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Visual Arts: Refuge in Ruins

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives.

For a man’s home is his castle, and each man’s home is the safest refuge.”

Sir Edward Coke

A flood of development swamped us with subdivision upon subdivision. There were countless Estates, Manors, Preserves, Groves, Lakes, Streams, Pines, Oaks, Pointes, Stations and Bridges upon Ridges.

The streets in these neighborhoods were teeming with abandoned foreclosures, weed covered lawns and empty dirty windows staring out at the curb with dull lifeless eyes.

When change arrived it was too late for many to break through the attic ceiling to get to the roof for financial safety.

The surviving families still thumbed through their mail-order catalogs and the Sunday circulars, tingling at the slick ads. Later they hid their unopened mail further under the daily clutter, piling up higher and higher on the counter.

Why the New Southern Fugitives

Originally published in The New Southern Fugitives. 

A New Moment

Karma, southern fried or not, is freedom, not fate. What we reap and what we sow is not determined by unavoidable fortune but by the choices we make. Considering that Donald Davidson and his fellow Fugitive scholars, critics, and poets were in their mid-seventies or eighties during the Summer of Love, it’s unlikely they dropped LSD and listened to John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” Nashville wasn’t Berkeley. They may have discussed prevenient grace but not the cosmic principle of rewards and punishments following us from one human incarnation to another. Yet they made a clear choice at a critical moment during the early 20th century. Their ardent repudiation of southerner’s disproportionate faith in consumerism and their caution regarding excessive industrialization are still valid in the early 21st century.

The original Fugitives, the literary group centered around Vanderbilt University, believed in the importance of art and intellect. Their coalition toggled between a mystical and a pragmatic stance on the our society faced in the 1920’s and 30’s. Taken in today’s context, their views on slavery could be considered pitiful rationales, but at the time, their opinions on race, gender, privilege, and justice were contrary to The Lost Cause movement and the white overseers of capital—the new rich of post-Reconstruction but the old money of today. As citizens, we must question the establishment. That’s the mission of The New Southern Fugitives, our new weekly zine.

We intend to offer our subscribers fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and visual arts that provokes the reader. Each week, we’ll publish a variety of short stories, including flash fiction, personal essays, book reviews, poems, and photographs that challenge our comfortable perspective of the south.  By focusing on briefer works, we hope to offer more diversity, reach a broader audience, and accelerate our ability to cultivate the voice of the New Millennium. Also, by publishing in a Web-based format only, we’re utilizing interconnected electronic communications as tools that stir change rather than overwhelming chatter.

A critical part of our success is our subscribers and authors. We are seeking writers. That’s why we’ve attended book festivals throughout the southeast and advertised in writing publications. That’s how we promote the growth of new voices. We don’t charge a reading fee, and unlike other zines, we pay upon publication. We couldn’t make the path to a broader audience any more amicable. Please send us your work and encourage your friends to do the same.

Being part of the Southern Fried Karma family, we present ourselves with a similar appearance: red to mark a promising venture, yellow to activate the mind, blue the most common earth tone our Creator used to color the sky, the rivers, and the oceans. As in all our enterprises, Shiva’s We aspire to create a means that allows us to glimpse each other as fellow souls, born in the same manner and traveling to the same destination. By promoting our diversity, we’re striving to illustrate our commonality. Join as a witness to the journey.

Marble Tar-Babies

Inheriting Civil War Stuff

In Joel Chandler Harris’s “The Wonderful Tar-Baby Story,” the turpentine and tar stick figure stays still and silent throughout the two-page short story. Yet, it’s the Tar-Baby’s refrain from polite speech that draws the ire of Brer Rabbit while Brer Fox lays low in the bushes. The hundreds of Confederate monuments scattered around America are equally muted and infuriating. Standing watch in front of courthouse squares and manicured green spaces, these sculpted monuments have further divided a fractured country. Erected generations ago by windbag politicians and the doting matrons that formed United Daughters of the Confederacy, these marble tar-babies have ensnared passersby but by their nature are unable to let them loose. The primary solvent is an honest examination of the gilded accounts that have been handed down from our predecessors.

