I am heading to Mississippi today on the train from New Orleans. I am both excited and apprehensive. I haven’t been “home” in five or six years. It is an emotionally weighted place for me. I wrote a whole book about it, my memoir Mississippi Sissy. I am no longer that little sissy boy who sat around inside laughing with the women and being just as often silently frightened by the racism and anger and preening provincialism that surrounded me and provided, it seemed, the pride in that provincialism, a kind of comfort from being judged by outsiders who saw the racism and anger and called it out. I always felt as if I were an outsider myself even though now, as I head home today, I realize, too, that I am a Mississippian to my marrow. Eudora Welty also was, as were Richard Wright and Willie Morris and William Faulkner and Elizabeth Spencer and Barry Hannah and Margaret Walker Alexander – as are Jesmyn Ward and Natasha Trethewey.
I will sit inside with the women. I will long to laugh. The longing for laughter – not the anger, not the racism, not the preening of the provincialism – is what leads me there today. Such longing itself is a kind of comfort.
“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.”
“Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness.”
His claim to his home is deep, but there are too many ghosts. He must absorb without being absorbed. … My mother’s people, the people who captured my imagination when I was growing up, were of the Deep South – emotional, changeable, touched with charisma and given to histrionic flourishes. They were courageous under tension and unexpectedly tough beneath their wild eccentricities, for they had and unusually close working agreement with God. They also had an unusually high quota of bullshit. …When a writer knows home in his heart, his heart must remain subtly apart from it … He must always be a stranger to the place he loves, and its people.
To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.
ELIZABETH SPENCER: August in Mississippi is different from July. As to heat, it is not a question of degree but of kind. July heat is furious, but in August the heat has killed even itself and lies dead over us.
BARRY HANNAH: I don’t write under the ghost of Faulkner. I live in the same town and find his life and work inspiring, but that’s it. I have a motorcycle and tool along the country lanes. I travel at my own speed. … And I don’t go around thinking about regret; regret doesn’t consume me as a person… I’m not certain about whether any writer, any artist, any musician, can write without regret, so I don’t think perhaps it’s even particularly Southern. … Some writers are curiously unmusical. I don’t get it. I don’t get them. For me, music is essential. I always have music on when I’m doing well. Writing and music are two different mediums, but musical phrases can give you sentences that you didn’t think you ever had … The point is to strip down, get protestant, then even more naked. Walk over scorched bricks to find your own soul. Your heart a searching dog in the rubble
MARGARET WALKER ALEXANDER: .. I see the country going fascist. We have been going that route a long, long time. A lot of things the country has done from its inception were fascist. But now, now I think we are in the face of a terrible fascist dictatorship.
JESMYN WARD: Mississippi is everything that I love and everything that I hate.
by Natasha Trethewey
Homo sapiens is the only species
to suffer psychological exile.
—E. O. Wilson
I returned to a stand of pines,
flanking the roadside, tangle
of understory—a dialectic of dark
and light—and magnolias blossoming
like afterthought: each flower
a surrender, white flags draped
among the branches. I returned
to land’s end, the swath of coast
clear cut and buried in sand:
mangrove, live oak, gulfweed
razed and replaced by thin palms—
palmettos—symbols of victory
or defiance, over and over
marking this vanquished land. I returned
to a field of cotton, hallowed ground—
as slave legend goes—each boll
holding the ghosts of generations:
those who measured their days
by the heft of sacks and lengths
of rows, whose sweat flecked the cotton plants
still sewn into our clothes.
I returned to a country battlefield
where colored troops fought and died—
Port Hudson where their bodies swelled
and blackened beneath the sun—unburied
until earth’s green sheet pulled over them,
unmarked by any headstones.
Where the roads, buildings, and monuments
are named to honor the Confederacy,
where that old flag still hangs, I return
to Mississippi, state that made a crime
of me—mulatto, half-breed—native
in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.