“Saudade” — Leaving Hambidge

After a slew of beautiful, sunny spring weather, it’s been raining the last two days here at Hambidge in Rabun Gap, Georgia. The annual rainfall exceeds 70 inches (like snow in Minnesota) and I wager we’ve gotten half of that yesterday and today. Betty’s Creek is riled. Before the rain I had trouble sleeping, the silence was so complete. Was it the total quiet that kept me awake, or my racing, sometimes troubled mind? Other residents have spoken of trouble sleeping too, though we haven’t cleared up the cause.

But I must have been asleep yesterday morning, because I came awake to fingers tapping all over the roof of this house. It was raining, a soothing sound which made it cozy to snuggle in the down comforter. Only I was really hungry! And a little melancholy, what with leaving tomorrow and all. I dreaded facing oatmeal again. What I wanted most in the world was country ham, grits, two eggs over easy and a biscuit, and that meant driving the four miles into Dillard, to the Cupboard Café, whose motto on their billboard is “Life is too short to be dull; Get fresh with us.” (What does that mean?) They serve Southern vegetables like cream corn, mac and cheese (yes, mac and cheese is a Southern vegetable), green beans, collard greens, blackeyed peas, sweet potatoes, squash casserole. I’m going there later today for a Sunday fried chicken lunch with my cousin and his wife who are driving over from Glenville, N.C. Only two vegetables come with dinner, so you have to choose, which will put me in a tiz of indecision and desire.

I threw on my clothes and rain gear yesterday morning and ran through the dark and now pouring rain to the trusty Versa, and in no time at all I was happily ensconced in one of the wood booths with the cheery checkered table cloths, a saucer light hanging warm and low over my table, and music like “Sultans of Swing” playing agreeably in the background. After my ham breakfast (no red eye gravy, unfortunately) I browsed in the gift shop for a thank you card to leave for the chef here (she’d call herself a cook). I picked up one that said “None of us can help everyone/ but all of us can help someone/ and when we do/ we serve Jesus.” Then I realized all the cards were religious.

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Hambidge #4: The Sweet Hereafter and Four Spirits, with a little Red Hills and Cotton Thrown in…

I have been inspired (and intimidated) by two novels as I work on the conception of a novel about the Willie Earle lynching and trial in Greenville, S.C., in 1947 (see previous “While at Hambidge” blog #3): The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks and Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund. I’ve also drunk mightily of Red Hills and Cotton: An Upcountry Memory by Ben Robertson, a beautifully written, nostalgic and noble memoir of growing up in the 20s and 30s in the neck of the woods above Greenville where my grand and great-grands and great great grands lived, to the point where I feel a bit tipsy from its lyricism and grandeur of sentiment. Here’s a sample:

“I and all the families of my kinfolks lived for nearly two centuries in two old and fertile valleys at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northwest part of our paradise—in the foothills, and in the valleys, and in the plains, and in the wilderness, and in the south country. It was a land of smokehouses and sweet-potato patches, of fried pies and dried fruit and of lazy big bumblebees buzzing in the sun—a country of deep dark pools, of the soaring spirit, of little rooms stored with apples, and of old Confederates and tenant farmers and colored people and swarms of politicians and preachers. An ideal country for cotton farmers and dreamers; a brooding great country that had caught the sight of God. You can see a wedge of sheldrakes, a cloud drifting in southern space, and there before you are the old, contemplative mountains, a long range sifted with powder that was blue.”

When he described the people of my region…”We were a laughing, rollicking people on the surface, but when I think of our true selves, I always think of sternness, of austerity, of the real solemnity of our existence…” I thought I recognized something of myself.

But it is really the novels I want to talk about.

Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter may be the contemporary novel I admire the most. If you’ve seen the movie, forget that and read the book. It is so so so much better than the movie! It has four main characters who reflect in first person on the aftermath of a school bus accident in which a number of children were killed, and its effect on the individuals involved and the small community in which they are all braided together. It’s a great book, with four of the most real characters you’ll find in any fiction.

What I want to tell you about is an interview I found where Banks talks about the role listening plays in his writing (I’m sorry I don’t have the cite but I found the interview on-line). I had thought he’d mean listening as a writer to the characters’ speak, channeling their voices, but he’s actually referring to having the characters tell their stories to someone (not the writer). “I’m very conscious, especially in first person narrative…–of there having to be a listener in order to shape what the speaker says or doesn’t say. Because we all speak differently depending on who we’re talking to. Whether it’s two women talking alone or two men talking alone, white people, black people, kids, adults—we all have different speaking voices and we reveal different information and at different rates according to whom we’re speaking. So it’s very important to me to know that role first: who is the listener? Even though it’s obviously a totally imagined person who may never and is unlikely to appear in the book or the text itself in any way.”