At the centennial of the Civil War in 1961, Robert Penn Warren, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize winner for All the King’s Men, published The Legacy of the Civil War. His 108-page essay was subtitled a Meditation on the Centennial and dissects the war’s “influence on our economy, our social institutions, our domestic politics and foreign policy, our philosophy and our psychology.” The war, Warren asserts, was fought to salvage the Union, the respect for which still beat “deep in many a Confederate breast” and the abolishment of slavery. These are each critical ideas to establish and paramount in placing the war in perspective.

America won the Civil War.

Not the Yankees.

Not the North.

The United States of America.

The same Army that helped win two World Wars and protects us today defeated an enemy intent on destroying the country that we honor before the kick-off of every football game from pee-wees to professionals, and in this victory, we vanquished a heathen system hell-bent on brutalizing our fellow human beings for their own economic gain. On these two facts, there is no room for honest debate.

Warren acknowledges that the war restored the Union and emancipated the slaves, yet “it did little or nothing to abolish racism.” Leaving us with a public discussion on how we free ourselves from the viscous legacy that in our imperious indignation we’ve collectively punched, kicked, and head-butted until we’ve mired ourselves in a befuddling trap.

A recent New York Times article, “Aging Parents with Lots of Stuff, and Children Who Don’t Want It,” focused on the issue of children dealing with their parents’ “competitive accumulation of material goods.” Like reluctant offspring trying to diplomatically tell their mothers they don’t want her Lenox china, Southerners have inherited Confederate memorials in public spaces that wouldn’t be erected today. Unfortunately, a hundred Jefferson Davis statues can’t be unloaded at an estate sale, and it fails to address the core of the dilemma:

Racism.

Not merely subtle colorism, institutional discrimination, or overt bigotry. It’s hate. It’s white supremacy. It’s racial terrorism.

Patrick Phillips’s Blood at the Root provides a chilling account of racial terrorism’s demonic evolution. A former resident of Forsyth County, Georgia, now a sprawling Metro Atlanta suburb, Phillips’s goal was to understand “the people of my home” and “to trace the origins of the ‘whites only’ world they fought so desperately to preserve.” From the forced removal of the indigenous Cherokee to the 1912 merciless purging of all blacks from the county to the 1987 attack on the Brotherhood March, Phillips details the county’s brutal and shameful heritage. It’s the resurfacing of this vitriol hatred in north Charleston and Charlottesville that all Americans should unite against.

These perplexing heirlooms can’t be dealt with by sharing cranky white dude memes or sneaking cranes in at midnight. Dr. Wayne Dyer, a renowned self-development author and speaker, said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” The beauty of this is that it works for statues and people.

At the base of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest chalet in the Austrian Alps is a museum. Nearly all vestiges of der Fuhrer have been stripped from the site to discourage neo-Nazis pilgrims. The various displays are designed for Germans to learn their recent history and to teach us all an invaluable lesson on the menace of a narcissistic cult gone mad. Dynamiting the face of Stone Mountain is problematic, but there’s merit to the establishment of a southern museum of African-American History and Culture at the site of the largest Confederate memorial in the world.

The little boy to whom “the (tar-baby) story had been told” asked Uncle Remus, “Did the Fox eat the Rabbit?”  Wise old Uncle Remus doesn’t answer the question conclusively, which is the tale’s resonant appeal. The resolution requires a willingness to turn away from what appears to separate us towards what binds us together. We must set aside our fears for the sake of hope. Compassion must be our legacy.

