From Southern Changes, Vol. 24, No. 1-2, 2002 pp. 15-17
In So Far Back, Pam got the history of Charleston, its architecture, its mores, the names of its people, just right. She also got "just right" the complex, painful, horrific relationship that existed then and now among blacks and whites in that particular part of the world. She presents it sensitively, eloquently, and in such a way that you feel that there may be some hope for us after all. She says she didn't set forth to include a moral in her book, that all she did was follow her characters as far as they took her. Well, I think that the fact that her characters took her as far as they did suggests that her profoundly insightful presentation of those tragic relationships emerged from her innate decency and sensitivity. Her book is elegiac, graceful, atmospheric, and elegant. It raises issues that we deal with today. We are fortunate to have Pam Durban use her powers of fiction to help us understand our complex frightening past.
For a short time in the early 1970s, I lived on a plantation on the Edisto River south of Charleston. The place was very old. I've seen it marked on a French trading map, dated 1698. When I lived there, the outlines of that older world were still visible: the big house on the river bluff, surrounded by live oaks; the shape of rice fields still sketched in the marshes; a row of falling down shacks back in the pines.
At the time, the importance of that place, its meaning as anything more than a world of ease and beauty was invisible to me. Nothing in my education or upbringing had taught or encouraged me to see or to understand it as anything other than the setting of the great Southern romance of the past. Growing up in the South in the 1950s, I'd been raised on stories in which it seemed to me that we white Southerners were the only ones who had lived there. And so I grew up blind and I grew up innocent of the larger story of Southern history. But I write in part to discover what I know and so I wrote So Far Back to explore and question the stories about the Southern past in which I was raised. Those stories and the innocence they often insist on, are the source of the inherited blindness of nostalgia which for so long has shaped the history of the South as it has been past down by generations of white Southerners.
I did research in all of the major Southern archives--in the South Caroliniana Library, the South Carolina Historical Society, and the Southern Historical Collection in ChapelHill. I was glad to find the stories there in those primary sources, reach beyond the nostalgia, in a million pieces. It is there in letters, diaries, newspapers, magazines, books of law, and books of architecture. Then I had to research into myself to see if I could imagine the past without nostalgia and I found that it was hard work. I saw how ingrained those attitudes were about race and history and how easily I could find and warm to them.
I set the novel in Charleston and the surrounding countryside because that place feels to me like the center of the slaveholding world and the place where white South Carolina's idea of itself was planted and grew and flourished. My intention was to bring to life that world and the world of the city of Charleston in order to question its assumptions and to trace the influence of its attitudes and opinions down to the present time. I did this not to refute or to deny what I found but to widen my sense of the South's history beyond the romance on which I was raised in order to understand my people's part in creating the story that we black people and white people have lived together for so long. In a way I wrote this book with my character Louisa's resolve not to hand the story on unchanged. It seems to me that it is necessary to know and to acknowledge the part we play in things because, by acknowledging who you are and what you have done, you break down the belief in your own innocence and that is a healing act.
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi and attended Atlanta schools. She is the daughter of a poet and a very early reader. Natasha is the future of writing fulfilled and is now an assistant professor at Emory.
Her book is not only beautiful looking, but it is filled with beautiful, wonderful poems, just really spectacular.
Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956
She made the trip daily, though
later she would not remember
how far to tell the grandchildren--
Better that way. She could keep those miles
a secret, and her black face
and black hands, and the pink bottoms
of her black feet a minor inconvenience.
She does remember the men
she worked for, and that often
she sat side by side
with white women, all of them
bent over, pushing into the hum
of the machines, their right calves
tensed against the pedals.
Her lips tighten speaking
of quitting time when
the colored women filed out slowly
to have their purses checked,
the insides laid open and exposed
by the boss's hand.
she saved, stuffed into hag
in her purse, and Adam's look
on one white man's face, his hand
deep in knowledge.
My parents met at Kentucky State College. My father was a poor white boy from Canada who wanted to go to college and got out a guide to American colleges and universities and picked a really cheap one where he could get a track scholarship. So, he rode the bus and hitchhiked all the way down from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and ended up at an historically all-black college, very surprised. But he stayed and there he met my mother.
Because I was going to grow up both black and mixed-race in the South, my father always told me that I had something to say, that I had stories that needed to be told. However, some time ago when I was in graduate school, I was told that I was too concerned with my message to write real poetry. In that statement was imbedded the idea that a message had no place in a poem. Perhaps what was meant also had something to do with the kind of subjects deemed appropriate: social justice and universal understanding not among them, being too political.
Like any writer, I love words, the sound of them, the way that they feel in my mouth when I speak them. The way that figurative language can make the mind leap to a new apprehension of things. But I have always been more concerned with people than with words. Poet Phil Levine has said, "In my ideal poem, no ideal words are noticed. You look through them into a vision of people." Levine's is a vision that reminds us that words are not mere playthings, nor are they pure sound, divorced easily from their meaning and power. We know all too well the weight they carry. I am honored then most to be recognized for using them not only in the service of art, but also in the service of justice and understanding. Cathedrals of Kudzu Pegram Harrison introduced non-fiction winner Hal Crowther:
Hal Crowther, author of Cathedrals of Kudzu, is a journalist and an essayist. E.B. White said, "An essayist can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter. He can be a philosopher, a scold, a jester, a raconteur, a competent, a pundit, a devil's advocate, and an enthusiast." Hal Crowther wears all these shirts and more. His essays are carefully constructed. They are of a piece. They are finely written. His writing is often lyric and often acerbic. It is always analytic. It is always incisive. He rejoices in spotting unclothed emperors. He gives unstinting praise where it is due. He enshrines with all their warts and faults some of his favorite authors such as James Dickey, Walker Percy, and Cormac McCarthy, and his other heroes, Judge Frank Johnson and Doc Watson. And he sings lovely songs to that god-given quintet: trees, drinking, dogs, poetry, and Southern belles. He deplores and excoriates racism. And he takes a lick at nostalgia and the myth of the old South. We are richer for his profound insights and skilled presentation.
H.L. Mencken said once that his writing was "free of moral purpose. I am never much interested in the effects of what I write. I live in a deliberate vacuum." That is exactly the opposite of my attitude toward my work. I have never written a word without that stump preacher's prayer that everyone who reads it will see the light and accept the spirit. When I look at the list of past winners of the Smith Award, I see a lot of my friends and also my idols and role models. Several, like Denise Giardina, Will Campbell, and John Egerton, are both. I always thought of myself as a kind of an Atticus Finch, a careful small town liberal who might risk tar and feathers for a principle to do the right thing, but who is kind of uncomfortable when he sees men sitting in church without neckties.
What I love about Southern liberals, epitomized by the SRC, is that they are practical, hard-working, no-nonsense liberals and they have had to be. Down here, people committed to progress and justice had real dragons to slay and real crosses to bear. They didn't waste their time or energy on the nitpicking and backbiting that provides the Rush Limbaugh's of this world with easy charicatures of liberals. Down here, our liberals want your heart and your vote. They don't want to prune your vocabulary. Liberals are a minority in this country. We can't afford to squander our capital on the Lilliputian language wars. We can't afford to appear petty or ridiculous.
"Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956" Copyright 2000 by Natasha Trethewey. Reprinted from Domestic Work with the permission of Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota.