Whether you’re partial to images or prose, attempt to capture the American South and you will soon find yourself deep in a thicket of contradiction. And there, not least among your struggles will be the very challenge of defining where exactly it is that you’ve wound up. When we talk about the South, are we referring to a stretch of states below the Mason-Dixon, a frame of mind, a variant of culture, or a region sill reeling from having once ardently defended Jim Crow and the “peculiar institution”? Writing in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Patrick Gerster includes among the stereotypical characters we might encounter: Bible-thumping preachers haunted by God, nubile cheerleaders, demagogic politicians, corrupt sheriffs, football All-Americans with three names, and neurotic vixens with affinities for the demon rum. Add to this roster a host of poets, painters, farmers, freedom fighters, and citizens—scattered north and south—coping with the uncertainties of post-industrial America, and we may just begin to grasp this entity that remains in equal parts a place on the map and a place in the mind.
In this special issue of Guernica, the first of four made possible through your generous support to our Kickstarter campaign, we offer fresh takes on a familiar landscape, where the American South is at once a geographical distinction and a bright spot in the imagination, where burden vies with birthright, and where ignorance and renaissance exist side by side.
Catherine Lacey is quick to remind us: “Neither tomorrow’s progress nor today’s bigotry hesitates at state lines. The human rights issues we see writ bold below the Mason-Dixon are American issues.” Writing in this issue on the paradox of LGBT churchgoers and her home state’s copycat anti-gay bill, the Mississippi-born and Brooklyn-based author inveighs against the “nasty underside to Southern hospitality and bless-your-heart manners” that she says “encourages systemic oppression and lets old wounds fester.”
In an intimate dialogue with his mother, writer Kiese Laymon explores language, love, the enduring politics of inequality, and how past and present continue to mingle. “White supremacy and patriarchy don’t want us to ritualize the work of loving each other,” he writes, “which means white supremacy and patriarchy literally want us dead. We ain’t dead yet.” And Guernica’s Ed Winstead considers the accent in Southern writing. “‘Southern,’ as a descriptor of literature, is immediately familiar, possessed of a thrilling, evocative, almost ontological power,” writes Winstead. But, he argues, since the golden era of the early to mid-twentieth century, “the South as conceived of in literary terms” has been in statis, bound to a grit-lit voice and rural-sounding vernacular.
Plus fifteen writers, including John Biguenet, Rachael Maddux, Wendy Brenner, Margaret Wrinkle, and Jamie Quatro, consider what the South means for them, often traipsing, in the words of Bill Cheng, “a precarious position in that borderland between longing and not belonging.”
For Bryan Stevenson, working in Montgomery, Alabama, the predominant narrative of the South tries to cover slavery up, “to get rid of it, to destroy it. As if somehow, if we do that, we can make it go away.” In an interview with Guernica’s Alex Carp, the public interest lawyer discusses leading an effort to locate and commemorate former lynching sites and slave markets and placing often overlooked aspects of history back into public view. Dwyer Murphy talks with National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward on the cultural renaissance underway in the South and how it risks reinforcing stereotypes while opening up new channels of expression. Guernica’s Meara Sharma interviews the Southern historian Marcie Cohen Ferris on “food as a barometer of cultural identity,” and Henry Peck talks to the “moonshine roots” musician Valerie June about the timbre of the Tennessee landscape.
Our issue also features new fiction by LaShonda Katrice Barnett and Lauren Holmes, poetry by Rebecca Gayle Howell and Clay Matthews, and pieces on a Nashville artists’ enclave, the ethics of execution, Southern gothic on the small screen, and more.
On the South: Fifteen writers on a region, a culture, a mindset.