Speaking In Tongues
Guided by Voices

Sister's Choice:
New Voices in Contemporary Southern Fiction by Women

by Elena Shakhovtseva

Far Eastern State University
Vladivostok, Russia


This work has become possible owing to the opportunity granted me by The American Councils For International Education (ACCELS/ ACTR) Junior Faculty Development Program, 1999-2000

Ansa, Tina McElroy. Baby of the Family. San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1989
Ansa, Tina McElroy. The Hand I Fan With. New York, Doubleday, 1996
Brown, Rita Mae. Southern Discomfort. New York, Harper, 1982
Gibbons, Kaye. Charms for the Easy Life. New York, Putnam, 1993
McCorkle, Jill. Carolina Moon. Chapel Hill, Algonquin Books, 1996
Sanders, Dori. Clover. Chapel Hill, Algonguin Books, 1990
Staats, Marilyn Dorn. Looking for Atlanta. Athens, Georgia and London, The University of Georgia Press, 1992
Wells, Rebecca. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. New York, Harper Perennial, 1997

"Sister's Choice" as one might remember is the pattern of the quilt women of Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple create. In the novel, women's quilting functions as a way of creating a female community in a world that usually represses female expression. Southern women writers' community nowadays can be considered quite established.
Despite all the talk these days about the decline of regionalism in America in general, and of Southern regionalism in particular, and the homogenization of American culture, some recent books by Southern women writers point to the contrary. Actually, for over half a century now, voices have been heard proclaiming the end of Southern literature, beginning with Allen Tate's The New Provincialism: With An Epilogue on the Southern Novel published in 1945.
The extraordinary burst of literary creativity in the South in recent years, the remarkable number of new, vital and original voices of talented women writers representing the tradition prove the fact that Southern literature has been more durable than many critics supposed. Southern literary tradition, in its varied manifestations, continues to be challenged, reinvented, and celebrated by contemporary writers.
"Commentators describing the recent flowering (of Southern fiction) have not always flattered. Critics have used terms like "K-Mart" and "Mall" fiction to disparage some novels and stories - especially those written by women. "Grit Lit" has also achieved some currency among reviewers. Pat Conroy has said that his mother believed she could sum up much Southern fiction in a single sentence: On the night the hogs ate Willie, Mamma died when she heard what Daddy did to Sister…" ( 6,8).
It is true that long "gone with the wind" are the times when Southern writing was associated with "high-brow", intellectual art, predominantly male. Contemporary Southern fiction exists in the milieu of popular and mass culture, sometimes balancing on the brink between "serious" problematics and best-selling list popularity. Adaptation of some Southern fiction for television (Ellen Foster by K.Gibbons, 1997), or screen versions of some popular novels (The Color Purple by A.Walker, 1985, or Fried Green Tomatoes by F.Flagg, 1994) greatly contributed to their success and enlarged their reading audience. K.Gibbons' best selling novel Ellen Foster, 1987, enjoyed a popularity unlike that of most writers' first novels. A decade later, this book attained a still larger audience by being selected, along with Gibbons' second novel, by Oprah Winfrey for her Oprah's Book Club November 1997 reading. Many Southern writers can be considered well-established classics and have maintained their best-selling position for years, like, for example, Anne Tyler.
These works tend to play on serious themes and issues and are masterfully crafted in style and narrative. "Recent Southern writers locate their fiction in a world of popular or mass culture and their characters' perceptions of place, family, community, and even myth are greatly conditioned by popular culture, TV, movies, rock music, and so forth"(1, 4). We can see this in B.A.Mason's stories (Shiloh, etc.), or in L.Smith's latest novel The Devil's Dream.
Popular music and its role in Southern fiction deserves special mentioning. The connection of Southern writing with music in themes, structure, and style is not accidental. The most popular styles of American music, blues, jazz, country, are Southern in origin. The very essence of folk culture is revealed in this music. It is small wonder that country music, blues, and jazz are actively employed in literature to represent Southern identity. Jazz by Toni Morrison, The Devil's Dream by Lee Smith, gospel essence of Margaret Walker's Jubilee, the blues text of The Color Purple by Alice Walker, or the Cajun fiddle music in Rebecca Wells's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood are just a few examples of musical nature inherent in Southern literature, both thematically and stylistically.
