Adapted from keynote address presented at the Red Clay Writers Conference, Kennesaw, Georgia, 9 November 2019
Southern literary giant Ernest Gaines was born in 1933 in pre–Civil Rights Louisiana. There was no high school for him to attend there and, at the time, in the segregated South, few public libraries were available to African Americans outside of major cities. In 1948, Gaines would leave for California in order to attend high school, and he would also go to the library for the first time. In California, Gaines would later publish his first two stories and go on to receive a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship and also a Guggenheim. That fifteen-year-old boy who couldn’t attend a library in Louisiana had found his literary feet and success in California, and yet he said, “My physical body had gone west to California but my soul stayed [in Louisiana].” Gaines would return to Louisiana in 1981 and would remain there until his death in 2019.
And so in Gaines we find a nod to the world of setting beyond mere place. Instead we see a setting divided into physical geography and emotional geography. Can one be in two places at the same time? As writers we know that we can be in a million places simultaneously and that it is in the coalescing and colliding of all these places within us that our unique stories are birthed. I doubt many writers decide their stories’ location(s) with a throw of a dart at a map. Even fictitious locations are based in some reality, be it Gaines’s Bayonne, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi, or in my novel Unmarriageable, Dilipabad, which is modeled on many small towns in Pakistan. All of Gaines’s eight novels are set in Louisiana. Did he try to write about California? If yes, why? And if not, why not? What is it about certain locations that captures the thematic heart of a writer’s imagination?
But perhaps more vital than physical location are a writer’s emotional coordinates. When I say “Paris, Karachi, New York, San Juan, Mogadishu, Warsaw, London, Beijing, Istanbul, Damascus, Gainesville,” surely all of you have an emotional reaction, even if it is apathy. When I say “the American South,” what comes to your mind? For me it’s kudzu, which I noticed for the first time as my family drove into Georgia, a U-Haul attached to the back of our car. It was raining hard, and the gleaming Georgia freeway was edged with trees that had walls of vine growing around their trunks. It looked like something out of “Sleeping Beauty.” I thought it was beautiful. I did not see it in suburbia, and it would be months before I ’d ask a neighbor, who was into gardening, if he knew what that vine could be. Kudzu, he said. He wasn’t sure how to pronounce it. But, he added, it’s not native to Georgia. I looked up the pronunciation online: kud-zoo. According to online sources, “Kudzu is native to Japan. It came to the U.S. in 1876 as an ornamental and a forage crop plant. Southern farmers planted kudzu to reduce soil erosion. Kudzu grows at an incredible speed. It is edible. Leaves, flowers, roots, everything except the vines.”
I told my neighbor all this. He shrugged. Indifferent, really, though he did say he was not interested in eating that stuff.
How many years does it take for a place to become home? How many years should it take? What is so important about having a home, feeling at home, being at home? Is home just an equation of time plus an address? While readers may well seek stories in order to search for answers to these questions, as writers we know that sometimes, oftentimes, there are no answers, there are just stories about lives lived in places and stories about hearts yearning for elsewhere.
One definition of immigrant is “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.” When does the country stop being foreign? Does the foreigner ever see himself as native? Does your self-definition count more than how someone else may define you? Did Ernest Gaines see himself as a foreigner, a stranger, in California? What impact may Gaines’s years in California have had on the people he met there? On his writing? Even if his heart was in Louisiana, his body was yet walking and talking through California, buying California-grown groceries to prepare Southern meals—or, to be more specific, because as writers we know specificity is everything—the Southern meals of Louisiana. In food, at least, his physical and emotional selves would have met.
I have been living in Georgia for years and years, and my mother’s Kashmiri dish of mustard greens now uses Georgia-grown collard greens; my father’s favorite dish of daal chawal, yellow lentils and rice, is a creamy substitute for black-eyed peas and rice; cornbread is simply makki ki roti, a flat round bread made of corn; and sweet potatoes so happily turn into aloo tikkis, meaning potato cutlets. What is foreign for one is home for another, and when the two combine, it turns out it’s just a hot nourishing meal on the table, and this is writing the immigrant Southern in the New South.
