8 Books that Capture the Essence of Tennessee
Andrew Siegrist, author of "We Imagined It Was Rain," recommends literature that spans Nashville to the Smoky Mountains
Growing up, I didn’t know that writers existed in Tennessee. We have songwriters and musicians, of course. They are in your family. You go to school with their children. See them in line at the grocery store.
But as far as someone with their work published and waiting to be read on the shelf of a bookstore, I’d never met anyone like that. Writers were a foreign thing. From different states, different countries. Places more interesting than the place that I came from. I could never have imagined that Tennessee was a place worth writing about. It took me years to realize I was wrong about that. And I hope to be wrong about that for a long time.
When looking back at my collection We Imagined It Was Rain, stories that take place in Tennessee, I realize that almost all of them were written when I was away from this place. Living in cities with vibrant cultures, beautiful settings, and interesting people. Places with very much to write about. But whenever I sat down to write, I always came back home in my imagination. This place has etched its initials into my bones, and will always influence the stories that I try to write.
Here are 8 books that capture the essence of Tennessee:
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Though this would not be considered a Tennessee novel, the inspiration behind the writing of it definitely derives heavily from the state. In interviews, Powers regularly described the impact that the old-growth forests of the Smoky Mountains had, and still have, on him and his writing. So much so, that after researching the trees of the eastern part of Tennessee for this novel, he decided to make his home there. He describes the awe of entering a forest, of the light change, the sounds and the smells. This book demands the reader pay attention to what we so often take for granted, the things that grow all around us.
Having lived in a rural community in Tennessee that is constantly under threat of development, this novel reinforced my belief in the critical importance we share to save any bit of nature that we can. No matter how big or small. His writing calls us to take the time to look around us and appreciate what this earth has blessed us with.
A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter by Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni says: “I write a lot about Knoxville because Knoxville is my heart.” Her work set in Tennessee— including her poem “Knoxville Tennessee” and her famous “400 Mulvaney Street” essay—is a celebration of Black life in Knoxville, specifically the street in town where her grandparents lived in the 1950s, now completely changed since Giovanni’s childhood summers with her grandparents, who were prominent members of Knoxville’s Black community.
Giovanni’s voice in poetry and prose is unmistakably Appalachian, and has chronicled the experiences of Black Tennesseans over Urban Renewal and the Civil Rights Movement. Her work holds surrounding communities accountable through an expression of what has been lost.
Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl
The essays in this collection weave together the personal with the universal. Stories of her family matched against the observations of a devoted lover of nature. Renkl writes in a way that you can hear the birds calling out from the pages of this book. You feel the inevitable grief that time demands of us as families begin to wither. Reading these essays is an emotional and sensory experience.
Much of this book is set in Nashville. The place where I grew up. Reading these essays, I could smell the woods she described walking through. Much like Richard Powers The Overstory, this book put me in a heightened state of awareness of the world around me. The sound of summer cicadas. The momentary pause of a caterpillar on a leaf.
Renkl also reminds you that life is fragile. She writes:
This is the experience I had reading this book. It made me be quiet and listen. Listen to the birds and the summer cicadas. Listen to the breath of the ones I love sleeping beside me. It made me hold still long enough to be grateful for all of it.
Maps for the Modern World by Valerie June Hockett
I first became aware of Valerie June Hockett through her music. She is a singer/songwriter from West Tennessee with a very distinctive voice and style. Both eerie and beautiful. I have often listened to her songs sitting by the river near my house. They are always inspiring. Always put me in a place where I want to create something, to get out the notepad and start to write.
Maps for the Modern World is her first book, and the poems in it read almost like short meditations. Quiet mantras to repeat to yourself in the morning while waiting for the coffee to cool.
Like the other books on this list, June Hockett’s poems ask you to take a minute, reflect, breathe. Consider yourself and the universe around you.
Basin Ghosts by Jesse Graves
In this collection of poems, Jesse Graves proves himself to be a craftsman of imagery and detail. Graves is a writer from East Tennessee and with these poems, it feels as if he is handing you photographs of the place and letting you discover it yourself. In the poem “Tennessee History,” he writes:
There are many ways to study Tennessee history,
One of them is to sit on Malcom Walker’s front porch
As late afternoon unspools across his yard,
And the hills of John Jess Lay Hollow rise up around us.
Graves transports you to the place. His place. You come away with a sense of a deep personal history that the place he comes from holds onto. It’s a glimpse into the lives of people who were born and died there. “Stories held within the earth,” Graves writes. And that is what this collection feels like. It’s the stories that a place holds.
Southernmost by Silas House
The story begins with a flood. In the aftermath, Asher Sharp, a local preacher, takes in a gay couple in need of shelter. His decision to do so causes a division between Asher and his community, which eventually causes Asher to flee Tennessee with his son and travel to Key West. Set in part in a small town in Tennessee, Southernmost deals with themes of love and tolerance and what it means to reassess the deep-rooted parts of ourselves and the communities we come from.
I read Silas House’s early novels while in college. I was first drawn to him by the lyricism of his prose. His sentences are beautifully written. But what sticks out to me most in looking back at everything he has written, and Southernmost is no exception, is the love that is apparent in the way that he brings his characters to life. There is an abundance of heart in his stories.
Oftentimes, Southern literature tends to lean into the dark, the gritty, the violent. What I think House does so well in all his writing is he shows a tender side to this region of the country. He shows the love that abounds here.
Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
Speaking of the dark, the gritty, and the violent, this book has all of that. McCarthy is one of the figureheads of contemporary Southern fiction. Though much of his later work is set outside of the region, Suttree is set in Knoxville, Tennessee where McCarthy spent his childhood. He is known for his distinct prose style. Often times Faulknerian and poetic. The opening line to Suttree reads:
“Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth high shouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors none shall walk save you.”
This is a sprawling novel, following a main character who shuns his privileged upbringing to seek out the dregs of society. We follow him from misadventure to misadventure. From bad relationship to bad relationship. However, the darkness of the plot is difficult to turn away from, in large part to McCarthy’s mastery of the prose. When thinking about Tennessee literature, Suttree is a hard book to overlook.
Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
As a child, I used to ride my bike to a local pet store and look at the hamsters and the ferrets. This was years before I ever had any idea I wanted to become a writer. I’d calculate on a scrap of paper how many lemonade stands I needed to run before I could afford a cage. Now, years later, the pet store is gone. In its place is Parnassus Bookstore. The owner is the novelist Ann Patchett.
Now, I still go to this store regularly. But instead of saving nickels for ferret food, I go to see my favorite writers read. To buy collections of short stories. To imagine what it would be like to see my book on the shelf.
Truth and Beauty is a memoir about friendship. About a bond throughout difficult years and difficult lives. It is brutal and honest. Heart-wrenchingly so.
It is the story of Patchett and her friend Lucy, who she met in graduate school while studying creative writing. Patchett describes their years together. The struggles they shared together. It is not an easy read, but there is certainly enough beauty on these pages to keep a reader transfixed.