BY HEATHER C. WATSON
“Where are you from?”
The simple question seemed to be theme of the 2012 Southern Festival of Books. You heard it from presenters, participants and audience members alike. Questions about how “place” impacted an author’s telling of the story. Questions about how “place” impacted an audience member’s perspective. The geographical implications of various Southern schools’ university presses. The unique imagery of the South, both rural and urban. The places where novels were set and the places where they were written. The idea of the South as home as well as the South from an outsider’s perspective. The old writer’s adage “write what you know” was repeated often, with an emphasis on the idea that “what you know” translates to the places you know.
In Friday’s session entitled “A Few Honest Words: The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music,” Jason Howard and Naomi Judd explored the impact of Appalachia’s geography on the area’s culture, traditions and music. Time and again, amidst stories of music, food and family, Mama Judd would pause to say “Appalachia is sacred.”
Ms. Judd related a story of her initial meeting at RCA Records, which would ultimately result in a record contract that launched Naomi and her daughter Wynonna into country music stardom. As she performed for the record executives, Ms. Judd said, she mentally transported herself to her Appalachian home land to offset her fears. As they sang for producers, A&R men and studio execs, she imagined herself on her childhood front porch, with laundry on the wringer “worsher” and a dinner of “shucky beans, soup beans and cornbread” on the stove. Ms. Judd slipped into an Appalachian dialect as she described her life as a young mother, recently divorced and living in West Hollywood while longing to be back on an Eastern Kentucky hilltop. The security of home took on an almost mystical quality, conveying happiness, simplicity and belonging.
As the talk drew to a close, audience members asked the presenters why Kentucky was special for the development of country music. Mr. Howard, a writer, musician and Berea College professor, noted that “there just seems to be something in the [Kentucky] water, as he and Ms. Judd opined that the remote existence of Appalachian life led to a self-reliance that fosters imagination. The question was then posed of the presenters where in Kentucky they would take a newcomer. Ms. Judd quickly responded “My mama’s [Boyd County] front porch”, while Mr. Howard, described the unique artistic and educational opportunities that Berea provides. The influence of Appalachian heritage on the works both Ms. Judd and Mr. Howard was as clear as the mountain accents with which they both proudly spoke.
Walking through the crowd of Festival vendors, the idea of “place” was apparent time and again. University Press vendor booths proudly offered books about Southern writers, entrepreneurs and cooks. The literary dogs of South Carolina were represented, as were the literary icons of Tennessee. The icons of Southern life — from buttermilk and cast iron skillets to Elvis and Eudora — were well represented among the titles on display. It was apparent at all times that one was attending the Southern Festival of Books. All regions of the South were represented, as were all walks of Southern life.
Saturday’s Grit Lit panel delved heavily into the subject of place, namely the trailer parks, flea markets and hollows which define lower-class Southern life. The panel, which focused on the recent anthology Grit Lit: a Rough South Reader, was comprised of the book’s editors Tom Franklin and Brian Carpenter as well as featured writers Chris Offutt and George Singleton. Mr. Carpenter, looking every bit the preppy Centre College and UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus that he is, jokingly proclaimed “times was hard in Hendersonville.” The allusion to middle-class suburbs served a stark contrast to the genre being discussed. Described as the rough side of Southern literature, Grit Lit focuses on poor characters who often find themselves in difficult situations. As writer George Singleton read an excerpt from one of his short stories, the University of Georgia sweatshirt worn by a flea market psychic served as a quick map of the story at hand. The character’s geographic and socio-economic background was established with little need for exposition. You simply knew who she was. Kentucky-born writer Chris Offutt summed up the issue of place simply and eloquently when he said “I wanted to write about the people I grew up with.”
Offutt, a native of rural Rowan County, went on to discuss the idea of “rough characters” both within the Grit Lit genre and in modern Appalachian life. “Having to be prepared for an adversary — weather, another human, animal,” he posited, “led to tribulations under fire; a mentality of being expected to rise to the occasion.” In the absence of these adversaries, “being ‘manly and bad’ became ‘wrecking cars and getting drunk.'” Modern Appalachians, in Mr. Offutt’s experience, still encounter the “pressure to live and follow old codes” from family and culture. These men and women, he noted, are the basis for much of his fiction. It was quite apparent that these characters stem from real Appalachians whom Mr. Offutt knows well.
The Southern Festival of Books allowed readers and writers to connect with such giants of the Southern word as Oxford American magazine and Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books. There were endless opportunities to hear Southern writers talk about their craft. There were food trucks and booksellers and musicians. But, most of all, there was a sense that where you’re from defines the story you have to tell.