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Contemporary Southern Literature

Summary and Keywords

From the colonial period through to the present day, the U.S. South has been seen as aberrant or at least different, as separate from, the rest of the nation. Often thought of as backward and strange, the South has also been figured as the nation’s Other, home to anything that the United States disavows: racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, poverty, and so on. While a debate rages in the field of southern studies about what and where the South exactly is—even whether the South should be spoken of as a solid geography—contemporary literature from the region continues to present the multiple meanings of place today. Indeed, in the 21st century particularly, southern literature is expanding and diversifying more than ever. Identifiable are three dominant trends in contemporary literature from the South. First, and perhaps most dominant, is the narrative of racial memory; this work explores the impacts and legacies of race relations in the region, from slavery and Native American removal through to Jim Crow and beyond. Second is the narrative of the southern environment; these narratives are stories that contemplate and focus on the region’s diverse landscapes, from mountainous Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the swampy Gulf. They are also narratives that engage with the dramatic effects of climate change and ecological disaster, highly pertinent in the contemporary era of the Anthropocene. Third, are narratives of an (un)changing South; this writing reflexively and critically explores the meaning of the region in a time of globalization and migration. When the population of the South—which has always been a diverse one—is changing in both dramatic and incremental ways, the stories and narratives of the region are clearly adapting too. Southern literature continues to ask complex questions about what the South means in today’s United States.

Keywords: U.S. South, contemporary literature, memory, African-American literature, climate fiction, transcultural identity, immigration

The South

To summarize the U.S. South and its literature is to enter a highly charged fray. Scholars of the region have been probing and questioning the meanings of “southernness” for decades, but the first decades of the 21st century have seen a surge in the dismantling of what is called “the South,” especially within the field of new southern studies. This conversation, in Martyn Bone’s words, has been a “seemingly endless and often anxious discourse around distinctiveness” producing a diverse array of perspectives on the place called the South.1 At one end of the spectrum, Jon Smith argues that “the South” is “a meaningless term, naming nothing but fantasies”;2 Scott Romine argues that “the idea of the South has mostly been a bad idea”;3 and Tara McPherson says that “southernness should not always be our starting point.”4 Put differently, Barbara Ladd says that “dismantl[ing] the monolith of a solid, unified southern United States” is of upmost importance, favoring instead “microregional, prenational, and transnational regions,”5 and Kathryn McKee and Annette Trefzer argue that the South “emerges as an in-between space, a process, an agenda [. . .] an idea, a relational concept in a global context.”6 And yet another strain of southern studies continues to dig deep into the roots and soil of the region, teasing out the lingering qualities, histories, and phenomena so strangely particular to this place.7 In his introduction to a collection of manifestos on the U.S. South, Michael P. Bibler helpfully summarizes: “Maybe you see a block of red states. But many scholars interested in literary and cultural studies of the southern United States begin with the assumption that there’s no such thing a solid South.”8 Rather than singular and concrete, the South, for Bibler and many others, is a porous, slippery, and multitudinous part of the United States. Emphasizing the plurality of the region, Bibler states, “There are Native Souths, queer Souths, black Souths, Latin Souths, global Souths, immigrant Souths, revolutionary Souths, experimental Souths, apocalyptic Souths, undead Souths,” and so on—the list continues for another eight lines of the paragraph.9 Bibler is clear, therefore, that the South is not monolithic but manifold. Of course, throughout its history, the region has been thought of in distinct terms: it is seen, even to this day in a wide range of cultural texts and discourses, as exceptional within the larger nation. Various incarnations of southern exceptionalism—“the fantasy that the South is historically and culturally unique in the nation”10—have survived into the 21st century, but it is clear that those things typically associated with the South (slavery, segregation, racism, conservatism, and agrarianism, among other things) obviously are also part of the larger nation.

The continuous publication of what might be called “state of the South” collections like Bibler’s manifestos; Kathryn McKee and Annette Trefzer’s special issue of American Literature, “Global Contexts, Local Literatures: The New Southern Studies” (2006); and Brian Ward’s edited “Forum: What’s New in Southern Studies—And Why Should We Care?” in the Journal of American Studies (2014), testifies to the ongoing deliberations about where and what the South might be. These questions are central to understanding the significance of southern literature today. To return to Bibler, it should be obvious that “it’s possible for regions to be somewhat distinct, without being exceptional”; indeed, much recent work in southern studies “has laid bare the structures and effects of southern exceptionalism, bringing the South’s distinctive features into sharper focus without losing sight of the places where the South blurs into other parts of the nation, the hemisphere, and the globe.”11 A re-orientation of “the South” to include the circum-Caribbean, Mexico, and Latin America, as well as the larger Atlantic world is a specific part of this enlarging or blurring of the region’s borders. Concomitantly, the movements of contemporary and 21st-century southern literature spiral both inward and outward from the geographical and material space of the United States’ southern states. What “southern literature” means today has both shifted and remained somewhat unchanged. The canon of 20th-century writers from the South—Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston—still make their presence known in contemporary writing and the journalistic and academic treatments of this new work. The shadow of Faulkner, in particular, looms large over any writer who dabbles with the gothic, with a postage-stamp-sized locale, or with the psychodramas of the southern family. Indeed, many writers are turning back to existing tropes, narratives, and forms from the region, revitalizing them along the way. Nonetheless, other writers are pointing in new and diverse directions. Three dominant forms—narratives of racial memory, the southern environment, and the (un)changing South—provide evidence for this diversity of contemporary literature from the region.

