The Addictive Appeal of Southern Gothic

The Addictive Appeal of Southern Gothic

One of the first short stories I remember falling in love with was A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. There were countless things that fascinated me from the narrator seemingly being the town itself to the descriptions of old southern decay. As a woman who grew up in the south, right as economic downturns and outsourcing devastated the textile industry the aesthetic of southern gothic had an intrinsic appeal to me.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are some genres you can’t help, but fall in love with from the time you are young. For some people this happens with fantasy or romance, and often it can happen again as you grow older. Certain genres have always had an appeal for, but  southern gothic and southern based literature always finds it way back into my life with vengeance, leaving my kindle full and my bookshelf ready to explode. In short, the southern gothic genre is Addictive, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. Despite the genre often being left out of everyday conversation it manifests in some of the most remembered cultural icons of our era, even as it goes unrecognized.

Southern Gothic is a classic and often under appreciated genre with infinite possibilities in text and on screen. When it shows up it shows out, whether through Beyonce’s Formation video, or stirring controversy through The Beguiled. As a little girl, I caught a few glimpses of the movie Beloved based on the novel by Toni Morrison (amazon link below) and ,though I utterly forgot I’d seen that movie until one day I saw it on the screen, imagery of it remained in my mind. A house full of ribbons. A daughter trying to save her mother from the burdens of guilt and the history of southern slaves and freedom. A woman, nude and screaming in giggling unnatural tongue before a prayer circle. The images stuck with me as fascinating concepts for years to come even as they faded to the back of my memory.

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Fall of The House of Uscher, a great example.

The south, post-civil war, is a place where hairstyles are always twenty years behind; where rocking chairs to over look your property are sources of pride passed down through generations; where tradition and culture is complex and divided; Where people prefer to say southern history is embodied by confederates while other southerners l(ike myself) look on and know they’re much more embodied by the slaves; where people watch meth ravaged communities scream “the south will rise again” while others try to move forward; where kids can run around the neighborhood alone and often find their friend’s door unlocked and fresh brownies waiting for whomever arrive.

The south is welcome and warning; it is where long standing tradition meets long standing decay. Where the past is present, and the present is always past.

This is why I love to write it, and why I’m currently finishing a six chapter short story called The Hell I Burn Through in the genre. Mind and Frost, turned out to be a bigger project, and I’m letting an associate go through it as we speak, but in the mean time I need something to work on when not finishing up Five Days with the Stranger, so I began to ponder something to write about in-between chapters of Five days rewrites. Suddenly, a vista of pine and river came to my vision, old houses with cared for porches, children playing beneath old water towers in the summer heat, and the streets of my own childhood cast in the intense pallor of Southern Gothic filled my vision. I opened a word document and wrote a six page outline for a novelette. Within the day I had 6,000 words written, characters who I completely fell in love with.  It feels like coming home.

And yet my relationship to the southern is complicated. Perhaps this is why I love the genre in the first place.

Gone with the wind

If you were born below the Mason-Dixon it can be hard not to romanticize the south. Gone with the Wind is a racist nightmare to many modern day black folk, but even still it has a glorious and sweeping appeal. There’s something wonderfully addictive about the south’s attitude of genteel welcome. By that same measure there is something wonderfully addictive about the south’s decay. The hypocrisy of that southern style kindness v.s normalized prejudices is part of why To Kill a Mocking Bird has lasted in the public mind. As a black southern woman, I experienced southern fried racism from a young age. No one ever called me the n-word, but there were times I was followed in stores, witnessed my incredibly intelligent parents being patronized, had visited restaurants with my friends families only for us to be stared at and glared at the whole time we were there because I was there. There were things I did not understand, but came to understand as I grew older and realized “Oh that wasn’t just weird people. That damn near a whole restaurant full of old white folk and their families who don’t like that I ate there, and didn’t understand why I was with that nice white family“. The darkness of the south wasn’t something I could ignore, and it wasn’t something my parents hid from me either. Some of the nicest, well-mannered, and polite people you will ever meet are old fashioned southern racists. Unlike the north –where racism is often excused as “at least we’re not them”(them being the south)– the south continues to have a lot of normalized bigotry and ignorance that contributes to that darkness. Knowing this, despite my love of Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias, the inclusion of decay in southern society rings true to me. The romanticism still exists, but it exists alongside southern shadows I, as a black southerner, can’t escape from. Truthfully I don’t want to.

