Rewriting Southern Traditions

Beth Gilstrap

Beth Gilstrap

LAKE HARTWELL, SOUTH CAROLINA

By Beth Gilstrap

 

It’s past lunch hour and Grandmother is still wearing her

housecoat. Tings and sprays bounce from the stovetop. A

glimmer of steam gathers on her upper lip, not sweat, mind

you—not sweat. The peonies on the fabric are wide and

heavy pink, like they’d fall over if they were out in the

side garden as they always are during late April. But we are

in July and July is sweet and frayed, the grass only green

down on the banks of the lake. Me and Juna played chicken

on rafts all morning. Our suits still damp when we put

them on, hers only halfway up as we ran out the door, letting

it slam too hard, hearing Grandmother say, “Watch my

nerves. For Lord’s sake. My nerves.” By the time we come in,

we were striped, our torsos a wormy kind of white, our fingertips

wrinkled, begging for fried squash and okra Grandmother

had in heaps by this point, for smushed-up peaches

meant for the ice cream churn, for teeth-cracking chunks of

rock salt, the wayward bit of a watermelon seed, you know,

that stringy bit you can’t get down no matter how hard you

try so you wind up spitting the seeds on Grandmother’s

floor even though you wasn’t supposed to be eating them in

the house cause y’all know better, cause she done told you

twice to get your butts outside. And once you’re outside,

the menfolk stand in a circle around their cache, taking

stock of M-80s and bottle rockets and whirling spiders and

whistling dixies, which was basically the same, but hateful,

so hateful you could feel it blow your cousin’s pinky off

even though some grown-up yelled “fire in the hole” and

dumbass stood there in a sulphur fog like it was all happening

to someone else and next year when you and Juna went

in at lunch you were practically teenagers and ate rolled-up

honey ham cigars and Chicken in a Biskit Crackers—those

buttery rectangles with a chemical chicken flavor—instead

of spitting seeds on the floor cause now y’all were good girls,

making sure to let Grandmother lie down awhile and have

herself a little peace in the back room with the big box fan

and a single bed and her thin, yellow sheets.


ABOUT BETH: Beth Gilstrap is the author of the Deadheading & Other Stories, Winner of the 2019 Red Hen Press Women’s Prose Prize due out October 5, 2021 and available for preorder now. She is also the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. Her stories, essays, and hybrids have appeared in Denver Quarterly, Wigleaf, The Minnesota Review, New Flash Fiction Review, and the Best Microfiction Anthology, among others. Born and raised in the Charlotte area, she recently relocated to Louisville where she lives and writes in an ornery old shotgun house.


LEAN INTO LYRICAL TRADITIONS WITH BETH: Join Beth for a reading and book discussion of Deadheading and Other Stories on October 20, at 6 PM for our next Wednesdays@Lit. And join Beth for Uneasy Women: Writing Feminist Southern Gothic Fiction on October 21st. In this workshop, you’ll examine writing traditions, how they’ve changed, and how we might craft them for 21st Century readers by examining excerpts from contemporary female authors including: Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and Dorothy Allison. We will examine how they subvert traditional gender roles, how they give agency to characters (often deemed outsiders) who have traditionally been victims of the American capitalist patriarchy. More information is here.

Paper Love

Dear Writer,

I’m writing to you from my well-worn sofa (where else?) a year to the day when our Lost Year began. Or do I mean Loss Year? So often these days, words elude me.

Outside it’s spring again, which I forget until I stare out the window and find sunny forsythia and daffodils and dogwoods bumpy with buds. A year ago, the rapturous blooms and birdsong clashed with wailing sirens, empty streets and skies, masked breath, families grieving through screens. Lovely turned to lonely.

I hope you’ve been writing. This last year (let’s be real: the last five), I’ve found it hard to devote myself to the page because I was afraid if I looked away from the world, it might disappear. Or I would. It’s as if I fell into a hole, and all I could do was stare up and wait for the pinpoint of light to widen and show me the way out. Or maybe it’s that the rage and sorrow tore a hole in me. I can feel it expand and contract, like a pupil, or an aperture, or the phases of the moon.

I have found some solace these months, as I know many others have, through writing letters. As in the old-timey, pen-and-ink, stamped-and-mailed kind. I wrote to friends from the solitude of my back porch and got back radiant, hilarious epistles on handmade cards, festooned in the margins and smudged by palms. I touched the ink, the paper grains where their fingers had been. Contact.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I also have been reading a lot of epistolary fiction—Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ “Belles Lettres,” Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, parts of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Last Thing We Need,” Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Yasunari Kawabata’s “Canaries.” I can’t get enough these naked exchanges, how the narrator seems to vanish and we slip through the seams, suddenly in the characters’ most intimate realms, where they confide, confess, dodge, plead, snipe, yearn. What a wondrous sleight of hand: I’m convinced I’m reading letters when in fact these are smuggled stories, lies that tell the truth. As Griffin tells Sabine, “How strange to have a paper love.”

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

By the time you read this, dear Writer, the trees and bushes will be in mad bloom, transforming into new states of being. It occurs to me as I write this, reaching out to you across the void, that I wish the same for us.

Not hole. Hope.

Yours,
Bryn

 


LEARN THE ART OF THE EPISTOLARY FORM: Fiction writers have had a long and lovely affair with the epistolary form, a.k.a. stories and novels in which documents as varied as letters, diaries, emails, news clippings, transcripts, texts, posts, or tweets govern the narrative or parts of it. Whether written from a single point of view or as an exchange among characters, the letter form can create a brilliant sense of intimacy, voice, and realism. The trick: we’re not actually writing a letter but a story, so we have to find sneaky methods for characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, and movement. Together we’ll read and discuss some contemporary epistolary examples and then explore letters in our own work through brief prompts and take-home exercises. More info

ABOUT BRYN: Bryn Chancellor is the author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.