Beach Reads for Sand Haters

A Pair of Dark Southern Tales to Brighten Your Vacay 

A Google search of “Summer Reads 2017” delivers millions of results. Every media outlet and reading resource from Southern Living magazine to the Hahira Public Library has an opinion about what the literary society should read during vacation. You’ve got to be seen with the “It” book of 2017 — a “fresh fun departure” about an island or a forlorn beach house — or else your beach buddies may think you’re as unfashionable as cargo jean shorts or dress socks with sandals. But, we all don’t have to traipse after the cool crowd like vacationing lemmings to the pool bar. If you want to shut off your incessant workplace minds and escape but not to a place too cozy, then Thomas Mullen and Donald Ray Pollock have the tales your eerie imagination may crave.

For over a decade, Thomas Mullen, an Atlantan, has been recognized for his mesmerizing fiction. His 2006 debut, The Last Town on Earth, was named Best Debut Novel by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction. In Darktown, he puts all those accolades in jeopardy by delving into the post-WWII civil rights history of his hometown before Atlanta was dubbed the “City too busy to hate,” but credit Mullen the cleverness for weaving his revealing civics lesson into a satisfying literary thriller. Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two of the first black officers hired by the Atlanta Police Department after the police chief succumbed to pressure from the mayor and the business community eager to advance Atlanta’s case as the capital of the New South. Distrusted by their peers and the community they’ve sworn to protect and serve, the rookie policemen are drawn into a risky unofficial investigation when an attractive young black woman is found dead in a car last seen driven by a shifty white man.

The story has all the skillful twists and elements of a thriller: a psychopathic bigoted villain, a progressive white ally who must face his own prejudices, and a supporting underbelly of thugs, crooked ex-cops, and shady politicians. There’s a stiff plot point-to-plot point feel about the story as if Mullen had a giant wall of index cards and had to make sure that every story thread was trimmed square. The novel also lacks the same rebellious tenor of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. Yet, Mullen’s aim is ambitious — to entertain and enlighten — and he accomplishes both. Within the intriguing tale is an appropriate message about how Southerners should unflinchingly engage in their community to best resolve today’s race struggles.

Donald Ray Pollock’s latest book, The Heavenly Table, is also historical fiction set in the South, but like the author himself, it originates from an uncommon place. Knockemstiff, Ohio has to be as far from the beach as a vacationer could get, but that’s Pollock’s hometown and his voice. Pollock’s writing career is legend. Nearing mid-life, he quit drinking, left his steady union job as a laborer at the paper mill, and went to Ohio State to get his MFA. If that wasn’t incredible enough, he transcribed by hand fifty-plus of his favorite author’s novels to hone his craft. That’s using a whetstone to sharpen your writing tools. Heavenly Table has the same Gothic tone as his acclaimed debut novel, The Devil All the Time, while telling a more expansive story.

Set on a farm along the border of Georgia and Alabama in 1917, The Heavenly Table tells of the unrewarding life of the Jewett family. After their father’s death, the three Jewett brothers venture off on horseback to plunder and murder their way to wealth and fame. On an author’s panel at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville in 2016, Pollock disclosed that the Jewetts were such dynamic characters that they “took over the book.” Further, what makes Pollock’s novel fascinating is the convergence of the Jewetts and Ellsworth and Eula Fiddler, opposite yet equally troubled characters eking out a destitute existence in southern Ohio, ignorant of the Jewetts’ happenstance course for their downtrodden family farm. However, Pollock’s flair for multiple points of view and settings is also the novel’s flaw. There’s a myriad of locations and characters weaving in and out of the plot, and Pollock shifts time to and fro, making the story difficult to follow. But, he does it so well that it’s well-worth the narrative sidetracking.

Despite the bleak story line of both, there’s an aliveness to the novels, a hopeful force that operates in them. As in our real everyday worlds, away from placid shorelines, mountain vistas, and bucolic lake views, this positive power faces adversity and pessimism. In Darktown and Heavenly Table, Mullen and Pollock create more than colorful characters and engaging plots. They illustrate the value of faith in overcoming self-doubt, fear, and hatred, which is a noble practice whether you’re on the beach or not. With strong belief and a trusty water hose, you will get the sand out of your bathing suit.