7f51e86dc6e27c3edf633bef8e3c3c2dNo matter the media the aesthetic of southern gothic is fascinatingly beautiful and distinctly American, whether a story is set in a bayou, the eastern shore, or urban buzz of Atlanta. The swamps of the bayou and foothills of Georgia all have a unique and poignant natural beauty. Fields of collard greens go for as far as the eye can see, creating unique visuals amidst fields of grass green. The physical beauty of approaching a grand old house fascinates us when confronted by the old slave cabins not quite hidden by the trees. We walk down former main streets lined with businesses with faded paint from the 1960s and 1970s, whose owners still maintain the place with pride, knowing if their grandchildren will ever come back to mind the store. Those grandparents leave and drive old pick up trucks and sedans to lovely little houses on quite, safe, streets. They sit on the porch, have a coffee and way at their neighbors as they come home from school. It is both idyllic and decaying.

A decayed and perpetual beauty. In a way the south is an atmospheric vampire; perpetually the south and yet slowly, beneath a beautiful though tarnished surface, filled with unknowns and entropy.

eves20bayou20posterWhen I was eight years old, I first saw the movie Eve’s Bayou, and that movie has stuck with me even when the name left my mind, only to return years later. The imagery of well-to-do southern blacks in their communities, struggling with position without power; with creating the illusion of southern manners against the reality of small town gossip and misunderstandings leaves a permanent impression. That film laid a similar ground work that Toni Morrison did in her novels such as Beloved or The Bluest Eye; exploring the complex and taboo world of the secrets below the Mason Dixon. Those stories, though darker than others, create a space for black diversity in fiction. Wealthy blacks, poor blacks, root workers, pastors, and people just trying to get by create a complex reflection of black history and life through the ages. Eve’s Bayou situates the audience as a little girl about to lose her innocence, with her we learn those secrets and her own strength. In that film, we learn the reality that not everything is as it seems is one of the greatest southern narratives ever told as far as I’m concerned. It’s a change from every novel, person, and genre that assumes “urban” without “fantasy” or “paranormal” attached is inherently the black experience.

Southern gothic is and always will be a genre that feels natural to me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by recent media, like Resident Evil and True Blood, truly capturing that aesthetic and culture in exciting ways. Video games and HBO? Wow. It’s spreading. But we can always do with more…and bring more attention to the power of this tantalizing genre. Then again I may just be looking for another fix.

How do you feel about the Southern Gothic? Do you read these books often or not at all? Do you prefer movies with the aesthetic? And isn’t Formation a perfect video?
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Recommended Reads!

6 Elements of Southern Gothic, an excellent post breaking the southern gothic down!

The Evolution Of Southern Gothic

Lit Reactor’s Southern Gothic Primer, must reads for the genre

My Favs?

Kindred by the phenomenal Octavia Butler, check her out (rereading atm)

The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison, one of the best author’s in the genre

Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a personal favorite.  Tennessee Williams captures the genre in so many plays.

 

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Short Story Collections:

Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South

Southern Gothic Shorts

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Reblog: How NOT to start your novel

Reblog: How NOT to start your novel

This is the classic trap most new writers fall into. I know I did. We get into storyteller mode: “once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a____ who for many years….”

Great for fairy tales. Not so much for modern novels. In a contemporary novel the reader wants to be in the story, not outside telling or hearing about it.

If this is sci-fi or fantasy, your job is tougher, because you have world-building to do, and there’s going to be a huge amount of history to get across. But you don’t have to do it on page one. Slip in the world-building on a “need-to-know” basis.

Damn this article is both hilarious and thought provoking as a writer. No matter the genre some of these themes bring me back to my high school composition class, but many crop up again and again despite writer experience. This article captures both why they don’t work and is a damn funny take on the omnipresence of Disney princess sheets. Take a look over at:

Anne R. Allen’s Blog: How NOT to start your novel

Whose Genre is this Anyway?

Whose Genre is this Anyway?

Genres are probably the most useful and arbitrarily frustrating aspects of books, films, movies, podcasts, art, or anything you could possibly make creatively. No creator really wants to think about where their products will go. Most of us just want to create and put something we love out into the world. Yet we all know the frustration of the customer, searching and searching through the weeds for the product they want to spend money on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Why can’t I find that kindle category. It was there yesterday and I wanted to find more books there! Damn you Amazon!” While Amazon, Kobo, and other search engines are constantly tinkering algorithms and site design unless something hits all the standards of a genre we can struggle to find it.

Example? I love romance in my fantasy and I love romance in general AND I love fantasy in general. If I want to find a book where the romance is a central, but not the central aspect of the plot in a unique fantasy world with a plot arising not from the romance, but something else…I have to weed through so many shifter romances and random books. The core of what I want is a fantasy book with a strong romantic through line. In fantasy I can click romance or non-romance, but both rarely find me what I want.

