I have been stumped by a question that, for a Southern woman who reads a lot of books, should be easy: who are your some of your favorite Southern women writers?
I saw the question on the Facebook page for a journal that published one of my essays earlier this year. With my fingertips poised over the keys, I thought, Oh fun, I’ll play along. I can respond to this one.
But then I couldn’t. As the silence in my brain stretched out, with just a whisper of a name here and there – Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Mitchell – I pulled my fingers back, stunned. I love Southern literature. A full third of our top shelf books are written by Southern authors and take place in the American South. But when I had to pull women’s names from my brain? Not only could I not name favorites, I could barely name Southern women writers at all.
Since that day, I’ve run through mental lists of regional fiction I’ve loved. Gap Creek. As I lay Dying. To Kill a Mockingbird. Were any of those written by women? (Yes.) I ran lists of favorite women writers through my head. Willa Cather. Natalie Goldberg. Annie Proulx. Were any of them Southern? (Sort of – Willa Cather was born in Virginia but her bio says shes from Nebraska.)
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so important, this need to read authors of my gender from my region of the country. I’m sure my Ohioan husband doesn’t feel compelled to read male Midwestern authors. But I am the type of person who, when her book club suggested Reading Lolita in Tehran for discussion, I thought, Oh crap. I haven’t even read Lolita in America. So I read Lolita first. My book club laughed at me, but I had to do my research.
Likewise, if I am to be a woman writer who writes well about the texture of my childhood terrain, I think it would be wise to read women who have written the South before.
I kept thinking, and digging through my dusty Shelfari shelves, and I was finally able to recall recent fiction I’ve read by women about the South: The Help, The Kitchen House, The Secret Life of Bees. But though I enjoyed those books, and count Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind among my all time favorite novels, I have only read one work by each of these five authors. Do I call them favorites if I haven’t sought out more of their work?
I haven’t yet entered a response on the Southern Women’s Review Facebook page. I discovered that I’ve read and loved more Southern women authors than I originally realized, but my exposure to their body of work seemed too limited to identify favorites. So I Googled “Southern women writers” and scratched down some names. I borrowed an anthology of Eudora Welty’s work from the library. I placed hold requests for Carson McCullers’ Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. And tonight, as snow falls in March in Virginia, I’m going to curl up under a blanket with the complete works of Flannery O’Connor, a sister Savannahian, and I’m going to conduct some research.
P.S. I have a problem with naming favorites. Favorite songs, favorite foods, favorite Southern women writers.
Flannery O’Connor, a unique and important figure in the Southern literary tradition, was one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. This volume, containing her two novels, short stories, essays and letters, is the only complete collection of her works. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia, on March 25, 1925, and was raised as a devout Roman Catholic in Milledgeville, Georgia.