You can call me G.R.I.T.
And I will not sneer, for grit is in my blood,
and on my plate.
I am made up of these parts:
Let’s start with the leaves,
always the leaves, the maple, the oak, the
cologne of the pine, the delicate pink-white of the dogwood,
the crunching the crackle the whisper of burning leaves
(my Papa burned leaves in a huge metal can
the smell will stay with me the rest of my life)
I am a song of the south, I am
I am Georgia.
I the peach, juicy and heavy with nectar,
I am roasted parched peanuts at the flea market some morning,
heady with dew, a light fall breeze
Vidalias sweeter than apples,
Co-cola in a glass bottle, crusted with ice
I am humidity
I am rock, honey, wood, bone.
(Let us not forget the buried dead, the mountains and the creeks that house their bones; they were here before)
I am a Song of the South.
I am Georgia.
The clay of our earth so orange, it permeates, it stains
It rusts, our history
You can never wash it off, it is you, it us all of us.
I am the mountains, the sea, the cobblestone street,
I am Sunday School with butter cookies and divinity,
and soft-haired ladies with softer voices.
but softness does not disguise the pain, the violence,
lest we not forget, that war was fought and lost and we were on the wrong side, the wrong wrong wrong side
152 years is not so terribly long, but is incredibly long
to still be lost
I am a Song of the South, I am.
I am Georgia.
Here is what I am not:
I am not your flag.
I am not bars, or stars, or X’s or O’s –
I am not afraid of where angels tread.
To admit privilege does not wound me,
it frees me.
I am not married to the past.
I do not value history over pain.
I am not your hoods, your crosses,
your monuments of losses.
I am not just one color, one creed, one twang.
I do not seek to raise the dead,
and bend them to my will.
I am not a torch.
I am not a gun.
I am a butterfly, orange against the dusk.
I am the mountain tree, bending to the sun.
I am the firefly, lighting against the dark.
I am the peach, giving way to sweet.
I am the song of the south, I am.
You want to know that song
(but bless your heart)
You have forgotten the words
and cannot sing.
It has been a month, or thereabouts, since I’ve posted any content on this blog. I feel bad about that, but I did warn you all…
I haven’t really been in the spirit of self-promotion or blogging lately, and haven’t written much, to be honest. I did manage to win NaNoWriMo this year, rounding out at 50k words somewhere around the 18th of November. And I’ve been steadily plugging along on the novel, doing a tad of editing and revising here and a good bit of writing there. I’m nowhere near done. I’ve written 103 pages and I’m halfway through the novel (and that’s being generous). I do this. I know I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway. I am much too wordy, I write far too much, and then when it’s time to cut, I scream and rail against it.
I do very much enjoy what I’ve got so far, though. It’s drastically different than anything I’ve ever written, so much more so that it makes me incredibly nervous, far more nervous than I was while writing Aroha– which is weird, because that was a work from my heart that was ten years in the making, and due to the subject matter, really should have given me fits. It did, but not like this novel does. I want so desperately to get this one right, to really say something with it. I suppose I want it to mean something. I feel a tad overwhelmed, and out of my element.
My beloved David Bowie, who I will quote every time when given half a chance, always said that when you’re just out of your depth, that’s when you produce your best work. I hope that applies when it comes to me. I’m treading water in the deep end right now, and those words are my floaties.
For the past couple of days I’ve been trying to think of what to write, what sort of post I could do that is relevant to what’s going on in the world right now, how I’m feeling about things, the holidays, etc. But I’ve come up blank. All I’m working on creatively is this, and I’m not much in the headspace to write thinkpieces right now. We’re all just so tired, aren’t we? So I decided instead, as my little holiday gift to you all, to post a tiny snippet from the prologue of my novel. This is likely the only excerpt I will post, as I’m holding this one a lot closer to my chest than my other writing. It is still becoming.
I give you O.T. and Walt, twin brothers from Five Forks, my brain babies, for whom I have very high hopes. And I would love to hear your feedback.
