This is a re-post of an essay written for Read Her Like an Open Book and published on June 25, 2014. It’s one of my favorite guest blog posts. And it seems particularly timely in light of recent events.
By Brittani Sonnenberg
Two hours outside of Nashville, a severe thunderstorm hit. My mother and I were driving to Oxford, Mississippi, for the third stop of my six-city book tour for Home Leave, and in Jackson, Tennessee a curtain of rain descended. It bore all the fury of a monsoon in Singapore, where my mother and I had often sat out tropical storms. We sat again now in our rental car, helpless, parked at a strip mall, as the splatting drops turned to hail and then exhaled to a quieter rain.
The deluge done, we followed signs to Oxford, turning off the highway and onto a two-lane road, wet and shiny from the rain.
“Looks like Mississippi now,” Mom said, and she was right – the low hum of early evening light coating the glistening kudzu and weathered wooden buildings distinctly resembled Yazoo County, where she had grown up – but a “West Tennessee Coon Hunters Association” sign laughed at our faulty internal compasses. The radio stations were getting fuzzier but the landscape was sharpening, shaking itself loose from the franchise blur, driven by at highway speeds, to small farms, tired establishments promising ribs, and houses set gently back from the road, that we now took in at a languid 55 miles an hour.
The state line came soon enough, and Holly Springs a few miles further. Night was falling, and the columns and wrap-around porches of the little town’s houses gleamed pale. More shadowy countryside and then Oxford snuck up on us like a kid out of the bushes: a sudden square of activity around the courthouse. On bustling restaurant patios, the women’s hair blow-dried and their dresses just so. I hadn’t brushed my hair that morning, but I had dressed in clean jeans and a nice top for dinner at City Grocery.
My reading at Square Books was scheduled for 5pm the following day. I passed the hours listening to Southern banter and endless stories, low growls of laughter from my mother’s college friends; drinking coffee from a thick mug; walking up to Faulkner’s grave; marching through the wilting heat; down through the kind rows of pines, into Rowan Oak. I had visited Goethe’s house in Frankfurt one month earlier (I live in Berlin) and felt nothing for it. Faulkner is not my favorite (Eudora Welty is), but I loved pacing through his house, absorbing the eyelet covers on the bed, his tiny desk, the angular handwriting on his outlines.
If there is any devoted writer or reader who has not been to Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi, they need to stop their devoted writing and reading and get down there now. The main store is a charming converted pharmacy (my Great Uncle Jeff has memories of getting ice cream there as a child, more on Uncle Jeff later); Off-Square Books, where the reading was held, is a sweet, welcoming hardwood floor building. I read aloud from the first chapter of my novel, set in Mississippi, and no one threw tomatoes or stalked out in protest when I put on a heavy Southern drawl for the narrator’s voice. Afterwards, we retired to my mother’s friend’s front porch for a lazy early evening of drinking and talking, grateful for the cooling. An Ole Miss baseball game was on in the living room; people drifted in and out of conversations about tailgating plans for the fall and George Saunders’s sentences and the art of lawyering. As the party was winding down, a colossal thunderstorm slammed the street, screaming bloody murder, driving rain onto the porch. Later, as the last guests were leaving, my mother and her friends harmonized to old Baptist hymns on the porch swing.
The next day, our hours waning, we went to see Uncle Jeff, my mother’s uncle, who grew up in Oxford, and now lives in the VA home on the edge of town. We drove there with a parade of relatives and assumed the VA conference room. His daughter wheeled Uncle Jeff in. “The reason I called this meeting,” he boomed, and we laughed. We begged him to tell us Faulkner stories, and Uncle Jeff recalled how Faulkner always wore a suit, how he had taught the ten-year-old Jeff how to box with real boxing gloves, and then Jeff delivered the following anecdote, without saying who had told him. You got the feeling it was a story owned by the town.
One summer morning, Faulkner went out fishing with a good friend. Later in the afternoon, he passed the same friend in the street without greeting him. The friend followed him and said: “I’ve always heard you didn’t greet folks properly on the street, but I’d never witnessed it myself until now. Why would you pass me without saying a word?” And Faulkner said: “We just spent the entire morning talking and fishing. What on earth do we have to say to each other?”
(Or something like that. A sentiment I identify with 100% and would not mind becoming universally accepted etiquette.) Then Uncle Jeff’s memory left Faulkner behind and drifted to playing football with neighborhood kids in the street, getting nickels for ice cream at the pharmacy, and then it was time for us to leave.
For the rest of that hot afternoon, an Oxford resident, playing tour guide, introduced me to an impressive field of kudzu, an undrinkably sweet sweet-tea, a sprawling back porch that rivaled any of Berlin’s pretty wrought iron balconies, and smart, funny women.
I always romanticize the South. I know it’s not right; I’m aware of the region’s cruel contradictions and its stubborn disregard, all too often, for its past and present sins. In Berlin, you can’t walk fifty feet down the sidewalk without seeing gleaming copper bricks, bearing the names of the murdered dead. The World Cup aside, many Germans still walk around profoundly ashamed of Germany. On Oxford’s graceful sidewalks, shaded by magnolia trees, no copper apologies caught my eye. Up until recently, the college band still played Dixie at every ball game. Sometimes I feel guilty for liking the South as much as I do, in spite of its ugly tendencies, for feeling the strong kick of belonging when I’m back. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I never stay too long. Does that rosy fondness, that makes a place feel so familiar, simply indicate the opposite: that you’re just passing through?
I don’t know. Even though my family moved to China when I was twelve, my mother’s Mississippi roots, my five years in Atlanta, and the summers my family spent each year in the Smoky Mountains have made something about the region stick undeniably to me. I feel a similar stickiness from all my other homes, too: Berlin, London, Singapore, Shanghai. Maybe I’m following a Faulknerian aversion to small talk, which is to say, choosing when to belong, never fully committing to one home, keeping my head down on the street, setting stories in the towns I’ve just left behind.
Brittani Sonnenberg has an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in Berlin, where she is a frequent contributor to Berlin Stories on NPR. She also serves as a visiting lecturer at the MFA program of the University of Hong Kong. Her award-winning fiction has been widely published in magazines such as Ploughshares, anthologized in the O’Henry Short Story Prize Series, and received distinguished story recognition by Best American Short Stories. Her non-fiction has been published by Time Magazine, the Hairpin, the Associated Press, NPR, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and elsewhere. She studied English literature with a citation in Mandarin Chinese at Harvard University. She was a European Journalism Fellow at Berlin’s Freie Universität from 2009-2010 and served as the editor of the American Academy’s Berlin Journal from 2011-2013. Home Leave is her first novel.