On Being Southern, and Human

Pat Conroy died a couple of weeks ago. If you aren’t familiar with the name, […]

Stephanie Phillips / 3.21.16

pat_conroy_2Pat Conroy died a couple of weeks ago. If you aren’t familiar with the name, then you’ve probably heard of at least one of his novels–most likely The Prince of Tides, which was made into a movie in 1991, starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand. (Three other books of his were also made movies, but to less fanfare and star wattage.) As far as celebrity deaths go–literary celebrity deaths, at least–this one hit me pretty hard.

I was a fan of Conroy’s from the time I stole my mom’s copy of Beach Music. I was probably too young at the time to read it, particularly considering the themes of suicide, war, and mental illness, but the cover illustration of a moon reflected on the ocean drew me in. It held within its pages two of my favorite things: beaches and words. I was hooked.

Ernest Hemingway he was not. In fact, Conroy was often criticized for his apparent addiction to adjectives. His New York Times obituary quotes critics who refer to his work as inflated and flawed. When I read the rest of his work (once I got older), I imagined him as an uncle who drinks a little too much bourbon at dinner and waxes poetic over dessert in his descriptions of his hometown, and the South in general. In other words: awesome.

I could identify with a writer who was criticized for being “too much”: when I was a junior in high school, my AP English teacher photocopied an essay I wrote and passed it out to the class, entire paragraphs struck through, as an example of what not to do. Chastened, I returned to my fledgling interest in writing on the lookout for how to attain economy of words. But when I eventually got back to Conroy, I was relieved to find that there was a published author who had no such concerns; his passion for his subject matter might have been frowned upon in literary circles as overwrought, but for me it was proof that all kinds of writers exist, and maybe I could be one of them after all.

Conroy’s books unshackled me from another misconception, one that ran much deeper than the rules of writing as a skill. His work was thinly veiled autobiography, a canon of memoirs located in the fiction section but revealing a vulnerability all too real to be untrue. He didn’t entirely limit himself to novels, having published several works of nonfiction, but what tall tales he did tell were based not all that loosely on his own childhood, which included an alcoholic, abusive father and plenty of mental illness to go around. The idea that a writer could not only borrow, but lift heavily, from his own life was a revelation to me, the possibilities for which shot far beyond my college professor’s exhortation to “write what you know.” That what some might see as literary theft could actually turn out to be an art form tasted like freedom, and it wasn’t long after I delved into Conroy’s body of work that I began transcribing my own memories, in slightly edited form. (I continue to do so, now laboring under Mary Karr’s blessing/tutelage.)

But here’s the big gift of Conroy’s work, as well as that of his Southern literary kinfolk, Karr included. As a Southerner who grew up deep within the Bible belt, I’ve spent considerable effort (and time, including a half-decade stint in New York City) trying to shed my roots and all that I perceived they meant.

"THE HELP" 946_D_08558R In Jackson, Mississippi in 1963, (left to right) Skeeter Phelan (Emma Stone), Minnie Jackson (Octavia Spencer) and Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) together take a risk that could have profound consequences for them all in DreamWorks Pictures' drama, "The Help", based on the New York Times best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett. Ph: Dale Robinette ©DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.  All Rights Reserved.

Not that long ago, I rued my geographical origin as a liability: my people talked slower, discriminated more, and lost a war. My defensiveness kicked into high gear whenever someone made fun of my accent or wrote off the inhabitants of my region as dumb, racist, or super-religious. I often wished that I had grown up in a nice, non-descript Midwestern town that flew quietly under the radar rather than in a region known for taking its ball and going home when it came to preservation of the union (but contrarily willing to dig in its heels to defend an abhorrent institution). Being introduced to my favorite Southern writers was like an exoneration: these people, in all their talent, didn’t hide their Southernness, nor did they belittle it. They examined it, studied it, and made something beautiful out of it. In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly, National Book Award-winning author Jesmyn Ward writes of Harper Lee:

It would have been so easy for her to leave Alabama and write about other places and other people: to write a New York novel or a California novel or a novel set in the Midwest. It would have been easy for her to write a less painful, less personal book. It would have been easier for her to write a story that was less complicated, that didn’t wrestle with the propensity for some Southerners to be warm, polite and hospitable in the afternoon before they gather to torture and lynch black people at night…But Lee chose to write a novel about the South she’d grown up in, the South she probably loved and hated all at once….Those who populate Maycomb are foolish and wise, cunning and dim, complicated human beings, whether they are black or white, women or men, rich or poor.

Aren’t we all? If there’s anything that grace has taught me, it’s how deeply divided I am: flawed yet perfect, broken yet whole, sinful yet loved. These apparent contradictions, like the bless-your-heart-soaked gossip I’ve grown up around (and participated in), are marks not just of being Southern but of being human. They just happen to be writ large in our very history.

In her afterword to The Help, Kathryn Stockett writes:  “Mississippi is like my mother. I am allowed to complain about her all I want, but God help the person who raises an ill word about her around me, unless she is their mother too.” Being Southern has taught me that deep shame and pride can exist side by side–and being forgiven has taught me that neither is the full truth.

When I was in college, Conroy gave the keynote address at a writing conference I attended. My sister and I approached him afterward and asked him to sign that copy of Beach Music I’d read so long ago. He did so graciously, describing us as “a family of beautiful women.” A bit inflated, perhaps, but I like to think that on that day I recognized a fellow broken human being who was learning to recognize how redemption makes all of us–makes everything–beautiful. “I do the thing that Southerners do naturally,” Conroy once said, “I tell stories.” Reading his words, which are really just echoes of the greatest tale of redemption–aren’t they all?–I am reminded that I am defined by one who transcends my past and holds my future, not by my past itself–although it can make for a hell of a good story.



The interview linked here is from a 2013 conversation between Garden and Gun magazine and Conroy and his wife, fellow Southern author Cassandra King. It’s worth the five minutes’ viewing time–in it, Conroy radiates his trademark charm, wit, and thoughts on what it means to be a Southern writer.