to my student loans. But I’m starting to think that I’ll never love another place in that way again. Tennessee no longer belongs to me, which sort of breaks my heart. I gave up the mountains voluntarily. I traded the sound of twangs for the sound of trains. I pulled a Hilary Duff and got into the convertible with Chad Michael Murray and drove off without looking back.
Which, in retrospect, was probably best. Nobody wants to be a pillar of salt.