The South does not know how very responsible I hold it for my marriage. During the spring break of my junior year of college in D.C., I visit an aunt living in Marietta, Georgia, where a proposal is foisted upon me. I’m told a family is driving in from Florida to take a look at me to see if I’m a suitable girl for their boy, and this is how I find out that Florida and Georgia are neighboring states. The family arrives with a bag full of Florida-grown oranges, and suddenly I’m on a quest to find Georgia-grown peaches, but it is 1995 and, despite all the roads named Peachtree, not a peach tree or a peach is in sight. The boy likes the look of me and so do his parents (as a girl, no one cares whether I like the look of them). The next day he takes me out to lunch, where, in a desperate bid to banish him, I rely on a statement Pakistani girls are too often told, which is “do whatever you want after marriage,” and announce that my dream in life is to become a stripper. It works. He flees. I will go on to administer the “stripper test” to subsequent suitors. One man will finally pass and I will marry him. So it is that my marriage story begins in Florida and Georgia, and this is my first personal instance of the immigrant Southern in the New South.
One of my favorite short stories, “Everyday Use,” is by Alice Walker, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Color Purple is set in Georgia. Alice Walker is an American author. Alice Walker is a Southern author. Alice Walker is an author from Georgia. The story “Everyday Use” is set in the rural Deep South. It is about an heirloom quilt and whether Mama will give that quilt to her quiet daughter Maggie, who has never left home and plans to one day use the quilt to keep herself warm, or to daughter Dee, who has long left home and renamed herself Wangaro and is back for a visit with her boyfriend, who greets them with “Asalamalakim”; Dee-Wangaro wants the quilt in order to hang it on her wall.
The first time I read this story, I put my hand over my heart. “Everyday Use” was about home and family and distances and legacy and memory and commemoration. I was “Everyday Use” and “Everyday Use” was me. Alice Walker is an American author. She is a Southern author. An author from Georgia. All of that matters. None of that matters. She was from everywhere and nowhere, which is not true, because we are all from somewhere. She was story and she was light and life and enlightenment. And so I learn: There is no single story, but there are stories that can show us we are all one.
Alice Walker led me to Zora Neale Hurston and Walker’s essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.” Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, and would die in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Florida, with no funds for a funeral. Hurston was a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance in New York as well as of the South, meaning she ’d covered lots of ground and territory and came and went and had a fluid identity with physical and emotional geography. The church people in Hurston’s hometown thought she was “pretty loose.” I have a thing for fellow women labeled “pretty loose.” The good folk of my hometown thought I was pretty loose too and probably still do, and I still don’t give a screw.
Hurston died in obscurity until Alice Walker, in a quest to find Hurston’s unmarked grave, walked across snake-infested fields in search of it, found it, installed a tombstone, and wrote an essay about it. Perhaps I was inspired by Walker’s journey, but years later, I would finally go in search of Pakistani icon Saadat Hasan Manto’s home in Lahore, Pakistan. I had an idea of the general vicinity, but cities change and memories fade, and it was after hours of driving up and down roads one gray Sunday morning that I would find his home by sheer fluke, one of those coincidences that if you put into fiction people will simply not believe. I would find a semicircle of flats and beside double doors a blue name plate: Saadat Hasan Manto / Short Story Writer / 1912–1955. Like Ernest Gaines, whose Southern roots informed his whole life, one could safely say that Manto was a writer split into two by the 1947 partition of the Subcontinent into Pakistan and India, his body in Lahore, Pakistan, but his heart beating in Bombay, India. Manto would die of a broken heart. Perhaps he considered himself homeless. But here was his home, and I entered.
Two years later, I would revisit Manto’s home. Pakistan not being up there on preservation of cultural heritage, his home had recently been sold to a cell phone company, but the blue name plate was still there. I would beseech the company employees to request the owner never take it down. I stressed the importance of Manto, of home, of history, of memory, of commemoration. They assured me that the building could fall but the name plate would remain. The next year, when I visited yet again, the name plate was gone, and I remember instantly thinking of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston and a grave that now had a tombstone. This is writing the immigrant Southern in the New South.
When I think of a film that teaches the most about the South, I do not think of Driving Miss Daisy, or Steel Magnolias, or Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Instead, I think of My Cousin Vinny, that joyful farce about “no place like home,” in which strangers come to town and are forever changed and neither is the town left the same. Perhaps I should have started out by asking what it even means to be Southern in the South? Many years ago, having newly arrived in Georgia and eager to find literary community, I volunteered at the inaugural Decatur Book Festival, where I attended the panel “What Does It Mean to Be a Southern Writer?” The panelists could not decide. Old South was slavery and pre–Civil War. New South was industrialization and post–Civil War, as well as Civil Rights. Magnolias came up, steel and otherwise; so did moonlight and moonshine and the shifting of place and legacy in a South between old and new. The discussion centered on a white South and a black South, their combined South; immigrants did not come up at all.
