Reading VARINA with Jesmyn

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OK, not exactly with Jesmyn (Ward, that is, the author of two National Book Award-winning novels and one of TIME‘s most influential people of the year).

Let’s back up. Varina is the latest painstakingly-researched period novel by Charles Frazier (of Cold Mountain fame); his protagonist, Varina, has the dubious–and real–historical distinction of having served as the first lady of the American Confederacy. But before she married Jefferson Davis, (who became president of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865), she was Varina Howell of Mississippi.

I was halfway through Varina, when I came upon Ward’s essay in TIME, “My True South: Why I Decided to Return Home” [to live and raise her children in her native Mississippi], introduced and excerpted at Longreads by Aaron Gilbreath.

I knew Ward and Varina would make good reading companions. And so, across vast differences–most notably, race and more than a century-and-a-half of time–two women from Mississippi meet, with me, and discuss the fractured meaning of home.

Picture the state of Mississippi, and you might conjure a grand river boat from gentile times gone by, paddle churning behind; you might as readily imagine a vast field of cotton being picked by slaves; or, you might picture the scene of a lynching. For Ward,

Mississippi is the memory America invokes whenever it wants to convince itself that racial violence and subjugation are mostly lodged in the past, that they have no space in our present moment, save in this backwoods, backward place.

Of course, we know that native places, like their people, have long memories and a long reach.

So, I’m straying from the American Rust Belt (again) to examine how Varina and Ward characterize another distinctly American place, the South they hail from: the land and legacies they (and all Americans, really) are tied to, for better and worse.

Though the American South is not in my bones, I am not wholly unqualified to join these women in this character-study of the place. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but I spent more than a decade living in Richmond, Virginia, which served as the Capital of the Confederacy. As a nineteen-year-old from Ohio, with a grasp of Civil War history that mostly came from watching Patrick Swayze in the 80s miniseries North and South, I would gain an education–inside and out of my college classrooms.

One hundred and thirty years after Richmond burned, I, like many students, lived on Monument Avenue (a residential boulevard bearing large-scale monuments of Confederate heroes, Jefferson Davis, included)–first on J.E.B. Stuart’s circle and later just off Robert E. Lee’s.* When, after a terrible summer storm, much of the city, including my sweltering apartment, was without power for more than a week, Robert E. Lee was first on the block to be back on the grid–lit up in the night like Christmas. The irony of that “enlightenment” wasn’t lost on me.

Still, Richmond was where I fell in love with American literature and found the slim canon I knew from high school stretched to include the autobiographies of slaves; up through the writers of the Harlem Renaissance; to Toni Morrison; and to my teacher, novelist Marita Golden.

Then, along that historic grassy boulevard where I lived, modern-day tennis star and humanitarian, African-American and Richmond native Arthur Ashe was memorialized with the first non-Confederate statue. And I watched the pickup trucks of skinheads descend upon Monument Avenue and circle the statue in protest, Confederate flags flying, as if their capital city had never fallen.

The novel Varina basically begins on the “Friday night before Richmond burned,” when Varina flees the “false White House and the capital city,” with a companion, Ellen, a former slave; and their children. The plan: to escape capture by the Union army by fleeing south on wagons–and living off the land, a few friends, and more strangers–first to “Floridaland,” and finally to Havana. (Here is where Frazier’s depictions of the raw Southern landscape shine.) But, escape doesn’t come easily for those so firmly in the wrong, as Varina laments.

Her recalling of her childhood in Mississippi reveals some of the most interesting facets of the novel–a novel which, though geographically and historically illuminating, doesn’t grip this reader as Frazier’s Cold Mountain and, especially, his Nightwoods did. The author writes of Varina’s (incomplete) childhood epiphany, the girl and then woman forever walking a tightrope stretched between complicity and geographical removal designed to save face:

She grew up where and when she did. [Slavery] was a given. But she began feeling the strangeness of it at about nine or ten…The sense that a strong line cut through all the people she knew…free on her side, enslaved on the other…the line between slave and free might have been only a foot across–but even then it cut deep, a bottomless chasm. Yet the only determinant of which side you occupied was a paper-thin layer a skin, a fraction of blood degree.

Would that we could say things have changed enough in 150 years, but Ward chronicles in her essay the racial aggressions–sometimes “slight and interpersonal,” sometime “deeper, systemic” that forever loom. Says Ward,

Living in the American South for generations, my family has collected so many accounts of racial terror, passed down over the decades.

And yet… when she might flee never to return, Ward goes back to her childhood home to live, because it is just that, home, for her and her children. Her depictions of the Mississippi landscape are both stifling and stunning:

…tall pines and verdant vines and lush shrubs, it was as if the very water in the air buoyed me up so I could float through the heat.