The books I’ve found? Generally came from fantasy sections, but outside of Kushiel’s Dart most were still buried.  This is most evident in ebook stores, but its always been a problem. As a self-published author, I have struggled with classifying my stories. However, my erotica/romances are relatively easy to categorize once I figured out how most readers did. The problem with Science Fiction or Fantasy is they’re loaded with useful sub-genres and then you have Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Contemporary Science Fiction, Space Opera, Magical realism, etc. etc. When a story crosses genres you’re pretty much left saying a hail Mary and hoping things work out.

So how do you find books you like? Fellow authors, how do you classify your books so people  can find them, and know what they’re getting?

When I started writing stories four years ago, I knew, in a very vague but urgent way that I wanted to tell “my story,” or at least the stories that were important to me: stories about the people I knew and loved, black and brown people, first-generation kids and our parents, poor people and working-class people and barely-middle class people trying to find meaning and connection and comfort.

So when I was presented with the chance to write Blacktop, a book series about a group of teenage misfits who find each other through basketball, I felt excited and ready. I’d written about basketball before, and I’ve played since I could walk. One of my earliest memories is of my six-foot father blocking my shot into a patch of wet grass.

The trouble started on the first page. I sat down, ready to catch all the great ideas coming down the creative flume, and instead I got a bunch of questions: Who was this story for, this story about a black kid playing basketball? And isn’t this kind of cliché? Or maybe the assumption here is that black kids will only read if there’s a ball involved? And so am I, by extension, by writing this series, encouraging the idea that black people are only interesting or important or valuable in relationship to our athletic skills?

This kind of thinking isn’t unique to me. Writers are natural parsers and over-thinkers. Plus I’ve known for a long time that as a black person, some white people expect a performance from me, something that might confirm what they think they know about my identity. That’s why “You don’t really sound black” actually means “I’m measuring everything you do and say against my very dim understanding of blackness.” Take all of this as understood. What surprised me was that these questions took up so much imaginative space, and did it so quickly, and were in fact so large and puzzling that they stopped me from writing anything.

Read More

 

This article addresses something that has been heavily on my mind as I engage with writing interracial love stories and contemporary fiction.

Tips for Teen Writers: From Me to Me.

Tips for Teen Writers: From Me to Me.

I wrote a lot of awesome ideas as a teenager. That wasn’t that long ago really, and though my teenage years felt like they lasted forever in retrospect I can’t help but realize how quickly they went by…and how with all that time I could have finished more than three or four stories! I was a chronic unfinisher, suffering from a dreadful case of “Great ideas and no execution” beyond a few powerful scenes. There’s so much I’d like to tell myself back then, and so much more I’d like to tell all the writers making the same mistakes. So here’s some advice that I wish I’d known and internalized back then.

 

