A few weeks ago, my friend Prentiss Standridge approached me about contributing to Front Porch Arts Collective's Potluck 2015 series, specifically one presentation themed Literary Roots. I was invited—along with three other speakers, a contemporary dance company, and a singer-songwriter—to talk about or present work that examines or illustrates this idea of what it means to be a Southern storyteller.
[Front Porch Arts Collective, by the way, is a local organization of artists banding together to support artists, their communities, and to help develop new work about the Southeast.]
It's altogether very flattering to be on someone's radar in such a capacity, but also a bit intimidating to be considered an authority on something as wide-ranging as the arts, or even something slightly more specific like the literary arts. I mean, I'm not quite 26. I'm not an authority on anything, unless you need guidance on how to shotgun a PBR, or the best toppings for disguising how low-rent your instant ramen is.
But this concept behind Literary Roots was—is—intriguing. To me, it's a fluid, open-ended idea--so why not? I took a crack at this and came up with a few thoughts.
To start, I think it helps for me to provide a little biographical information. After all, this idea of being a Southern storyteller posits the specificities of place, and perhaps time as well—culture, in a sense.
I was born in Columbia, SC, right as Hurricane Hugo made landfall in 1989. For a decade or so, I went to Sunday School at the church where a state convention unanimously voted for South Carolina's secession from the union. I was a Boy Scout in the church troop, and I rode in the back of pickup trucks adorned with Confederate flag stickers and a Browning Arms deer hunting decal. I swear by sweet tea, grits, biscuits, and pickled okra. I believe that “y'all” is a much more efficient and less ambiguous way of referring to the 2nd person in the plural. I went to Furman University, an institution named for a Baptist leader who preached in favor of slavery, on both moral and economic grounds. I now live in Greenville, SC, where I'm the senior editor of a regional culture and lifestyle magazine.
And yet, I feel little connection to the tradition of Faulkner, Williams, Neale Hurston, O'Connor. (I realize it's a huge conflation to lump all those writers together, since they span a gamut of styles, subject matter, concerns, and eras.)
To me, those writers are steeped in the milieu of Southern tradition. The weight of history—inexorable, like August humidity—pervades so much of what I consider to have that intrinsic "Southernness." And I do not have that weight on my shoulders. I do not have the shames and glories of a thousand Southern existences coursing through my veins.
See, I am not truly of this place.
I always get asked this question when I meet people for the first time: “Where are you from?”
I’ve heard that question so many times, and it's simultaneously offensive and humorous at this point. I'll answer by saying that I'm from Columbia, SC. Which is true. But that's never the answer the question-askers are seeking. Whether they know it or not, they're actually curious about my ethnic, racial, or cultural background.
And the answer to that query is this. I am Asian. More specifically, I'm Chinese. Even more specifically, I am the middle son of first generation Taiwanese immigrants. My mother is a Mǐnnánrén / 闽南人 and my father is a Kèjiārén / 客家人—ethnic minorities in the vast landscape of Chineseness.
Asking "Where are you from?" is hardly the most efficient or self-aware way to get at those answers. And though I know I could quell the curiosity directed at me simply by saying, "I'm Chinese," I refuse to cater to that. If we are going to address my foreignness, my alienness, I feel we ought to at least do it in the open, and we ought to do it with some measure of completeness. That means forcing the question-askers to confront the actual questions they're seeking answers to. That’s why I am absolutely deliberate when I say I’m from Columbia, SC.
Unfortunately, it's not an entirely effective strategy because I typically get this entirely different follow-up question: “No, I meant where are you from?”
So this idea of being a Southern storyteller is kind of foreign and insane to me. But I do live in the South. I choose it to be my home. And I am a storyteller. Isn't that enough?
Truthfully, I feel like I exist between places—not quite Chinese, not quite American. I blend in usually—typically well enough that my cultural or ethnic identity isn't brought up after it’s been addressed—but I don't have access to the same cultural dynamic that native Taiwanese or native Southerners have with each other.
It's an interesting position to be in—not really belonging, but not not belonging either. A professor I once had threw out this term that perfectly encapsulated that feeling. He referred to this as being an “intimate stranger.” *
This idea of being an intimate stranger—of existing in liminal spaces, knowing the customs and intricacies of a place and culture, yet not fully belonging—was terrifying as a child. It's hard to fit in. But it's also what I think is the root of a certain sensitivity, a willingness, openness, and consciousness about one's place in the world. When you belong and you fit in, you don’t have to think about why you fit in.
But when you don't, you begin looking for reasons why. Is it the way I speak, the way I look, the way I dress? How can I mitigate those things? How can I adapt, and how can I do it in a way that feels or appears authentic?
I know that doesn't sound like a terribly ringing endorsement of being authentic, or being true to yourself, and all the other stuff lifestyle brands and self-esteem campaigns peddle, but I think it's true. And we can debate the nature of authenticity as a concept, its viability or veracity, but that topic's probably worth another several thousand words at least.
[And honestly, I'm a little surprised if you've made it this far--thank you!]
Of course, not having this ready-made, "authentic" identity to fall back upon is hell when you're a kid, but I think that engenders a certain sensitivity to the way people interact and speak. And it seems to me that, more and more, there are people who don't, or can't, find a way to fit that idea of Southernness. And that, honestly, is cause for hope. I think it means that there is a way to expand what constitutes Southernness.
That the South doesn't have to remain bound by half-remembered histories and misattributed legacies. That fluidity, barrier-crossing, and instability have a place in the South. That the possibility of creative growth exists in the South. That there is a space for someone like me to tell stories about the South, in the South.
Photograph by Will Crooks / wacavenuephotography.com