Swyler’s “The Book of Speculation”

“It’s very easy for someone like you or me to get lost in an object, to accept certain ideas as fact without proper exploration.”

Mr. Churchwarry to Simon, p. 180

The Book of Speculation

Have you ever noticed how humans tend to seek the simplest, swiftest explanations for the situations we face? Look around — you’ll see that we all end up falling into this trap at one point or another (and probably repeatedly).

You may also notice that we have a strong urge to resist simple definition. Humans are funny creatures. We crave simplicity as we try to understand the world around us, but we go berserk the minute someone provides a simple explanation for something close or important to us.

Yeah, I fall into that trap too, and I try very hard to remain aware of it. One of the ways I do this is by finding opportunities to get out in the world. I go places, I meet people, I read books, I eat food, I work, I volunteer. In everything I do, I am here to listen, to learn, to fight against the trap. My hope is that, in the process, I expand my brain, elevate my understanding, and grow in my capacity for solidarity rather than fear. But it can be hard. Really hard. And sometimes isolating, because loads of people don’t share this view of the world.

I’d been looking for something that would help bridge the gap when I stumbled across Erika Swyler’s The Book of Speculation. Perhaps fittingly, the book was not what I expected. For those of you with interests in the circus, coastal life, book culture, or intergenerational stories, Swyler’s novel could be for you. Her storytelling — and her capacity to weave a story, within a story, within a story — is notable. But I’d like to pull back from that, and resist the urge to give you a standard book review.

What most impressed me about this particular novel was its sense of place. Swyler’s command of culture on Long Island dances off each page. She makes place a character worthy of discussion, something I see rarely in modern writing. We’ve become so introspective it hurts. Not the case here. Not by a longshot. Not if you know where to look.

At once a fine critic and a fierce advocate, Swyler shows all who are willing to see about a Long Island most will never choose to encounter — a Long Island that is at once beautiful and brutal, homey and alienating, historic and changing, rooted and disappearing. It’s the “and” in those phrases that matters. It’s the idea that a culture, a place, a person, or a thing can be more than the simple characterizations we create when we stop at speculation.

I have written here and elsewhere about those dangers. I speak from experience. As a North Carolinian living on Long Island, it makes my heart hurt when I hear individuals rail against what they think my home is, only to later hear these individuals’ plans for capitalizing on it. And, as a Long Islander by marriage and address, I’m becoming equally bothered by the reductivist views people have about this culture. Why? Because it’s one of my homes, it’s part of me, and no place is that simple, dammit. I feel obligated to love and protect it, for its own sake, as it is. It’s a force that cannot be stopped.

This story of home and obligation, of protection and love, is written all over Swyler’s pages. So if you missed it, go read her book again. It’s the undercurrent, the heart from which her novel beats. And, as with most things in life, if we resist the urge to over-simplify, to read only at the surface level, we might just see it, we might just find that it’s worth keeping. But certainly, don’t forget to enjoy the magic Swyler prepared along the way!

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P.S. Curious about speculation, or Swyler, or both? Start here, then find another circus 😉

(1) This interview Erika did for Newsday back in 2015. I was already a fan before I read this, and now I see why. She gets it. If you’re wondering what “it” is … read the interview, or better yet, read her book.

(2) This interview she did for New In Books. Wait ’til you get to the part about whac-a-mole. Then tell me you can’t conjure a great childhood memory or two afterwards.

Edge’s “The Potlikker Papers”

“[A]sk questions about who we are and how we got here, about who cooks, who cleans, and who earns a seat at the welcome table.”

– John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers, p.5

A few months ago, I wandered into my local bookstore looking for something medicinally Southern. After I paced a few uninspiring aisles, I found a hardcover someone had clearly misplaced.

I used to work in retail, and I get how maddening it can be for associates to constantly find and replace items that people scatter across the floor in the moments where they find something “better” than what they’ve got in-hand.

Unable to resist, I picked up the book and resolved to put it back where it belonged. That book was The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, and as it turns out, its proper place was with me.

Since that day, I’ve seriously savored Potlikker. And while I’m not a professional book reviewer, I do want more people to hear about this text, so I’m thrilled to feature it as my first Reading Words entry on the blog. Here we go!

As a Southerner, history major, food lover and woman, I was given so many reasons to fall “in like” with Potlikker Papers. Among them:

(1) There’s a cohesive narrative about how the famed “New South” came to be, and it does justice to both the opportunities and consequences of this cultural shift. In the process, Edge helped me realize that I wasn’t totally out of my mind to worry about the idea of home — both up North and in North Carolina.

(2) The book treats women as the serious contributors that we are — and indeed, always have been. To see this done, and to see it done in a way that doesn’t just start with Julia Child and end with Ina Garten, was refreshing. Not all women make the history books, but our stories are part of something that matters. It is never a bad day when someone else realizes this.

(3) It’s near-impossible to strike a true balance between hyper-local foodie writing and something that most people would label as “capital H” history. Edge’s people’s history has come pretty darned close. Many cultures contribute to the beautifully complex tapestry that is the American South. Edge has a knack for making sure we know about more of them, without presuming to have “found” or “discovered” them himself. Bravo, sir.

More broadly, my reaction to Edge’s book would not be complete without addressing how the South gets viewed. In many respects, Edge and I are in agreement. The South is not perfect — far from, as a matter of fact. But this does not excuse or explain America’s long, bizarre tradition of “yo-yo-like” changes in our cultural acceptance threshold.