A good example of "popular" Southern fiction is presented in Rebecca Wells's two novels, Little Altars Everywhere, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Rebecca Wells, a Louisiana native, is an author, actor, and playwright. Her works for the stage include "Splitting Hairs" and "Gloria Duplex", for which she created the lead roles. She has also written teleplays for ABC and CBN. Ms. Wells has received numerous awards, including the Western States Book Award for her first novel, Little Altars Everywhere. She tours a one-woman show based on Little Altars Everywhere and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.
In Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, 1996, Wells sets her action in the "hot heart of Louisiana, the bayou world of Catholic saints and voodoo queens", on Pecan Grove Plantation. The action takes place in small-town Louisiana from the nineteen-thirties on up to the nineties, and involves complex relationships of two generations of women, mothers and daughters. Wells speaks eloquently to what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a wife, a person. The book also portrays the power and value of female friendships, Southern flavor added to all issues of the book.
The main character of the novel is Seddalee Walker, a woman of 40 years old, a well-known stage director for popular Broadway shows. The novel opens with an article in the Sunday New York Times, "Tap-Dancing Child Abuser", about Vivi Walker, Sidda's mother, based on Sidda's interview. This article describes a childhood incident of severe beating of Sidda and other children by their mother who had had a nervous breakdown at that time. The article caused a long-standing grudge, a total rejection of Sidda by her mother. The retrospective part of the narrative tells about Vivi's life and her long-life devoted friendship with three other women, Teensy, Caro, and Necie, the Ya-Ya sisterhood.
The contemporary aspect of the plot deals , probably in a somewhat exaggerated and sentimental manner, with Sidda's psychological complex rooted in her childhood trauma that poisons her adult life. She is obsessed by the thought that her mother does not love her, never did, because she ( Sidda) is not perfect. Because of this Sidda breaks her engagement with Connor McGill, theatre designer, thinking that she can not love and does not deserve to be loved. Sidda leaves Seattle where she has her new show about to be launched, and finds retreat at a quiet lakeside, with her dog. Not until she receives "Ya-Ya-rabilia", a scrapbook of some pictures and documents telling about her mother's life, her pains and sorrows, does she come to understand and forgive her mother, to realize that Vivi always loved her.
In the end, Sidda and her fiancé go to Vivi's birthday party to Louisiana where Sidda has a happy reunion with her mother. Vivi and Sidda exchange symbolic gifts: Vivi gives Sidda the diamond ring her father had given her many years ago, and Sidda gives her mother a lachrymatory, "a tiny jar of tear drops"(348), a present that "in olden days…was one of the greatest gifts you could give someone. It meant you loved them, that you shared a grief that brought you together"(348). The final scene shows the heroine' mutual reconciliation with each other. Sidda "gave up the need to know, and she gave up the need to understand"(346-47). She realized that she was not a perfect daughter, and Vivi was not a perfect mother, but that was not the point. The point was that they cared for each other and loved each other.
Wells' novel is "thick with sensual excesses", as a critic put it, bayou French, cajun music, crayfish etoufee, camellias and jasmine, and sometimes reads as sentimentally excessive too, but in general it embraces all popular Southern topics and works them out elegantly and in style.
Despite some sarcastic characteristics of contemporary Southern fiction, most journalistic and academic critics have taken seriously the fiction of the last thirty years. Gene Lyons has called the current flowering "yet another literary uprising, a far better word than "renaissance", with its imitations of mugged up classicism"(6, 8).
In some important respects Southern fiction, no matter how new and renovated it may sound to a Southern reader, still clings to tradition. Contemporary authors of younger generation seem to persist in some identically Southern themes and motifs reminiscent of their great predecessors, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and others. In a variety of styles and with a range of artistic intentions, today's Southern women writers continue to "find absorbing ways to respond to their regional culture and to relate their art to larger issues" ( 1, 2).
