Tales of Robert Johnson and Harriet the Spy from Oxford Conference for the Book
The 21st annual Oxford Conference for the Book was this past week, spanning March 26-28. Each year, journalists, fiction and nonfiction writers, poets, artists, students and others associated with literature and publishing come together to discuss just that: literature, specifically Southern literature, its roles in today’s society, and “writing the Southern landscape.” This year, the conference was held in conjunction with the Southern Literary Festival (SLF), which is held at a different Southern school each year.
I happen to live in Oxford, so attending various panels was a breeze. (All sessions are also free and open to the public.) Though the conference is known for hosting some major literary powerhouses each year, I was especially excited about the author lineup. Megan Abbott (who is finishing up her post as the 2013 John Grisham writer-in-residence at Ole Miss) was speaking at various points throughout the conference; Ace Atkins was speaking on Robert Johnson; Laura Lippman was discussing Harriet the Spy, feminism and crime fiction; Jonathan Odell was discussing his latest novel, The Healing. To say the least, it was an exciting group of writers.
On Wednesday, I attended “Fiction, Memory, and Southern History,” which was moderated by Ted Ownby, who is the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. Writers Bill Cheng (Southern Cross the Dog), Françoise N. Hamlin (Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta after World War II) and Jonathan Odell (The Healing) participated in the panel. All three of their novels are set in Mississippi’s past.
Hamlin said, “When it comes to writing about place, you need to be in that place.” Asked to discuss her work, she talked a good deal about “activist mothering.” “It’s very easy for academics to assign labels to their subjects,” she said. Actually meeting the people she was researching was both a surprise and challenge she said — an academic might view someone as a feminist, while the actual subject thinks of themselves in a completely different way.
Cheng’s novel centers on the 1927 Mississippi flood, and he explained that he approached this subject through blues music. “It only made sense to start there for me,” he said. He expanded on this thought by later explaining that he was thinking about the whole Robert Johnson myth and how country blues, especially, are about someone who doesn’t think they have a choice in what happens to them. The blues is a feeling that you haven’t “arrived,” that there’s a better town out there he said.
Odell’s novel centers around midwifes, the ancient slave healers on plantations and how midwifery is far more a spiritual act in the sense that they “create communities,” which tightly bound them to their African American communes. He posits that these women were real scientists. He told a story about one retired midwife who explained how she created her own incubator using an apple crate, boiling water and a pillow. He explained that this woman viewed all of the children she helped birth as her children. He spoke on mothers in general — how they are the storytellers of the family and how they tell us who we are as people through the stories they hand down to younger generations.
In Friday’s panel, “Hellhounds, Crossroads, and a Bluesman’s Women: Robert Johnson in Story and Song,” Adam Gussow, professor of English and Southern Studies at Ole Miss, moderated. Ace Atkins, Fruteland Jackson and Snowden Wright participated in a conversation on Robert Johnson and the myths that surround his figure. Wright (Play Pretty Blues) explained that he was interested in writing a work of fiction on the factual information about a figure (Robert Johnson) whose life is partly based in fiction, and said that “every genre deserves a Robert Johnson.” As the author, he wanted to help the reader “experience” Johnson, since he’s “kind of unknowable.”
Fruteland Jackson, who is an author, storyteller and oral historian, rendered a riveting performance-story of Robert Johnson’s famous “selling his soul to the devil” scene. He also performed a blues song in closing. Jackson specializes in acoustic guitar, with an emphasis on pre-war and post-war blues, including Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy and Elizabeth Cotton.
Ace Atkins took a less myth-based approach to his Robert Johnson. As a former journalist, he wanted to look at Johnson’s story “like a reporter.” He explained that he feels “very indebted to him” because Johnson was the catalyst for Atkins’ first novel.
Later on Friday, in the panel “When Harriet the Spy Grew Up: Feminism and the Second Golden Age of American Crime Fiction,” author Laura Lippman (After I’m Gone, the Tess Monaghan series) gave an incredible speech on the rise (and subsequent struggles) of women in crime fiction. She began with a famous letter by Raymond Chandler, that details what a private detective should be:
“The private detective of fiction is a fantastic creation who acts and speaks like a real man. He can be completely realistic in every sense but one, that one sense being that in life as we know it such a man would not be a private detective.”
She made the valid point that the word “man” takes up one-tenth of the entirety of the letter. She then went on to do a thorough tracing of the female P.I.’s emergence in fiction, how genre fiction always expands during recessions and how prestige and masculinity seem to correlate. She made the point that women’s books are more likely to be published in paperback and reviewed “warmly by book bloggers,” which aren’t as highly regarded as the established literary critic. However, women, she argued, are the “overwhelming” majority of crime fiction readers. She ended her speech with the ever-expansive question: “What will be the hallmarks of modern crime fiction?”