Seasoned Southern Writer Rick Bragg Launches Southern Literature Alliance’s “South Bound: Distinguished Lectures” series this year, showcasing top Southern writers.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg kicked off Southern Literature Alliance’s 2016 “South Bound: Distinguished Lecture Series” to a full house at Bessie Smith Cultural Center earlier this year. Bragg spent the evening sharing reflections inspired by “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South,” a collection of his best essays.
While the term “Southern Literature” often conjures thoughts of the great books like William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” there is a new generation of Southern writers who are carrying the legacy forward.
Offering Chattanooga a unique monthly platform for engaging with seasoned and emerging voices of Southern writing, this year’s “Southern Bound: Distinguished Lectures” also features headlining authors: award-winning poet Adrian Matejka, Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, who co-wrote “The Tilted World,” Claire Vaye Watkins, author of “Gold Fame Citrus,” and Harrison Scott Key author of “The World’s Largest Man.”
“I think the State of Southern writing is healthy,” Bragg says. “A lot of writers don’t like to be called Southern writers. They get mad at you if you call them Southern writers—I don’t.” He shares, “I’m grateful. I’m proud of what I do. I never minded someone saying, ‘He’s a Southern writer’ because I believe there’s a richness and a flavor.”
The Making of a Seasoned Southern Writer
Rick Bragg is a prolific author of three best-selling memoirs that are now mainstays on Southern Literature lists: “All Over But the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man,” and “The Prince of Frogtown.” Over the years, Bragg has also worked as a journalist, reporting on genocide in Haiti, the war in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Oklahoma City bombing. He won a Pulitzer Prize as a correspondent for The New York Times in 1996. Over the course of his writing career, Bragg’s books and essays have been influenced by the common human themes of hardship and survival he has uncovered, not only as a journalist covering tragedy on a global scale, but also right here at home in the South.
[pullquote] “I wonder if, north of here, they might even run out of stories someday. It may seem silly, but it is cold up there, too cold to mosey, to piddle, to loafer—and summer only lasts a week and a half. The people spit the words out so fast when they talk, like they are trying to discard them somehow, banish them, rather than relish the sound and the story. We will not run out of them here. We talk like we are tasting something.” —Rick Bragg, “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South”[/pullquote]
First and foremost, Bragg is a storyteller and when he attends reading events like “South Bound,” he says he counts it a great privilege to share the stories of the people he writes about in his books.
“If you write books about real people that resonate with your readers, there’s got to be something wrong with you to not want to talk with the people who made your writing life possible,” Bragg shares. “There is a tendency to write my people off, blue collar working people, millworkers—and to be able to tell their story you better not fail. You better not write any clichés. There’s no way you can make them dull. I’m honored to get to write about them.”
Bragg says the predominant theme that inspires his books and essays is the stories surrounding the Great Depression and the working people of the Deep South who struggled to survive during those times.
“Think about the toughness you have to have to work a twelve hour shift in a textile mill,” Bragg shares. “I have distant kin who was almost eaten alive, and lost his arm in a threshing machine. When you write about those people, you better be honored. I’ve lived a life where I’ve been shot at and scared to death. I covered the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. I’ve covered Haiti in times of terrible genocide. But to write about your own people, you better do them justice.”
Passing the Literary Torch, Preparing the Next Generation of Southern Writers
While Bragg believes the State of Southern Literature is healthy, he also recognizes that the Southern writers of today have a greater challenge before them.
“I think they have challenges, the ones writing about the modern day South, they have challenges,” Bragg says. “The modern day South is complicated. The old sins of the South are harder to handle. But it used to be the good guys and bad guys were easier to define, and now they’re not. Now the demons are not just Klansmen, they are Political Action Committees and polluters. So I think they have a harder job.”
As an award-winning Southern writer, Bragg shares his writing and wisdom with the next generation of writers, serving as a professor at the University of Alabama’s journalism program in the College of Communication and Information Sciences.
“Writing is a visceral, bloody process. It’s not a joyous process. I don’t like writing. I like having written,” Bragg shares. “It’s a personal, visceral thing. And it’s hard to discuss coolly, dispassionately, or academically for me.”
As Bragg writes in his most recent book “My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South,” there is something to the “Sound and the Story” behind Southern literature. With Southern Literature Alliance’s “Southern Bound” series coming to a close in May, the engaging series of seasoned and emerging Southern writers seems to reemphasize the timelessness of the written word, echoing Bragg’s analysis: “The State of Southern writing is healthy.”
Photography courtesy of the Southern Literature Alliance