Five questions for Talulah Mankiller

Talulah Mankiller blogs about books and life in general over at Life Under A Rock. Her skewering of the romance genre, I Love My Dead Gay Husband is the funniest piece of literary criticism you’ll ever read. She lives in northern Virginia.

1) You’ve referred to yourself as a “transplant” in the south. What’s the most jarring part of living down here?

Honestly, now that I live in Northern Virginia I don’t really consider myself in the South anymore. Which is hilarious, given how close I live to Manassas, but the suburbs of DC are NOTHING like where I grew up. It’s a whole different culture up here, and sweet tea is hard to find.

As far as it being jarring to live in the South…I spent most of the first 22 years of my life there. My parents are from New York and California, and I was born in Oakland, but my family has lived in North Carolina since I was eight and we were stationed there several times before my father retired from the Marine Corps. Growing up, I definitely felt kind of like an outsider, simply because my ancestors were not Southerners and we didn’t have any history there, but I wouldn’t say I found any of it jarring. I was a kid; I generally took things at face value.

Now that I go back for visits, though, one of the things that’s most jarring is the poverty and the…I guess you would say circuitousness. When my boyfriend and I were driving to my parents’ for a visit a few months ago, we drove through this one very typical town and he asked me, “What do they DO here?” And the answer was, they all work at Target. The town exists because of the stores. The factories are long gone, and very few people farm anymore. There’s nothing to do besides retail. I didn’t find that weird when I was a kid because I grew up in a military town and I just naturally accepted that the whole point of everything was to make money off the Marines. But now that I live in a place where stuff is actually made/planned, it’s very weird to see a town that exists only because there’s a big box store there. It really is the snake that eats its own tail.

And now that I live in a place with rows and rows of shiny new town houses and sky-high property values, it’s very jarring to see what my mother calls “North Carolina deconstruction”: houses left to just fall down. I saw it all the time when I was a kid and never thought anything of it, but now that I’m an adult it’s just like, “Holy shit, this place is poor.” Land just isn’t wasted like that in an area where there’s money to be made. And that makes me sad for North Carolina in particular and the South in general.

2) In the comments of one post, you said Tony Horwitz was “way too easy on the south” in his book, Confederates in the Attic. In what way was he too easy?

Oh, Lord, it’s been three years since I read that book and my memory isn’t what it used to be! I don’t remember much specifically: I just had an overall feeling of, “Man, he is getting sucked into the myth of the Old South without even realizing it, isn’t he?”

3) Is there an ethical way for Southerners to remember and honor their ancestors?

If you have Confederate ancestors, then by all means acknowledge them, by all means mourn the waste of human life that was the Civil War, and by all means celebrate their triumphs OUTSIDE of the war. But if you insist on joining the Daughters of the Confederacy or being a Johnny Reb in a local Civil War reenactment, then you need to take a step back and rethink your approach. Respecting the dead does not mean that you have to pretend that all of their choices were good choices, or that all of their acts were good acts. Identifying yourself with that ONE aspect of their lives—the war—or literally PRETENDING TO BE THEM at the worst moment of their lives does not honor them. It degrades you both. Just leave flowers at their graves and say some quiet prayers and be done with it.

4) In I Love My Dead Gay Husband (part 2) you take on the romance genre’s habit of idealizing the antebellum south. Do you think that romance authors could use that time and place as a setting in an accurate manner, while still remaining true to the romance genre’s tendency towards warm, fuzzy settings?

In all honesty? No. Historical romance never portrays the time period in question with true accuracy: if they did, we wouldn’t have historical romances at all. I mean, what is supposed to be sexy about unwashed hair, the Bubonic plague, or Byron? And yet, the Regency and the Middle Ages are both very popular time periods for historicals. The difference is, though, that we have a greater historical distance from those periods. Idealizing them or glossing over the vast social inequalities during those periods isn’t accurate, but no one alive and in the United States is still dealing with the fallout from those eras. The same cannot be said about the antebellum/Civil War periods. The legacy of slavery is still very much with us, and there’s still some serious regional tension. We are the nation we are today because of the Civil War, and we are still coping with that. Hell, the South has never recovered financially or socially. It’s funny to say this about something that happened 150 years ago, but culturally speaking, it’s still too soon to turn it all into happy fluffy escapism. Maybe in a few decades that’s truly all it will be, but right now, it still reads as denial.

5) What’s your favorite part of living down south?

There are a lot of things I miss. Having a church on literally every corner was pretty comforting, even if some of the names were a little terrifying (“The Potter’s Hand” always struck me as being vaguely sinister). The food—Lord, I miss the food! Mostly, though, I miss the politeness. I know that the South has its problems and half the people you talk to probably secretly think you’re going to hell, but everyone is so nice to your face. It’s really quite soothing, and I miss it a lot.

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Published in: on 21 October, 2009 at 04:00  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] I was interviewed about all things Southern over at Sesquicentennial Madness.  My interview is here, but I would really suggest checking out today’s post.  It’ll break your […]


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