Are Southern Rockers Still Doing It Again?

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Baby Boomers Search for Their Southland Jams

In 1975, Charlie Daniels’ hit single “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” dominated FM radio and announced Southern Rock’s commercial rule over the late 70s. Not only did Southern Rock shred its way through Dixie but also through sold-out stadium shows in the rest of the U.S. and the world from Leeds to Tokyo. Yet, what Lynyrd Skynyrd’s tragic plane crash couldn’t destroy, free-basing cocaine, disco, and whiskey-bloated egos did. By the mid-80s, Hair Metal, New Wavers, and MTV sent the surviving core of the Southern Rock success to rehab, gentleman farming, or touring smaller venues that resembled nightclubs more than music halls.

However, just as the Jacksonville-born Allman Brothers Band led the ascension of the blues-rock sound in 1969, they also kindled its resurgence thirty years later. According to Macon’s Big House Museum website, with the 90s addition of Warren Haynes and guitar prodigy Derek Trucks in 1999, ABB manifested their third wave of popularity with Gen-X and Millennial listeners. Reviving its jam band roots, they headlined music festivals around the globe. Their final “final shows” were a series of triumphant performances at New York City’s Beacon Theatre in the autumn of 2014, ending their last encore with “Trouble No More,” the first song the band ever played together. Tragically, since then, Butch Trucks committed suicide, and Gregg Allman succumbed to liver cancer, which fosters the frightening notion that Southern Rock is gasping its last, “Hell Yeah.”

Charlie Daniels’ career trajectory has modeled an arc similar to his 1975 fan base. He’s no longer the “Saddle Tramp,” passing “around the pipe and you all get high.” His current priorities are clear and admirable—God and America. Daniels shepherded the transition away from Duane Allman’s philosophy of “eat a peach for peace” to “Just go and lay your hands on a Pittsburgh Steelers fan.” A devout believer and a genuine philanthropist, he’s a regular on the Christian Broadcasting Network and now plays packed stadium shows with Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham. Almost eighty-years-old, Charlie Daniels remains as committed as ever.  In March 2017, he posted on his Twitter account, “Defeat and giving up are two different things, one is the result of reality—one is the result of just quitting. Let’s all make the day count.”

Still, the paragon of Southern rockers remains the good ole boys from the Robert E. Lee High School in the Westside (the best side) of Jacksonville, Florida, Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Free Bird” may be a punchline to tipsy d-bags, but Skynyrd reigns as the typical music fans fundamental assumption of Southern Rock. This standard presents the current form of the group with a thorny dichotomy. During their climb to the top of the live concert heap, blowing the Rolling Stones off the stage at the 1976 Knebworth Fair Festival in the U.K., the band defiantly flew a Confederate flag at every show. But, in the New Millennium of the New South, displaying the Stars and Bars delivers an unwanted message of support for racist hate groups. It’s a dilemma Southern Baby Boomers understand. In a series of radio and television interviews, the band’s current front men, Gary Rossington, Johnny Van Zant, and Rickey Medlocke, explained their decision to remove the giant flag from the stage. The group “loves where we’re from” and is still proud to be Southern, but it’s not their intent to “hurt anyone’s feelings.” Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s youngest brother, explained their choice to demount the controversial symbol, “we’re all fans of the blues which was created by a black artist, and we’d, you know, be going against what we feel and love. That’s what Lynyrd Skynyrd’s been about.”

Southern Rock bands, like their aging fans, aren’t immune from life’s natural rhythm. In reality, they only prove to validate the authenticity of the great samsara cycle. The high of late-spring afternoons spent cruising along a black ribbon of pavement with the station wagon windows rolled down and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” blaring on a crappy in-dash radio are dim myths of younger and simpler times. Fortunately, Classic Rock Radio and Southern Rock Cruises provide pensive moments where that uncomplicated peace can return, and as Skynyrd declares in “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Singing songs about the Southland” dominates our jams again.

 

Who writes the Fiction of Slavery?