Writing and publishing came up and with it the indignant “they want to keep the South South” as panelists discussed the meaning of “Southern” for New York publishers and how New York editors did not want fresh stories, but rather insisted on certain tales and tropes. I scribbled notes: Old South, New South, South South, New York, expectations, stereotypes, clichés.
A few years on, my literary journalism would have me reviewing books set in the South and interviewing the authors, and I would get a sense of the hackneyed: haints; ghosts; Southern hospitality; Prohibition; bootlegging; frilly debutantes and their frippery; drunks and naïve fools; rural kids who despite useless parents fend for themselves; a wise old woman or man; unhappy love stories involving gentleman callers with rogue souls and hearts of gold; black vs. white; getting along; not getting along; fearless Martin Luther King, Jr.; brave Rosa Parks; broken Zelda Fitzgerald; never-to-be-broken Scarlet O’Hara; mint juleps clutching aged pearls; bored young housewives drinking one too many in the afternoon as they said mean things about neighbors in roundabout ways; and “why don’t you sit down and keep quiet, dear”—Blanche DuBois’ perfume hanging over everything. But it wasn’t until a few more years later, when one of my many literary agents would be trying to sell my debut novel, An Isolated Incident, to New York publishers and one of the rejections we got said, “Would a Pakistani family in the U.S. really be eating so much pizza?” that I not only got the “they want to keep the South South” but saw the connection between stereotypes, whether expected of a Southern writer or an immigrant writer.
That got me thinking of what might be expected of the Immigrant-Southern, the immigrant writer of the South, by which I mean all the clichés of the South combined with all the clichés of immigrant life, in my case a South Asian/Desi Diaspora/Pakistani/Muslim immigrant experience. What preset notions of immigrant angst, assimilation adventures, model minorities, generational culture clashes, fresh-off-the-boat tropes, mangos-monkeys-mystics-masalas, and other presumptions might I be expected to include in my work? Let alone publishing gatekeepers, even everyday neighborly encounters come with assumptions: “Where are you really from? Why is your English so good? But don’t you all have arranged marriages?” I do not fit the narrative and—bless my heart—I refuse to squeeze into a preset shape. This too is writing the immigrant Southern in the New South.
It was at that panel that I first heard the term New South and I mistook it to mean a South that immigrants were making new and vibrant with their diversity and cultures, thinking that the New South was beyond black and white, that the New South was a place with room for everyone. I thought of it as the New New South. In Georgia you will find Americans who are originally from Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Vietnam, South Korea, China, Syria, and more. In fact the city of Clarkston in DeKalb County, Georgia, is called “the most diverse square mile in America” and “the Ellis Island of the South.” A few years ago at an event celebrating Clarkston, I was invited to read a poem, “Face this Face,” about how my face seems to fit the contours of so many countries. In the poem, I mention the white man in my local Starbucks who continued to greet with me a merry “Namaste” even after I told him I was not from India, and neither was I Hindu, and that if he was fond of greeting people who looked unlike him with something other than a “hi,” then he needed to greet me with “aslamailaikum.” He did, all of once, and then returned to Namaste. I started to call him “Starbucks Uncle,” Uncle being the term in Pakistan one uses for elderly gentlemen, and otherwise. This too is writing the immigrant Southern in the New New South.
When California saw Louisiana transplant Ernest Gaines, who did it see? Transplant is an interesting world for a migrant who moves from one state to another state; did Gaines see himself as a “transplant,” plucked from one soil, planted into another, surviving, thriving? When I look at the South, I see familiarity in old-school traditions in which good girls are not tomboys and the best good girls are demure and dainty and behave themselves and want little more from life than a husband, home, and children, and if they do want more it’s only after a ring on their finger declares their duty done and that most important of labels won: Mrs. Wife.
