in an essay published in our pages in 2000, our friend Jerry Leath Mills surveyed around 30 prominent twentieth- century southern authors, which led him “to conclude, without fear of refutation, that there is indeed a single, simple, litmus- like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?” We were curious if Mills’s hypothesis held up so we brought the question to some of our favorite authors: Is there a “quality of southernness” in 21st- century southern fiction? Is Mills’s mule now truly dead? [End Page Insert-1]
I risk a prophecy: Not far into this century, a Faulkner- sized talent will emerge from among those very Latin American expatriates Donald Trump imagines he can wall away.
How will our New South look to a gifted narrator whose mother papoosed her across the Rio Grande? Aren’t we overdue a fresh perspective on our retread confederacy? Who’s better equipped than someone discovering the United States and the English language at the self-same time? She will have the brown eyes that can look straight through a blue- eyed culture.
William Faulkner’s sense of how much magic one hamlet can yield encouraged/engendered both Toni Morrison’s Ohio village and Garcia Marquez’s outpost Colombia. Now is the time for Faulkner’s narrative gift to boomerang back north. A talent capable of registering equatorial jungle and Nashville muffler shops is, even now, slouching toward us. She will bring tales of all the toxins, drug cravings, diet sodas, and unneeded baby formula we’ve exported. She will communicate in runic Mayan prototypes through Spanish Catholic fandangos toward Mississippi blues. She will offer something we long ago forgot to seek in our own boring cornpone jokes about ourselves.
She will finally show us US!
When I start with a blank canvas it isn’t so much blank at all in that there is already a place, a landscape, a color and a texture and a smell to the dirt. In the same way, the characters, when they arrive, already speak in a very distinct dialect. This is because it is the only thing I know. It is because my family has been on the same patch of ground since the late 1600s. And, in that way, it’s southern. But, at [End Page Insert-2] the same time, I’m hesitant to regionalize literature, as my South is not your South. North Carolina is not Mississippi. My Appalachia is not your Appalachia. The dark corner of South Carolina is not the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky. To regionalize is often to marginalize, and I believe this to be a dangerous endeavor. The greatest literature to come from this region should not be valued by its southernness. The reason it is great literature is because it is universal, because it illuminates some aspect of the human condition. A writer like Ron Rash or George Singleton or Lee Smith or Jill McCorkle, those writers aren’t great because they’re “southern” or “Appalachian” or “southern Appalachian.” Those writers are great because they understand what it means to be human. Just as Joyce said that he wrote solely about Dublin because “if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world,” we must work for that breadth. We must speak proudly with a drawl, but in a way that the whole world understands. So when I’m describing a beautiful book to someone and they interrupt with, “Oh, so it’s southern,” I respond in the only way I know how...