  1. Writing by the seat of your pants is great, but you will never feel accomplished until a story is done. You won’t. You’ll fill over 30 journals, teenage D, but you will always feel a touch incomplete. Some of those stories you’ll revisit in college and after, but you have to really want to finish them and if you do you can begin really engaging with your teachers and mentors as someone aiming at publishing and not just the idea of it.  Stop putting stories aside because you hit writers block or lose interest even though you know you’ll be wanting to write the story. Keep trying to write even if its garbage. Write to an end point. Maybe not the one you planned by a point where it could end.
  2. To write by the seat of your pants effectively you have to plot. Not bullet by bullet point , though that works for some people, but you have to write out the greater plot elements: Who is involved, what are their relationships, What events effect the over all plot, and why? Answer those questions succinctly from start to finish.
  3. Don’t try to do this and end up writing an omnibus of lore instead of an actual book. Look, readers and younger me…I spent several months on a world building project for a story I never finished and developed not just basic elements, but the economic system over the last 200 years in the world. It was headache inducing…why did I do that? Because sitting down and writing seemed like a hassle and this seemed like it still helped my writing. It didn’t. It usually doesn’t. It can help you only if you’re writing at the same time. Now speaking of time…this next one is gonna take a minute…
  4. Drama doesn’t = story. I’m sorry. I know I used to love Lifetime movies and melodramatic manga. They’re great, but they have story elements. It isn’t just scenes for the sake of scenes. The element that makes the drama in those movies and manga work is that the drama between characters is woven through their lives. Most movies, books, shows, and manga fail when their love stories are one of two things…horribly cliched or the story doesn’t connect on any real level. They just sort of sit there and happen because of romance cliches, because of drama cliches, because of mystery cliches. A series of dramatic events doesn’t inherently make for a story or a plot. You don’t have to follow classical plot structure, but you should write a story not just a series of events. I used to have a habit of having stories that went: Event 1; Event 2; Event 3; Event 4; Big Event and then so on for 12 more events. The story never really ended, but it never really began. The characters didn’t really get to know each other, and in some ways they weren’t so much characters as reactive puppets.
  5. Drama must have meaning. This is a big one. I love fan fiction, and began reading it years ago with Sailor Moon and Xena stories. After a decade reading some of the best and worst unknown and hobby writers one thing that almost all young writers seem to do is thrive on drama without weight and meaning. Stories of sorrowful and dramatic miscarriages that have nothing to them than sorrow and no real sense of what that sorrow means. Stories of couples hating each other then suddenly falling in love without sense of what that would take or why other than…because the writer wanted it. Couples betraying each other and then forgiving not because they’ve grown but because one is just misunderstood and its excused because the betrayal only serves to make the reuniting sweeter; also this happens over one chapter. Nothing that happens hold weight. What separates the good stories from the bad is a world with weight. Pride & Prejudice is remembered because it is a story about love and marriage in the context of the socio-political politics of the regency era. The drama of Legally Blonde is situated in the context of what the world sees in Elle Woods as a blonde, rich, attractive, and overtly feminine woman. The inherent drama of Call the Midwife, True Blood, or Warehouse 13(All very different shows) is situated not just on character drama but in a world where those character dramas are inherently impacted by and impact the worlds they inhabit. The drama has weight, and so it feels reals. Being a teenager is high octane emotional drama…but those moments in-between and those moments where we’re just responding to the world define our stories . Life builds to crescendos of emotional heat. The betrayal of a lover doesn’t vanish in a chapter spanning a week. It takes something climatic, it takes an awareness that one was hurt and regardless love must be rebuilt. When you don’t take the time to understand what your drama can/should mean for your characters then your drama will mean little and leave so little impact. Your writing will feel young, and like an “edge lord” trying too hard to force everyone to feel because its a story so full of meaning.
  6. Don’t just try to impress people or mistake being edgy and dramatic for good writing. Edge lord, for those who don’t know, is slang for people who essentially try too hard to edgy. Some people tell funny off color jokes about, for example, assault as though to say “I’m a hard core person”. Others are constantly judgey. A desire to be edgy is very consistent in most teenagers writing. It is healthy and natural, and annoying as hell even to other teenagers. Teenage D agrees even as she loved sorrowful drama herself. You have to sit and think, and research. Read more about the world, think less about the drama and more about what those dramas mean because that will inform the feeling.

I wrote some damn good stuff as a teen, stories and scenes I’m proud of, but as you mature you learn to recognize the worst of your tendencies and that of others. These were just a few of mine and my friends. I hope you don’t take this too harshly, my teenage readers. Even if you do the things I warn against you can still have talent, but maybe my tips will help you mature your writing a little faster. Maybe you can be a bit further along than me by the time your my age as a result. I’m not old, but I definitely  wish I could make more efficient use of my time and stories by going back and talking to my younger self. In the self-publishing world having stories published as quickly and as well as possible makes all the difference. If I started really focusing in on where to improve and how then I could have gotten in on the ebook boom of 2012. I could have had several books out and be comfortable saying I had some up for sale. With that said I’m comfortable where I am. My writing is better than ever and I spent a lot of time getting to where I am.

Hopefully you won’t need as much time,

Peace and tidings reader.

How to Love a Man.

How to Love a Man.

How to Love a Man,
I do not know,
But I know how I try,
So let me try to help you,

You love a man,
When he’s too busy to check his phone,
By reminding yourself he just fell into the zone,
That you’re just looking for,
Or to make,
A show,
And the feeling of suffocation,
Gives you a youthful rosy glow,
When he feels like it,

You love a man,
By patching up his pride,
With patience,
By keeping hope alive,
Swallow your frustration,
And wait for that pin to drop,
Because he’ll either destroy himself within,
Or pop.

You love a man,
Why?
Why do you love a man?
Because he’ll drive you mad,
Hell make your rhyming scheme turn bad,
He’ll make you need and want and more,
And always he could go out the door,
You’ll wrap each other in insecurities,
And you’ll think of hanging from a tree,
He’ll say stop,
And you’ll say go,
And then he’ll treat you like a ho,
And then you’ll like it,
Yes, you’ll see,
When he holds you close or lets you be,
You’ll want to stop and do not know,
Where the hell you’ll fucking go,
When he doesn’t treat you like a ho,
When he makes room for you,

And tries to show he likes you, loves, you
“Don’t you know?”
He’s crazy about you and you’ll go
“Love me slow,”
And, yes, he’ll do it.
Yes I know,
I’ve lived it twice,
I’ve been let go,
And you’ll like it, patience or no,
And you’ll take whatever to go with the flow,
And just so you know
That is how you love a modern man,
With your time,
With your hands,
With your mind,
With all that makes you good and kind…
And then you’ll love a man.