For the past several months I have been submerged in the world of 1930s rural Georgia. My brain is currently residing somewhere between the blue tinged mountains of North Georgia and the shaded, gothic slope of Milledgeville. I have loved every minute of this research, and I am in such a screaming hurry to start on my novel that I can barely stand it.
It has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, immersing myself in the writers of the day – Flannery O’Connor, Erskine Caldwell, and writers like Alice Walker and Olive Ann Burns, who did not grow up during that time period but still capture it so well. I have to say, though, that after you’ve read a good deal about the time period, about the plight of rural farmers during the Great Depression and the various issues that plagued them (exploitative sharecropping/tenancies, pellagra, strained race relations, extreme poverty, mental illness, to name a few) it can start to wear on you. The bleakness of the literature from this time period is so heavy, so starkly realistic, that it is an ache in your gut. There are no heroes here. No redemption. No hope.
The brilliant satire and dark parody of Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell work so well because of the utter depravity and hopelessness of the time. It seems grotesque to laugh at a scene in which a starving family fights over a stolen bag of turnips, and the chuckle that escapes your mouth does so behind your hand, because you’re ashamed. Both authors, Caldwell especially, were ripped to shreds by the public and often had their works banned, because of the light it shined on the shameful truth that so many wanted buried and forgotten.
One of those shameful truths that we’ve seen whitewashed, spit-shined clean and presented as something else entirely is the legacy of one Eugene Talmadge, the former Governor of Georgia (1932-1946). Most people, even native Georgians, barely know who he was, other than the fact that a road or two was named after him. The history books attempt to paint him as a charismatic and noble figure, or at the very least, a neutral one.
It isn’t the case. Talmadge was at best, a charming demagogue who played on racial and economic tensions of the time to rise into power. At worst, he was a dangerous white supremacist who actively tried to keep his foot on the neck of the African Americans (and poor whites) whom he governed.
During his tenure as Governor, Talmadge stoked fires of racial tension by jailing those who dared to assemble in protest, actively courted the KKK (they sent flowers to his funeral), prevented the University of Georgia from integrating and admitting black students, favored low wages and cheap labor, and went out of his way to denounce anything “socialist”. He was an outspoken opponent of FDR and was adamant against Government programs like Social Security. He spoke often of how poor people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, and was in favor of tenant farming and sharecropping. He also meddled in the affairs of Central State Hospital, one of the locales of my novel, to the detriment of the patients who were already forgotten and abused members of society.
In addition to being racist, he was also ableist, often mocking President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his wheelchair and suggesting that a President with a disability could not competently lead.
“[People cannot] respect a man who can’t walk a two by four.” – Eugene Talmadge, on FDR.
Talmadge was well known for his sweeping, genteel manner of speaking, for his bluntness (“he tells it like it is”), and for his ability to charm even those who he was actively campaigning against. Known as “the Wild Man of Sugar Creek”, he took great pride in his popularity and used it to his full advantage. He Governed for well over a decade with an iron fist.
In reading about the time period and this man in particular (and finding out that members of my own family were avid supporters of his), it isn’t particularly shocking that he would rise so quickly to success. The Great Depression was a time of desperation and madness, with whole families so deep into poverty, literally starving and succumbing to disease, that they eventually became apathetic about their own futures. The future was an abstract concept, a dire possibility if possible at all. Talmadge was wily and smart enough to play on this desperation, to understand that hope wasn’t enough – he had to play on fear, also. Fear of being “licked”. Fear of being the lowest common denominator. He used the deeply-buried hopes of people that their lives still meant something, and convinced them that the only way to get back to “glory” would be by stepping on the backs of blacks and poor whites and taking back what had been stolen from them. It worked.
I see this same sort of thing playing out today, and I shake my head. Watching history repeat itself when we’ve learned these lessons so many times before (after all, Eugene Talmadge is just one small pebble in a bucket full of them) and yet still fall for the same old thing. We let our heads be turned, we fall for the lies, the propaganda, the bunk. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, said the Great Wizard of Oz.
I didn’t set out to write this new novel as allegory, but I guess I’ll go where the tobacco road takes me.