For old-school southern writers, it seems, having roots in the South—being born there—is a key reason they’re classified as “southern writers.” Thinking of contemporary writers like Codrescu as “southern” is more complex. Though often intensely regional, movement is a central concern of his essays and poems.
Driving through southern fields makes visible one of the persistent paradoxes of American production: the coexistence of excess and need. Jean Toomer, writing in 1923, illustrates the disconnect between agricultural abundance and personal lack in his poem “Harvest Song.”
Whereas spring further north leaps cleanly from receding snow and bare branches, southern spring is brief and muddled with the semi-cold winter that precedes it and the too-hot summer that follows. Springtime is a liminal space where the past seeps into the present.
For a brief period in childhood, I was afraid of trees. It was after Hurricane Fran swept through North Carolina, and when the winds subsided trees had fallen on roads, houses, sidewalks. Maybe they would fall on me. And maybe trees in the South are scarier than trees elsewhere.
When does a home become so hostile that you should consider leaving? Southern writers complicate clearly defined ideas of homesickness. In states where discrimination was legislated, hate crimes not prosecuted, and outsiders viewed with suspicion, nostalgia mixes with escapist impulses, love of landscape with horror at racial violence.
Growing up in North Carolina, I was surrounded by languages half-understood. At synagogue, there was the Hebrew I read and chanted but couldn’t understand.