The Mississippi-born author talks about her new book, race relations in her home state and what she’s reading this summer.
Last year, author Lynne Bryant came onto the Southern literary scene with her novel, “Catfish Alley.” We included the book in our Summer Reading List and couldn’t help but include her again this year when she followed up with “Alligator Lake.” A summer wedding, return to the Mississippi Delta by main character Avery Pritchett and the mixed-race child she’s kept hidden from her hometown set the scene in this summer read. As Avery’s story unfolds and she begins to confront her past and determine her future, Bryant weaves a tale that serves as a thought-provoking lesson about the current state of race relations in her home state.
While some people still see things as either black or white, Bryant’s storytelling illustrates how “mixed” most of our lives really are. She grew up during the Civil Rights Movement and experienced the integration of Mississippi’s schools.
In “Alligator Lake”‘s conversation with her in the back of the book, Bryant says, “Like so many Southern white children, I was oblivious of the issues of race raging around me in the sixties. Until my public school was integrated when I was in the sixth grade, in 1970-1971, I had no occasion to mix with blacks … Even after civil rights legislation was passed, and laws supporting segregation were abolished, in most ways our lives remained separate. We played separately, ate separately, shopped separately.”
Bryant says her story was inspired by wondering what it would be like to be of mixed race in a culture that sees in only black and white. “Inevitably, somewhere along the way, someone in a Southern family chooses to love someone of another race. How would a family deal with?”
Lulled by the author’s descriptions of catfish frying, endless pitchers of sweet tea and moss-hung oaks, readers of “Alligator Lake” are at the same time challenged to think about how they would react to some of the difficult racial situations Avery and the other characters find themselves in.
Lynn Sheene, author of “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” said about the book, “Bryant deftly weaves a tale steeped in the atmosphere, charm and complex racial relationships of an evolving South. ‘Alligator Lake’ is a compelling and memorable read.”
We wanted to find out more about Bryant’s feelings on race, how closely she relates to the character of Avery (who, like the author, moved from Mississippi to Colorado and has a nursing degree) and what she’s been reading this summer. We’ll continue the discussion with Bryant on Twitter tomorrow, Friday, June 29, from 1-2 p.m. CST. Join us using the hashtag #southernlit. We’ll also be giving away a copy of the book!
Your website bio says you grew up in rural Mississippi. Where exactly did you grow up and when did you move to Colorado?
I grew up in a community called New Hope, just outside of Columbus, Mississippi. I moved to Colorado in 1995.
My personal experiences coming back to Mississippi over the years have not been like Avery’s in that my children are not mixed race. But I have experienced the realization that my perspective on race really changed after I left the Deep South. And my children, particularly my youngest daughter, did not see the world in terms of black or white as I did growing up, because growing up Colorado allowed her to see lots of mixed race families.
Is Oak Knoll, the plantation where Avery’s grandmother lives, based on a real place?
Not exactly. Oak Knoll was really an amalgam of houses I saw growing up — a big old white Southern-style mansion. I decided to situate it on a lake because lakes and fishing are so much a part of the Southern culture. There are two or three real Alligator Lakes in Mississippi, one in the Delta and one near my hometown.
How have telling stories like “Catfish Alley” and “Alligator Lake” helped you to understand the complexity of race in Mississippi?
The telling and reading of a story is such a subjective experience. What I find happens when I’m writing a story is that I have a general idea of what’s going to happen, and then as the characters begin to interact with the situations of the novel, they sometimes respond in ways that surprise me. I guess what I’m saying is that, when it comes to issues like race, my writing is more about how a group of ordinary people — in my case Southerners— might react when confronted with situations that trigger underlying prejudice they might not have even realized was there.
The notion of unexamined beliefs is such an interesting idea for me. We go around most of the time making assumptions, otherwise our worlds would devolve into a million tiny decisions all day every day — exhausting! However, every now and then life throws us a returning boomerang that keeps coming back around until we take a look with new eyes. I believe that it is relationships that often force us to see anew what has always been right in front of us. And, after all, stories are about relationships, right? I think that on some level, my stories help me to understand because I get into the heads of the characters and try to take on their thoughts and fears.
What do you think the current state of race relations is there today? Avery seems to discover that some things have changed but a lot has stayed the same.
I think that things are changing, but very slowly. Some of the underlying, or even blatant, racism definitely still exists and is alive and well. I’m hoping that we can get to the point where we can have more open and honest conversations about race. One of the things that perpetuates the problem is when people don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes, in our zeal to be politically correct, we end up shying away from the difficult conversations.
Who are some of your Southern literary inspirations and what are you reading this summer?
Of course, Southern writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Faulkner (although I find his writing very challenging), Richard Wright, Carson McCullers and Harper Lee. And then the more contemporary authors like Pat Conroy, Fannie Flagg, Lalita Tademy, Ernest Gaines, John Hart and Greg Iles.
This summer, a few of the books I’ve read are “The Kitchen House” by Kathleen Grissom, “The Last Time I Saw Paris” by Lynn Sheene and “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett. I’m currently reading “Iron House” by John Hart.