Up and down, our perceptions of the South go up and down on the tiniest of threads, controlled by what feels like one user at a time, many of whom are ignorant to how the South has changed, is changing, or will continue to change.

In times of professed love, I’ve seen a range of reactions, from cultural appropriation, to patronization, to relocation, and everything in between. And I’ve only been on this earth since the ’80s, which is to say, not that long.

In times of disdain, reactions are more sinister, and usually kick off with a piece from someone who feels they “know better” in their chosen medium of record. Even if you don’t recognize their names, you’d recognize their voices, because the attitudes and beliefs they communicate invariably trickle down to everyday people like you and me.

The tragedy is that, in both of these times, Southern culture as it really exists — in all of its complex people, places, looks, sounds, feels, smells, and tastes — gets completely lost. And to be perfectly clear, this is dangerous for more than the American South.

So, what can we do in the face of this challenge? We can keep the conversation going, keep sharing stories of what life is really like, keep asking important questions, keep welcoming others into the fold as things grow and change. And we’ve got to start, like many foods we should probably eat more of, from the ground, up. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to pick up a copy of Edge’s book in the process. Let’s get cooking.

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P.S. For those with further interest, I’d recommend starting with:

This interview with NPR/The Salt.

This interview with Saveur.

This interview with the Southern Register / Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

See what nags at you from these pieces, then keep digging, keep reading, keep listening. This region, its people, their voices have been ready to be heard for a long time.

How ready are we to hear them?

We’re All a Little North by North Carolinian

Born into a family who worked really hard to put down stable roots in North Carolina, I suppose I should have stayed there. Instead, I went to college far from home, met the New Yorker who would become my husband, and now live in a small, suburban community on Long Island.

Husband and I are very lucky. In addition to each other, we each gained a new home (and friends and family) through our union. I gained New York, he gained North Carolina, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. But this doesn’t mean life is perfect. I have to acknowledge that, from time to time, it can be hard to live as a Southerner in the elite club of generations-long Long Islanders. I miss the voices of the South, the foods, the sounds, the smells, the entire way of life — one which, through the process of assimilation, I must often hide if not outright deny in order to be taken seriously.

I have an incredibly supportive spouse. And his family and friends have been welcoming since the earliest days of our courtship, but unfortunately I cannot be around these loving souls all the time. Outside of this support system, the process of assimilation can be lonely and terrifying. In this environment, it’s hard to find other people like me, or at least other people who’re open to knowing people like me.

I started to grapple honestly with this predicament about a year ago — with trusted friends, with family, in church, at work, in other writing projects, basically everywhere the topic nagged at me. Since we carry our identities with us everywhere, and since the world around me isn’t always welcoming, that nagging happened a lot. And then it started to happen even more, and grew even stronger, to the point where I knew I had to do something about it. I knew that I could no longer hide in silence. Especially because, through earlier work and conversations, I knew I wasn’t the only person out there experiencing this struggle — and it wasn’t just happening in New York. Stories like ours are about the struggle to build a loving home, a way of life, in any place that, quite frankly, would rather we weren’t there at all.

There are several ways to build a life in these scenarios:

(1) Deny everything about yourself, and learn very quickly how to do life in a completely different way, in completely different words and meals and jobs and goals and expectations, and then prepare to find out that sometimes, even when you play by every rule, those around you won’t see past the person they want you to be.

(2) Build community with others like you, if you can find them, to celebrate and protect your heritage. Society may rail against everything about you, but you can build collective agency, and at least have others to cry or laugh with about the social experiment your lives have become.

(3) Grow an insanely thick skin and resist the actors that seek to silence you, but do this because of and through love. Love takes a helluva lot more strength than hate. But it also has the greatest capacity to affect change, so it’s worthwhile if you can master it.

Spoiler alert: I’ve tried 1 and 2 before. Both helped, but were more reactive than I’d prefer. I’m onto the third attempt now, and that attempt is this space, North by North Carolinian. Rather than deny or simply expose the factors that have the potential for harm (and many do), this space will take up the yoke of building more open-mindedness, trust and love for others who aren’t always like us. This space is dedicated to celebrating the good in different, if not altogether divergent, cultures.

At a time when I desperately miss home, I feel compelled to collect the stories, recipes, music, art, and culture that speak to who I am, rather than being made to forget what they mean to me, a North Carolinian up North.

At the same time, I feel compelled to lift up and celebrate what makes life up North lovely and full. There are so many stories, recipes, and pieces of culture that matter and help me create meaning here, as I make my life and my home in the great state of New York.

Each of these places, each of these cultures, are wildly beautiful. Each of them matter. And so do their people. With this in mind, I hope North by North Carolinian accomplishes something positive, however simple it may seem on the surface. I hope it opens minds and hearts. I hope it elevates conversations. I hope it highlights and preserves heritages rather than destroying or minimizing them over fear of difference. And as one, small act of love and resistance, I hope it amplifies the light from many people, places and things who seek to remind us that we all matter, all of the time.

Join me in the process of building a life between and as part of two cultures. May we all be brave enough to honestly examine and own ourselves, and in the process may we come to see that we are all needed, exactly as we are, exactly where we are, for as long as we choose to be there.