A (Brief) Genealogy

While the flourishing of the Southern Renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s is often pointed to as a distinctive marker in the history of the region’s literature, the contemporary South has many other milestones. Though, it should be argued, there has never really been a waning of productivity in culture from the South, from around the 1960s onward, a significant boom of new regional writers made a mark on the American literary landscape. While prose fiction seems to dominate the southern literary landscape, poets from the region are also making a considerable mark. The organizing themes of this essay might include southern poetry, but due to its own diversity and proliferation, the genre of poetry is largely unconsidered here. Some contemporary poets that might be considered within this larger southern canon include Natasha Trethewey, T. R. Hummer, Jake A. York, Charles Wright, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Betty Adcock.12 To begin this brief genealogy, 1965 seems an auspicious year, seeing the publication of Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper, a book indebted to William Faulkner’s aesthetic and imagination. McCarthy’s career, however, developed through a rich and evocative Appalachian period, but then changed direction with a geographical shift toward the southwest with his Border Trilogy. A return to the South (albeit a shifting one of borderlands) is perhaps bringing McCarthy full circle with the publication of No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006). After McCarthy’s debut, the 1970s were also fruitful years, producing, at the decade’s start, Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970). Documenting the lives of poor African Americans in the “New South” of the late 20th century, Walker’s debut initiated an important career of distinctive black writing from the region.

Another significant year was 1976, seeing the consolidation of Walker’s vision in Meridian, furthering the regional career of Harry Crews with A Feast of Snakes, and launching the careers of Richard Ford (with A Piece of My Heart) and Anne Rice (with Interview with the Vampire). Each of these authors was received variously, but all utilized striking, if perhaps stereotypical, southern milieus in their works. Another writer like Walker, who had been publishing since the 1960s, was Ernest J. Gaines, who in 1983 published the now classic A Gathering of Old Men about racial tensions on a cane farm in Louisiana. Following closely were Bobbie Ann Mason’s In Country (1985), which explored the aftermath of the Vietnam War, especially the effects of PTSD on returned soldiers in the South. Then, in 1987, two authors released highly popular and populist texts which were rich with the locales of Louisiana and Alabama, respectively: Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke, and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, by Fannie Flagg. Burke already had a crime-writing career, but this novel was the first of his New Orleans-based Dave Robicheaux series. Ever since, Burke has been a critically neglected but bestselling creator of southern fiction. Flagg’s blockbusting novel, which was later turned into a 1991 film starring Jessica Tandy, was striking for its depiction of queer characters and the politics of community. In 1989, John Grisham published his debut, A Time to Kill, launching his career of legal thrillers, often set in steamy, tense, and race/gender/class/sexuality-vexed locales. The 1990s saw further proliferation of what are now southern benchmarks: Dorothy Allison published Bastard Out of Carolina in 1992, Ernest Gaines published A Lesson Before Dying in 1993, and Tom Wolfe published A Man in Full in 1998. These three texts demonstrate a breadth and fecundity of the southern imagination to rival and challenge the so-called renaissance of the 1930s. It seemed that the century’s start and end were populated with striking visions of the South.

A new crop of southern writers has emerged at the turn of the 21st century, producing work that complexly takes in any number of versions of the South from different perspectives. These texts do not necessarily wipe away the South as Jon Smith and others suggest; nor, for that matter, do they invest in nostalgic fantasies for a “lost” or “old” South; nor, equally, do they assert a simple and unified South. What these texts do have in common is an unremitting vision of southernness that is diverse and particular. Experiences of the South are highly varied, but the soil remains underfoot. Three dominant narrative strands are identifiable in this body of work, but authors and texts that do not automatically fit into these categories nonetheless make for a dynamic list. Novelists examining an impoverished and tough South (some of which is titled “grit lit”) include Larry Brown, whose novel Fay (2000) is particularly evocative, as well as authors such as Rick Bragg, George Singleton, and Dale Ray Phillips.13 Older discourses of southern poverty and the grotesque (from Erskine Caldwell, Flannery O’Connor, and others) are clearly informing the proliferation of grit lit and its regional particularity today. Similarly interested in poverty and poor white characters is Jayne Anne Phillips, whose literary career stretches from the short stories in Sweethearts (1976) to the novel Lark and Termite (2008) and the crime story Quiet Dell (2013). The noted career of Barry Hannah ended in 2001 with the gothic vision of Yonder Stands Your Orphan. An Appalachian vein of this writing is especially strong, with notable works such as Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997) and Nightwoods (2011), both of which are rooted in the mountainous (northern) part of the South. William Gay’s Provinces of Night (2000) and Amy Greene’s Bloodroot (2010) further evidence a strong Appalachian presence in contemporary fiction. African-American writers have an equally prominent position in 21st-century southern writing: poet Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (2006) won the Pulitzer Prize; Tayari Jones’s Leaving Atlanta (2002) unfolds to the backdrop of the 1980s Atlanta child murders; Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011) and Men We Reaped: A Memoir (2013) viscerally explore the precarity of black life in the Gulf South; and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001) incisively parodies Margaret Mitchell’s classic novel Gone With the Wind. Native American literature from and about the South, such LeAnne Howe’s Shell Shaker (2001) and Janet McAdams’s poetry collection Feral (2007) also add to the growing list of a diverse and rich body of regional writing.

This list alone does not include the queer writing of Garth Greenwell, Randall Kenan, Jim Grimsley, or Mab Segrest; the gothic oeuvres of Charlaine Harris, Olympia Vernon, or Nic Pizzolato; the comedy of Padgett Powell and Alan Garganus; the experimentation of Mary Robison; or the rich storytelling of Pam Durban, Reynolds Price, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Parker, Tim Gautreaux, or Carter Sickels. Three dominant narrative forms, however, stand out in this broad field of contemporary and 21st-century southern literature. The first, narratives of racial memory, connect back to the region’s past and signal the ways in which the South is remembered, forgotten, and mediated.

