Monday, June 16, 2008

"crooked-letter state"

I just read Kevin Sessum's memoir, Mississippi Sissy, and I'm for the moment speechless. Wow, just wow.

I have a bad habit of starting out to write about a song/book/movie that I've just heard/read/seen and barely mentioning that work of art before I basically just start rambling about myself. It seems a bit narcissistic, which I suppose it is (which I also suppose is exactly the adjective you should expect when you start blogging), but I also like to think there is something complementary in finding a stepping stone to self-reflection in someone else's artwork and only lazy people with book reports to write want to read someone else's synopsis.

So I'll skip over all the critical commentary that I'm sure someone else has already done better anyway; suffice to say the book was well-written and an engaging read. I had seen it when it came out in hardback and was immediately drawn to it. It was obviously written for me to read, but I refrained and patiently waited for it to come out in paperback, not -for once- so much out of cheapness as books and music for my trips at sea are currently considered life-saving expenses rather than luxuries, but because the hardback book was large and heavy and wouldn't travel well. When you typically bring an extra bag just for books in addition to those you cram in your duffle bag and other pack, such considerations matter. But after this long wait, let's say that the book was better than I ever could have expected.

I don't know what I did expect. I was drawn to it because I'm also something of a Mississippi sissy. I grew up straddling the state line between Mississippi and Alabama, born in the former and growing up mostly in the latter, but within a few miles of the border the whole time. So I suppose I was looking for someone else's story about growing up gay down there. And I found that, in spades. I ended up taken in more by the landscape than the coming out bit, though.

This is a different way of rendering the same landscape that I keep talking about whenever I go on about Faulkner or O'connor or most recently McCullers. This wasn't a fictionalized snapshot from some omniscient point above or looking in from outside through the eyes of a created character. The fictional accounts are only believable if the landscape feels familiar, feels realistic, but the difference between feeling realistic and being real can be jarring. I've said many times how much trouble I have reading Faulkner, because to me it is too realistic and too traumatizing most of the time so I've only made it a very short way through his catalog of fiction despite being a fan, but at the end of the day it is fiction and I can back away from the characters and argue with myself that he cast the landscape in harsher light to make these masterworks of tragedy.

Memoirs are different.

Assuming the writer is being honest, you can only explain away so much as dramatic lighting and theatrical staging. They tell their story, choosing their scenes, shaping the trajectory of the plotline, framing everything just so, but unless it is a fanciful retelling the backdrop is already there in each scene. This emotional/political/literal landscape is where the story already has happened, not a believable facsimile rendered to plant a story in, but a place to harvest what crop it has already brought forth. If the writer has any talent as a storyteller, which Mr. Sessums certainly does, the seams don't show and the background is just that: background. If I read this as more of an outsider I don't know that it would have struck me as anything other than an element in the story, but being from this same landscape it loomed large in my reading. Not distractingly so, but as I read about his experiences I couldn't help thinking how familiar or foreign everything seemed.

I'm from a younger generation. I caught the tail end of the Seventies and grew up a child of the Eighties. Integration had already happened and it was a very different South in many ways. But in many others not so much, and I recognized the people and pictures he painted in his retelling. The foreground was different for me when I was growing up there, but oh how I recognized all that swirled in the background. Sometimes though, recognition isn't enough. Once you've got something in your sights, its remains a thing apart until you've completed Adam's task and named it. This first and most slippery charge of humankind is where a writer's magic lies. The ability to present and describe is his power over our surroundings and minds. I've thought quite a bit lately about the power of names and language and how we describe things. Names can maim or contain or cut free depending on how they are wielded.

I could get off track and begin speaking abstractly about names and words and such (especially since I've just finished reading two books on the English language and am gurgling with thoughts about word usage in the current election), but I mention all this simply because Mr. Sessums finally game me the name for that landscape when the black lady who had helped raise him at his grandparents house remarks, "Love? Hmmph. It ain't never 'nough in a crooked-letter state like this."

"Crooked-letter state". Maybe when I read I leave myself wide open to being struck, but that phrase caught me square between the eyes. I had to put the book down for a moment and just breathe. If you aren't from Mississippi, you might not have been taught how to spell the state with the sing-song description: "M, I , crooked-letter, crooked-letter, I, crooked-letter, crooked-letter, I, humpback, humpback, I" but this is how we were taught and it still goes through my head each time I have to spell it. The childhood phrase turned into a scornful descriptor made it, for me at least, terrifyingly potent. It hits enough of a subconscious place that I wonder if it clangs in the mind of anyone else who reads it. The whole sentence is harsh enough, but the overt anger and frustration paled compared to what was said by her name for our landscape.

Kevin Sessums and I grew up differently and similarly but both of us grew up in a "crooked-letter state". Having found it so aptly named only made his rendering (and my remembering) of our common landscape so much more beautifully potent.

1 comment:

Canada said...

I'm not an expert book reviewer, but I can tell you I know a great novel when I read one. No sense in giving you a synopsis - you can get that from the publisher. Trust me, this one is a must-read!