Continuing with the Southern Gothic theme of the last post, here is the current opening of the novelette I mentioned, The Hell I Burn Through.
Chapter One: Part One
Incense mingled with the smell of soil, salt, roses, and graveyard dust, filling Sula’s nostrils, as She sat in the darkness of the parlor. She exhaled, holding her hands out over the water bowl in front of her with her eyes closed. She inhaled again, and got a strong whiff of the graveyard, mossy, yet almost like rotten thyme and cooked spinach. Maybe it was strange she’d come to like it, but growing up around goofer dust,taken from old cemeteries, had that effect on those who’d grown up in that world. Miss Faye hated that word, goofer. Apparently it sounded far too low country for her tastes. No matter what you called it, Sula found its comfort. Somehow it still didn’t feel like she could breathe the air, despite this being her element, her birthright. The tension in the house was already thick, and it felt all the thicker when Miss Faye gave her work. But that was simply what life in the house entailed, and always had.
In her mind, Sula saw the room as though her eyes were wide open. Sula knew which way the flame of each of the twenty seven white and black candles around the room flickered, and she knew what direction Miss Faye, in her ocean blue headscarf and yellow flowers chose to pace. She could see herself too, sitting at the little table at the center of the room with the bowl in front of her, the woven dime bag satchel of whatever bodily matter brought to use to the right of the bowl, and the burning incense in front of the bowl. The bowl held filtered rain water and her reflection, which was almost perfectly still due to the bowls construction. Supposedly, according to Miss Faye, it’d been a gift for Sula though Sula was only allowed to use it when Miss Faye asked. Some people called helping themselves a gift, Sula knew, and Miss Faye had always been one of those. Well, at least, as long as Sula had been alive. Sula peered directly at herself, and realized she still had some sleep dust in the corner of her eye and that if the shoulder of her blouse fell you could see where Miss Faye had taken a switch to her shoulder yesterday. The bruise was a deep purple against her brown skin.
If Sula couldn’t do what Miss Faye wanted today? Well, then she’d be in for a world of hurtin. She had to focus. She had to breathe. There was nowhere else. No one else. There was life and there was death. There were no borders except the ones she’d been taught, and she’d been taught to break them down to find the universal connections between past and present; here and there. Somewhere a distant ancestor’s breath matched her own. Somewhere a flower blossomed. Somewhere became everywhere, and Sula breathed. From the recesses of her mind her grandfather whispered “Let yourself fall,” and she, ever the obedient girl, slipped down into everything. Before her eyes, in the dark, glitter began to flicker and there came her target, Mr. Johnson. He was a kind man to children, and often gave Sula fresh fudge from his cart for free every Christmas, and whenever he’d been by to see Miss Faye. His bald held gleamed, his once muscular body stretched from a yawn so big his fifty year old round belly jiggled. Once upon a time Miss Faye had been crazy about him, but she’d been crazier about the social club Mrs. Johnson headed.
Sula was gonna miss that chocolate and gooey fudge.
**Chapter One Part One of Draft 2** The Hell I Burn Through is a southern gothic of intriguing whimsy and fascination with the world of southern high society, african american conjure, mojo, sensuous affairs, innocent loves, and good down home cooking.
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.
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.
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 upFive 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.
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.
No 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.
When 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?
So, this is a slightly belated introduction/ post on the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2017, Mark Lawrence’s third annual self-publishing competition extravaganza. 300 fantasy novels are sent to 10 different bloggers who will, over the course of 2017, choose 1 winner. The one book to rule us all. Or something. As Mark Lawrence himself says: “There’s no […]
Today I read this opinion piece on why diversity in books is often poorly mishandled and encountered a quite familiar mantra that has never sat right with me, and that we’re gonna discuss today. I’d love to hear your opinions and urge you to read this piece for yourself.
Before you start throwing rotten mangoes at me, let me explain. I don’t think diversity in books is WRONG. NOT AT ALL. I just think that the way some authors and readers go about it is wrong. NOW THAT THAT’S CLEARED UP, hello! Welcome to yet another discussion in which I am more rambly and […]
My first instinctive reaction to this piece as a #blackgirlnerd #blackauthor #femaleauthor #contrarianPOS was “What the hell is “natural” and how do we know what “natural” is?” It is often one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it scenarios, but the whole concept of natural v.s unnatural diversity is laughable to me.
Let me tell you a little story, recently I was on twitter and came across a woman I’d been aware of before. She’s a white nationalist mommy blogger, who hopes to use her promotion of motherhood to prevent “white genocide” and she posted an image of the countries of the world. On this map were white figures to represent population density of white people and black figures to represent population density every other ethnic/racial group in the world. The captions basically were “Do you believe in white genocide now?”. When I first saw this image I wasn’t even upset or bothered by it. All I could think was “Did you…did you honestly think most of the world is white?” and instantly my mind was flooded by examples across my 25 years that confirmed that yes, a lot of people do.
