The Paradox of the Contemporary Southern Writer

Recently, I had a baffling exchange with my undergrads. I was teaching a course on southernness and southern literature, at a southern university, and I asked the nineteen students in front of me how many considered themselves to be “southern.” Only one. Then I asked how many grew up in a place that is technically part of the South. Fifteen tentative hands.

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How could this be? I asked. What was the distinction these young people were making?

The problem, they said, was the act of claiming southernness. It seemed impossibly intertwined with white supremacy, traditional gender roles, and a demand to return to an antiquated society, one they did not want to rise again.

That seemed more than fair, I said, but if they weren’t southern, what were they? After all, most had never lived outside of Virginia. No one could quite say for sure. They were not southern, but they weren’t anything else either.

A beautiful new memoir, Dust, published April 28 by Georgia native Summer Brenner, explores this predicament, one which many southern authors find themselves in today. Once hailed as producing much of the best of American literature, by the end of the twentieth century, southern voice had largely fallen out of fashion. A notion seems to have arisen that the South—as globalization and big tech increasingly penetrate all aspects of our lives—is too backward, too isolated, and too tainted to speak to the zeitgeist.

In Dust, Brenner, who is nearly eighty now, pushes back against this narrative. In a ringing, nearly liturgical southern cadence, she explores her complicated relationship with the South in general and, though perhaps less obviously, to southern literature in particular.

Brenner grows up caught between two worlds. In the first she is a southern belle, the debutant daughter of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest families, as southern as southern could be. But the second world is one of exclusion. As a young girl, Brenner remembers sitting in Atlanta’s sole Jewish deli, nibbling on a bagel, as the KKK marched outside the window. “I know they hate Jews,” she writes from her 1950s child’s perspective. “They hate Blacks, Catholics, and Jews. Because Daddy stands up for the rights of Blacks, I worry they’ll come to our house. I worry they’ll burn a cross in our yard.”

Brenner’s home is also divided. Her father is an open anti-Zionist and suspected communist, while her mother is devout—both to Judaism and to Atlanta’s genteel high society. Navigating this divide as a child is eternally confusing. “We’re against the Old South and segregation,” Brenner writes, “yet we go to places that shout DIXIE!”

After her father’s sudden death in her twenties, Brenner strikes out on her own, embarking on something of a self-imposed exile to Europe, then returning to Georgia to agitate for the Black Panther Party, then finally leaving for good to partake in the twilight of the beatnik scene in Berkeley, where she eventually settles as a single mother and impoverished writer, renouncing her family’s wealth.

Through it all, a question tracks Brenner across the page: how “southern” is she—and her memoir—really?

These days, southern literature seems stuck in a perpetual non-place. The last of the South’s literary giants—William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty—were also the last generation to have coexisted with people who lived in the Antebellum era, a supposedly “more authentic” South now lost. In spite of the fact that all three writers’ oeuvres directly reject such notions of authenticity, this supposed connection was undoubtedly part of their appeal nationally. It is here the obvious must be stated: all three were white, and their national reception as representatives of the South—though, again, each pushed back against such notions—had much to do with the equation of southernness with a particular kind of whiteness. We might like to imagine that today we are beyond such assumptions, but the idea that the “real” South is the Old South has staying power—and not just for lost cause proselytizers, but even for well-intentioned southerners as well.

“I want to lose the war—again, and again, and again, until it’s really, finally over,” writes Tennessee author Ed Tarkington in an essay on southern literature. But this is a regurgitation of a false binary, one that equates the South with the Confederacy—even the South today—and therefore asks us to choose between a fallen South or an enlightened North. The South becomes framed as a place that is purely impure, forever corrupted and unchangeable, whose only redemption is abrogation.

Such a view overlooks other forms of southern life, especially black southern life, which has, of course, always been against slavery. Nat Turner was a southerner, as was Martin Luther King, Jr. The epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement was in the South, and today Stop Cop City in Atlanta leads the way in US prison abolitionism.

Moreover, the contemporary South can no longer be understood in simple terms of black and white. As the scholar Carl L. Bankston III has written, “By 1990 the South had a greater percentage of immigrants than the Midwest, and although the West had become the primary immigrant destination by the end of the twentieth century, its rate of proportional increase had begun to level off somewhat” while the South’s continues to grow. Whereas southern towns of old were certain to have a Baptist church, today it’s assured they will have a Mexican restaurant.

