- Published: 24 September 2015 24 September 2015
On why —and how —she WRITES ABOUT WHERE SHE’S FROM—THE SOUTHERN US. She’s touring to bookstores and festivals throughout the south on the event of the publication of the collection “SOON” by Pat Conroy’s imprint at the University of South Carolina’s Story River Books. Durban, pronounced Dur-ban, is not often thought of as a Southern writer, though she considers herself a Southern writer and has won multiple awards and a southern-set story was included in the national collection Best Short Stories of the Century.
Your fiction writing has been praised for its documentary, literary style. Is that an apt description?
Yes, especially when I’m writing about the Southern past. As a white southerner, I have so many learned and inherited filters available to help me resist or sentimentalize or avoid taking an honest look. In my writing, I want to remove as many of those filters as I can in order to see more of the truth, recognizing of course that there is no such thing as pure and absolute truth. For me, the way into the past is through research into details of everyday life—and into my own attitudes.
What’s the intended effect?
I write about the past the way I do because I believe that the past is remade by every generation and passed on through stories that become part of our collective memory, and if that’s true then I have an obligation to make my writing reflect the complexities I’ve discovered through my research into the past and my own inherited attitudes so that I hand on a fuller and hopefully more truthful story than the one I was told. And I don’t think we need to fear a more truthful story, though we could be more humble in the face of it.
How would you describe sentimental writing?
In his book about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch wrote that “A precise memory of the offense is necessary to understand its legacy.” A precise memory is a complex thing while sentimental remembering is reductive, it discards difficult or troubling aspects of the past in favor of a simpler and more comforting story. Sentimentalizing the past strikes me as one of the great dangers of southern writing about the past, of any writing, really, because it holds us back from actually confronting our own history. To me, sentimentality is like a perfumed handkerchief held to the nose as we walk the smelly streets of Southern history. I want to make my memory, and the story I tell about the act of remembering, as precise and detailed as I can.
What do you think happens by removing sentimentality from a story?
A more complex reality emerges, a fuller, more inclusive and darker truth. Over time, by researching and writing about the South the way I do, I’m trying not to hand on unchanged or unchallenged stories about the past, to try and come to terms with it, perhaps to acknowledge, in some personal way, what I’ve come to understand about the part white southerners played in creating the story that we—white people and black people—have lived together for so long. And to include myself and my people in that history. It seems necessary to me to acknowledge the part we play in things because by owning up to who you are and what you’ve done, you break down the belief in your own innocence, and that’s a healing act.
Who are your people? Give us some details!
I come from generations of Georgians and South Carolinians, and I was raised on stories about the past and among the people of my grandmother’s generation whose lives had touched the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. There was an old uncle who constructed elaborate genealogies and kept the ancestral Confederate uniform in a dry cleaner’s bag in the closet. Another uncle commanded a troop of boy soldiers who wore Confederate uniforms and performed close-order drills with little wooden rifles over their shoulders. One of my mother’s relatives hid under a porch in Columbia, SC and threw rocks at Sherman’s troops. My mother’s mother was born on the family plantation in Georgia and prophesied over by old black woman, a family retainer who remained loyal to the family after Emancipation. And of course, all of my slaveholding relatives were kind masters who never mistreated their people.
I was taught from history books that I’ve since learned were vetted and placed in the schools by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. I lived in a segregated world and though I might have had questions, there was nowhere to turn for answers. Ideas about race and history were treated as facts of life. My father was a serious Civil War buff, and one summer we spent our vacation touring battlefields and historic sites, following the war from Harper’s Ferry to Antietam to Gettysburg, and on the return trip we stopped at Appomattox. At Gettysburg, we stood at the base of the Virginia monument on Seminary Ridge while our father unscrolled the story of Pickett’s Charge and how we should feel about it, defiant and proud, the attitudes that the story of the Lost Cause drags with it through time.
Is there any specific plantation history you need to confess?
My ancestors on both sides of the family owned plantations, and for a short time in the early 1970’s I lived at Willtown Bluff, a very old plantation on the Edisto River south of Charleston, S.C. I’ve seen the place marked on a French trading map dated 1698, and over its long history it was an Indian village, a town called New London—wiped out twice by malaria—an indigo and a rice plantation. When I lived there, the outlines of that older world were still visible: the big house on the river bluff, live oaks hung with Spanish moss, the shape of the rice fields still sketched in the marshes, a row of collapsing shacks back in the pines. At the time, the significance of that place as anything more than a world of ease and beauty, was invisible to me and silent. Nothing in my education or upbringing had taught or encouraged me to see or understand it as anything more than another romantic setting of the southern past.