However, when the South sees me, what and who does it see? The answer would probably depend on which South I was looking at, Old South, New South, New New South, a religious South, an irreligious South. I think of representation, gatekeepers, power, inclusion, neighborhoods, girls with hyphenated names like Sue-Ellen and Sarah-Beth, and identities that are hyphenated, like Southern-hyphen-American and Pakistani-hyphen-American and Pakistani-hyphen-Southern-hyphen-American. I think of that reading I attended where an elderly white woman with blue-tinged silver hair spoke up from the audience to tell the white novelist on tour whose novel was set in the South and who considered herself a Southerner that she was not Southern at all. Then the elderly woman turned to a black writer in the audience, whose husband was from Mexico, who had earlier shared that she was a decades-ago transplant from the North to the South and that her children were all born in the South. No, the elderly woman said firmly, they ’d never qualify as Southern, it wasn’t going to happen, never ever, poor dears.
Some instances of Southern hospitality when I moved to Georgia:
“Don’t leave the perimeter after dark. They shoot people who look like you.”
“I tried to become a member of this country club back in the sixties, but they had a no-Jews-allowed policy then. They wouldn’t have let you in either.”
“Go back where you came from. And take your kids with you too. We don’t want the likes of you here.”
The immigrant Southern in the New New South is your neighbor at dusk calling her children in an Indian accent, “Y’all need to come in now.”
The immigrant Southern in the New New South is to be mesmerized by the character of Whitley in the tv show A Different World, not because of her Southern accent but because in her character I see so clearly Pakistan.
The immigrant Southern in the New New South is learning that the Atlanta suburb I live in was once just farmland and that to think back then that there would be a grocery store selling halal meat just down the road would have been as absurd a notion as walking on the moon must have once seemed.
The immigrant Southern in the New New South is being at Barnes and Noble, hearing the announcement that the African American Book Club is about to start its monthly meeting, hesitantly arriving at the table and foolishly informing the ladies gathered that you are not black, and their saying that they can see that and inviting you to sit down. You do sit down for the next several years.
The immigrant Southern in the New New South is your daughter craving BBQ, green beans, and biscuits, by which she means round soft pillowy buttery layered bread, even as your British-educated brain equates biscuits with cookies, which I would have with hot chai and she would have with iced tea.
Geography can come to you through joy. And sometimes, geography becomes home through grief. My four-month-old fetus, my baby, my child, named Khyber, was conceived here and died inside of me here and was miscarried into my hands here. Whatever life he lived was lived in Georgia, and if he is not of the South then what is he? There are no answers to these questions. Perhaps the questions are the answers themselves. Here is the email I received about the graveyard that houses him:
Friday, October 12, 2007, 6:28 p.m.: <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Directions to Stone Mountain Cemetery: The cemetery is located in old town Stone Mountain at the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and James B. Rivers Drive. As you drive into the cemetery, take the road on your right. You will pass some Confederate soldier markers. Make the 2nd right, which will dead end into another small road. The plot where the babies are buried is the site on the right across the road in front of you.
Through this fetus/baby/child my heart is tied to Georgia forever, and this is writing the immigrant Southern in the New New South, the emotional story buried in me and the physical story buried in Georgia. (That a part of me is connected to Stone Mountain, a town known as the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan, is a bad ill feeling, and this too is the immigrant Southern in the New New South.)
The immigrant Southern in the New New South is to go to a public library, where a fellow patron tells you and yours to get out of America; is to decide to become a citizen; is to go to that very same library to take a class on the citizenship test, in which one hundred questions will be taught, out of which ten random questions will be asked, out of which you have to get six correct or you will fail; is to realize this is worse than any driver’s license test; is to pass the citizenship test; is to arrive at the Ceremonial Courthouse in downtown Atlanta; is to state the name of the country you are coming from with 150 new fellow citizens with whom you then recite the pledge of allegiance; is to receive your United States Citizenship Certificate; is to shake the judge’s hand: “Welcome to America.”
And sometimes a place will claim you as its own: to eight years later be invited, the first writer and novelist to deliver the keynote welcome address at the Atlanta Ceremonial Courthouse Citizenship Oath Ceremony; is to find yourself in that very same building in that very same room where you once sat waiting to receive your certificate; is to deliver your address to 150 new citizens; is to be asked to hand out the 150 Certificates of Citizenship and welcome citizens to their new home as you were once welcomed to the United States of America and the State of Georgia; is to shake each and every one of those 150 hands and look each new citizen in the eye: “Welcome to America. Welcome home.”
To the immigrant Southern writing the New New South, to the immigrant writing America, to any writer anywhere writing a new world, the following questions are forever present: What does literature from somewhere even mean? Does it mean where the author was born, or brought up, or their current domicile, or topic?