Narratives of Racial Memory

The narrative of racial memory is a dominant genre in contemporary southern literature; this work explores the impacts and legacies of race relations in the region, from slavery and Native American removal through to Jim Crow and beyond. These narratives explore how and why the past makes itself known in the region’s present. The oft-cited and hackneyed declaration in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun—“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—has dominated the way in which southern culture reflects on history and memory. For all its endless repetition and circulation, the quote stubbornly lives on, much like the way the past is thought to. The field of memory studies, which has yet to find significant traction in southern criticism, theorizes a model of memory akin to that from Faulkner. When, in the 1920s, Maurice Halbwachs proposed that his readers remember through “social frameworks,” the people and communities in which they move, he argued that remembrance is not simply something that can be described in personal (and psychological) terms. In fact, as memory studies moved through the 20th century onward, it clarified how memory is always in some sense cultural. Even when, as Marita Sturken posits, “memory forms the fabric of human life,” “gives meaning to the present,” and is “the means by which we remember who we are,” remembrance is not purely personal but social.14 Memory organizes our lives in so many ways, not least through defining the present through its relationship to the past. Though, as Sturken goes on, memories “are never a mirror image of the past, but rather an expressive indication of the needs and interests of the person or group doing the remembering in the present.”15 Thus, as Faulkner might put it, the past cannot be gone because it is always present; it lives in, through, and because of, the present. The sometimes tidy separation between history and memory thus is muddled; “there is so much traffic across the borders of cultural memory and history that in many cases it may be futile to maintain a distinction between them.”16 From a southern perspective, Michael Kreyling has similarly argued that history and memory work as a Moebius strip, constantly enfolded.17

Race from Past to Future

Contemporary literature from and about the South engages with these processes, negotiating, remediating, and reflecting upon the past in the present. Indeed, as Minrose Gwin has argued, “southern studies, in its concerns not only with a traumatic past but specific locations and sites [. . .], offers memory studies, which tends toward the general, [. . .] a sense of place and grounding.”18 Thus, the study of the South and the study of memory gain much when read in tandem, and contemporary fictions from the region actively provoke such readings. More than this, though, the memories mined in recent southern literature often have race at their center. Like the wide variety of texts in Suzanne W. Jones’s Race Mixing: Southern Fiction Since the Sixties (2004), which “ask what we have remembered and what we have forgotten, and why,” 21st-century writing probes the significances of remembrance as it relates to racial identities and race relations in the past, present, and future.19

Toni Morrison’s slim novel Home (2012) and Natasha Trethewey’s poetry collection Native Guard (2006) exemplify this narrative type as they both tell stories (even through poetry) about the role of the past and its place in the contemporary South. In Home, Frank Money—a traumatized black veteran from the Korean War—has to travel back to his childhood home in Georgia to rescue his sister Cee from a eugenicist doctor. Alongside this present-day story, Frank remembers things from his past in the South and Korea, and these gradually become clarified as the novel (and his journey home) progresses. The book ends with brother and sister unearthing a body from the soil, a man whose murder they witnessed as children, but were too young and traumatized to integrate consciously. The novel’s central thread is memory, especially as it relates to black identity in the South and the experience of war. In a similar vein, Native Guard tells a story of Trethewey’s home in Louisiana through a range of poems. The collection’s title comes from the Louisiana Native Guard, a regiment of black soldiers fighting during the Civil War for the Union. Each poem, whether it is the title piece or any of those set in the present day, reflects on memory and its vicissitudes; “forgotten,” “reminder,” “recall,” and “remember” dominate the collection’s lexis. Throughout Trethewey’s and Morrison’s texts, memory’s relationship to race—and its emplacement in southern spaces, whether physical, psychological, or cultural—is prominent.

Narratives of racial memory linger most often in the terrains of slavery, especially as it was instituted in the U.S. South. From Octavia Butler’s Kindred in 1979—a science-fiction neo-slave narrative set in the South and California—to Edward P. Jones’s similarly experimental 2003 historical novel The Known World—in which textuality and temporality are always shifting—southern narratives about slavery have questioned and investigated the institution through the framework of memory. Morrison’s A Mercy (2008), Valerie Martin’s Property (2003), and Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001) are all works of cultural memory that mediate slavery in the United States, and the South in particular, so as to reconceive and rethink the dominant narratives and myths about it. Martin’s novel, for instance, puts focus on a white female slaveholder, rather than her husband, and charts the fragile relationships between black and white women on the plantation.

A more recent catalogue of slavery fictions—in literature and on screen—has also bloomed. For example, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) imagines the 19th-century network of secret houses and routes from the South to the North as a literal railroad beneath the earth. Relatedly, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016) follows the generations from two half-sisters born in Ghana: one is shipped off to America in the slave trade, and she (and later generations) moves from the South to the North. These books could also be contextualized by films such as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), both of which remember slavery in the South in stark and shocking ways. McQueen’s interpretation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative (1853) viscerally depicts the violence, degradations, and hardships of the enslaved in the South, and Tarantino’s gaudier offering provides Jamie Foxx’s Django with bloody and violent revenge on plantation owners. These new novels and films, though in some ways located in the crucible of race relations in the United States today (from Ferguson to Black Lives Matter and beyond), are also part of a long tradition of reimagining the histories of slavery in the South.

