Travel Through the Pages: The South
In a very literal sense, I have the University of California’s admissions team to thank for winding up in The South. I was seventeen, and as was popular for students at my rigorously competitive high school, regularly receiving phone calls from recruiters the summer before applying to university. I had known by then I would be studying art, but not yet where I was to go, when I received a phone call from a UC recruiter who wanted to pitch me I don’t even remember what major. I was bored, so I took the call, but already knew I’d probably be setting my sights on New York or one of the smaller art programs in Los Angeles, not a UC, and so upon hearing my statement to that effect, and in an effort to keep his commission I suspect, the kind gentleman on the line said, “ah, so you’ll be looking at Savannah, RISD, those places!” Apparently he had friends he could put me in touch with.
When you grow up in New York or Los Angeles, you’re honestly not taught that anyplace else in the world exists. So, after taking down his email and promising I’d reach back out (I did not), I got to googling, and as per his morsel of a list, started with Savannah. I was in French class months later when I received a phone call telling me I had been accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design, and went home to let my mother know I’d be moving across the country. She thought I was joking.
The American South is an indescribable place — or rather, you could describe it in a million different ways. It is atmosphere. It is history. It is magic, custom, freedom, oppression, wilderness, bitter, stark clarity and smothering sweet intoxication all at once. It is a complicated place, given its history and continuing issues of racism, conservative interests, disenfranchisement, and poverty. It is a wondrous place in spite of these things and most importantly thanks to most, if not all of the people who undeservedly suffer at the hands of these cruelties, who fight and love and thrive through it like flowers blooming in a hostile environment. To me, they are the true Southerners, and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I love other places in the world but when I am not here, I miss it.
I have not traveled the entire region (yet), though I can squarely say every inch of it is exactly Southern and exactly itself. Maps vary by technicality, allegiances, personal pride, and legitimacy disputes, but for the most part what The South (as it’s commonly known) consists of is the southeastern region of the United States that starts at the Atlantic ocean, stopping westward at Texas and north around Virginia. I live in Georgia, which falls on the east coast right around the middle of this region, but have had the pleasure of seeing a little bit more than just my front garden. When compiling this list I thought of the classics, the tourist traps, and the entire genre of the Southern Gothic, which captures the darkness of the region in both poetic and startling ways, but decided to summarize it in the way that I had the privilege of it being unfolded to me when I first stepped foot in it — as a place of magic and life changing adventure.
Big Fish, Tim Burton
When I call The South “magic,” there is no better visual representation of that definition than Big Fish. Based on Daniel Wallace’s “Novel of Mythic Proportions,” the film follows one man’s unbelievably elaborate life story in small-town Alabama through his son’s memories of said tales. The Southern Gothic genre commonly employs magical realism in depicting its darker themes but Wallace’s joyous storytelling and Burton’s trademark fantasy subvert the genre in a way that creates hope and nostalgia instead of the usual tragedy or despair. If I boiled this list down to one item, Big Fish is, at its core, the best of The South.
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
Southern stories are more often than not about large, sprawling families; a staple of the genre being the exploration of these complex relationships and how they are affected by the world around them. There are many classics I could have included in this slot but Commonwealth is the most personally striking when it comes to family stories, as I found it on a visit to Nashville where my own flock awaited me. Set in a few different places (my Southern cheat — the brood spend early summers being recklessly left to their own devices at a family home in Virginia), Commonwealth depicts the history of six siblings over fifty years, their parents around them, and the world that keeps threatening to pull them apart.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, Joel and Ethan Coen
For a true romp, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? was a film I watched just before moving south, and to many people I have joked as the reason I moved here. Tim Blake Nelson once sat across from me in a restaurant and I almost cried. A 1930s-set retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, this one has it all; epic storytelling, religious allusions, deals with the devil, stunning sets and costume, George Clooney in a fake beard, a triumphant end, and one of the greatest film scores and soundtracks ever produced.
Z: The Beginning of Everything
This tragically short lived series was filmed in Savannah, and so I was lucky enough to sit in traffic for weeks as squares were inconveniently corded off and I peeked my head over the heads of snarky PAs to catch a glimpse of the 1920s costumes. I’m kidding. A little. Based on Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, the series follows a young Zelda in her southern hometown as she meets and falls for that guy that wrote too. Ending just before the pair moved abroad, this one makes up for its cancellation with stunning sequences of Southern atmosphere, costumes that can only aesthetically be described as flawless confections, and Christina Ricci as the shatteringly talented Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald we all deserved.
Best Bones, Sarah Rose Nordgren
For starters, its menacingly sublime, self-sacrificing cover reminds me of the New Orleans bookshop I found this in, but regardless of any Southern connection, this slim debut is worthy of a read, for all Nordgren is capable of capturing within its pages. Channeling fairy tale and folklore, magic and surrealism, Best Bones carries the weight of nature, heartbreak, womanhood, family, and yes, the South in its various ways.
Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt
(Non-fiction novel, 1994)
When you move to Savannah, the first thing a lot of people ask is “Have you read The BOOK?” That’s exactly how they say it. But yes, The Book is definitely something you should read. In 1981, a man of Savannah’s social elite killed a young male sex worker in his historic home. The crime shook an entire town, dragged out over multiple court proceedings, and the eventual verdict claimed not guilty by way of self-defense. In 1994, John Berendt wrote a book about it, bringing the town of Savannah to the national forefront, and in 1997 it was made into a film starring among others, a young Jude Law. But the crime isn’t the story here, it’s Berendt’s melting pot of characters too fascinating and unusual to be real, and the way Savannah plays a character of its own much like New York or any other towns do in their own iconic stories.
Sweet Home Alabama, Andy Tennant
Did you really think I’d make a list without a romantic comedy snuck in somewhere? The surprise is that I waited this long to mention it. Oh, Sweet Home Alabama, what is there to say? One could argue the plot as a metaphor for The South as being the one, true, home to all Southerners, always ready to welcome the prodigals back no matter where they might run. Reese Witherspoon, actual Southern belle, wants to marry her McDreamy of a New York beau Patrick Dempsey. Too bad she married her Southern high school boyfriend in an act of youthful folly. Tender, hilarious, charming, the film follows her as she realizes where her heart lived all along. Not to mention an iconic prairie dress and cowboy boots ensemble everyone on Instagram seems to be trying to recreate these days.
The Southerner’s Handbook, David DiBenedetto
A crash course in Southern culture and history, featuring stories, recipes, illustrations and more about everything you could ever want to know on how to live your best Southern aesthetic life. This book taught me about biscuits, bourbon, absinthe, manners, folk art... and like any of my favorite encyclopedic anthologies, always sits nearby for a quick refresher or whole new anecdote I forgot to read the last time around.
Music is everything in The South. Like literature, the Southern music scene has its icons and its roots in history, jazz, gospel, soul, and Native and African sounds. Country music is unmistakable. My favorite Southern music diffuses tradition and presents the spirit as it exists today; when I hear a new act for the first time my only requirement is, “does it sound like the region feels to me?” The most resounding YES comes from these three* artists, as they each take the genre and make it their own, each express that indescribable quality and experience of a certain kind of life, Southern or not, and each make me fall in love with them, and The South, just as deeply every listen as they did on the first.
(I’ve linked my favorite albums but their entire catalogs are worth checking out!)
*I swear I tried but I could NOT narrow it down.
Kara Walker & Michael-Birch Pierce
Both Walker and Pierce technically attended my alma mater, but I don’t believe this makes me biased toward any of their talents. Kara Walker is a multimedia artist, though mostly known for her large scale silhouette cut-outs (a recent New Yorker cover features her illustrated portrait of the late Toni Morrison). Taking over entire walls and spaces, her cut-outs follow narratives and bring to the surface the reality of African American history in The South, in a jarring whimsy that confronts the viewer while compelling them to keep watching. Her most notable cut-out installation, entitled Gone, An Historical of a Civil War as it Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart (1994), depicts Walker’s interpretation of the novel Gone With The Wind, as she reconciles its inherent racism with its celebrated romance and her own preconceptions and fascination with it.
Michael-Birch Pierce is a textile artist, most notable for their mixed-media hand embellished works featuring found objects such as antique jewelry, mirrors, vintage lace and furs, combined with leathers, fabric, or velvet and covered in original embroidery, glass beads, sequins, and stones. They have also worked in clothing and large scale installation involving sequins of their own invention. (Fun fact, on a visit to Savannah once, I hosted them in my tiny apartment and was compensated in a handful of said sequins for my own keeping.) Euphoria (Spanish Moss) (2012) is my favorite work not only by Pierce, but possibly of the whole Southern genre. As far as plant life and nature in The South, there is nothing as quintessential as Spanish Moss. It weightlessly envelops the region and springs up everywhere unprompted — Pierce’s machination of this modest growth into oversized, candy-colored wonders to me represent The South in all of its ambitious fun-house exaggerations, expectations, and radiant poignancy. It is magic in its purest form.
As promised, I’ve delivered what The South means to me, but no literature would possibly exist without its forebears, and so should you wish to immerse yourself in some classics, look no further than the works of Flannery O’Connor, Harper Lee, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston, and Carson McCullers. For the best description of Southern weather, the opening chapters to Zelda Fitzgerald’s Save Me The Waltz are my favorite.
There has been a recent resurgence in attention to The South as a setting and as a catalyst for storytelling. To that effect many great contemporary works have come about worth mentioning too:
The Little Friend by Donna Tartt
Florida by Lauren Groff
Mostly Dead Things by Kristen Arnett
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray
Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl
Raquel Reyes is Creative Director at The Attic on Eighth. She enjoys styling photo shoots, dramatic hair accessories, and old fashioned cocktails.