Is there a moment you’d cite as pivotal to your coming to write about the South?
I lived outside the deep South for ten years, in Iowa, New York state, Ohio and Kentucky. One day I was driving with friends through the bluegrass country outside of Paris, Kentucky, where many of the big thoroughbred racing stables and farms are located. The road there is lined on both sides with miles and miles of white fences with gleaming horses grazing in the lush green grass behind them and columned mansions set back in groves of old oaks. Parallel to the fences and closer to the highway on both sides of the road ran these low stone walls. Up close, you could see how intricate they were—double-sided, beautifully fitted, with stones lining the top that fit precisely, like a lid, over the lower wall. One of my friends said there was a man in Lexington who owned a business that specialized in repairing the walls, a descendant of one of the slaves who built the walls, he said.
That hit me like a blow, a flash of light. Maybe I was ready, the way your eyes adjust to changing light. Maybe in the time I’d lived outside the South my eyes had adjusted to history, but I saw something that day in those long, intricate, beautiful stone walls and the way they fit so easily into the landscape of ease and beauty of the thoroughbred farms. What I think I saw was that though the walls were a necessary part of that world, they belonged to another larger world as well. I realized how much of the beauty that defines the south, the houses and the intricate iron gates in Charleston, the stone walls in Kentucky, that great romantic landscape was part of another, larger story that we’d folded into white history but which did not belong to us. My interest in that larger, fuller story began then, and it’s carried me through two novels and a few stories as well.
Your writing is so remarkably, vividly detailed you create a world the reader can live in. How do you start a story or a novel?
A character, an event, an image or an idea sets a story in motion, and of course, not all of my writing is about the past. I start to follow that story and pretty soon, if I’m writing about the past, I need to know more about the world I’m writing about. That’s where research comes in. I do a lot of research, and I guess I’d define my method with a line from Roethke’s poem, “The Waking”: “I learn by going where I have to go.” And where I have to go seems to be deep into the details of the daily life of the time and place I’m interested in. I want to get as close as I can to the past as it was lived and the way to do that seems to be to immerse myself in the details of daily life, the actualities of time and place. Each detail carries me deeper into the life of the time, each detail dissolves the abstractions of history and restores a sense of immediacy to the past. Each is also a layer, a fragment of a larger story. In a way, I see research as a kind of archeological dig in which I might uncover a bone fragment that suggests something about the world it was once a part of.
Do you travel to find these details?
The research for So Far Back took me repeatedly to Charleston and Columbia, SC, to the SC Historical Society and the Charleston Library Society and the South Caroliniana Library, where I looked at, touched and read everything I could find. The fine stitching on a baby gown sewed by an enslaved woman in South Carolina. The edge of a wooden yoke worn thin and smooth against a human neck. A financial ledger in a box of family papers. An extraordinary document from the South Caroliniana Library, called “A Blacklist Against the Whore of Babylon,” which was a list of the transgressions of an enslaved woman--two pages of crabbed, angry looking script written in thick black ink by someone bearing down hard on the page. The title, the angry handwriting, the weight and feel of the paper—each one of those details carries its own meaning and suggests a world beyond itself. Each is a piece of a bigger story. So is the feel of the air in Charleston, the smells and sounds.
For your novel The Tree of Forgetfulness, your research uncovered details that made vivid how your ancestors—and so you—are connected to the not innocent history of South Carolina. Can you talk about this?
That novel centers around an episode of racial violence in my hometown of Aiken, South Carolina that was a big national story at the time but which had dropped into the silence of history. Wisps of this story had drifted past me all my life. A family of black bootleggers had killed the sheriff and were killed in turn by a mob that took them from the jail. On the night of the murders, so my grandmother said, my grandfather went out late and he came home close to dawn. She waited up for him, and when he came in, he said that those people had paid for what they’d done. The deeper into the story my research took me, the more personal it became as the names of my grandmother’s father and brothers (all doctors) turned up on the Coroner’s Report and on a confession by one of the murder victims, a woman, written on a page from a prescription pad, and the extent to which they (and we) were implicated in this crime became clear. The shape and focus of the book evolved from my growing understanding of how deeply we were involved, which is another level of “research” for me: an exploration of my own thinking about my family and the story of our innocence that seems part of the standard Southern approach to history. I wanted to try and get below that, to speak as a descendant of at least one person who stood in the crowd that night and witnessed three murders and who, by his silence, agreed that it was necessary. I wanted to recover and restore more pieces of that history and break that silence.
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