Southern in Spirit

Today, I received a rejection email telling me one of my stories set in Alabama wasn’t “Southern enough in spirit.” Immediately, three thoughts occurred to me: One, I had no idea I needed to write like a Southerner—whatever that means—two, I wasn’t trying to write like a Southerner, and three, I’ve never tried to write like a Southerner.

It didn’t help, of course, that I heard the magazine’s rejection in my head in the affected Southern accent of Foghorn Leghorn: “Son—I say, son—this story’s about as Southern as puttin’ sugah on grits.”

A bit about the story: It takes place in a fictional Alabama town and revolves around the death of a pillar of the community. The daughter of the deceased returns to Alabama and navigates the perils of funeral planning, a domineering aunt, and pre-purchased funeral clothing. While it’s true no one swoons or listens to country music, it’s still a Southern story, especially in the sense that it takes place in, well, the South.       

Once, someone asked me if I considered myself a Southern writer, and I said yes, of course I did, but only when I was writing in the South. Thinking back, I believe that person mistook my answer to mean that I change my writing style depending on wherever I happen to be. What I intended to say, however, was that being Southern, to me, has always been a function of geography. I’ve never considered myself to be a Southerner, but then I’ve never seen myself as a non-Southerner, either. By the same logic, if I’m writing when I’m traveling, I’m a travel writer. And so on.

But here’s the most interesting part of the rejection. At first, I believed it came from a journal based in Nebraska. Well, I told myself, that made sense. These folks’ idea of Southern culture might be limited to William Faulkner novels, Tennessee Williams plays, and episodes of Duck Dynasty, and who could blame them, really? Later, however, I did a little checking and discovered it was a book out of Mississippi.

You’d think that realization would’ve changed everything, but it didn’t. Expectations of “Southern-ness” aren’t restricted to people from outside the South pushing tired stereotypes. It’s easy to say “Oh, those people just don’t understand us,” but the truth is, Southerners—or any population, for that matter—can be guilty of embracing and leaning on those same stereotypes.  

I know from experience that many people in the South romanticize and perpetuate clichés, which is fine, especially if that’s just the way they want to live their lives. But the beginning of the twenty-first century is an excellent time to remember there’s more to all humans than the way they’re portrayed in media.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Since there have been other places, there have also been stories about the people who live in those places, some of the accounts true, others not. Eventually, they can become a kind of cultural shorthand in trying to describe those people or chronicle their experience. The trick is to avoid turning them into narrative crutches.   

A friend suggested I consider returning to my rejected story and including a scene in which William Faulkner cusses at an azalea bush. That’s probably the best idea—and it would surely be comedy gold—but now that I’ve mulled it over, I’ve decided to go back in and add a scene about some tobacco-chewing NASCAR drivers discussing college football while drinking mint juleps with their grandpappies and eating shrimp gumbo and King Cakes during Mardi Gras.

That sounds pretty Southern to me.

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