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People across the world tuned into the Roots mini-series, resulting in this Time piece and also more open discussion about slavery and racism.

 

During Reconstruction, Joel Chandler Harris was an associate editor for The Atlanta Constitution and a prominent Southern author, on peer with Mark Twain. Wrens Nest, his Victorian home in the historic West End of Atlanta, is dedicated to “preserving his legacy.” Harris was raised on Turnwold, a plantation near Eatonton, GA, where he listened to the older slaves pass down their oral traditions. It was these moments around the smoky kitchen hearth that inspired the creation of Uncle Remus. According to Wrensnest.org, Harris’ Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Stories “gave voice to African-American folklore.” They further describe Harris as “a significant voice for the New South and a staunch advocate for regional and racial reconciliation.”

Joel Chandler Harris, Top. Colson Whitehead, Below. Both important writers in the narrative of slavery fiction.

 

Based on this description, perhaps it is appropriate to reconcile Harris’ racial legacy: a wealthy white man of privilege expropriates stories from enslaved laborers, ignores the abomination of the plantation life, and cast the storytellers as witless participants in their own denigration.

That view can be argued as too harsh or too tolerant. It depends on how authentic you find Disney’s Song of the South.

At the end of the 19th century, the whimsical tales and quaint illustrations had the potential to humanize former slaves in the eyes of former slave masters or assuage the guilt of a culpable public with no conception of African Americans as equals. From today’s perspective, Harris’ ability to “write the other” is an absurd failure. Given his advantageous origin, that outcome was inevitable as summer heat, but it took nearly a century for the genuine fiction of slavery to find a larger audience, a massively larger worldwide audience.

In the 1970’s, Alex Haley’s Roots shocked a country hypnotized by Happy Days and Rocky. His prize-winning novel and record-breaking mini-series duped white America into dealing directly with its forefather’s horrific past, which had never been portrayed in the hermetic incubator of middle-class family rooms. Haley’s seminal work serves as a suitable origin for African Americans to tell their tales, and his commercial success draws a logical parallel to the triumph of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

The list of accolades for Whitehead’s novel are lengthy, impressive and deserving; from the National Book Award for Fiction to Oprah’s Book Club selection. The mysterious Underground Railroad coaxes the audience to journey beyond the atrocities of the Georgia plantation era. Like Cora, the fifteen-year-old heroine, we are appalled at the truth behind the doctor’s eugenic experiments in South Carolina and the empty assertions of the Declaration of Independence for anyone other than privileged landholders. For generations, the thought of a secret network of trails and safe houses allowed whites to believe the best about their ancestors, until Whitehead forces readers to face the institutional racism, which still exists in America today. As Rebecca Carroll wrote in her Los Angeles Times review, “it is also a fiercely salient reckoning of what it means, has meant and continues to mean to be black in America.”

Whitehead’s acclaimed novel is not the only recent work that exposes the sickening truth about slavery and our current racial conflicts.

Dr. Daniel Omotosho Black was raised in Arkansas and teaches at Clark Atlanta University, a few miles north of the Wrens Nest. His 2015 novel, The Coming, has not reached Oprah Book Club status, but it should. His lyrical style and enthralling insight engulf the reader in the gruesome horrors of the Middle Passage. While Haley relies on commercial appeal and Whitehead on an almost steampunk energy, Black entices with his poetic prose. The impact of the novel is its revealing betrayal of African heritage—a proud ancestry that grieved for lost potential and survived each day despite the relentless torture. Neither, the vast ocean waters or the steady passing of time quells the captive traveler’s beliefs in their divinity. In The Coming, Black not only establishes the power of unity to fortify survivors of the passage, but he also presents a solution for the struggles of today.

