I’ve spent most of my twenty-something years living, studying, and working in the American South, but this summer I’m moving north to Pittsburgh. For the most part, I’m ecstatic. I can’t wait to embark on an adventure in a new part of the country, to experience a different way of life, to meet new people, and, of course, to eat lots of pierogis.
Despite my excitement, my heart is broken—split down the middle by a Mason-Dixon line, if you will—because the South is my home and I’ve made so many memories here.
Dixie, I will miss you so much, but I’ll remember my time here forever. The South has given me so much to write about, and so many reasons to miss it when I’m gone.
Obviously. Southern food is, in itself, an umbrella term for so many different delicious cuisines.
I’m going to miss hearing Southerners argue over what “real” barbecue is (mustard, vinegar, ketchup..? I stay out of it), enjoying a crawfish boil with friends in the summer humidity, finding hole-in-the-wall places to eat the best (i.e. greasiest) fried chicken, having the option to choose grits, cornbread or biscuits as a breakfast side… I could go on.
Not to mention, the South is home to Cook Out, arguably the greatest fast food chain of all time (spending just $5 gets you an outrageous amount of food, you can have a quesadilla as a side, and they have 40+ kinds of milkshakes!). I’ll no longer be able to eat at all these wonderful restaurants, but I plan to continue making Southern food in my own kitchen, so I can be reminded of all the people I shared meals with in the past.
I know that, to many people, Southern summers conjure up an image of a fiery pit of hell. Well, that’s not far off. I grew up in England, where summer never completely guarantees sunshine, so I was extremely down for some hot weather, but I have to admit that I got a little more than I bargained for.
Aside from being drenched in sweat from June to August, the climate here is pretty lovely: in most parts of the region, we have mild winters and mind-blowingly beautiful springs and falls, especially around the mountains, where the foliage is spectacular.
As an English person, I love talking about the weather, so it’s actually fun for me to commiserate with my neighbors about the heat setting off the fire alarms again, or the thunderstorms that sound like the apocalypse is coming. (Before you ask, yes, we do have lots of rain in England, but usually it’s just drizzle—nothing like the perfect-writing-weather storms over here.)
I first came to the South as an exchange student at the University of North Carolina, where I fell in love with both my now-husband and basketball (go Tar Heels!).
But it was my time in the Southern Studies program at the University of Mississippi that cemented the region as both my home, and as the central topic of my writing. As I’ve written about before, the South is a confusing, sometimes violent place, and I think I would have been deeply frustrated here had I not been immersed in learning about its unique history, and being part of discussions for how we can make changes for the future.
Nowadays, I’m part of the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC, so I still get to return twice a year for residencies!
It goes without saying that I adore Southern literature. I first read classic authors such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor back in England, but living here has provided me with a deeper understanding of their work, plus I’ve been introduced to so many more writers that I may not have heard of at home.
Living here, I came to understand the importance of independent bookstores, and how vital they are to a thriving community. (My personal favorites: Square Books in Oxford, MS, Hub City Bookshop in Spartanburg, SC, Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, NC, and Park Road Books in Charlotte, NC.)
Also, it’s a nerdy little thrill to live so close to where a big-deal author did his or her work. (Fun fact: I completed the first semester of my MFA in the same neighborhood in Charlotte that Carson McCullers began The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter). I admit I’m hopeful that some of their brilliance is still living in the air and that, by breathing it in, my own work will be a little bit better.
As those of us who live here know well, the South with a capital S is hard to neatly define. Truthfully, there are many souths, and there is no better representation of that than the geographical variance across the region.
There’s the Blue Ridge mountains (where I accidentally stood on a snake while hiking once). There’s the gorgeous beaches along the Carolina coast (where I was savagely attacked by an overachieving jellyfish and had tentacle scars around my calf for months). There’s the spectacular greenery of Mississippi (where I had to go to the ER for bug bites—wait, why do I love it here again?!).
The South that lives in our imaginations tends to be full of traditional white houses with Greek pillars and wide porches and swings, but when I’m trying to bring the place to life on the page, I find myself thinking most often of the trees: the bald cypress trees of swampy Louisiana, the Spanish moss that hangs from live oaks in Georgia, the eastern red cedar trees that line the walkway to Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, peach trees in upstate South Carolina on the way to Lake Jocassee… Simply driving through the South and staring out on the changing landscape inspires me to keep working on my stories, novel and essays.
I’m truly going to miss living in this part of the world. Even if I don’t ever move back, I doubt I’ll ever stop writing about the South, and I’ll always call it home.
Do you live in the South? Tweet us @LitDarling!
Photos courtesy of allenran 917, leighklotz, Jack Says Relax, cignoh, Visit Mississippi, m0229
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