Similarly, Tiya Miles’s novel The Cherokee Rose (2015) further opens understanding of memory and slavery in the South. In contemporary Georgia, a cast of characters digs into the past of a plantation owned by a Cherokee chief. Where Jones’s The Known World explored the little-known phenomena of black slaveholding, Miles’s novel uncovers the entangled histories of Native Americans, African Americans, and whites in the antebellum South. A scholar of slavery as well as a novelist, Miles brings a keen historical perspective on the subject. Told from the present day, the novel is able to reconstruct the past as remembrance, enabling a refraction of the region’s past. Interrogations of slavery also extend to particular histories, such as that of the Nat Turner revolt in 1831. From William Styron’s criticized, but Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1967 to Kyle Baker’s graphic novel Nat Turner (2008), and Nate Parker’s much-debated The Birth of a Nation (2016), the story of Turner is recollected and remediated throughout southern culture. Narratives of racial memory continue to matter in the South because the past is never done with, and memory agitates in the present, nowhere more so than in Bernice L. McFadden’s Gathering of Waters (2012).

Money, Mississippi

“I am Money. Money Mississippi,” McFadden’s novel begins.20 Embodying the town itself in the first person, Gathering of Waters offers a broad overview of life in the South, from Money’s beginnings to its present. Many readers will instinctively know that the tragic death of Emmett Till occurred in this place, but his death is but one memory in this wide-ranging (temporally and imaginatively) book. Rather than focus on Till’s story alone, McFadden sees memory as capacious and unfolding: it touches everyone and everything in diverse ways. Native and African Americans, McFadden writes, “believed in animism” where “souls inhabit all objects, living things, and even phenomena”; many of these souls “bring along memories, baggage if you will.”21 The town of Money brings along a heavy load of remembrance, from when the Choctaw Indians inhabited the land, giving the state its name: “Mississippi—which means many gathering of waters,” up to the disaster of Hurricane Katrina.22 While historical time hurtles past, memories stay ever present and persistent.

The story starts with Doll, a young girl possessed by Esther, the “spirit of a dead whore” who has “taken root” in Doll’s body. Doll is abandoned by her mother and raises a child of her own, Hemingway. This daughter has her own child, Tass, who falls in love with Emmett Till in 1955. Along with Doll, a child named J. W. dies in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. McFadden evocatively depicts the flood’s effects on the state, with everyone consumed by “rain, mud, mosquitoes, and flooding.”23 The flood, however, is a catalyst for the spirit of Esther to leave Doll’s body and then dwell in J. W.’s, bringing the child back to life. The narrative ushers forward through the stock-market crash, and on to Till’s tragic visit to Mississippi. While other writers like Lewis Nordan (Wolf Whistle, 1993) and Audre Lorde (“Afterimages,” 1981) have reimagined Till’s story, McFadden frames his death within Mississippi’s longer history. Till goes on to haunt Tass through her life, following her as she moves north to Detroit and then returns to the South. Memory, throughout the novel, is embodied in characters and events, and as Money tells this transgenerational tale, the past lives on. So, however, does Esther, a spirit who causes Doll to act maliciously and promiscuously, and in a sense makes J. W. murder Till. Later still, as the novel ends, and Hurricane Katrina sweeps into the Gulf of Mexico, Money says, “I looked into the eye of the storm and recognized her [. . .]: Esther the whore, cackling and clapping her hands with glee.”24

While McFadden sees her novel as instructive—“I hope you will take something away from having read it,” the narrator says—the figuration of Esther is perhaps troubling.25 Reducing a vicious and brutal lynching of a teenager, and the complex natural and man-made disaster of Katrina, into merely the specter of a dead woman simplifies and trivializes what are shocking parts of American history. The moralistic undertone of blaming a prostitute for these tragedies is also problematic in itself. However one reads Gathering of Waters, it is clearly a novel steeped in the long histories and memories of Mississippi. Tracing genealogies and interconnections across centuries, McFadden’s town-narrator is given an omnipresent perspective on how the past affects the present. Remembering the past, especially in a specific landscape and setting, is one way of orienting oneself in the present and toward the future.

Narratives of the Southern Environment

The second dominant narrative in contemporary southern literature is that of the region’s environment. McFadden’s Gathering of Waters charts a history from Native dispossession to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and this interest in the long story of the South’s landscapes is present in numerous other texts from recent years. The environment has been central to the South’s identity from the beginning. While many Native populations who lived in the southern region clearly had deep connections to the land, the colonists who settled there also burrowed deeply into its soil; from there on, the South has predominantly been conceived as its landscapes. Other than the antebellum plantation class, the most well known of land-celebrating southerners are perhaps the Nashville Agrarians who, in the early 20th century, articulated a problematically nostalgic view of the region. In the introduction to I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (1930), John Crowe Ransom writes that “the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations”;26 the South, here, is clearly set apart from the rest of the nation and is figured in mythically landed terms. Opposed to northern industry and “progress,” the agrarians yearned for a South that was slow, leisurely, and hospitable—the seeming opposite of what they saw as the modernizing and work-driven North. This conservative vision, though, entirely omitted the presence of black servitude and the institution of slavery. Ransom’s essay in the collection is exemplary of this, as he writes that “the South took life easy,” and society as a whole “was not an institution of very showy elegance.”27 Ransom’s whitewashing of the South then becomes a rewriting of the past: “Slavery was a feature monstrous enough in theory, but, more often than not, humane in practice”; indeed, “it is impossible to believe” that the abolition of slavery “could have effected any revolution in society.”28 The agrarians were thus insistently looking backward at what they thought the South represented.

This southern sense of place, however, has been thoroughly questioned by scholars, not least to disavow the agrarian embrace of land and amnesia. New southern studies, in particular, has done a good deal to dislodge “place” as a central marker of southernness, though—as Bone articulates—it has nonetheless “endured as an organizing, even foundational idea of southern literary studies.”29 Thus, southern landscapes stubbornly persist in literature from the region. Though southern culture has moved away—on the whole—from Ransom’s nostalgic vision of the southerner who “identifies himself with a spot of ground [. . . which] carries a good deal of meaning,” the region’s landscapes continue to yield significance in cultural, environmental, and affective ways.30

From Memory to Catastrophe

Narratives of the southern environment are not uniform but track a multitude of spaces, places, ecologies, scales, and time frames. Notably, these narratives roam from mountainous Appalachia down through to the Atlantic coastlines of the Carolinas and Georgia; they continue south to Florida’s everglades and the Gulf of Mexico; they move westward across to the Mississippi Delta, and on to the swamps of Louisiana and the deserts of Texas. These narratives also take in the borderlands of the Ozarks. Geographical scope is matched by thematic range. There are four discernible trends that can be mapped (though, clearly, this is an expansive and expanding field).

First, connecting to narratives of racial memory are texts that link landscape to memory and history, particularly through a racial lens. Attica Locke’s The Cutting Season (2012), for instance, follows Caren, a black manager of the plantation Belle Vie in contemporary Louisiana. As weddings, tours, and re-enactments take place on Belle Vie’s “loamy topsoil” and “manicured grounds and gardens,” something darker remains beneath the surface: “how deep the history went.”31 One day, the body of a migrant worker is found on the plantation’s grounds, as if emerging from the soil. This sets in motion an array of revelations about personal and regional pasts.

Second, there are texts focusing on rural spaces (especially, but not only, Appalachian), like Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden (2002) and Saints at the River (2004). In the former, the imminent flooding of a valley threatens to raise a buried body to the water’s surface. In the latter, a young girl drowns in a river eddy in South Carolina. Both novels pit poor local communities against the complexities of the natural world. Elsewhere in the South, Tim Gautreaux’s The Clearing (2003) viscerally depicts the swamps of Louisiana in the early 20th century, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (2011) follows a family in southwest Florida into the mystical everglades.

A third group involves texts relating to climate change and environmental disaster, especially as it is felt and experienced in the South. While “cli-fi” (climate fiction) is having a global surge at present—from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) to Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010)—there are a number of southern texts that are responding to planetary changes in local settings. One of the most popular is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), which follows the poor white protagonist Dellarobia and her local Appalachian community as a flock of monarch butterflies relocate to their mountain home. Following mudslides in Mexico (caused by a changing climate), the fictional migration of the butterflies to Appalachia forces Kingsolver’s characters to reassess their place in the planet’s ecosystem from a specific perspective. In cinema, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) similarly tracks the devastation of the Louisiana coast’s landscapes and communities.

Finally, there are stories of catastrophe, emerging in part from the previous category. As Robert Jackson asks, “What could be more Southern than disaster?”32 Charting a history from the Roanoke colonists to the cotton boom to the Depression and resource extraction and the petrochemical industry, Jackson points to the clear and deep history of environmental collapse in the region. While environmental catastrophe is a planetary phenomenon, the effects (and sometimes causes) of disaster are often felt and experienced locally. Within this field, there are two types of narrative: those of specificity, often revolving around natural and man-made disasters such as the 1927 flood, Hurricane Katrina, or the Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and those of abstraction, which are frequently (post-)apocalyptic. Included in that first type might be Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been (2007), James Lee Burke’s Creole Belle (2012), or Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly’s The Tiled World (2013). Numerous texts have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, attempting to respond to the tragedy which wiped out whole communities in New Orleans and across the Gulf communities of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.33 Significant works include Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones (2011), which follows a poor black family struggling to survive in the woodlands of the fictional Bois Sauvage, and Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge (2008), a panoramic tale of two New Orleans families unmoored by the storm. The second type, focusing on apocalypse and abstract catastrophe, often sees the South as a site of destruction, usually in light of an environmental disaster. These stories illuminate, from a localized perspective, the fraught meanings of what is now called the Anthropocene period. James Braziel’s Birmingham, 35 Miles (2008) and Snakeskin Road (2009) are darkly apocalyptic visions of a wasted and overheating planet, and Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning The Road (2006) follows a father and son as they head to the coast, ever southward, in a landscape of ash and decay. This narrative type can be seen throughout contemporary U.S. literature, but southern writers are claiming this mode because the region’s diverse landscapes and ecologies are under threat from numerous forces.34

Rivers of Disaster

Exemplifying the narrative of the southern environment is Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers (2013), which synthesizes the four types in its reconfiguration of the region’s history, its focus on rural spaces, its engagement with climate change and issues of environmental catastrophe. The novel opens with the protagonist’s view of environmental collapse: “It had been raining for weeks. Maybe months. He had forgotten the last day that it hadn’t rained, when the storms gave way to the pale blue of the Gulf sky.”35 Smith’s opening is much like that of Cormac McCarthy’s equally post-apocalyptic The Road (2006), which describes the wasted South thus: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”36 In each of these novels, natural catastrophe wipes away life across the United States, but there is the sense that even in a world of waste and collapse, something of the South—however fragile—still survives. Rivers focuses on Cohen, a man living in the Louisiana Gulf as the United States battles terrible weather: “All it did was rain. Before the storm. During the storm. After the storm. Difficult to tell when one hurricane ended and the next one began.”37 Smith presents a region and nation in which environmental catastrophe is an ongoing and unremitting force.

