Being southern is a vital part of who I am, a part Iâ€™ve never tried to disguise or discard. Growing up in North Carolina, I absorbed southern culture as easily as I inhaled air, and I thought about it just as much. It was my life; there was no need to question or remark on it.
The first time I realized southerners could be regarded as different, I was an undergraduate at Duke University. Although Duke is a southern school, many of its students come from other states and other countries. Not meaning any harm, they seemed unable to resist pointing out the oddity (to them) of our food, our wardrobes, and our accents.
Not long after college I left North Carolina and began a decades-long journey that included living in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, and New Jersey. I loved the people and the experiences I encountered in each of those states. My friends who live there will continue to be friends for the rest of my life. I learned from these women that we are more alike than different. Any preconceived ideas they had about me or I had about them were purely superficial. As co-workers, as elementary school parents, as church volunteers, we respected each other, even though our speech may have been peppered with different expressions and our food with different spices.
But thatâ€™s not to say I never had to defend my southern heritage. A New Jersey co-worker once asked me, â€œWhy do southerners talk so slow?â€ Of course, the answer to that is easy: â€œBecause we think before we speak.â€ Not a bad idea for anyone.
Most of the timeâ€”in fact, all of the timeâ€”my southern heritage is a blessing. Interest in people (chatting in the grocery store line always delivers entertaining tidbits), acceptance of the unusual (everybody in the south has a bizarre relative), reluctance to be rude in any situation (my mother wouldâ€™ve disowned me if I ever ignored a comment made directly to me), and enduring patience (you donâ€™t cut off somebody in line at the grocery store or on the way to the exit ramp) have served me well personally and professionally. As my son said when we were discussing the importance of manners in business: â€œYou know, Mom, good manners are just treating other people like you want to be treated.â€
So I keep my southernisms with me all the time. I live in Maryland now, but no matter where Iâ€™ve lived, my sensibilities and my imagination live in the South. The short stories and novels I write are all set in the South, usually in North Carolina. And my leading characters are southern women. Theyâ€™re intelligent, educated, perceptive, like many women everywhere, but they also have a vulnerability and compassion that I think are distinctly southern. Lydia Caton, protagonist of my new novel SURFACE AND SHADOW (coming from Pen-L Publishing in 2016) fights for her right to uncover the truth about a wealthy manâ€™s suspicious death. Along the way, sheâ€™s drawn into helping the dead manâ€™s mentally challenged granddaughter and his professionally trapped grandson.
Sheâ€™s a complex southern womanâ€”just like me.