A few weeks ago I attended a writing conference at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. It was a day of going back and forth between rooms to juggle topics such as effectively writing in romantic elements, discussing copyright laws, and brainstorming the best methods of editing.
The topic of discussion that stuck with me the most related to the southern gothic genre. What makes a piece southern gothic? What defines a southern gothic work from another work that just includes gothic elements or allusions to the south?
The room was filled with aspiring writers of all ages who wrote different preferred genres. Many of these writers were women and most of them (those who spoke) sounded as if they had some origin somewhere in the South.
The discussion was led by a professor from Radford University.
A solid distinction that the professor made was as follows: Dracula is gothic. Gone with the Wind is southern. The Awakening is southern gothic. To Kill a Mockingbird is a good example of a novel and film that can be defined as southern gothic.
We discussed the elements and drew comparisons that better distinguished these works in their rightful categories. We then talked about how the southern gothic genre came to be so prominent. What made this genre so appealing to so many readers back in the 1940’s?
It was suggested that this genre was effective through its acknowledgment of some of the darker themes in American history that are deeply rooted in the South. Racism, slavery, poverty, the stringent following of a radicalized southern Baptist faith: many of these elements are seen in the Southern Gothic genre. But the most striking point of discussion for me was the suggestion of an authorial purpose for writing southern gothic – to reconcile with a southern culture that has been darkened and flawed by historic events.
See, I was born and raised in Massachusetts. While many people down here view the Civil War as a tragedy, I was brought up to think of it as a victory. We freed the slaves, hooray! I do not mourn the falling of the Old South. I view the freeing of the slaves and the later pursuit of black civil liberties as triumphs in freedom and equality, plain and simple. I wholeheartedly believe in equal rights for the black, female, and LGBTQ community; and I do not experience that cultural or religious inner conflict by doing so.
In short, I view history America’s differently than a reconciling Southerner does.
So where does that leave me as a writer?
As a northerner who views history differently, do I have the right to write something in the southern gothic genre?
Is this a genre that no matter how much studying I do, whatever I write will only result in a cheap imitation, and not be genuine? Can I approach this genre with a list of literary elements to utilize in my plot, or is this a genre that requires a closer understanding – perhaps even complete assimilation – to truly understand and effectively convey a sense of grief that would resonate with southern readers? Do I need to go back to church? (God save me, I haven’t been in years.)
I think it can be done and I do not think that I need to abandon my views to do so. It will require understanding, empathy, and respect. I do not have to change my opinion on whether the Civil War or the outcome of the Civil Rights movement was positive or negative for this country. I do not need to change my opinion of those who still waive the confederate flags on the rooftops of their cars.
I need to respect that other peoples’ opinions are theirs, and accept that there is a reason for why they have that opinion.
We are a country of many cultures with many perceived histories, and those different views on history have left marks on all of us. When writing in any different culture foreign to my own, I need to empathize and make a great effort to understand why topics such as racism, homosexuality, and religious conflict are so greatly disputed even still in the modern-day.
P.S. The last thing I want to do here is to put all people who live under the Mason-Dixie in one category. I know plenty of people from Virginia whose values and beliefs aren’t religiously or racially driven. I know many of them who belong to the green party, consider themselves moderates, or even democrats. I know many southern republicans who are open-minded to differing perspectives and have complex views on their history. On the other side of that, I know many loony far-right Northerners who are as racist as I am blonde. It’s not black and white. It’s important to remember that every region, county, town, household is layered.
P.S.S. Also, I’m not really considering writing anything in the Southern Gothic genre at the moment. I just got thinking about it after the conference and wanted to write out my thoughts before they escaped me.