Early in the novel, the reader learns that “it had been 613 days since the declaration of the line, a geographical boundary drawn ninety miles north of the coastline from the Texas-Louisiana border across the Mississippi coast to Alabama.” The “line” is clearly a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line, which divided the North from the South when it was surveyed in the 1760s. But Smith also writes that the line is “a geographical boundary that said, We give up. The storms can have it.”38 The line is thus a way both to marginalize and demarcate the South’s position within the United States, so much so that once the line is drawn, those people that choose to remain below it do so “at their own risk. There was no law. No service. [. . .] No protection.”39 Here, Smith is clearly alluding to disasters in the region like Hurricane Katrina, during which an evacuation was ordered, but for those with limited money and means of transport, leaving the city was all but impossible. The line in River’s apocalyptic America, therefore, recalls many of the ways in which the South has been defined by the rest of the nation. But this is also a landscape without clear demarcation: “The region below the Line had become like some untamed natural world,” with kudzu creeping like a “green, smothering carpet,” returning in a sense to a place without human presence.40 In this way, with the “antebellum houses [. . .] long gone, the first to go” in the early storms, it could be argued that Smith’s depiction of the South is one after or beyond regionalism. However, Smith’s novel follows Cohen as he joins a group battling not only the weather but a religious fanatic with a history of snake handling, with deep roots in the southern imaginary. The characters make their way north to the line, attempting to find part of America not completely devastated by storms. What they discover, however, is more destruction. Rivers is a bleak depiction of a country caught in a time when climate change has tipped to a point beyond repair. From a southern perspective, this narrative of the southern environment acutely draws a picture of the ways in which a regional, and national, sense of place is radically altering. Smith’s Louisiana is still, in many ways, part of the South, but it is also caught up in larger planetary forces. This is the South, but a changing one.

Narratives of an (Un)Changing South

The third dominant mode of contemporary southern literature is the narrative of an (un)changing South. Texts in this mode critically and reflexively consider the degrees to which the South is and has altered in the modern world. New southern studies is challenging understandings of the region, especially as it becomes transformed by processes of globalization, immigration, and changing demographics. Literature about the (un)changing South considers the ways in which the region is altered by the people moving in and out of it; by the wearing away, or entrenching, of local specificities; by the global forces that move within and around it; and so on. These debates evidently reach beyond the South, and writers and critics worldwide participate in them. But in the South, where debates about particularity and regional specificity endlessly circulate, narratives about whether it is changing are significant.

The transnational turn in literary and cultural study, Paul Jay argues, “has productively complicated the nationalist paradigm long dominant in these fields, transformed the nature of the locations we study, and focused our attention on forms of cultural production that take place in the liminal spaces between real and imagined borders.”41 While many critics today use 21st century’s beginning as a notable marker of this turn—indeed, even locating the events of September 11, 2001, at the heart of this move—Jay tells his readers that “transnationalization” in cultural criticism is an “effect of a more complicated set of intersecting forces dating back to the late 1960s.”42 And even that is fairly recent, given the growing body of work tracing connections through “deep time.”43 Transnational and transcultural readings, therefore, at once problematize the places analyzed (the South, the United States), as well as critical positions in relation to these topics. However, contemporary southern literature often explores such debates, at once questioning the meaning of the South as well as contesting its disappearance altogether.

Kathryn McKee and Annette Trefzer articulate a series of questions that focus some of the considerations of viewing the South in a transnational context:

What happens when we unmoor the South from its national harbor, when it becomes a floating signifier in a sea of globalism? How does the South participate in the global networks of culture and economy? How have the South’s culture and history always already been global? What are the global gestures in literary texts that we were formerly interpreting as regional or national issues?44

As these queries intimate, understanding the South in the contemporary era requires readers and critics to reconfigure the ways in which they have been interpreting it. The final question, particularly, asks readers to rethink how they inscribe texts with particular regional meanings and significances. To Kill a Mockingbird might detail a segregated South, but does it not have global inferences, too, about race, otherness, and empathy? Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café may have much to say about community and gender in the South, but does it not speak more broadly to notions of identity and memory? A global perspective on southern literature therefore does not necessarily disregard regionalism (though many critics push toward that anyway), but locates it within a larger network of forces, places, and cultures. The South, for McKee and Trefzer, “emerges closely linked to other spaces with similar symbolic significations.”45 The plantation South, therefore, is read in the larger context of the slave trade across the Atlantic; the segregated South is read in a larger context of Apartheid and ghettoization; southern foodways are read in larger flows of commodity, culture, and nostalgia. There are a number of key critical texts that explore this “worlding” of the South and its cultural output,46 and thus debates about the (un)changing South, in literature and society, will continue long into the future.


As elsewhere in the United States, the South has experienced high levels of immigration, especially in since the 1970s and 1980s “from, among other places, the Hispanic world and South East Asia.”47 Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer (2000) and Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full (1998) both explore how immigration is affecting and influencing the shape of the contemporary South. Each novelist dramatizes the ways in which transnational forces and peoples move through and within the region, altering (or retaining) its cultural fabric. In television, the first season of HBO’s True Detective and the later seasons of Treme depict the significant ways in which South East Asian communities are thriving in the South. Among many other examples about the Asian experience in the South are Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1993), Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student (1998), and Lan Cao’s Monkey Bridge (1997). The latter text is Cao’s debut novel, set in the aftermath of the “fall of Saigon” in 1975. In its investigation into buried secrets and familial tensions, the novel deftly bridges between geographical and cultural spaces, using, in Richard Gray’s words, “a kind of spatial and temporal layering to uncover and investigate the fault lines between cultures.”48 A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain offers a “new spin on an old story,” highlighting how immigrant fictions relate to and engage with existing southern narratives.49 Each narrative of an (un)changing South puts emphasis on both the newness and continuity of southern literature written by non-natives.

The tension between a changing and unchanging South and immigration also concerns other nationalities and cultures, such as in Dave Eggers’s What Is the What (2006) and Zeitoun (2010). Written by a white non-southern male, Zeitoun is a nonfiction study of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian American living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hits. Staying in the city to look after his home and community, Zeitoun is eventually arrested under dubious pretenses. Locked up in a makeshift prison in the city’s Greyhound bus terminal, Zeitoun is subjected to racial profiling and indefinite detention in a manner that recalls, as Eggers notes, the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Yet Zeitoun also points to continuities and contexts from the South. The ways in which many New Orleanians—largely poor and people of color—were abandoned in the wake of the storm, left to rot in the streets, or relocated miles from home echo the shocking treatment of Zeitoun and his friends. Zeitoun’s precarious existence as Syrian American in the South has distinct overlaps with the ways in which black and Native people have been treated throughout the region’s past and present. This is not to deny the global significances of Zeitoun’s ordeal (it is in many ways a transnational story) but to point to the (un)changing South in which it takes place.