But it’s even more than her place. It’s all of this collected America in pieces. Gilbreath calls Ward’s essay, a “portrait of an entire nation,” and I would say the same for the story of Varina Howell Davis–my two reading companions, Ward and Varina, standing on opposite sides of a chasm we can only work to close through generations of building and rebuilding our best approximations of home.

Ward says,

I like to think that after I die, my children will look at that place and see a place of refuge, of rest. I hope they do not flee… Even as the South remains troubled by its past, there are people here who are fighting so it can find its way to a healthier future, never forgetting the lessons of its long, brutal history, ever present, ever instructive.

What are you reading right now? How does it inform your notion of home?

Ward’s story is part of TIME’s August 6 special issue on the American South. More from the issue here.

*Richmond’s historic avenue of Civil War monuments has not escaped controversy, which has raged from its inception in the early 20th century until now. Stay tuned.

*Image of a Mississippi wood courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

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Rounding Up the Best Reads of 2018

No, not beach reads. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Revived from my Thanksgiving food coma, my family made our almost annual trek to the beach for off-season rates on a boardwalk-front room, rainy trips to the arcade (we can all agree on skee ball), and reading to the tune of some pretty good surf (or so I was told).

With November and its captive, NaNoWriMo, losing their grip, I turn to logging some of my best reads of 2018, including Ohio Poet Laureate Dave Lucas’s book of poems called Weather, which (trust me) is a perfect name for a collection including many place poems set in Northeast Ohio. (More on this poet soon, I hope.)

Seems I’m “on” again with poetry, a reading practice which helps the fiction flow. But I haven’t stopped mooning over my fave novel I read this year, Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, which I talked about here. (Expecting some kind of twice-tolling timepiece this year, Santa!)

So when my favorite writing- and book-blogger from New Zealand, Kim at Writer Side of Life, asked for 2018 fave books, I couldn’t resist singing the praises of that very Gentleman. Here is Kim’s entire list of Bloggers’ Picks: Best Reads of 2018, which includes historical and modern novels, the literary and popular, a memoir and even a murder. Of that list, I’ve read three–including Charles Frazier’s Varina, which I talked about here and Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, which I…um…didn’t. What would you add to this Best Reads list? Comment here or on my Facebook page.

And since we’re heading into gifting season, what are your fave books to gift–for children and adults?

*For those of you who pay attention to my nonsense, my new muse in stone (likely actually Zeus or Heracles/Hercules) has been (diplomatically) dubbed: Grateful Edgar deVacca and titled muse of resourceful NaNo writers everywhere. (More on NaNo lessons learned coming soon…)

Revising is the opposite of cake

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Editing is veritable cake.

Editing ourselves might mean a trip to the hairdresser; editing our lifestyle might mean getting to bed on time; editing our house might take a can of paint. Editing a WIP means re-tooling, re-telling, and finding and following the right style guide.

But revising–really re-seeing–ourselves, our places and lifestyles, and, by extension, the stories we tell, takes much more time, energy, and lobotomy-level introspection.

Revising is the opposite of cake: not at all light and fluffy. Maybe something more like swamp muck, quicksand, or even asphalt.

Revising a WIP? My condolences. You’re in the muck of re-seeing and re-forming, struggling, hopefully, to once again resurface. Only then can you can catch your breath  to dig in again.

Me, I’m in the last, surface-y editing stage of one project and the first-draft stage of another–the former like frosting, the latter all discovery and flashes of light. (And here’s where the pastry analogy has worn thin, become too tough–ha.)

OK, back to the poor, unfortunate revising soul: to revise a WIP is an act of soul-searching, on the part of the author and the author’s characters. To revise a memoir must be a frightening process of destroying and remaking again and again one’s own image on paper. Bless you, memoirists; you are a brave lot.

I’ll lump the late Jefferson Davis in here–with memoirists, but not with the blessing. If you missed my recent post, I was reading Varina by author Charles Frazier of Cold Mountain fame. (Varina was Mrs. Jefferson Davis, first lady of the false country of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War.) In this historical novel, which explores the lives of real historical figures, there is a wonderful description of what it means to write and revise, provided by the character of Sara Dorsey.

Dorsey had been something of a writer, herself, and it’s at her home where Jefferson Davis is writing his memoirs (which, after his death, his wife ultimately revised). Dorsey describes the arduous task of writing memoirs this way:

…sitting still at a table draining memory dry to fill blank pages with strong words.

Tough enough. But then she describes revising–on the page but also on the page of history that found Jefferson Davis clearly on the side of the wrong:

…the joy of revising…which unlike life allows you to go back and rethink and make yourself better than you really are. … Even if the work comes to nothing, he will have these days to shape the past, make sense of how the runes fell against him.

Runes or no, what’s your favorite part of revising? Least favorite?

*above photo of a house seen and re-seen all at once, provided by Bill Moon of Port Clinton, Ohio–thanks, Dad!