Dispatches | September 30, 2003

[By Charlie Green]

I was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, grew up around Little Rock, and didn’t move out-of-state until I was twenty-two. In spite of these facts, my friend Jake, also from Arkansas, recently told me that I am “from Arkansas but not of Arkansas.”

When he said it, I felt gratified, but since then I’ve become sad at the fact that he’s right. For starters, I have no accent, probably the most superficial deficit. My older brothers and I, avid watchers of television as children, forged studied non-accents much like those sported by television actors. The more extreme the accent, sitcoms and cartoons taught us, the stupider the person. I was all too willing to find this prejudice corroborated by my heavily-accented peers.

The curbing of my accent, though, was simply symptomatic of a larger embarrassment I felt living in a state whose unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.” Despite little urban experience (Little Rock sprawls across the center of the state but barely counts as urban), I yearned to be cosmopolitan, unrooted to my home state. The charms of home were, in many ways, lost on me. The state’s beauty, be it in the Ozarks or the sublime view from Pinnacle Mountain, shone habitually from brochures, TV ads, and newspaper photographs, and that familiarity grew tiresome to me, raised as I was on images of other places.

The state sheltered too many uneducated poor who treasured their biases like family heirlooms; I didn’t have to go far to see the Confederate flag on a bumper or flapping from someone’s porch, or to hear any variety of racial epithets. Indeed, shedding the identity of the state seemed to me another way of shedding my prepubescent racism from any record of my life, whether printed on paper or on my own memory.

But then I moved to Columbia and fell homesick in a way I hadn’t anticipated. I didn’t merely miss my family and friends, I missed the things about my homeland I had never understood. The warmth of its people, the dogged fealty to ideas and customs whether wrong or right, the subtle intelligence of my ancestors. I haven’t put on rose-colored glasses; I remember rightly the mesh of bigotry, the insular fear of the unknown and the outsider, the conflicting love for and disregard of the land. And what’s more, I now recognize the complex genealogy of the state’s successes and failures in my own makeup.

I prefer constancy. My prejudices may come in different forms, but I have them; I am in many ways more reactionary than radical, despite what I once envisioned myself to be.

This awareness hasn’t come to me as an epiphany. The understanding, if I can call it that, has been gradual and has instantiated changes in me I have yet to recognize. One distinct change, though, has been manifested in the way I read. Not only am I interested in character, I’m always more engaged when character reflects and is inextricably tied to place. Setting so often serves just as a place for characters to interact; a certain irrelevance hangs in the story. But I crave more than that; setting is not mere story dressing. Granted, the spread of sameness—Wal-Mart, fast food, television, the Internet—is wide in many ways, and it shapes people as much as it marks the land, but the sway of place is still too powerful to dismiss.

Yet I still hear writers categorized—even dismissed—as “regionalists.” William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, and Willa Cather all wrote passionately and endlessly about the places that were home to them, but categorizing or dismissing them, I think, misses something. Faulkner obsessed over the South because of its contradictions and mystery; Cather portrayed Nebraska so often and so vividly because of its shifting mix of immigrants becoming Americans.

The work of these writers wasn’t just from the land, it was of the land. That connection to place does not limit these authors to any sort of regionalism; instead, that understanding of land and people opens the work outward. Indeed, only when we connect to our own homeland—whether we love or hate it, we must accept it, because it is us—only then can we see the world’s horizon with any real perspective.