Though "fictional settings no longer resonate with the liturgal undertones of the South as sacred place" (1, XII), and "the South portrayed by this younger generation of writers generally has little to do with the agrarian life, except by way of memory through parents and grandparents and through recollections of cherished country places of childhood" ( 2, VII), still a "strong sense of place continues to shape the Southern characters' view of themselves, especially their consciousness of being Southerners" (2, VII). So, various locales of Southern fiction are still significant for its interpretation. Lee Smith's Appalachia, Alice Walker's and Dori Sanders' rural Georgia, Rebecca Wells's Louisiana, Fannie Flagg's Alabama or Josephine Humphreys' Charleston stand out in readers' memory as quite discernable "landscapes of the heart" as Elizabeth Spencer once said.
Many critics keep insisting on inevitable homogenization of modern American fiction. They suggest that, in order to survive in new circumstances, Southern authors should "escape the devastating influence of the past" (1,5) in their writing. However, in the region obsessed with the history and the past, it does not seem possible to totally escape this "devastating influence". It is most unlikely because there exists a "historical burden of unsolved problems about which complex moral and cultural experiences have accreted much as layers of perl do a particle of sand"(3, 313). More than that, the topic of the past in the South has become a means of redemption for many authors. Small wonder, history and the past, both regional and personal (of families and generations) keep haunting the characters of Southern novels and short stories as well as their creators in Gail Godwin's A Southern Family (1987), Kaye Gibbons' Charms for the Easy Life ( 1993) , or Rita Mae Brown's Dolley (1994) or Riding Shotgun ( 1996) . "The persistently thorny issues of family, race, and class"(4,89) associated with Southern historical heritage remain relevant for many contemporary authors.
For example, Rita Mae Brown's novels "use historical incidents and approaches to present characters breaking barriers of gender, race, and class to free themselves from compliance and to establish their individual identities"(5,58). In Dolley: A Novel of Dolley Madison in Love and War (1994) Brown offers historical fiction treatment in diary form to the life of the wife of the fourth president of the United States. Riding Shotgun (1997) employs a back-in-time experience, as a twentieth-century widow, Pryor Deyhle "Cig" Blackwood, learns lessons from her experience in seventeenth-century Virginia about love and marriage that help her deal with her own circumstances.
Rita Mae Brown's novel, Southern Discomfort (1982), takes place in Montgomery, Alabama, and is set in two periods ten years apart, 1918 and 1928. The first half of the novel focuses on the secret love affair between white society leader Hortensia Reedmuller Banastre and Hercules Jinks, a black fifteen-year-old boxer. Their affair, which ends when Hercules is killed in a railway yard accident, leaves Hortensia pregnant with their daughter Carherine. Hortensia arranges for Catherine to be brought up by her black servant, and the second half of the novel deals with Catherine's gradual discovery of her real heritage. Hortensia rebels against race barriers in her love affair with Hercules, and against class barriers in her friendship with Blue Rhonda, a white prostitute. Brown suggests a possible transcending of class barriers in a key conversation between Hortensia and Blue Rhonda. Blue Rhonda makes a speech in which she calls societal, as well as racial categories "God's joke" because "God put beautiful spirits into these bodies, all kinds of bodies" and "we dumb humans are confused by the outside." She ends by saying, in a tone of finality, "we are one" (131). But this transcending of categories is clearly only momentary. The mores and manners of Southern society won't allow the freedom Hortensia is raving for. She can not communicate in open with Blue Rhonda; and her daughter Catherine is doomed to endure the consequences of her mixed heritage ("I am a piebald,… pinto," she says) as long as she lives.
In a broader sense, the theme of memory has been abundantly employed in contemporary Southern fiction. Lee Smith, Fannie Flagg, Marilyn Dorn Staats are just a few names to mention in this respect. "Rememory" becomes important structural device in many Southern novels that may be often written in a form of a diary ( Dolley by R.M.Brown, Looking for Atlanta by M.D.Staats), or letters with a clear memoir aspect in them ( The Color Purple by A.Walker, Fair and Tender Ladies by L.Smith), or they may be structured using flashbacks, overlapping "switches" from one period of time to another ( Fried Green Tomatoes by F.Flagg, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by R.Wells).
The narrative structure of these and other novels connect them with an important tradition of confessional literature that became so popular in the mid nineties. The authors of The Cambridge History of American Literature write: "By the mid-1990s, metafiction had declined in favor of the dramatization of personal voices in confessional modes. The memoir was becoming the master genre of the day. (The genre) epitomizes the aim of women's literature to allow women a "voice"…The trend toward confession has had an important influence on novelists"(3, 3)
Looking for Atlanta (1992), a novel written by a lifelong resident of Atlanta, Georgia, Marilyn Dorn Staats, fits neatly into this tradition. One of the core themes of the novel is the theme of memory. The whole narrative centers around characters' different attitude toward their past and their ability to remember. Margaret Hunter Bridges, the main character of the novel, is a "Buckhead Pink", a former debutante with impeccable manners. She suddenly finds in her forty-third year that the social skills and personal values she so carefully cultivated have become irrelevant in the face of her personal upheaval of her broken marriage and the tragedy of her daughter's accidental death. She describes herself as the "lapsed Southern belle". Margaret has a long family history; hers used to be a prominent Southern family. Margaret's long row of great-grands had built Atlanta's businesses, clubs, dancing schools, houses. But everything changes, seems to be disintegrating before the heroine's eyes. Margaret can not recognize the city of her childhood. She writes in her diary: "Something had happened to Peachtree street…All my childhood landmarks had disappeared…At the crest of Peachtree…I could find nothing left of my past except a huge hole in the ground"(11).
Margaret is drawn away by her memories - of her daughter, of her first love, of her grandmother Leticia who had committed suicide and had been excluded from the family history on this account… Margaret seems to be the only person who won't give up her memories, her past, her heritage. Meanwhile, "something happened" not only to Atlanta, but to all people Margaret loved and used to think she knew so well. Her brother, Buford, a successful psychic, does "have no memory whatsoever" of anything at all from his and Margaret's childhood. Her husband, Peter, is another example of total emotional amnesia. After their daughter's death Peter drifts away from painful memories, abandons his wife and son, and starts a brand new life. Margaret understands that Peter wants to be emancipated from his past, "to pack up (their) memories and become happy pioneers"(28).
Remembering becomes a leitmotif in Looking for Atlanta. A rhetoric question - Remember? - acquires a quality of probation, of moral test that puts on trial a person's capacity of sympathy and love. Margaret undertakes a striking evolution. In the beginning of the novel she feels totally "displaced", like an "item beyond repair"(17) in the Nearly New Shop she used to work as a volunteer manager. However, in the end Margaret moves from "inside", from her "shell" of pain and despair, to the outside world. She is ready to face the world, meet her life's challenges. She realizes that she is not the only one who suffers. Her son, Jimmy, is also a survivor of the family tragedy, and he badly needs her help. Her eagerness to accept her past and her memories, her desire to share her experience and sympathy with other people helps her survive.
Margaret's diary transforms in the process of writing: started as a kind of psychotherapy, in order to restore her "dynamic equilibrium", it evolves into the means of preserving her memories, family history which is closely connected with the history of the region and its all inherited problems (race, class, gender). She writes her diary for her son, so that he could know that "this woman sitting on the edge of the roof, writing stories for you, is not the lapsed Southern belle you think she is!"(206). To establish a future for her son and herself she has to re-establish her identity. It is crucial for her to know that not unlike her great-grands, she may not have lived her life in vain. The ending of this story is open to the future. Like classical Bildungsroman, Looking for Atlanta ends with the heroine "launched, "lighting out" in an unknown direction specific except that old inhibitions or problems have been left behind. The achievement lies in the fact that there will be new possibilities"(3,520).
Among other elements that over time have characterized Southern civilization there are Southern mores and manners, "a fertile social landscape" (1,2) that was once so mercilessly depicted in Flannery O'Connor's stories keep generating new narratives. "Thick with sensual excesses", as a critic said about Rebecca Wells' picture of Louisiana Bayou society, practically all contemporary Southern fiction reveals this "fancy strut" of weird characters , both in tragic and humorous twists of the plots in Lee Smith's novels (Fancy Strut, 1983, Oral History, 1992, Family Linen, 1987, etc,), in Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (1987), in Jill McCorkle's novels and stories, or in the above mentioned novels by R.M.Brown.
