No More Green Lights: Or, How to Avoid the False Promise of an Idealized Future and Stand a Chance at Making Real Change

I hesitate to say Southern Women do it best, but damn…. sometimes the truth is just the truth, y’all.

I first found Stephanie Powell Watts’ work when I was homesick for North Carolina, living somewhere south of “The Eggs” that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby. At the time, I missed everything about my home and felt terribly out-of-place among the elites around me — especially those who insisted they weren’t elite at all.

My first read of Powell Watts was uncomfortable. It hit way too close to home, both in ways I anticipated and in those I did not. But aren’t the best books challenging in some way? If they don’t make you think or feel, what have they really done? For me, the answer is clear: nothing. If I haven’t walked away thinking and feeling, I can’t recommend the book, period, end of story. And I do love a good story.

The challenge I had with this particular novel wasn’t whether there was a compelling story (there was), or whether the author delivered it well (she did). No, for me, it was another sort of discomfort that arose from reading Powell Watts’ masterful debut — a certain “differently similar otherness” that I recognized, clearly and fully for the first time, as a White North Carolinian Woman living on Long Island. Whereas I had sought the book out to deliver a dose of home, what it ended up gifting me was a dose of reality about the places I live and the places I am from — physical and otherwise.

We’ve talked a lot over the past few months about loss, returns, and visioning a way forward. Given the world around us, anything else would have been irresponsible. So, I’m curious: who are we? Daisys and Avas, stalwart, hurting beauties preserved in amber for examination? Jay and JJ, undeterred by this unmovable boundary around our beloveds, to a naive and pitiable fault? Or Nicks and other unnamed narrators, brave cowards of lookers-on, perched in the enviable position of being able to walk away, no one ever knowing who we are — because what, after all, did we really have to lose by commentating while the worlds around us collapsed?

Maybe your answer is that we’re none of these things… and honestly? I hope that is true. But, what we think of ourselves is ever only half the picture. What others think of us, as both Fitzgerald and Powell Watts make so painfully clear, is the other — sometimes more devastating, more motivating — half. And in awareness of that half, what room do we have for “green lights?”

None. The answer is none. Because no one is coming to save us. That’s a burden and distinction we must bear ourselves. Whether residing in nouveau-riche island harbors or in job-deserted foothills, we are the ones we must count on to make a future that is both borne of and wisened by the past, without necessarily repeating it.

In place of guided questions, this month I’m sharing some links worth clicking.

Click them:

Washington Post’s Book Review from March 2017

NPR’s Story from April 2017

Stephanie Powell Watts’ Response to The Great Gatsby, Published in April 2017 via Literary Hub

Literary Hub’s May 2017 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Reading Women Podcast’s October 2017 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Writer Mag’s September 2018 Interview with Stephanie Powell Watts

Stephanie Powell Watts’ Web Site

September 2020 LibraRYAN Reading Group Pick/s

Friends,

I dislike some folks’ comparisons to Fitzgerald for this month’s read. Not because there aren’t parallels, not because I believe we shouldn’t let books — and people — be in conversation with each other, but because I generally take issue with assigning “debut” novelists “a great” to whom they seem to harken back, as if lending legitimacy to their work is somehow necessary. Especially given the lessons and themes of these novels. Keep reading if you’re curious as to why.

Writers are writers. Their voices are their voices. Their stories are their stories. And that should be enough. That said, if you’ve read The Great Gatsby, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on whether this literary parallel holds value. So many have made it. And if you haven’t read that American classic, I suggest you carve out time to do so. After all, September 2020’s author inscription mentions the “green light,” and in a world where we all need a beacon of hope to some degree or other, I’ll invite you to imagine what significance it might have — both now and in the future.

But first, here is your task, should you choose to accept it:

Please join me in reading one of my very favorite pieces of modern American literature, Stephanie Powell Watts’ No One is Coming to Save Us, which was published in 2017 by Ecco Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. If you finish early, read or re-read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. For several reasons, considering these books side-by-side may prove a worthy exercise — just not for the reasons I take issue with above.

I love each and every one of you. And I’ll see you back here the week we welcome fall.

Weiss’ “if the creek don’t rise”

“If I got a special life to plan, then I’m in a pickle cause nobody told me and I don’t know the first thing bout how.”

Sadie Blue,  p.212

if the creek don’t rise

I don’t know Leah Weiss, but we’re both originally from North Carolina — something I learned when I picked up her book. It was sitting there on the shelf next to a handful of other “new releases,” and I was fresh off a deep-dive into Appalachian everything, so the title grabbed my eye.

During my first read of Weiss’ novel, I had difficulty. It took me about 50 pages to get the voice of her characters properly situated. Some of the language they used, I was familiar with. Some of it, I was not. Truth be told, I was wholly unprepared for this book, which is an interesting place to be. It leaves you ready to learn.

Over the course of some heartbreakingly human events, Weiss shares important lessons that we’d all do well to ponder more — or at least differently:

(1) We’ve got to do better about ensuring that all people have access to opportunity, but we can’t lose sight of the importance of basic needs — food, water, safety, shelter and love — in the process.

(2) We’ve got to do better about being aware of our motivations. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a stronger lens on this more of the time? This isn’t to say that we’d necessarily make different decisions, but maybe we would, if we knew what we were really after in life, and how that affects others around us.

(3) We’ve got to do better about NOT believing that cultures can or should civilize other cultures. There’s much we can learn from each other — we are all students, we are all teachers, and we’d all do well to listen at least as much as we speak.

and finally

(4) We’ve got to do better about remembering that there’s more than one side to every story. This includes being aware of power dynamics that enable one narrative or a series of narratives to dominate over others.

On that note, I’d encourage y’all to spend some time with the residents of Baines Creek. They may not have all the answers, but they ask questions that matter. And you don’t find that everywhere.

***

P.S. For those interested in a deeper dive, I’d recommend starting with:

This book review from NPR/Book Reviews.

This interview with The News & Advance.

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.