And why shouldn’t they if they’re in the western world?
This isn’t exactly a common scene
Television, books, radio shows, newscasts, newspapers, and even the toys sections of children’s stores are dominated by the imagery of white people to an excessive degree. As a kid it was a struggle to find black media in North Carolina, and even when the X-Men movie came out I spent at least a half hour going through the action figure section, filled with Rogue and Jean Grey, until my mom asked a salesperson to go in the back and see if they had any Storm figures. That was a blockbuster film and still not all of the characters were available based on the perception of what people wanted and who could buy.
Diversity as a concept is deeply influenced by individual perceptions of the world even if they are not accurate. As a result the whole concept of “natural diversity” is buggered. What is natural diversity in a world where writers of color are told their minority characters aren’t realistic for not conforming to stereotypes, when constantly imagery exists predicated on the belief that white is universal and in high quantity. It simply does not exist.
With that said authenticity does and it isn’t limited to people of a character’s background being the only ones to write it. The above piece makes an excellent point, and I’ve seen much of the same where people struggle with including minorities of any kind into their work. While I sympathize with trying to create a character and struggling this is an excuse. What is it an excuse for? Bad writing at best and someone’s unconscious biases at worst. Why do I say this? Because I’m a person who is also black, and while that impacts my perception of the world it doesn’t not negate that I’m a person. I talk a hell of a lot about race because it impacts my life, because of the rise of nationalism, and honestly because I’m in an interracial relationship and if he can’t take me at my Angela Davis he can’t take me Marcus Garvey. But I remain a person, and I have friends who are gay. They are not just my gay friends, but my friends who are gay. They are people.
If you have problems with a character because they are not like you then you need to do research, and if that’s too hard for you then you need to just write something else. Find beta readers like your characters, email other authors for advice, and don’t get upset if someone says “How you asked that question and wrote this character is fucked up”. That is a question of authenticity, of whether the character sounds natural. If it is easier for a person to write dragons than asians…something is wrong, and I extend that to white people as well (but that’s not as big of an issue because white is used as the universal story).
The idea of natural diversity is an admirable one, and yes I do believe it makes sense to reflect the realities of diversity in context. While I enjoyed the black victorian soldier in a recent Doctor Who episode, the unwillingness to acknowledge that he was a black victorian soldier and just make him a soldier is problematic. To me it signals avoidance, but it still was nice to see. It was a clunky aspect of that episode’s casting that did feel forced, and it felt forced because no one wanted to deal with it. When The Doctor brought black woman, Martha Jones, to meet Shakespeare she addresses it directly and part of what makes it work is…characters respond to her race. Even in being flirted with she’s treated as an exotic dark woman. It wasn’t just glossed over. That felt natural. Not every setting, character, etc. will address race, but pretending it doesn’t exist is unnatural. In fantasy settings, and Americans have trouble conceptualizing this sometimes, ethnicity matters too. Race is noted because physical differences are noted, toted, and demonized. Over that? Ethnicity. Historically we know that is natural to people. That is an issue of authenticity.
The problem has never been that there are all white settings. I’m from the south where in the 1990s and 200s my family was often stared at in restaurants. Two years ago I was on vacation/research with my mother and a white woman did a fucking double take. She was tall like me, and she looked from my mom to me with utter confusion because two black women were in the nice part of down town because that usually doesn’t happen there. There are neighborhoods I know of that a white person gets stared at because they are so not common. At black BBQs I’ve been to a person’s white partner is accepted but also exceptionally rare. Majority asian, white, black, latin, etc. settings and places exist, but that isn’t an inherent problem. That is equally natural.
The problem has been that majority to all white settings have been unequivocally accepted as natural for centuries, creating a belief that white is the majority, which then feeds back into “It is natural to have majority white character settings as the relatable settings and cast”. The default is white, natural is white, in the west, to such a degree that people are uncomfortable with the modern reality of globalism as “white genocide” when what they’re experiencing is population reality. So this idea of natural v.s unnatural diversity is a big farce in the context of reality.
What is natural to write isn’t always actually natural, and the assumption that this would be the case or can be the case is one done with a lot of optimism, as the blogger of the piece reflects, or in more negative terms, as has been my experience.
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:
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?
Bitter memories frolic across my mindscape,
Filling it to the mid point
And then threatening to raise the tide over full,
Love and love’s past explode between my ears,
With fears materializing into loneliness,
But hey the glass is half full,
Loving many means loving alone,
Because no one wants a beggar,
“Alms! Alms for the poor”
And love. Don’t forget love.
No one wants.
No one wants to look through the colored glass of your soul,
And see pity.
Pathetically crawling, scratching,
Spilling everywhere over all your insides,