A decade-plus ago, when my husband’s job relocated our family to Georgia, I didn’t know much about this state I was going to be calling home. Perhaps the only literary fact I knew about Georgia was that it was where Margaret Mitchell wrote her opus Gone with the Wind. I had read Gone with the Wind one teenage summer when I set out to read other books whose lengths made me cringe, such as Alex Haley’s Roots, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Dickens’s Oliver Twist—but read them I did. I had grouped these books together for sheer length, but that tween perspective aside, these novelists from these different countries and various cultures—American, Russian, British—had themes in common too: politics, slavery, economic welfare, emotional survival, serfdom, debtor’s prison, and of course love. In other words, no matter the country or the culture these works were set in, their concerns mirrored my intellectual interest, and so this British story, this Russian story, this American story belonged to me; it became a Pakistani story.
The world is vast and when you get on a plane—or train, automobile, bicycle, ship, horse-drawn carriage—it magically shrinks. I was born in Karachi. When I was six months old, my parents moved us to England. When I was nine, we moved again, this time to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where we would live until my teenage years, at which time we returned to Pakistan. Now had I grown up in only England and Pakistan, the chances are that I would have only read the usual British classics and authors of whom, back in the day, the writer Enid Blyton was the most prolific, with more than five hundred books for children. In contemporary terms, imagine going to a bookstore and for the most part the only author on the shelves is J. K. Rowling. However, the school I attended in Jeddah was designated as International and, as such, the library housed not just books from British authors, but also Canadian ones, such as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables; and Australian, such as Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds; and there was the Diary of Anne Frank; and there were also American authors.
Books by American authors were on shelf after shelf, and had I grown up only in America, I would have only read authors such as Judy Blume, and Marcia Martin who wrote the Donna Parker series, and Francine Pascal with the Sweet Valley High series, and Helen Wells with her tales of stewardess Vicki Barr and her nurse Cherry Ames. What my school’s library may have lacked, schoolmates from all over the world—this international school’s student body resembled a mini United Nations—brought with them, from Japan tales of Momotarō the “Peach Boy”; and from Russia tales of the witch Baba Yaga; from the African continent tales of trickster Anansi, who could turn into a spider, and crocodiles that looked like rocks, and stories of the sun and origins of the earth; and from India the comics Amar Chitra Katha, based on tales from the Ramayana; and from Norway tales set in Valhalla and of Vikings. And though the following weren’t in books but on tv, dramatized stories from the Quran, such as a spiderweb saving Prophet Muhammed’s life, and an army of elephants bowing before the Kaaba in Mecca instead of charging to destroy it even as birds appeared overhead with stones to deter the assaulters.
This then was the world I grew up in, a world where no matter how terrible the day, stories and my school library were a sanctuary. However, despite this cornucopia of stories from everywhere, there was one kind of story missing, and those were stories written in English but set in Pakistan. As a consequence, I naturally started to remap or reorient as I read, and therefore scones turned into samosas, bonnets into dupattas, and locations such as Cold Sassy, Georgia, where lived author Olive Ann Burns’s adolescent Will Tweedy from Cold Sassy Tree, into the city of Lahore and particularly the area of Gulberg where I seemed to be destined, as an immigrant kid, to spend every one of my summer vacations. And so there I was, with scones, bonnets, and anywhere and everywhere in the world equaling samosas, dupattas, and Lahore. Without realizing it, I had made the leap into recognizing the universalities in literature across cultures.
Because I could not find representation within the pages I was reading, I began to re-create my own representation. It was hardly a stretch for me then when, upon reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the first time at around age sixteen, the story of a marriage-obsessed mother whose career it is to get her five daughters married off, regardless of what the daughters may want, seemed a quintessentially Pakistani story. For me Jane Austen was Pakistani, though she did not know this two hundred years ago in Regency England, nor that a lost young girl from Pakistan would start calling her “Jane Khala”—Aunt Jane. My teenage self decided that one day I would write and set Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I came across colonizer Thomas Babington Macaulay’s address to British Parliament in 1835, in which he recommends the British Empire replace the colonies’ languages with English in order to create “a person brown in color but white in sensibilities.” To see the nefarious roots of the language I speak and thereby British education I ’d received was disorienting, to say the least (after the 1947 partition of the Subcontinent, Pakistan became an independent country and made English one of its official languages). In order to reorient myself, to remap and reclaim identity, it became vital and necessary for me to write Unmarriageable. Professor Nalini Iyer has called Unmarriageable “Macaulay’s worst nightmare,” and I suppose it is, because, you see, the colonized are always only meant to admire all things empire and never aspire to it or take it on as equal.