Perhaps one of the most famous novels to depict a transnational vision of the South is Cynthia Shearer’s The Celestial Jukebox (2005), which Nahem Yousaf calls “the most detailed depiction of an ethnically diverse small town” in the South.50 Following a Mauritanian immigrant Boubicar, Mexican workers, white and black southerners, and a Honduran family, Shearer’s vision of the Mississippi Delta is vividly multicultural and transnational. To some extent, it seems to clearly and pointedly describe the kind of global South critics in new southern studies call for. In an essay on African immigration to the South, Bone examines Eggers’s What Is the What for its portrayal of the real Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese immigrant to Atlanta, alongside Shearer’s depiction of the Delta. Bone argues that The Celestial Jukebox “brings into focus the increasing presence of African migrant workers in the rural South—those areas, like the Delta, most closely associated with the history of African slavery in plantation America.”51 Both novels, in this reading, illuminate not only the ways in which contemporary southern literature engages transnationalism but also how those global connections elucidate lingering qualities of the region. Texts like Shearer’s and Eggers’s, are key examples of the way in which the South continues to mean things, in different ways, to different people.

Tasting a Transnational South

Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth (2010) is an exemplary narrative of an (un)changing South because it cleverly utilizes staples of southern culture while also reconceiving them. As Yousaf writes, the novel “is a brilliantly imaginative work that marks debts to and departures from ‘classically’ Southern literature,” commenting on the way critics “risk constraining the rich and heterogeneous breadth of Southern fiction.”52 For Yousaf, and many other theorists, culture from the contemporary South troubles the very foundational definitions of the region. Read in this light, Bitter in the Mouth is about the plurality of identities, cultures, and versions of the South. However, there are so many ways in which Truong’s novel embeds itself in the region—geographically, aesthetically, culturally—that the South cannot be completely dismantled.

The novel is told by Linda Hammerick, a Vietnamese girl adopted by a white southern family in small-town North Carolina. While clues are scattered throughout the text—from Linda’s grandmother’s “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two,” words that “slipped out of her mouth, uncontrollable and unstoppable”—the sly telling of the novel means that the reader only learns of Linda’s racial identity halfway through.53 “Linh-Dao” is translated into “Linda,” and the character’s already complex identity is made more so through this revelation. For Linda experiences synesthesia from a young age: “My first memory was a taste.” Most words bring tastes with them, and Truong renders this vividly on the page so that the reader also experiences something of this confusion: “I’ll see youcannedgreenbeans tomorrowbreakfastsausage, Wadeorangesherbert,” Linda says.54 Linda’s way of processing the world is also a kind of splitting, in a similar way to her character, as she notes that “the mystery had two halves [. . .] There was something bitter in the mouth, and there was the word that triggered it.”55 The novel progresses through numerous splits and doubles, yet Linda’s story is principally that of remembrance and family history. Bitter in the Mouth is, on the surface, a fairly conventional tale of childhood desires, friendships, and familial tensions, but Truong’s self-conscious narrator continually shifts and comments on the ways in which the past is refracted and remediated in this regional locale.

Identity comes under scrutiny, especially in its global context. Linda writes, “I was often asked [. . .] what it was like to grow up being Asian in the South. You mean what it was like to grow up looking Asian in the South, I would say back to them with the southern accent that had revealed to them the particulars of my biography.”56 Linda is “taken aback” when the “outside” of her body defined her “as not being from here (New Haven [. . .]) nor there (the South).”57 Another split—Linda’s exterior and interior—physicalizes her conflicted understanding of herself as southern and Vietnamese. How she looks does not, for Linda, necessarily correspond with how she feels or identifies internally. While the outside world defines her as between identities or without a strict American identity, Linda is clearly a southerner. Indeed, as the novel ends, Linda (and Truong) return to that staple of southern fiction: “We all need a story of where we came from and how we got here. Otherwise, how could we ever put down our tender roots and stay.”58 Linda’s story is rooted in southern soil to both confirm and solidify her sense of self and place in the world. Immigration and global citizens are changing and altering the South’s cultural landscape, but the region retains a kind of uniqueness. Regional specificity is both troubled and consolidated by those moving there and telling stories about it.

Though the South’s position within the rest of the United States may shift through processes of writing and reimagining, literary culture continues to invest in that part of the country. The South has always meant different things to different people, but what matters is that it continues to signify. As histories recede, the planet alters, and immigration transforms demography, southern literature will reflect on these concerns with the region ever in mind.

