Where I’m Coming From

Southerners routinely get trashed up north, where they’re either derided as racists or hayseeds, or the offspring of siblings.

I am not a southerner, but I am of the South. I grew up in Nashville, but I was not born there; I spent the first eight years of my life in Big Flats, N.Y. I don’t have a southern accent, and as of this year I have spent more years living outside the South, in college and afterward, as I did in Nashville growing up.

And yet when I return to Nashville for holidays, as I did this Thanksgiving, I do feel some visceral connection that I find lacking even in upstate New York, or Washington, where I have lived, in total, for five years. A blood-warm sense of calm and security creeps over me. It is, for lack of a more specific description, a release; slowly, as the plane lands in Nashville, the world exhales.


One way I know I am of the South, if not a southerner, is the amount of time I spend defending it. Few people around me deride the South openly, but practically every day I confront barely hidden stereotypes. They emerged most recently during the ruckus over Howard Dean’s stunted appeal to ‘guys in the South with confederate flags in the pickups.’ Certainly not the best way to reach working-class whites in Georgia, but it struck me that no one questioned his underlying assumption: that most, even many, working-class southerners have the Stars and Bars hanging in the back windows of their trucks. They don’t.

In my experience, most southerners, are tolerant, relatively open-minded folks. They may not go in for cutting-edge multiculturalisms but that seems more a matter of their cultural aversion to change than it is any outright hostility toward others. But Dean’s boorishness fit the pundits’ understanding of the South, so they gave him a pass.

Then again, when I used the bathroom after deplaning at Nashville International Airport, I found scribbled on the wall, ‘Fuck all Muslims. And Jews.’


I came to Nashville this Thanksgiving with a dual purpose: to see my grandparents, as usual, but also to attend Southern Writers Reading, a literary festival held every year in Fairhope, Alabama, a small town on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The event, now in its fifth year, draws about two dozen southern writers, usually up-and-comers but occasionally well-established types as well (Rick Bragg, for instance, is a regular, though he couldn’t make it this time because he was touring for his new book). This year’s big names included Tom Franklin, Silas House, and William Gay—names which may mean nothing outside the south, but in bookstores across Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia they’re hailed as the next Faulkner, Wolfe, and O’Connor.

Fairhope is the sort of town every writer dreams of finding: a place of absolute, serene beauty, filled with people who care deeply about literature. There are only a few thousand residents, but Fairhope has half a dozen excellent, non-chain bookstores, including Over the Transom, a used-and-new shop downtown run by Sonny Brewer, the organizer of Southern Writers Reading.

Brewer is very much the literary center of this new generation of southern writers. He edits their books, helps them find agents, and he oversees two yearly anthologies of southern literature. And he is the cultural doyen of Fairhope; for the town’s literati, events at Over the Transom are the sine qua non of in-town intellectualism. Some locals, through Brewer, have even become small-time patrons, housing authors when they come to town and traveling to Oxford, Jackson, and points further to attend other events in the southern literary calendar. Several of the festival’s parties, including a sun- and liquor-drenched Saturday afternoon at a bayside home south of town, were hosted by friends of Sonny’s.

Would it be bolstering or buffeting a stereotype to say that most of my ‘interviews’ with authors that weekend took place amidst constantly flowing alcohol? On one hand, it may only go to show that southerners are particularly happy when drinking. On the other hand, here was a group of people I did not know, and as a non-author had little business being around. Southerners are supposed to be taciturn and unfriendly toward strangers, and yet from the second I arrived it was as if I had always been there, as if I, like any one of them, knew what it is like to sweat blood over words, knew the birthing pains of the novel. I felt at home, and I felt included, even though I had yet to sleep a single night in Fairhope and I had known these folks for less than 12 hours.


I haven’t lived in Nashville for almost 10 years, and my parents now live in Virginia. And yet when I talk about visiting Tennessee I usually call it ‘home,’ and I’ve been known to lapse wistfully into talk of grits and country bars. And I feel ashamed, not because a love of grits is anything to be ashamed of, but because, at least to myself, I feel false. There is a certain cachet that comes with being an expat southerner, and I sometimes wonder whether I am stating a heritage or just affecting one. When I am in Tennessee, I lapse into a slight twang; is that proof of a southern streak, or is the fact that it subsides when I go back north proof that I’m not really of the south at all?

In Germany and Austria, they speak of one’s ‘Heimat,’ roughly ‘homeland,’ the place you associate with the deepest longings in your soul, the valley or plain or small town from whence you came and where, if all goes well, you will return to someday. But what if you don’t have a ‘Heimat’? Can you choose a ‘Heimat’? If you’ve lived somewhere long enough, but weren’t born there, does it count? Or are you simply out of luck? Can I be of somewhere if I’m not from there?


It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and I’m doing some Christmas recon in the Green Hills shopping district for my mother, who wants to get some gifts for my father on Friday. As I leave a luggage store, a slight wind hits me, and borne upon it the slightest odor of decaying leaves. Like a mother bear who can pick out a long-lost cub’s scent from miles away, I know immediately—this is how Nashville smells in the fall. As a class of smells, decaying leaves is a nearly universal phenomenon, and I’ve experienced it in Europe, Asia, and all over America. Yet there’s something unique to Nashville’s species of decaying-leaf scent, a certain tart crispness, an ever-so-slight sweetness, that I’ve never noticed anywhere else.

And that’s when I decide: If you can characterize a town by the scent of its decaying leaves, you’re home. If you can meet a stranger in a bar or on the street and feel an instant, deep camaraderie, you’re home. If you can roll into a small town and feel instantly welcome, you’re home. I am not a southerner, but when I am in the south, I know where I am.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen