A Taste of Southern
By Debbie Lindsey
Blues, BBQ and Buddy—that was the theme of our Memphis road trip. Our guide book was Smokestack Lighting by Lolis Elie, the compass was set to Elvis, and the airwaves provided the Blues. A pilgrimage to Graceland, paying homage to every barbeque shack, joint and diner along the way were the high points of Boyfriend’s vacation. I was pretty much on the same page of that menu too but with one added quest—to visit Buddy’s Mississippi hometown of Itta Bena. Who the heck is Buddy? Well I am glad you asked.
Some years back, attending my first Tennessee Williams Literary Festival I happened upon a panel discussion moderated by Rex Reed: Southern Wit and Wisdom. There was the usual mix of questions and answers but with these guys there is always the promise of crazy-anything-goes-free-fall conversations and of course Mr. Reed knew how to steer it in that direction. One of the panelists was a writer by the name of Lewis “Buddy” Nordan. “Buddy”—does it get any more Southern? Well yeah, “Bubba” maybe. Anyway, despite my lifetime of living in the South, I felt like a visitor, and these drawling, eccentric bunch of writers were jaw-dropping funny and well…nuts. I felt like the straight-laced cousin away for a long time in the “big city” and coming home to face a culture and people I had totally forgotten. I loved them. And from then on found that my own writing would shift in a more southerly direction.
For several New Orleans Tennessee Williams Literary Festivals to come I would hear these writers and others of similar lineage speak and spin tales about their dysfunctional and larger-than-life childhoods that lead them to fictionalize those experiences onto paper. Some wrote memoirs proving the old adage that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Mr. Nordan’s books would find a home on my bookshelves rather quickly along with others of this genre of audacious story telling. But it would be Buddy’s stories that got under my skin the most, the deepest.
Nordan’s Wolf Whistle should be considered required reading. It is a fictional telling of the Emmett Till murder (a black boy’s death that would shock and burden a nation—Mrs. Till insisted that her son’s casket be open for viewing and with that Ebony Magazine used their cover page to document this atrocity with a photograph of Emmett’s battered face laid to rest). Effortlessly this lyrical novel shifts from the hideous to hilarious, albeit a nervous laughter since the dark humor was threaded awfully close to the tragic and deeply disturbing violence of racism.
I remember one morning at CC’s Coffee Shop my girlfriend and I were talking about books and writing when I showed her the novel I was not going to finish reading—Wolf Whistle. “It’s just too disturbing, but wait let me read this one passage.” And there I sat reading aloud one paragraph after another. The sheer magic Nordan could invoke from deep in the Delta and along the muddy roads where his characters struggled and salvaged through life was utterly compelling. After reading my highlighted passages to her I realized I had to finish this book, no matter how perturbing it might be.
“When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy”—were the first words I remember hearing from Kaye Gibbons. She too was one of the Festival’s repeat guest panelists. I believe it was a panel titled Southern Gothic—Is it Real? Well with an opening line like hers I’d say hell yeah. Those thoughts were from Ellen Foster the heroine of the novel bearing her name. We learn quickly that this child is no more a murderer than you –except Kaye Gibbons speaks it with such a matter-of-fact complicity that you stare open-mouthed for a second. Her dry dark humor told me that I had to read everything she’d ever written. Her Ellen Foster would become my contemporary To Kill a Mockingbird and this child would win my heart just as Scout, Jem and Atticus did.
Southern stories, like those of Gibbons and Nordan, are flavored with the elements of gothic—a darkness that permeates much southern literature. Is this the South or simply the human condition? I am reminded of a dark bitter chocolate ice cream infused with hot peppers. First you taste sweetness but then the darkness brings on the bite and from behind you are hit--half expecting, half lost in the sweet--with pure heat. You are a bit put off at first but then you realize the elements are mixed and there is no separating them.
I hope to be in the audience of Ms. Gibbons again and to thank her for her work. And I am glad to have walked barefoot in Buddy’s hometown—well worth the drive.
Lewis Nordan, Writer Who Spun Lyrical Tales, Dies at 72—The New York Times 2012.