I’m starting a new novel. Rather I should say, I’m revisiting an old idea in a new way. Try as I might, I can’t shake this story or this character, Hollis.
Labels can be impractical and imprecise but, in order for me me to understand this story, I have to determine what it is. Supernatural. Rural. Georgia.
Voila, I have the makings of a Southern Gothic, a genre I came to realize I was familiar with for years. Now, I knew its name.
Southern Gothic traces its roots to Gothic literature of the 19th century in England. Think: Wuthering Heights. It jumped across the pond to America and then eventually set up shop in the South. Think the likes of Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, William Faulkner, etc. A present day example would be Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse series. HBO’s True Blood was based on the series. Side note: She is the only author for which I read all of her books. God help me, they are page turners.
Now with a reference point, I dug into understanding the genre and its characteristics.
I was immediately struck by the unbearable whiteness of the genre and its themes.
Southern Gothic depicted a version of the South that I tangentially recognized. The genre prioritized and captured white concerns of decay and by gone days of plantations and debutante balls. Folks, I didn’t see my first Southern plantation until I was an adult, like in my 20s. I did see many back woods, dirt roads, and swampy areas. It is a genre that capitalized on simmering animosity of modernity as it thundered into sleepy, rural towns.
But where these works saw white despair, I saw black hope and resiliency. The South is home to a significant black population. Yet, we are absent from our regional stories. If we are present, we operate as scapegoats, comic relief, mammys, and jezebels but, above all, expendable. Even in literature, whiteness is respected, elevated, and white. We, as black people, are exorcised from our history. Not only that, the South is changing. The demographics are shifting its more than black and white but, it seems, we are not Southerners.
To be black, a Southerner, and writing about the South in this way is to inherently write Southern Gothic.
I took to Twitter to voice my concerns. A fellow writer, black woman from Virginia, shared her experience of classifying her work as Southern Gothic only to have a professor dismiss it as not true Southern Gothic.
To be true, it seems, is to be white.
The South is rich with diversity but still beholden to its past. Racing toward the future but mired by present and past wrongs. It is to reclaim the adage “the South shall rise again” but stripping that phrase of its racist, vengeful overtones. It is to say it with wistful hope that the South will truly heal from its past and embrace a more inclusive, diverse future.
We are here. We are people. Our stories, too, are part of the South.
It is time to discard this tone deaf definition.