Writing an Old Place New: Contemporary Voices Abound in Literature of the South
by Kalisha Buckhanon
Southern literature will always be synonymous with literary traditions of the gothic, epic romance and slave narrative genres. Yet, while the canon of American literature has moved forward to be open and inclusive to the next generations, Southern literature as a category remains stuck on old masters and classics that dominate high school and university halls.
This is a good problem to have. I, and many others I am sure, credit work by Southern giants like Zora Neale Hurston (pictured) and Flannery O’Connor with such powerful impressions on our psyches that we had no choice but to make serious attempts to be real writers. Then I found Dorothy Allison in graduate school; I realized how much I had limited my pursuit of the best storytelling and most memorable characters with my narrow view of literature from the South. I have continued my necessary education in all Southern-born writers offered through books by new celebrated writers such as Greg Iles, Daniel Woodrell and Jesmyn Ward. We must also not forget: blockbuster thrillers of John Grisham and the late Sue Grafton formed in Southern minds.
Although Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Ernest Gaines continue to be America’s masthead authors who do the South especially proud, more new voices have emerged to document what is arguably the most complex American region to properly give voice to. These writers’ novels range from standard portraits of love, marriage and class politics to near terrifying meditations on violence, poverty and the will to survive.
The following best-selling and award-winning novelists draw upon their evocative Southern heritages and sharp observations from it to invigorate the genre of Southern literature with contemporary concerns and modalities. Whether their works reflect the Old South in a fresh way or astonish us with renderings of an Old South we had never seen before, these must-read authors deserve space on our bookshelves and in any discussion of Southern literature today.
Hannaham rose to prominence in 2015 with his searing, thrilling novel Delicious Foods, the story of one family’s battles with drug addiction and exploited farm laboring in Texas (with a calmer section devoted to one generation’s attempts to gain black voting rights in the South). He has quickly been hailed as one of America’s most daring new novelists to watch, winning a 2016 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction and others for this unpredictable, action-packed story.
Tayari Jones is one of American literature’s most enduring and prominent voices of women and African-Americans. Her first novel, 2002’s Leaving Atlanta, bravely examined the Atlanta Child Murders and its effect on three precocious children. She spotlighted family dynamics and female empowerment in her next two works The Untelling and Silver Sparrow. Look for her new novel An American Marriage, the portrait of a New South couple broken apart by the criminal justice system, to hit bookstores near you in February 2018.
North Carolina native David Joy infuses violent and tragic tales of backwoods crime with in-depth study of conflicted characters held tight by wrenching family bonds and unbending community loyalties. His 2015 country-noir debut Where All the Light Tends to Go was an Edgar Award finalist, and his next novel The Line That Held Us arrives in August this year.
Jamie Kornegay is not only the author of the mesmerizing and suspenseful 2015 crime novel Soil, he is also one of the South’s many thriving independent booksellers. He operated the Mississippi Delta’s Turnrow Books, a favorite stop for John Grisham, from 2006 until just recently. Soil is a timely work that calls attention to the world’s environmental and agricultural crises within a thrilling narrative that follows a scientist who happens upon a corpse in a swampy field. Yikes!
One of America’s most exciting and innovative new writers, of any region or race, is Kiese Laymon. His wildly fantastic 2013 debut novel Long Division races back and forth from post-Katrina to the 1960s Klan-riddled South. His collection of essays How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America emerged in that same year to acclaim for its at-once heartbreaking and heartwarming portrayal of Laymon coming of age as a black boy and man in Mississippi. Since then, Laymon continues to contribute essays on race, politics and culture to several anthologies and premier publications.
Attica Locke’s Texas-set suspense novels call to mind the dark hijinks of Patricia Highsmith’s broken characters with the upwardly mobile atmospheres of Dorothy West’s worlds. Locke has authored four novels centered upon crime and punishment with a racial twist, beginning with her Edgar Award-nominated Black Water Rising in 2010 and the forthcoming Bluebird, Bluebird.
Now a Minnesota resident, Mississippi-born Jonathan Odell breathed life into the little-told story of black healing women in the antebellum South in his breakout novel The Healing. An outspoken leader in the movement to confront America’s racist Southern history and bridge residual divides through understanding of our shared American story, his latest Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League depicts the challenging but rewarding friendship between a black and white woman in Jim Crow Mississippi.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez took the literary world by storm in 2011 with her breakout debut Wench. The story follows a group of four enslaved women who serve as mistresses for their owners. Their owners’ luxurious present of an Ohio retreat backfires into the women’s taste and desire for freedom. This New York Times-bestselling novel blew the lid off the reality of consensual relations between black slaves and white owners, forcing questions of the politics of consent and ramifications of power in sex long before America’s present reckoning with sexual abuse.
Nominated for a Pulitzer prize for her 2002 debut novel Eden, published at age 29, Olympia Vernon is one of Southern writing’s best-kept secrets. Her three novels include the Ernest J. Gaines Award-winning A Killing in This Town, similarly heralded for its Alice Walker-level strength of voice with its Morrisonian narrative power. But it is the unforgettable 14-year old Mississippian Maddy who makes Eden an essential modern classic of American literature.
If you are anywhere near Lexington, Kentucky, stop in Wild Figs Books & Coffee to shop and meet its owner: author, poet and professor Crystal Wilkinson. Born in Ohio but raised in Kentucky from a baby, she is a prominent center of the bustling Affrilachian Poets group of writers who celebrate lives and stories from both the Appalachian region and African diaspora. After a successful career as a poet, she penned her first novel to great acclaim; The Birds of Opulence received the 2016 Ernest J. Gaines Award for excellence in Southern literature.
One of our six “Race in Place” authors, Kalisha Buckhanon has written the novels Solemn, Conception and Upstate. Essence Magazine introduced her at age 27 as one of “Three Writers to Watch.” Since then, she has been featured in Mosaic, The Crisis, Colorlines, The Guardian, People, Entertainment Weekly, Elle and Marie Claire, as well as been a guest on NPR, BBC-London, TV-One, ID Channel and BET. She is a University of Chicago graduate with a B.A. and M.A. in English, alumna of The New School’s Writing M.F.A. and “Spirit of Writing” teacher with The Eckleburg Workshops of Johns Hopkins. The majority of her fiction work addresses race in America, and she blogs at Negression. Follow her on Twitter here and Facebook here.