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Here at Hambidge #3: Willie Earle, Rebecca West, and Professor Will Gravely

The project I’m working on while I’m on a writing residency at Hambidge in the Blue Ridge Mountains is a new novel (still a gleam in my eye) based on a lynching incident in my hometown of Greenville, S.C. in 1947. A twenty-four year old black man, Willie Earle, was arrested for the robbery and stabbing death of a white taxi cab driver, Thomas Watson Brown, taken from the Pickens County jail near Greenville by a mob of thirty or more white taxi cab drivers, driven to the woods nearby, and beaten, stabbed and shot twice with a shot gun. Forty-four year old Strom Thurman had only been in office as Governor of South Carolina for a month, and out of character in terms of his later reputation, immediately issued a statement saying “I do not favor lynching and I shall exert every resource at my command to apprehend all persons who may be involved in such a flagrant violation of the law.” He called in the FBI, who in conjunction with local and state law officials arrested thirty-one men and got statements from twenty-six of them confessing participation in the lynching. In May of that year, the largest lynching trial the South had ever known got underway in the Greenville Courthouse. National and international press such as Time and Life covered the trial, and The New Yorker sent the British writer Dame Rebecca West (just back from covering the Nuremberg trials) who wrote an amazing novella length piece about the trial that appeared in the June 14th 1947 issue (available free on-line). The defendants were acquitted by an all white jury in about five hours.

Growing up in Greenville, I had never heard of this lynching. I learned about it when, doing research in the 90s in the Greenville library, I accidently came upon West’s brilliant piece, “Opera in Greenville.” We tend to think of Tom Wolff and Truman Capote as originating “new journalism” a couple of decades later, but West’s piece is certainly that: a nuanced, complex, bristling, brimming, subjective piece of reporting that not only captures the facts and trial in unforgettable detail, but also directs our understanding, perspective, morals and values . West refers to Greenville as being rhetorical, but proves she can kick a rhetorical ball a good ways down the field herself; here is her description of Roosevelt Carlos Hurd, the taxi dispatcher whom nine taxi drivers identified as firing the fatal shots:

“…a man of forty-five with hair that stood up like a badger’s coat, eyes set close together and staring out under glum brows through strong glasses, and a mouth that was unremitting in its compression. He looked like an itinerant preacher devoted to the worship of a tetchy and uncooperative God.”

And here’s her description of the judge, J. Robert Martin, Jr.:

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Hambidge #2: The Member of the Wedding: “We all of us somehow got caught.”

Ohmygod! (And I don’t have to almost step on a snake to say that). What a profoundly beautiful novel The Member of a Wedding by Carson McCullers is!

I first read it in my early twenties after I had been to Breadloaf, where people still spoke of McCullers being there, and where I first saw her photograph: that elfin face and dark, sad eyes. I would have liked to be the next Carson McCullers, but that was not to be (by a long shot), but I have kept Member all these years, when so many other books have come and gone. Maybe I thought I’d reread it someday, or maybe I just remembered how it had moved me and didn’t want to part with it. I knew I wanted to write about the 1940s and blacks and whites in the South while I was at Hambidge this March, and as I was perusing my bookshelf for books to bring, The Member of the Wedding, with my maiden named scrawled in my atrocious handwriting on the first page, seemed almost to leap of its own volition into my hands and suitcase. The time had finally come to read it again.

When I say it is beautiful I don’t mean “beautiful” in the casual way we normally overuse that word. I mean beautiful in a deep, amazing, poetic, truth-y way. A deeply aesthetic experience, like great music or literature. An experience of beauty.

Which is not to say it’s for everyone. In fact, I wonder if in 2011 I am the last appreciative reader. Hopefully and probably not, and for all I know there is an enthusiastic Carson McCullers fan club. But if I am the only one, so be it.

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At Hambidge #1

Hambidge is an artists’ and writers’ residency program located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of NE Georgia, a stone’s throw from both the N.C. and S.C. borders, and I am lucky enough to be here. My home for these two weeks is the Son House, an old, weathered farmhouse/cabin nestled into a hill; we were meant to be together. Inside it’s warm, rustic, comfortable and spacious. Three large windows face the east, and I can write long hand at an artist’s drafting table or at a desk with my laptop, looking out at the view.

Just outside these windows is a stand of tall, skinny trees, which appear bare now in mid-March, but if you look closely you’ll find tiny, jewel-like buds. The understory of the trees is a complex tangle of vines and bushes greening seemingly by the hour. Beyond the forest is a wide, open field or perhaps flood plain which at first glance seems pale and tawny but a longer look reveals that it too is being overwhelmed by green. At the far side of this field is Betty’s Creek, which now resembles a roaring, swift, clear river maybe ten feet across, and which I hear in the Son House. Further still, beyond the creek, is a long, low range of close mountains, still winter brown from this distance, except for an occasional white pine piercing the drabness with a vibrant green spire.

Around Son House are tall trees covered with ivy and then higher up, all the way to the top, some prolific vine with purple berries which surely must be choking these ancient trees. In the woods nearby are rhododendron with shiny dark green downcast leaves and thick, multilayered pyramidal buds of what by May will be extravagant blossoms. The hillside by the cabin is covered with purple blooming periwinkle, and here and there all around the place naturalized daffodils are in bloom, as well as a few blue hyacinths. Moss and lichen coat old logs and rocks, and exploring behind the house, where a stone wall holds back the hillside, I discovered two thriving chive plants, so I’ll have spring chives with my scrambled eggs tomorrow. I also almost stepped on a black snake curled in the sun, which made me exclaim “oh my God!” out loud, the first words I’ve heard all day. Aside from that, there is total silence except for the rushing of Betty’s Creek and the trilling of birds in the woods.

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