But tropes about the South have not caught up with demographic reality. After Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty died, no other southern writers have since been granted their preeminent place in the literary pantheon. It is not a skill issue. Today, many of the South’s most celebrated writers are writers of color, such as Jesmyn Ward and Jericho Brown, and rightly so. However, there is a certain tendency for these writers, specifically because of their race or sexuality, to be conceived of as speaking to and from American literature first, and southern literature second. Regardless of how these writers actually describe themselves or their work, their writing itself is often implicitly celebrated as overcoming southernness rather than as enriching it. This is not a wholly unreasonable move; as my students expressed, there is something about claiming southernness that can be interpreted as exclusively white. But this interpretation also ensures that writers of color become forever locked out from having a connection to the South as real as previously lauded white writers.

The very thing celebrated by the rest of contemporary US literature—a turn toward the global, toward diverse voices, toward more overtly left or at least progressive politics—becomes what makes a southern author like Brenner less intelligible, that strips her of her southernness.

After a brief love affair in Paris with the son of French bohemians (“They translate English and American fiction into French… In their lives, I see a blueprint for mine”), Brenner moves back to Atlanta and works for the film company Newsreel, showing films about the Black Panthers, the New York garbage strike, and the 1968 Columbia student strike, among others. “Atlanta has become a magnet for young freaks from all over the South,” she writes of the 1970s. “I’ve crossed the line into another world.” This other world is, of course, also still the South. But Brenner seems, as many southerners do, ambivalent about how “southern” this other world is—after all, this new side of Atlanta doesn’t look much like Jefferson County, Mississippi.

This is the paradox southern writers find themselves in: if they, like Brenner, hold principled politics, if they wander the wilds of the world and pursue justice, then they are suddenly no longer southern. The very move to celebrate southern writers who have “escaped” the South or “gotten out” unconsciously equates southernness with whiteness, straightness, conservatism, Christianity. One thinks of Jesmyn Ward again, who had to write a whole essay explaining to perhaps well-intentioned but definitively confused liberals why she returned to live in her homeland of Mississippi. “Mississippi is not only its ugliness,” she writes. “It is also my nephew, hurling his body down a waterslide, rocketing to the bottom, joy running from shoulder to heel.”

Mississippi is also Jesmyn Ward. The trick of New York City is that, as a global metropolis, everything falls under its purview; New York is permitted to be anything. But the South is supposed to be insular, conservative, stagnant. If a southern writer like Brenner accurately depicts the region as also in flux, as just as dynamic and contested as any other place on earth, questions immediately arise regarding authenticity. The very thing celebrated by the rest of contemporary US literature—a turn toward the global, toward diverse voices, toward more overtly left or at least progressive politics—becomes what makes a southern author like Brenner less intelligible, that strips her of her southernness.

There are many other examples. Though Arkansas native Charles Portis is increasingly recognized as one of the great American novelists of the twentieth century—his collected works were published by The Library of America in 2023—he never truly received his due during his lifetime. This was in part because his fiction was never quite “southern” enough; like Brenner, Portis’ southerners largely wander beyond the South. His two best novels, The Dog of the South and Gringos, are almost exclusively set in Mexico. There the American South meets the Global South, and Portis uses this encounter to explore how various colonial legacies overlap in their violence. His southern protagonists—usually obnoxious and unsympathetic initially—are pushed further south than the South, to the extreme end of the category of southernness as such, and are therefore asked to interrogate it, to rethink it, maybe even to make it something new.

Portis was not the only one at the time to connect the American South and the Global South. A decade earlier, the Tricontinental Conference—an anti-colonial gathering held in Cuba by Latin American, African, and Asian revolutionaries—recognized the American South, especially black life there, as a kind of “internal colony.” One could read Portis’ fiction as taking these overlapping forms of southernness seriously. But this move seems to have largely gone over the heads of his critics in New York, who likely were not familiar enough with either kind of South to catch the complexities of Portis’ prose.

This unfamiliarity continues today. The brilliant and strange 2013 novel A Questionable Shape by Louisiana native Bennett Sims delves deeply into aspects of southern illegibility. Set in contemporary Baton Rouge during a zombie apocalypse, the novel continuously circles around questions of consciousness and being—are these lethargic, violent “undead” really as human as the living? Or are they stuck in a lesser state of existence?

The figure of the undead can be interpreted as a stand in for various marginalized groups in the South—people of color and undocumented immigrants come to mind immediately. But at times one wonders if Sims isn’t also making tongue-in-cheek commentary about how the rest of the US sees southerners, those less evolved beings frozen in time. “They are creatures of pure forgetfulness,” writes Sims. “The sites they return to, so potent with mortal nostalgia, mean nothing to them, and they navigate them unconsciously, are as sleepwalkers there. What they are propelled by is a blind drive. They know they want to return to certain spaces, but they don’t know why.”