The Southern literary legacy of Uncle Remus and Joel Chandler Harris are debatable. In an article posted on WrensNest.org Lain Shakespeare writes, “Uncle Remus was a significant departure from other black characters in popular fiction.” Ralph Ellison viewed Uncle Remus as a teacher, “that comedy is a disguised form of philosophical instruction.” Without Harris, we might not have Toni Morrison’s beautiful novel Tar Baby. However, the fiction of slavery is best written by those innately vested in traditional African customs, stories, and sayings. Ellison, Morrison, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, among many brave others, own the rights to the fiction of slavery—no matter the setting or the characters—and all of us should be grateful for the telling.

-Steve McCondichie

Who are the Southern Authors of the New Millennium?

Who are the Southern Authors of the New Millennium?

Flannery O’ Connor’s bespectacled glare still inhabits Southern Writing

 

Bless their hearts. Agents, editors, and publishers love their categories. It’s part of their tribal language. They are trained to promptly stuff readers and authors into the proper box. They call it a genre as if giving it a short French rolling sound makes it seem sensuous and sophisticated—like a new lover whispering in your ear on the subway. Strict classifications exist in the imprints of the Big Five World.

Fortunately, the real world exists elsewhere.

In the Deep South, where the bespectacled Flannery O’Connor inhabits every literary tick, our narrative is dynamic. We’re marching far beyond the cynical stories of the 20th Century.  Authors have dumped the askew pastorals on their asses.

In The Coming, Daniel Black rhythmically peels back the horrific truth about the slave trade and reveals the courage and pride of Africans. Patrick Phillips’s creative non-fiction, Blood at the Root, exposes decades of socially-accepted “racial terrorism,” and Southern cafés and clubs vibrate with the slamming lyrics of contemporary poets like Bethsheba A. Rem—Queen Sheba.

Cultivating new voices also requires broadening the definition of Southern writing.

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Gisele Firmino splits her time living, teaching and writing in the Southeast and Latin America. Her debut novel, The Marble Army, is set her native Brazil, but the family conflict, the rebellion, and the stirring pampas setting give it the appeal of a Southern tale. The Fontes are rooted in their fertile lowland home. Antonio, the father, manages the mine. Rose, the mother, tends her household. But when their oldest son, Pablo, is lured into the youth revolution of the 1960s and disappears, their life is overturned. Luca, the youngest, is now coming-of-age as his home and nation are tearing apart. The characters and the country are transformed but not always in a way the reader welcomes. The heartrending intrigue spans any cultural gap and links this Latin American historical thriller with the South.

Tragedy unites us all.

The people’s pain in the Kashmir Valley perplexes Americans. Sadly, most folks couldn’t point it out on the map, much less describe the regions agonizing history of colonial rule, rebel insurgents, and boundary disputes fought under the threat of nuclear war. Yet over the past twenty years, Atlanta and other Southern cities have become home to a large community of South Asians, and their stories are seeping their way into the culture. Soniah Kamal, a Paul Bowles Fiction Fellow at Georgia State University, was born in Pakistan, raised in England and Saudi Arabia, has lived in several states, and now resides in Georgia. An Isolated Incident, her debut novel, was a finalist for the Townsend Award, the KLF French Fiction Prize, and is an Amazon Rising Star pick. Soniah embodies the ideal voice of the new millennium, as Zari Zoon’s compelling journey from haunting disaster in Kashmir to the promise of renewal in America is a rewarding tale for those eager to read outstanding fiction.

Soniah Kamal Townsend Award Finalists for An Isolated Incident.

We are connected by stories of the hero’s journey.

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Yet in the new millennium, the hero isn’t always represented in a conventional fashion. Robert Chatham, the protagonist in Bill Cheng’s first novel Southern Cross the Dog, is far from typical. We follow him as boy receiving his first kiss under the Bone Tree, touched by the first rain drops of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, to a troubled man at home in 1941. The route Cheng creates for Robert is rashly unpredictable, two or three notches past quixotic, but his skillful prose and nagging imagery coerce the reader to trek alongside Robert through the work camps, brothels and remote swamps of the Depression Era South. Perhaps Cheng’s novel is so remarkably peculiar because he’s far from the stock southern author. He was born and raised in Queens, received his MFA from Hunter College and lives in Brooklyn. He’s an Asian-American from NYC writing historical fiction about an African American in the South. He willfully steps outside his box to portray the grief and passion of others. There’s not a better means to bind us all together.