Jill McCorkle writes about Southern community, involving all kinds of women characters, old and young, fat and thin, black and white, rich and poor: all of them though would seem "weird" to an outsider, but not to Southerners. Her fictional landscapes - dotted with malls and burger joints - are familiar to the contemporary reader, as are the complexities of modern life in families and communities. The writer addresses serious contemporary issues, like family and divorce, love and marriage, womanhood and the perils of growing up female, even as she writes with humor.
Jill McCorkle's novel Carolina Moon (1996) is a "refreshingly funny"(5, 255) novel set in the fictional town of Fulton, North Carolina. Its plot interweaves several life stories, some of them really tragic (suicide of Cecil Lowe, coma of Sarah MacAlister, etc.). The frame subject involves Wallace Johnson, a postman near retirement, who reads the letters to a "Wayward One" and keeps the dead letter pile. Another narrator is a young woman, Denny, a psychotherapist, who comes to work at Quee Purdy's clinic for smokers. She records her thoughts on the tape recorder. "The narrative switches...between past and present, finally uniting the two as Quee reconciles her disparate existences"(5, 255). The novel is abundantly populated with all kinds of "weird" characters. Nevertheless, its central figure is Quee Purdy ( Queen Mary Purdy) who has been living a secret sort of life. In her anonymous letters addressed to a Wayward One, her lover, Cecil Lowe, long dead, she writes about her splitted personality: " I had the strange sensation that I was two people living two lives, at least two! I'm really like an old alley cat, a big old pussycat with one life blending right into the next"(105).
Quee Purdy is the "irrepressible entrepreneur"(5,255), she feels like she "(has) been everything, done everything"(105). All her businesses are successful. However, her main talent is her kind heart. She is eager to help people who are lonesome, or confused by their life, like Alicia Jameson, the wife of a regular scoundrel of a radio DJ, or Denny, a psychotherapist who comes from New York to suffer the consequences of her divorce, or a young boy, Jason, who is involved in drugs business, and homeless, etc. No matter how hard at times her life might be, Quee never loses her optimism. In her last letter to "Wayward One" which explains all vague and dark spots of the plot ( including the murder of Jones Jameson), and asserts her life position, Quee writes : "There are no hard feelings…You did what you had to do and I do what I have to do and now we are left to live and die with whatever consequences may come. And I will live… I will live until I die as that old song goes"(258).
No matter how strong tradition may reveal itself in Southern writing, it would be wrong to suppose that Southern writers of the new generation, drawing on the South's traditional cultural stereotypes, won't see and reflect any changes. All critics agree that "remarkable changes have occurred in Southern fiction in the past fifteen or twenty years"(6,8). Fred Hobson argues that the "South… had thrown off the old albatross of racism, and with that gone the South was no longer what it had been: defeated, failed, poor, guilt-ridden, tragic"(6,8). What has resulted from this liberation (from the past) in the last couple of decades is that Southern fiction writers feel less the "love-hate" relationship with their region"(6,9).
Contemporary Southern fiction is "frankly engaged with contemporary social problems"(1,XII). Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, a well-known scholar of Southern literature, is quite right when she emphasizes the issue of important social and cultural changes in the South and their impact on Southern writing. Contemporary Southern fiction embraces both continuity and innovation of tradition.
"As a relatively traditional society that has seen rapid social change since the end of World War II , the South has experienced an awareness of change, and of accompanying problems and tensions, greater that that in other regions of America," Peggy W. Prenshaw writes. She further develops her thought that the "rapid Southern transformation to modernity has produced a greater sense of disorder and conflict than elsewhere"(2,4). Accordingly, all above mentioned traditional themes and motifs have undergone considerable transformation too. The new generation of Southern writers often exhibit little sympathy with outmoded aristocratic customs. The "familiar space for the italicizing of the problems tends to be a mobile home, not a ruined mansion"(1, XII). Modern authors are rarely involved in the "probing inquiry into the historical conditions of Southern culture that fueled the writing of the Renaissance"(4, 90). Rather, they are concerned with the problems that "time, change, industrialization, and ostensible progress have caused inhabitants of the late twentieth-century South"(4,90), the New South.
