Often, in interviews with writers who happen to have been born in or who reside in the south, the question is asked, “What does it mean to be a southern writer?” or “Do you mind being called a southern writer?”
Now, let’s leave aside the fact that if you were born in New Jersey you’re not asked what it means to be a writer from the northeast, and if you live in Ohio you’re not necessarily classified as a Midwestern writer. I can accept that southern writing has traditionally had a strong regional identity.
But the south of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor is not the south of today. Globalization and air conditioning have changed southern towns in ways no invading Yankee army ever could. Retirees from New Jersey live next door to Daughters of the Confederacy. Interracial couples walk the streets where the Klan used to gather. Instead of hanging out in the barber shop, people meet up at Starbucks. And while there are still some who insist on clinging to the past, most people of the south have happily entered the twenty-first century. The once strong regional identity has evolved into something much more homogeneous.
So what does it mean to be a southern writer these days? I could talk about Grit Lit (southern lit about working class whites) or beach books or books about sweet tea and racism and “the help,” but I don’t think writing these books necessarily makes you a southern writer. I think it’s a certain voice, a certain rhythm that you hear in your head when you write. It’s just different from the rhythm of Junot Diaz or Annie Proulx or Jonathan Lethem.
This is not to say that all southern writers have the same voice or rhythm. Think Dorothy Allison, Carl Hiaasen, and Alice Walker. There couldn’t be three different writers, and yet they are all distinctly southern.
Am I a southern writer? Absolutely. After all, I am a writer, and I have lived most of my life in the south. The voice in my head can’t and never will be anything other than southern. That doesn’t mean I write about pick-up trucks and sand dollars. What it means is that my fiction is informed by the language I heard in childhood. By the Georgia hills rolling though my grandfather’s stories and the soft gentle flow of my mother’s whispers.
I don’t mind being called a southern writer. But I don’t want to be classified or pigeon-holed. I am first and foremost a writer, just trying to tell my stories and make use of the language I know. Which is what every writer does, whether southern or Midwestern or Dominican. We each have unique experiences to share. We just tell them in different accents, y’all.