On Being a Southern Writer by Marla Cantrell

A person sitting on the ground in front of water.
I was born in Phoenix on a day so hot even the desert sighed. It feels like a small misstep, this beginning in Arizona, so far from
my parents’ people in the hills of Arkansas. They had moved to Phoenix a few years before so my daddy could find work, because times were hard in the South at that time. And they did prosper, but they did not thrive.
It was made right the year I turned six, when we moved home. By then my mama, an only child, was aching for her own mama, was overcome by the promise of snow in winter, blackberries in spring, and thunderstorms that blew up an afternoon, that punctuated a solitary night that had been unremarkable until the first round of thunder drove her from her bed, caused her to bound to the porch where she watched the lightning battle an invisible army in the inky, rumbling sky.

I have heard other people’s stories of finding home. Of how, after deplaning in New York City, they were able to navigate the great city as if they’d spent their entire life there. I have a friend who moved all the way to New Zealand to find home, there by the ocean, in a place so glorious she feels as if her life has been restored twelve times over.

My parents’ decision to return to the South brought me to my own home. I remember stepping out of the station wagon at my grandma’s house after traveling more than a thousand miles. I remember taking off my shoes and feeling the dew on the thick grass, seeing the bright blue sky above me, hearing birds call out from a nearby pecan tree. I don’t know what paradise is to you, but I have never come closer than that moment.

There is music everywhere in the South. Bluegrass bands show up on town squares, unbidden, and perform for passersby. Families get together on front porches to sing country music, to sing gospel. There are harp singers who congregate in wooden buildings, using nothing but their voices in an art form older than the hills. As a child, just after arriving in Arkansas, I sat amongst pews of worshippers at a tiny Baptist church. They sang with the gliding vowels of all southerners, with the languid ending to words, dropping “g’s” as easily as dropping quarters in the collection plate.

On the stereo late at night, my parents listened to Johnny Cash and Roger Miller and Tammy Wynette. On Saturdays when my uncle visited, full of liquor, his tongue loose, he’d tell stories so rich and full they seemed to play out as cinematically as any movie. Before he’d call a cab to leave, he’d try to climb atop our gentle horse, Candy, the attempt both slap-stick funny and heartbreaking all at once.

I spent my childhood summers, beginning when I was six years old, working on farms, picking strawberries first and then tomatoes and bell peppers, as the season progressed. I hoed soybeans before any of us knew how good they were for our health. There, in the fields, I met workers from deep in the hills, whose lives depended on abundant crops and backbreaking work. They told stories of love gone wrong, time in the slammer, the inescapable pull of get-rich-quick schemes. When they talked, I felt as if I was opening other people’s mail, as if I was eavesdropping, and it thrilled me to be privy to this adult world, to these great voices of the South.

These are the people I think of today when I write. The church people in their pressed clothes, the women in tight curls, the men with hair slicked back, solemn, hopeful. My uncle, wrecked by alcohol, and fueled by stories. The field hands, tied to the earth in a way I seldom see today, betting on a better day, even though the odds were against them. I close my eyes and hear their voices, that lyrical sound that is better than any concert. I remember, and I wait for inspiration to hit. It always does. This place, my home, hasn’t failed me once. I work every day to return the favor.
Marla Cantrell is the managing editor/lead writer for Do South Magazine in Arkansas. Each month she publishes a short story in Do South, along with several other articles. She’s won several awards, including a 2014 Arkansas Arts Council Award for Short Fiction. Her fiction has been published in several magazines and anthologies. You can follow her on Twitter at @SouthernPencil.

To read a few Marla’s short southern stories, click on the links below. (Each month she publishes a new short story for Do South Magazine. Be sure to check in regularly for those.)

Carry Me Over:http://southernpencil.com/carry/
As Long As You Remember:http://dosouthmagazine.com/as-long-as-you-remember/
Struck: http://dosouthmagazine.com/struck/