One of the writers of the contemporary South, Bobby Ann Mason, in several interviews has commented on her own sense of cultural dislocation and its importance as a theme in her fiction. In 1985 she said: "I'm constantly preoccupied with…exploring various kinds of culture shock - people moving from one class to another… people being threatened by other people's ways and values" ( 1, 151). In another interview, Mason contrasted her fiction with that of earlier Southern writers. "In the older generation," she said, " There was a much stronger sense of the family, the sense of the land. I guess, the newer writers are writing about how that sense has been breaking down"(1,152). She then went on to emphasize the difficulty of "retaining identity and integrity in the face of such change"(1,152). In two of her best pieces of fiction, the short story collection, Big Bertha Stories , and the novel In Country , Mason examines, for example, one of the most intense cultural shocks of the twentieth century - the broad effect of American involvement in the Vietnam War, showing the devastating impact of "social dislocation" on her characters.
Also, in regard to contemporary Southern writing, some new issues can be added to the most familiar ones. For example, "all recent women's novels are in some sense concerned with identity"(3, 525). Gender roles as such have been re-considered in various ways in contemporary Southern fiction, as we could see, for example, in Alice Walker's novels. "(The South's) time- honored roles for women, the Southern lady, the belle, the sheltered white woman on a pedestal, the pious matriarch, the naïve black girl, the enduring black mother" (2,VIII) often give way to a divorced wife and "the lapsed Southern belle" ( Looking for Atlanta by M.D. Staats, 1992), or to the " irrepressible entrepreneur" with secret life and bad reputation (Carolina Moon by J.McCorkle, 1996), or to an adolescent girl who suffers abuse and humiliation ( Ellen Foster, 1987 or Sights Unseen, 1995, by K. Gibbons). Many contemporary women writers target family and community as their subjects, but rather than " praise these institutions unequivocally"(5, 255), as we could often see in Eudora Welty's novels ( Delta Wedding, 1946 or Losing Battles, 1970 ), they raise questions about the "sanctity of such forces in women's words"(5, 255 ) as we see, for example, in McCorkle's books.
However, the traditional issue of strong family ties, generations continuity remain relevant and elaborately employed in many contemporary Southern novels. Thus, in Kay Gibbons's Charms for the Easy Life, the author explores "the impact of family and community on the individual psyche" of three generations of women. All of them, Margaret, who spins the story, her mother, Sophia, and her grandmother, Charlie Kate, have strong and independent characters and outstanding intelligence ( the novel'' epigraph introduces Nietzsche's words: "stupidity in a woman is unfeminine"). Despite their extraordinary gifts ( Charlie Kate, for example, "was an excellent midwife, in great demand…by her twentieth birthday" (15), the women are not happy in love and marriage. Charlie Kate's husband left her; Sophia married "a cad"(29) though she had learned that "a man (would) leave you"(25). In the end of the novel, only Margaret seemed to escape her "bad heredity"(unhappiness); she seemed to meet "the right man". The novel's characters find strength in their family, in each other. According to Gibbons, "the women have to learn to look into their own hearts and minds for comfort and peace."
The issue of race relations has always been relevant in Southern literature. In spite of the fact, as some critics note, that "the old albatross of racism (had been) thrown off "(6, 9), the tension of interracial relations tends to linger in contemporary Southern writing, though sometimes these relations may take an unconventional turn. Thus, in Dori Sanders' novel, Clover (1990), we see an unusual South - that of privileged African Americans. Sanders grew up on a large peach farm where she still works. Similar to her best-known character, Clover, Dori Sanders was the daughter of a school principle who bought the land in South Carolina to grow peaches and prospered with his farming.
The idea for Clover came, the author tells, while she was watching traffic pass in front of the peach shed. "First a black funeral procession crept by and a very sad little girl waved timidly to Dori. Sometime later a white funeral passed, and a very sad young woman made eye contact with her… The white woman became stepmother to the black child, whose widowed father was killed on the day of his second wedding"(5, 323-240).
