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

Wright’s “Last Ride to Graceland”

“I’m proud to be a southerner, which isn’t always a fashionable thing to say.”

Cory Beth Ainsworth, p. 91

Last Ride to Graceland

I’ve been living in New York for awhile. Long enough to build a life, long enough to feel at home, long enough for a lot of good things to happen. But also long enough to forget. That’s right. I’ve been living here so long that, occasionally, I forget what it’s like to be home.

I forget what Fourth and Trade are like on Friday nights in the summer. I forget what cicadas sound like in the backyard. I forget that bluegrass isn’t just a trope, that BBQ isn’t just food we heat on the grill, and that not all the best stories are short. I’ve lived here long enough to forget what the South is like, who I am, and the places I am from. It scares the crap out of me every time.

When this happens, I cry. Usually big, ugly tears. And then I text or call Husband, who is as familiar with this travesty as my retelling of it. He is a good listener — a rare breed among New Yorkers — so he dutifully listens to me spew, careful not to interrupt or mansplain, and only once I’m all cried and storied out, he helps me remember why I can’t let myself forget.

Then I dig real deep, gather my courage, and go hunting. What for? My Southern voice, my Southern ear, my Southern roots, my Southern self. Where do I find it? Usually at bookstores, filed under “regional interest” or tossed in the discount bin.

Yeah, don’t get me started on those politics. We’d be here all day! But I do sometimes wonder, do New Yorkers feel this way in Southern stores? Not just with books, but with everything else they miss, things that aren’t as commonplace in their adoptive homes and road trip pit stops? Do they find the essence of their beings being as deeply discounted as mine? And if they do, is it also on the regular?

This stuff isn’t talked about in my circles, but I’d venture to guess that we are more alike than different, sisters and brothers from north of the line. I bet somewhere out there, a New Yorker is just as afraid of forgetting, just as aware of her/his unique way of being in the world. And that sort of thing is something we need to pay attention to. Maybe we all have a responsibility to help our neighbors. Scratch that. Not maybe. We definitely do.

Anyway, this week was one of those weeks for me. A week of lonely forgetting. A week of discounting. A week of searching everywhere for a clue that maybe, just maybe, being me was OK on this island. A clue more than people saying they were inclusive. A clue that people actually are.

These clues are hard to find, but thankfully I am resourceful and determined. I fight for the things I care about. Because of that, I found something. This week’s clue? Kim Wright’s Last Ride to Graceland. I won’t give away any spoilers, but she had me from page one. Rare. After that, I took the book home and read voraciously. I read like there wasn’t going to be another clue, another book, another home to be had. And you know what? It was the best homecoming I’ve had in awhile.

The only issue? Now I wish I really was home. If that were the case, I could tell Kim Wright how grateful I am, how necessary she is, and how much I wish other people knew this too. But for now I find joy in remembering. For one more day, I don’t forget. For one more day, the South is alive and well. For one more day, I can visit Carolina In My Mind.

And it’s glorious.

***

For more information about Elvis and Graceland, check this resource out.

For Kim Wright’s reflections on her trip, and its connection to the book, familiarize yourself with this post over at South Writ Large.

For more information about the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction, which Last Ride to Graceland was the 2016 recipient of, do some reading over here.

For a review of this book from the Charlotte Observer (Wright is a Charlotte resident), mozy on over to this link.

And for some other female, Carolina-based authors you might consider adding to your bookshelf, check out Authors out of Carolina over here.

P.S. Why is it that larger (read: national) newspapers don’t cover Southern literature until it’s as “well known” as The Help? Maybe someday, someone will change that.

Food for thought.

Thomas’ “The Hate U Give”

“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?”

Starr Carter, p. 252

The Hate U Give

If your skin is white like mine, for most of the hours of most of the days of your life, you probably won’t think about your whiteness. Why? Because the culture white America created over centuries makes it really easy not to on the daily. And, in fact, it makes it that way precisely so you don’t think about it … ideally at all. If you did, things might be very, very different.

If that makes you feel uncomfortable, good. It should. It means you’re thinking. It means you’re on the journey to awareness. And from that point, you have the potential to make a serious difference — not just make things different. Yes, that subtlety matters. A lot.

I came to this uncomfortable realization for the first time in middle school, when I was given a chance to study the life and works of two incredible Americans — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Maya Angelou. The realization I had from these studies bothered me. Not so much because the reality itself was hard to acknowledge (though it was), but because I knew, without having the vocabulary to properly vocalize this yet, that I’d have few — if any — other white people to talk about it with. So I kept my feelings and opinions close to my heart. That’s about as far as they went back then, and since then I’ve learned lesson after lesson about the importance of speaking truth to power.

I could cite countless other examples of uncomfortable realizations like this. Between school and work, across three states and six cities, and yes, also in my personal life, confronting race in a post-racial America has been challenging. This means it’s worthwhile — and ultimately, of importance. But I’m not here to give you a run-down of these moments. The point is that I have them, and yes, white America, you have them too, whether or not you’re aware of it yet.

What I am here to do — in this post, but more globally on the blog — is to remind us that life is about understanding and compassion, rather than hatred or fear. Life is about striving for justice and equity, rather than perpetuating systemic oppression (in all forms!). Put more simply, life is about learning to love, choosing to love, and then, critically, actually doing it.  And sometimes love means we must do difficult things, uncomfortable things, things we aren’t sure we’re brave enough, ready enough, smart enough, strong enough, anything enough to do. That is usually when we need to try the most.

In the spirit of that message, I’d encourage you to read Angie Thomas’s masterful work, The Hate U Give. It’s been nominated for a National Book Award. It’s a best-seller. And, if you’ve been following the news, you may have heard that it’s becoming a major motion picture. It stands on its own.

But much more importantly, and I don’t say this lightly, it’s the essence of life itself. It’s a call-to-action we all must learn to answer. Not just for one person, or one movement, or one pivotal moment in history, but all the time, everywhere, for everyone. It’s that important. Please read this book. And when you’re ready, go in peace to speak, write, act, and generally L-O-V-E. Just remember that peace doesn’t have to mean silence.

***

P.S. Interested in other voices who’ve joined this conversation?

Here’s a few. I encourage you to find more — or even better, contribute alongside them:

(1) The Atlantic’s review of T.H.U.G., available here.

(2) An interview with Angie Thomas and Balzer+ Bray/Harper Collins, her publisher. Heads-up, their chat is about 20 minutes long, but you’ll want to listen all the way through over here.

(3) A Huffington Post review, available here.

Full concept and content by Ryan Vale McGonigle

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.