In a 1981 speech, Toni Morrison stated, “If there’s a book that you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” So I did. In writing Unmarriageable I’ve transformed the British classic into all-Pakistani. This is why Unmarriageable is a “parallel retelling,” by which I mean it includes every plot point as well as character from the original, rather than an “inspired by” or a “sequel.” It is a postcolonial retelling and as such literally Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan. There is a long legacy of authors who have known to write themselves from invisible to visible. Ernest Gaines said, “Back in ’48, ’49 . . . there were hardly any books there by or about blacks in those libraries. . . . I read literature of the other writers, the Russian writers and the British writers and the American writers, of course. But when I didn’t see me there, it was then that I thought I ’d start writing, try to write.”
There are so many American authors whose stories have spoken to me: Lang-ston Hughes, especially his poem “Harlem,” though I had no idea in the eighth grade that Harlem was an African American district in New York City. All I knew was this poem with its lines “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run?” meant a lot to me. After all, I had been around twelve years old when my anesthesiologist mother returned from the hospital one afternoon and I greeted her by telling her that I wanted to be an actress and she replied by giving me a swift reprimand. Apparently at the time, it was not a respectable dream to have, because it would leave me unmarriageable, and by association my sister and cousins and no one in Pakistan would get married, and what a tragedy that would be. I even received film and tv offers, but I was denied this dream by my father. Reluctantly and resentfully, I became a writer instead. Hughes’s question—what happens to a dream deferred—stays with me always because it can apply to lost potential and regrets caused by restrictions of every sort.
And then there were Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, in particular “Good Country People,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” and “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” At the time I read them, I had zero idea that I would one day reside in Georgia and visit O’Connor’s homes in Savannah and Milledgeville and see her farm’s peacocks, which were just like peacocks in Pakistan with the same appetite for gobbling up snakes, and the Bible she kept by her bedside as would be kept any Quran, and her crutches, which could just as easily have been anyone’s anywhere in the world. O’Connor’s outspoken yet naïve characters resonated deeply with me as did her Southern society, all too reflective of Pakistani society with its emphasis on keeping up appearances and good reputations. Who is to blame for our downfalls, O’Connor seems to be asking, the flaws within us? Or the flawed systems outside of us?
There was Shirley Jackson and “The Lottery,” which hammered into me the cruelty of fate, or chance, that could sacrifice a life for the so-called greater good so very randomly. Fate, chance, bad luck—Tennessee Williams’s protagonist Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire and Jessie Redmon Fausett’s Angela Murray in her novel Plum Bun and Alice Walker’s Maggie in “Everyday Use” showed me how fickle even the best of intentions can be unless good luck comes to your rescue. There is Leslie Marmon Silko’s short story “Lullaby,” in which Native American Indigenous children are taken from their tribes, homes, and language to become someone other than who they were born—a story whose themes of linguistic colonialism and imperialism haunts me. And writers Kate Chopin, Jamaica Kincaid, Paule Marshall, Amy Tan, Americans all, whose immigrant tales illustrate living and surviving and thriving in multiple cultures and across hyphenated identities and simply being American.
In the world of storytelling we are all immigrants then, coming and going and going and coming and settling and resettling and making homes and saying goodbyes and carrying memories. Books make us belong everywhere; we belong in every book and in the stories we read and in the stories we write. Books are the one place where physical geography and emotional geography merge. When you pass through a book, your fingertips turning the pages, the words imprinting on your soul, you are home, and that home becomes part of you. You carry it wherever you go.
“My physical body had gone west to California but my soul stayed [in Louisiana],” said Ernest Gaines. And yet he was of both places and both places were touched by him. As writers we know how minutely the latitude and longitude of geography both external and internal make us, how we live and breathe and combine and write the coordinates of place, and that our geographies, all of them, are the stories we have read and the stories we are destined to tell. And so it is that here I stand delivering a keynote at a conference named after Georgia’s red clay. This is writing the immigrant Southern in the New New South, or at least a version of it, my particular reality, where connections are made between cultures and places and where the physical and the soul meet and belong on the page and beyond the page.