Further Reading

Bone, Martyn. “Southern Fiction.” In The Cambridge Introduction to American Fiction after 1945. Edited by John N. Duvall, 154–166. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2011.Find this resource:

    Clabough, Casey. Inhabiting Contemporary Southern and Appalachian Literature: Region and Place in the Twenty-First Century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2012.Find this resource:

      Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region and Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.Find this resource:

        Gray, Richard. Southern Aberrations: Writers of the American South and the Problems of Regionalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

          Henninger, Katherine. Ordering the Facade: Photography and Contemporary Southern Women’s Writing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.Find this resource:

            Hobson, Fred, and Barbara Ladd, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the Literature of the U.S. South. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

              Holland, Sharon Patricia, ed. “Deep.” Special issue, south: a scholarly journal 48.1 (2015).Find this resource:

                Lloyd, Christopher. Rooting Memory, Rooting Place: Regionalism in the Twenty-First-Century American South. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.Find this resource:

                  Lloyd, Christopher, ed. “The Twenty-First-Century Southern Novel.” Special issue, Mississippi Quarterly 68.3–4 (forthcoming 2017).Find this resource:

                    Monteith, Sharon, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013.Find this resource:

                      Romine, Scott. The Real South: Southern Narrative in the Age of Cultural Reproduction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

                        Taylor, Melanie Benson, Reconstructing the Native South: American Indian Literature and the Lost Cause. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2011.Find this resource:


                          (1.) Martyn Bone, “Introduction: Old/New/Post/Real/Global/No South: Paradigms and Scales,” in Creating and Consuming the American South, ed. Martyn Bone, Brian Ward, and William A. Link (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2015), 1.

                          (2.) Jon Smith, Finding Purple America: The South and the Future of American Cultural Studies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 22.

                          (3.) Scott Romine, “God and the MoonPie: Consumption, Disenchantment, and the Reliably Lost Cause,” in Creating and Consuming the American South, 63.

                          (4.) Tara McPherson, “Afterword: After Authenticity,” in Creating and Consuming the American South, 321.

                          (5.) Barbara Ladd, “Literary Studies: The Southern United States, 2005,” PMLA 120.4 (2006): 1636.

                          (6.) Kathryn McKee and Annette Trefzer, “Preface: Global Contexts, Local Literatures: The New Southern Studies,” American Literature 78.4 (2006): 682.

                          (7.) See, for example, Thadious M. Davis, Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region and Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), and Christopher Lloyd, Rooting Memory, Rooting Place: Regionalism in the Twenty-First-Century American South (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

                          (8.) Michael P. Bibler, “Introduction: Smash the Mason-Dixon! or, Manifesting the Southern United States,” PMLA 131.1 (2016): 153.

                          (10.) Ibid., 154.

                          (12.) For a more comprehensive and detailed survey of southern poetry, see Daniel Turner, Southern Crossings: Poetry, Memory, and the Transcultural South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012).

                          (13.) For more on this genre, see Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin, eds., Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2012).

                          (14.) Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 1.

                          (15.) Ibid., 8.

                          (16.) Ibid., 5.

                          (17.) Michael Kreyling, The South That Wasn’t There: Postsouthern Memory and History (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010).

                          (18.) Minrose Gwin, “Introduction: Reading History, Memory, and Forgetting,” The Southern Literary Journal 40.2 (2008): 3.

                          (19.) Suzanne W. Jones, Race Mixing: Southern Fiction Since the Sixties (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 20.

                          (20.) Bernice L. McFadden, Gathering of Waters (New York: Akashic Books, 2012), 15.

                          (21.) Ibid., 16.

                          (22.) Ibid., 15.

                          (23.) Ibid., 103.

                          (24.) Ibid., 252.

                          (26.) John Crowe Ransom, “Introduction,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (New York: Peter Smith, 1951), xix.

                          (27.) John Crowe Ransom, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” in I’ll Take My Stand, 12, 14.

                          (28.) Ibid., 14

                          (29.) Martyn Bone, The Postsouthern Sense of Place in Contemporary Fiction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005), 24.

                          (30.) Ransom, “Reconstructed but Unregenerate,” 19.

                          (31.) Attica Locke, The Cutting Season (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2012), 3–4, 326.

                          (32.) Robert Jackson, “The Southern Disaster Complex,” Mississippi Quarterly 63.3–4 (2012): 555.

                          (33.) For a comprehensive study of this cultural output, see Mary Ruth Marotte and Glenn Jellenik, eds., Ten Years after Katrina: Critical Perspectives of the Storm’s Effect on American Culture and Identity (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2014).

                          (34.) For more, see Jay Watson, “The Other Matter of the South,” PMLA 131.1 (2016): 157–161.

                          (35.) Michael Farris Smith, Rivers (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 3.

                          (36.) Cormac McCarthy, The Road (London: Picador, 2007), 1.

                          (37.) Smith, Rivers, 7.

                          (38.) Smith, Rivers, 10.

                          (41.) Paul Jay, Global Matters: The Transnational Turn in Literary Studies (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010), 1.

                          (42.) Ibid., 17.

                          (43.) See Wai Chee Dimock, Through Other Continents: American Literature across Deep Time (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

                          (44.) McKee and Trefzer, “Preface,” 678.

                          (45.) Ibid., 683.

                          (46.) See, for instance, John Wharton Lowe, Calypso Magnolia: The Crosscurrents of Caribbean and Southern Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016); Deborah N. Cohn, History and Memory in the Two Souths: Recent Southern and Spanish-American Fiction (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1999); Patricia Yaeger, “Circum-Atlantic Superabundance: Milk as World-Making in Alice Randall and Kara Walker,” American Literature 78.4 (2006): 769–798.

                          (47.) Richard Gray, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 89.

                          (48.) Ibid., 102.

                          (49.) Ibid., 94.

                          (50.) Nahem Yousaf, “Immigrant Writers: Transnational Stories of a ‘Worlded’ South,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American South, ed. Sharon Monteith (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 206.

                          (51.) Martyn Bone, “Narratives of African Immigration to the U.S. South: Dave Eggers’ What Is the What and Cynthia Shearer’s The Celestial Jukebox,” CR: The New Centennial Review 10.1 (2010): 71.

                          (52.) Yousaf, “Immigrant Writers,” 215.

                          (53.) Monique Truong, Bitter in the Mouth (London: Vintage, 2011), 12.

                          (54.) Ibid., 95.

                          (55.) Ibid., 15.

                          (56.) Ibid., 169.

                          (58.) Ibid., 282.