Lee Smith and the Southern Story-Telling Tradition

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Under last Thursday’s very soggy skies, an intrepid group of about a hundred students and book nerds (guess which I am) gathered at the University of Memphis to hear author Lee Smith discuss her life as seen through literature. For those unfamiliar, Lee is responsible for 12 novels and four collections of short stories with a distinct focus on Southern life past and present, but more than that, she is a good ol’ girl of the highest order: sharp, witty, sly, gracious, and, above all, a world-class storyteller. Beyond her published fiction, Lee is one of those people just naturally skilled at recounting events, real or imagined.

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It’s not a unique trait, I suppose, and it’s something I’ve almost begun to take for granted since immigrating to the South, and Memphis in particular, where anyone from a woman refilling my sweet tea to a man strolling my grocery store can stun me with a perfect anecdote. (Granted, for many years the man strolling in my grocery store was Shelby Foote, but still.) We live in a town that’s constantly remembering, revising, and embellishing for dramatic effect.

Not that my countrypersons to the north don’t have a tradition of storytelling, of course. They’re more prone to confining it within the boundaries of the arts, however, where there’s a built-in defense against charges of exaggeration or downright fibbing. Taking liberties makes us uncomfortable. We’re a nice people, but I’d guess that Garrison Keillor probably wouldn’t be your first pick as a road trip buddy, and Bob Dylan isn’t really known for being fun at parties.

No, I’d wager that the urge to entertain, facts be damned, is strongest in the South. I imagine it’s been a powerful coping mechanism in an area that not so long ago saw its history literally trampled and burned. When your own personal narrative is shattered, all that’s left to do is pick up the pieces you can find and fill in the rest.

What’s great about this tendency is that everyone has a different story. Well, it’s sometimes great. Watching two elegant Southern ladies discuss the finer points of the Montesi’s deli selection in 1984 is a joy to behold, but witnessing Crips and Klanners debating the acceptable degrees of white supremacy is pretty unsettling.

The diverging stories of Memphis’s past have gotten a lot of ink in the last few weeks, but what I find most fascinating is the plot that’s developing while that happens. It feels like we’re finally able to acknowledge that our city will never have one collective memory of any point in time. The best we can do is listen to each other and try, in our various ways, to move the story forward.

As I was having drinks with Lee Smith and her family after her lecture (because I’m a very, very important writer … or possibly because I came with the administrator of her Facebook page) and pinching a nerve in my neck trying to lean in and not miss a word she said, I was awestruck as usual by the ease and pleasure and humor that Southerners bring to even their darkest tales. The most tragic details are prone to being reshaped into comic asides, or, if they don’t serve, simply thrown aside. Whether that’s selective memory, artistic license, or flat-out denial is hard to say.

In her essay “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy,” Lee Smith acknowledges and welcomes in literature’s New South, the South of small-town sushi restaurants and multilingual classrooms. It doesn’t lend itself to the same characters and devices that have had a long life in Southern lit, but really, isn’t that all for the best? Instead of overhauling history, over and over and over again, there’s a wealth of new storylines to thread together. The next chapter is just waiting to be written.

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