I am not particularly interested in eternally apologizing either. Not because I don’t agree that the Confederacy was a great evil—it absolutely was—but because merely apologizing is not enough, not as a literary form and definitely not as a political one.

For anyone who grew up in the South, the parallels are evident between the undead’s insatiable compulsion to return to places with an illusion of familiarity—even though the pleasures of said familiarity are now inaccessible to them in their new form—and the contemporary southerner’s struggle to situate themselves in relation to the Old South. This is essentially what the fight over Confederate monuments is about. But, as far as I am aware, not a single review of A Questionable Shape mentions these parallels even in passing. The shape of the southern novel today is not only questionable, but frequently illegible.

This is something that dogs Brenner as well. Her corpus is quite extensive—five novels, six poetry collections, four young adult novels, at least a dozen appearances in anthologies—and her papers were recently purchased by the University of Delaware. She is, by every measure, accomplished. But the vast majority of her work, including Dust, has been published by independent presses. Like Sims, the literary world doesn’t quite seem to understand her. Much of her fiction and poetry—and especially Dust—spring from her lyrical southern voice. But this is a voice that doesn’t remain in the South, it roams from France to Mexico, Italy to California. It reflects on the complexities of Jewish identity in relation to leftist struggle. It is unabashedly feminist and anti-racist, without a hint of the tortured split between the new ways of life and the old, as is so often a trope of southern voice.

In this way, Dust also doesn’t apologize for being southern. As a southern writer myself, this was one of the most refreshing and radical aspects of the text; I am not particularly interested in eternally apologizing either. Not because I don’t agree that the Confederacy was a great evil—it absolutely was—but because, as Brenner’s life demonstrates, merely apologizing is not enough, not as a literary form and definitely not as a political one.

Here Brenner shows us the way. Though obviously horrified with the advantages afforded to her as a white woman, she is not content simply lamenting her privilege—her life is a continuous struggle to create something more, to build “a different Atlanta” where these ill-gotten privileges no longer exist.

Rather than breaking from Atlanta, of leaving it behind in search of something beyond the South, we could rather interpret Brenner as bringing it with her, as embodying this different Atlanta wherever she goes. She is the new city, both in her writing and in her activism.

Seen in this light, Dust hits upon so many of our current concerns, and it does so not in spite of its southernness, but because of it. Long before October 2023, Brenner advocated for the dignity of Palestinian people, specifically because she grew up in the violence of an openly segregated society. Long before the student protests of 2024, Brenner promoted free, quality education for all, specifically because she saw firsthand how underfunded rural schools—abandoned by the federal government—perpetuated cycles of poverty. And decades before Bernie Sanders ran on a platform for universal healthcare, Brenner called for the same because her schizophrenic brother David lived most of his adult life shuttered away in private, costly, and abusive adult homes.

It is here that I fear I have done the book an injustice. So much of Dust is centered around Brenner’s relationship with David, who, at the end of his life, leaves the South for the first time as an adult in order to die with her in California. Their reconciliation is a throughline of the memoir, but there is not enough space to do it justice here. I note only one crucial moment. “David’s Southern accent is thick,” writes Brenner. “Some words are garbled.” Because of his illness, he is not able to express himself fully, to describe all the abuse he endured for years in the facilities. Instead, he sings. The melody and pitch are not particularly beautiful, but the  act itself—the attempt to change one’s voice, to make it say something new despite a long history of pain—makes one weep.

The brilliance of Dust ultimately lies in that notion. In one of the memoir’s most poignant scenes—one of the most poignant moments of Brenner’s actual life—she encounters James Baldwin standing on a bridge in Florence, Italy. Brenner, star struck, calls out and invites him to tea. Baldwin declines. He is needed elsewhere, he says, but then adds, “Bless you, child.”

Brenner carries that blessing with her for the rest of her life, a kind of spoken talisman from one of America’s greatest authors.

One also wonders, however, what Baldwin felt in that moment, standing alone on a bridge, and hearing a voice call out to him. And not just any voice, but a southern voice, something that must have sounded like what forced him to flee America in the first place. But instead of renouncing him, as he was so used to hearing by then, this voice—hesitant, quivering—invites him to tea. Could this have not been an equally small but cherished blessing to Baldwin as well? To hear in the wilds of exile what you thought had renounced you, and to have it beckon you in instead.

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