"They dressed me in white for my Daddy's funeral," symbolically opens the novel to reveal the conflict that is "cultural and culinary rather than color"(5,324), because Clover's main worry seems to be whether white Sara Kate knows how to cook grits well. Still, it is a deeply rooted racial conflict involving a psychological insight that structures the narrative in Clover. Sara Kate who decides to stay in Round Hill, South Carolina, after her husband's accidental death to raise her 10 years-old step-daughter, Clover, is an alien to the black community. She is ill-treated and misinterpreted by all Clover's relatives because of her color (she is white), her vocation (she is a designer and a city dweller among country folks), and her attitudes ( she does not know many habits and traditions of this community - what to wear, how to cook, etc.) So, the black community of Round Hill, and Gaten's ( Clover;s father's) kin in particular, all feel suspicious and resentful toward her. However, eventually, Sara Kate's sincere desire to fit into her new family, her grief about Gaten, and her love for Clover help her overcome all difficulties and gain people's sympathy. Sara Kate and Clover's shared love for Gaten, their life together allow them to get to know and respect each other, to become a real family. So, Sanders' novel suggests new possibilities of race relations in the South.
A problem of defining contemporary African American women's fiction in terms of Southern literature may seem a far-fetched one to outsiders. Nevertheless, viewed from a Southern perspective, there is a problem. For a long time, Southern literature has been associated with white Southern writers; while African American fiction has been considered a separate zone. Not until recently, the issues connected with Southern African American literature have become relevant for contemporary literary criticism. "The "Southernness" of African American literature is a topic of central concern not only for Southern studies but for American culture generally"(1,4). It is clearly so because "African American fiction retains "quintessential" Southern and even "agrarian" qualities. For the African American Southerner,…the writing of fiction reflects…an intimacy with the land, an identification with nature and the physical environment, an emphasis on the necessity of an extended family and a supportive community, and a legacy of struggle against social oppression and a consequent immersion in history"(1,5).
Among many distinguished African American authors of today ( Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor), some new and identically Southern voices are emerging. Tina McElroy Ansa's voice sounds fresh and original. "Tina Ansa's three published novels place her squarely in the tradition of Southern writers such as Eudora Welty, Flannery O'Connor, and Ansa's role model, Zora Neale Hurston"(5, 12). Among her clearly Southern themes is the interrelation of past and present; and Ansa also shares her predecessors' emphasis upon the importance of roots, family ties, a common attachment to place which in Ansa's case is a fictional small town Mulberry in Georgia that becomes the writer's microcosm. Equally Southern are Ansa's characters, most of whom are depicted with humor inherent in Southern tradition. The citizens of Mulberry may be selfish, petty, even "ugly" in their ways and attitudes, (Ugly Ways, 1993, is the second of Ansa's novels), but the novelist describes them with an "amused tolerance that makes them seem comically eccentric, and more than slightly familiar"(5, 12).
As important as the characters' relationship to their community is their sense of their place and role in the larger universe. Ansa's protagonists, such as Lena McPherson or the Lovejoy women, understand that their presence in this world is only temporary, while the natural world and the world of souls and spirits will last long after the mortals have passed from the scene. Thus, a critic argues, "Ansa differs from earlier generations of Southern writers for whom time seemed to represent inimical forces of change; in her novels, time becomes a continuing flow whose force, properly savored, can lead to revitalizing self-knowledge"(5, 12).
Ansa's novels are full of magic, conjuring forces, spirits and ghosts which connects her art with that of Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor; and of course, with broader tradition of African American art. Ansa's ghosts are real characters, like Herman in The Hand I Fan With, 1996, and they always play important role in the protagonist's life and self-realization.
