R.W.B. Lewis, a major literary critic of [the 20th] century, once gave this evaluation of Southern literature: “It is impossible to name another region in this country with so massive and virtually unbroken a display of literary genius.” (source: Living By Words; Why Are There So Many Great Southern Writers by David Todd)
Rocking chairs and front porches. Sweet tea and cornbread. Old men playing checkers and whittling wood. Women cooking in the heat of the kitchen and chit-chatting. Some things just go together. Stories and the South go hand in hand.
William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Fannie Flagg, Alice Walker, Harper Lee, John Grisham, Richard Wright, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston …the list could go on and on.
The American South is a place of storytelling-that is for sure.
Today’s authors and writers stand on the shoulders of the great writers of yesterday. I have often found it ironic to realize that the American South, particularly the Deep South, is a place filled with people who write. They gather in coffee shops, join local writing groups, and attend a menagerie of Book Festivals and symposiums to learn all about how to write. Their books are filled with ideas, both staunchly conservative and openly reflecting on the dark days of the South and examining Southern culture with new eyes. In this sense, it is a place of straddling fences. How can it be such a place…one where countless people have a desire to create with words and art, yet also stubbornly cling to the past and refuse to join the 21st Century?
We need only consider the history of the Deep South to see that storytelling has always been a part of the culture. The American South is a place that once belonged to many Native American cultures, most notably the Cherokee and Choctaw, who have a strong tradition of oral history and storytelling. It’s also a place to where many immigrants and pioneers journeyed in the early days of the founding of Alabama and Mississippi. Long story short- no pun intended- throughout the history of the South, we have always gathered on the front porch or around the kitchen table to tell tall tales, gossiped about everybody’s business, or soaked up Paw Paw’s stories of his childhood and the good ol’ days (Paw Paw=Grandpa for those unaware). It’s just who we are, and what we have always done- in both word and song. And so the tradition continues.
One MS Gulf Coast author, Fran McNabb, explains it like this:
“The South is more than a regional destination; it’s a state of mind, a feeling, an emotional attachment, and a connection to the past and family…The slow rhythmic cycle of seasons gives a person the time to appreciate the little things in life….Living the slower paced life gives [us] time to allow ideas to develop.”
Perhaps it is also this very emotional attachment which is the reason why we Southerners stubbornly hold onto old ideas, yet are also straddling that fence of old vs. new? On any account, that will have to be a different story on another day, as it is one that is long and complicated.
Today the Gulf Coast is dotted with indie book shops and local writing groups.
The Gulf Coast Writers Association of Mississippi (GCWA) is one such group. Founded in 1986, their purpose is to “encourage and inspire local writers…[whether they] dream of writing their very first story or poem…[or if they are] experienced published authors.” They host monthly general meetings with speakers on a variety of topics related to the art of the written word, an annual “Let’s Write” Literary contest, and publish a quarterly magazine. Philip Levin, a local author and the President of the GCWA, says that they have 176 members, half of which actually live on the MS Coast and 80% of which live within the state. The other folks live as far away as Pennsylvania, Delaware or Colorado but have roots in Mississippi. It seems that the rule applies: ‘once a Southerner, always a Southerner’- those roots stretch deep.
However, another local author named Connie Rainey (who writes as G.G. Houston) adds this:
“You don’t have to be born in the South to understand how to be a Southerner. All one needs to know is that the South is a quilt of heritage and time. It is snug with remembrances, and stitched together by the diversity of its people. I live in this wonderful place because I ‘feel’ the past in its plantation homes and know its future in its modern steel structures. Art and stories blend together to make the South a home for anyone with a story to tell.”
Regarding writing, Philip Levin states,
“Mississippi has a long, proud heritage of inspiring authors. The fetching vistas of our Gulf Coast, with her gentle breezes and proud history, provide inspiration for heartfelt stories. Our generous and friendly citizens offer lovable and quirky characters to populate those tales. Here on the Mississippi Coast, we have a tradition of neighborly visits, relaxing on the front porch sharing a pitcher of sweet tea under the fragrant magnolias. This is why so many Coastians become writers – it’s just a matter of writing down those stories.”
Almost every town and community has a local writing group: Mobile and Fairhope are two that are nearby the Gulf Coast area with large and vibrant writing groups. Oxford, MS, although in the northern part of the state yet home to William Faulkner’s Rowan Oak, holds its own in the world of Southern literature, and is another area that has a large following, mostly in part because of its rootedness with the University of MS. Square Books, famous in that neck of the woods, has a long history of supporting and featuring local and up-and-coming authors, as well as Thacker Mountain Radio which also shines a spotlight on local stars of literature. Along the MS Gulf Coast, Southern Bound Book Shop, a younger indie book shop that has two locations in Biloxi and Ocean Springs, also features local writers on its shelves and at Book Signing events. The MS Writers Guild is still relatively new, as it was only established in 2005. But they have local chapters in Hattiesburg Jackson, Newton, Natchez, Tunica, and Yazoo. Columbus (MS), known as the birthplace of Elvis, isn’t far behind with their Writers and Storytellers Guild.
Despite the long tradition of writing and storytelling, it was only this past summer that the very first Mississippi Book Festival was held. Hopefully, this event will grow each year, and shine a bright light upon the many talented writers in our area. My favorite aspect of editing is working with local authors; most are unknown yet extremely gifted with words. Publishing a book isn’t easy these days, but I’m not sure if it ever really was a simple feat. If you think about it, William Faulkner, John Grisham and Fannie Flagg all got their start somewhere. Stop by your local indie book shop today and peruse the Local Author section. You may discover a hidden treasure tucked between the pages of a book. Or perhaps you have a story to write?