–  Steve McCondichie

Celebrating the Written Word in Music City

In the hit song “Guitars, Cadillacs” Dwight Yoakam croons the ideal description of Nashville. It’s a town so famous for country music it has its own television series. The Grand Old Opry … The Ryman … Music Row.  The Music City vibes comes alive when you visit the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Johnny Cash museum, or the dozens of honky tonks staged with musicians dreaming of stardom.

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Yet since 1989, on the 2nd weekend in October, Humanities Tennessee proudly holds the Southern Festival of Books (#SoFestBooks) in the Legislative Plaza in front of the Tennessee State Capitol. The festival welcomes 60 exhibitors, 200 authors, and 25,000 visitors to the center of city that relishes catchy lyrics over literature.

Like all big city book festivals, the three-day event is crammed with panel discussions, readings and author signings, and it brings in NY Times bestselling authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld (Eligible: A Retelling of Pride and Prejudice), John Hart (Redemption Road) and Gayle Forman (Leave Me). Several acclaimed authors use SoFestBooks to promote their new fiction.

Donald Ray Pollock and Brad Watson were paired together on a panel to discuss their latest releases. Watson, a Mississippi native now teaching in Wyoming, introduced Miss Jane, an intriguing Southern tale about a woman born with a genital birth defect that caused permanent incontinence and prevented her from even having intercourse. The story was inspired by Watson’s real live great-aunt who was a constant yet mysterious presence in his family. The heroine refuses to be viewed as someone less valuable. She’s determined to forge a rich existence in the harsh life of rural Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century. She struggles to make friends, connect with her kin, and experience romance. In hearing Watson describe his work, the audience understands that this was a book he was ordained to write, despite the fallout from his own family.

The highlight of the SoFestBooks weekend was Donald Ray Pollock’s admission that when he started his recently released The Heavenly Table, the Jewetts weren’t the main characters, but they became such palatable creations that they took control of the narrative. His writing is dark and doesn’t rest easily on the reader’s mind, but he is a rising master who draws comparisons to Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Pollock offers more than the pleasure of captivating tales; it’s equally rewarding to hear about his writing life. He willing acknowledges his own wandering path, trading a safe union job and pension for an MFA and a full-time writing career. That innate drive is apparent in his relentless dedication to refining his craft. He has his writing office and a daily regimen. He reads two books a week. He re-typed 75 classic novels to genuinely understand and appreciate their use of each element of fiction. His confession became motivation.

While not as diverse as other literary festivals, SoFestBooks did offer moments for attendees to experience the genuine voice of the South. Mary Arno (Thanksgiving) and Carrie Mullins (Night Garden) participated in the Mysteries of Southern Girlhood: Two Novels panel. Each of their books recast Southern girls and women. They’re not portraying the typical delicate belle reliant on the kindness of a dashing gentleman to resolve their conflicts. That character didn’t even exist in Gone With The Wind.  Arno’s and Mullin’s novels represent the way real women deal with the real issues of drug addiction and sexual abuse. True Southern women don’t hum away their days sipping cool drinks waiting on their husbands to return home. They solve their own problems in their own way.

Nashville might have more of claim to the fabric of Southern Literature than many believe. In the West End, Vanderbilt University spawned Robert Penn Warren and The Fugitive Poets, most notably John Allen Ransom and Allen Tate. With their dystopian vision of a post-Reconstruction industrialized South, Warren and The Fugitive Poets called for a different future, one that didn’t believe in the myth of Confederate valor. They longed for a return to agrarian values, born of the land and our Creator. This is a message more than relevant for today, and establishes Music City as the ideal location to celebrate the enduring power of the written word.

-Steve McCondichie

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