Lena McPherson is the main character in two of Ansa's novels, Baby of the Family, 1989, and The Hand I Fan With, 1996. To Nurse Bloom, Grandmama McPherson, Dr. Williams, and most of the Mulberry community, she is a special person because she was born with a caul over her face. This, people believe, makes Lena lucky, but also allows her to communicate with ghosts and spirits. In contrast, Lena's mother Nellie prides herself on being too modern and rational to engage in old-fashioned "superstitions". Thus, when Nurse Bloom instructs her that she should preserve Lena's caul and give the baby the caul tea to drink, Nellie burns the caul and pours the tea into a vase of flowers. "Mother wit" of older folks having been neglected, that set all the ghosts loose for Lena who must suffer the consequences of her mother's "rationality". Only after Lena is grown does Nellie realize the mistake she has made.
From her early childhood memory of nearly being drawn into the portrait of her dead aunt, to her teenage experiences of sleep-walking and being ridden by witches, Lena fights to maintain her "rational" facade. She tries to ignore spirits that haunt her all the time, seeks a substitute in religious faith, but all her attempts to ignore her identity ( her special "gifts") lead only to an emotional upheaval and regular breakdowns.
The Hand I Fan With chronicles a year in Lena's life. Now she is in her mid-forties, and she has become the hand that all of Mulberry fans with. She helps "her people", rescues individuals from financial ruin, reconciles ruined families, consoles those in physical or emotional pain. Even her name suggests the idea of support: LENA, LEAN ON… She is constantly aware of her responsibilities in the community, but she is very lonely. Her parents and brothers are dead, and she lives alone on her estate by the river. Only her best friend, Sister, really understands Lena's emotional state, and worries about her emotional welfare. She insists that the two of them conjure up a man to take care of Lena, and as a consequence of their efforts, Herman appears to spend a year with Lena. Having been dead for more than a hundred years, Herman is delighted to be in human form again. Herman teaches Lena to observe nature, to get in touch with her real spiritual world, to accept her true nature, to set priorities in her life, to live her own life. He becomes her lover and true friend ( his name, Herman, means "a friend" in Spanish; Ansa seems to love speaking names). Lena at last is strong enough to live her life fully and to accept her relationship with the spirit world. In the end of the novel, in a symbolic scene of the hurricane night when she has to deal with the birth of a colt in her stable, all spirits, both of her relatives and even those she had never seen before, come visit and encourage her. Lena acknowledges the interrelationship of past and present, and learns very important lessons: that "she can not and should not replace God in her people's lives,... that time must be carefully used and not wasted, that human actions directly affect the natural world, and that love is the only force capable of transcending time and space"(5, 14).
Ansa's language and imagery are highly poetic, rich in symbols and metaphors, melodic in rhythms ,of blues in particular, bringing highly erotic elements in the plot.. Most important, though, Ansa "celebrates individuals' uniqueness, personal dignity, and the resilient strength of women - precisely the qualities celebrated by generations of Southern women writers"(5, 14).
Of course, it must be understood that the writers and their works briefly touched upon in this conclusion do not give the full picture of contemporary Southern fiction as it is. Many others can be abundantly observed as a proof of current richness and vitality of this literature. The best Southern fiction today tends to be both nostalgic and comic in its nature reflecting inevitable changes of social circumstances and post-modern confusions and absurdities in humans' lives. Nevertheless, it persists in its traditional attitudes of love and sympathy to common people, its respect for individuals, communities, and natural order, and its juxtaposition of everyday routines and eternal issues. This literature may seem to exhaust itself at some points. "Sooner rather than later, one suspects, it's bound to run thin. But if the region is changing, it's in little danger of disappearing. Tomorrow's tales will be different from today's, but the continuing vitality of the Southern literary tradition ensures that they will get told"(6, 8).


  1. Southern Writers at Century's End. Ed. by J.J.Folks and J.A.Perkins. Lexington, TheUniversity Press of Kentucky, 1997
  2. Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Ed. by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson, Mississippi, University of Mississippi, 1984
  3. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Vol.7. Prose Writing. 1940-1990. Ed. Sacvan Bercovitch. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 1999
  4. The Southern Literary Journal, Vol.27, #2, Spring 1995
  5. Contemporary Southern Writers.
  6. Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South. A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook. Ed. by J.M.Flora and R.Bain., Westport, Connecticut, London, Greenwood Press, 1993