Tearing Down the False Monuments of the South
Odie Lindsey's "Some Go Home" challenges Southern mythologies without giving in to stereotypes
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Odie Lindsey has once again emailed me about a dead bird.
I get these emails every couple months. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums—these animals all seem to gather in Odie’s yard in Nashville to die, or bleed, or do something gross. And every time, he tries to heal them (the email might contain an image of a starling in a shoebox, the box’s sides cut to provide shade but still allow air to flow through). This close attention to the natural world and his attempts to, say, give pigeons dignity, feel of a piece with Odie’s writing. He writes about the body, about trauma, about the aftermath of war, about the intersection of the personal and social. Pain and cruelty are underlaid with enormous sensitivity, surprising gentleness.
Enter his debut novel Some Go Home, and, more specifically, Colleen. (Who first appeared in a short story selected for Best American Short Stories and which is available to read in Recommended Reading.)
Though written from multiple points of view, Some Go Home centers on Colleen, an Iraq war veteran returned home to Pitchlynn, Mississippi. She’s married to Derby, whose white supremacist father is about to be re-tried for a Civil rights-era murder in town. She’s pregnant, tired, anxious, and unsure how she got where she is. In the opening chapter, she climbs on the roof to remove some branches so her husband doesn’t get the satisfaction of doing it for her. She stumbles on a squirrel’s nest. I’ll let you find out what she does with it.
Physical symbols—monuments, if you will—loom in Some Go Home. One is the Wallis House, the antebellum estate where the infamous murder took place, and whose restoration by a Chicago real estate speculator is a point of contention in Pitchlynn. And then there’s the centuries-old magnolia tree on its grounds, dubbed “Bel Arbre” by a city council trying to drum up tourist dollars. Questions of what is worth preserving and who deserves recognition abound as characters, including the murder victim’s descendants, struggle to lay the past side by side with the present. Odie, a veteran himself who has spent most of his life in the South, writes the complexities of the region, not to mention the psychic aftermath of war, with real care and skill.
It’s hard to write a timely novel on purpose—by the time it’s published, whatever felt fresh and relevant has often passed. But Some Go Home and its examination of race, class, and personal versus collective memory and trauma, has happened to land at the perfect time to contribute to the national conversation. I chatted with Odie over email. No wildlife perished during the course of our back-and-forth.
KL: You’re from the South. Have you always had a sense that there was a tradition of “Southern literature”? When did that tradition come on to your radar?
OL: I came to literature, Southern or other, quite late. My early and most influential narratives were musical: the Tejano bands that soundtracked my childhood city of San Antonio, and, mostly, the Willie Nelson-led scene from nearby Austin. Looking back on my time visiting relatives in Alabama and Virginia, or as a teen living in Georgia and Tennessee, I now recognize some storylines about who Southerners were, or were supposed to be. (And by this I believe I’m addressing white Southerners, though of course defining one body impacts everybody else’s body, too.) In song, in speech, in street name or monument; from within, and without—the threads were everywhere. There was “Dixie” this and “Battleground” that; there was “Forrest” something and “Lee” other. “Rebel” is a moniker that was applied to everything from a mascot to a laundromat. At 17, my Army training took place at Fort Jackson, as was followed by Forts Lee and Bragg.
Yet the people, the surroundings, the relationships and complexities of place betrayed this singular, relentless narrative. (I mean this in the big picture sense. I’m guessing that for many Southerners, the intent of a battle flag was pretty fucking straightforward.) The were ever-present exceptions, resistances, hypocrisies… narratives… that undermined real-world oppression, and, in the context of this discussion, how culture was portrayed—no matter vehemently some people pursued one-liners.
KL: And who were Southerners supposed to be, according to those threads?
OL: Consider this batch of adjectives, as provided from within and beyond the South: polite, hospitable, reserved, reverent, pastoral, ladylike/manly, self-reliant, straight/white or Black/white… dumb, classless, violent, racist, toothless, insular, Bible-thumping, straight/white or Black/white. These exist. They don’t. It is at once true that there’s ’83 Dodge Ram truck about two blocks from my house which features a battle flag front license plate, and that my extended Nashville neighborhood has more Kurdish residents than any city in America.
I think my work is a push-pull between wanting to condemn the dominant narrative, to showcase its failure and throw it back in the faces of the white South—which includes myself—without pandering to stereotype, or sacrificing texture, dynamic, complication, or love.
Sometimes, this involves considering less immediate narratives about very immediate objects. Take those Confederate statues. Something I wanted the novel to suggest, something twinned to any notion of supposed honor: these structures are also monuments of shame. Reminders of inadequacy. Of defeat, of impotence, of insignificance, of lack. They wouldn’t be there if we didn’t get our ass kicked (for all the right reasons). Fighting to keep them in place isn’t just racist, it is clenching to a bone-deep sense of white failure. To the dysfunctional idea of being attacked, or the rabid need to feel under attack.
Throw in a never-ending string of cultural punchlines about the region, and its people—whether or not they apply—and you can concoct a pretty unhealthy relationship to identity. I certainly had to process it, as do my characters.
At times, trying to write the South feels like fighting a beloved, but radically misguided family member. I can do it, and I will do it. I have to give it a shot. Of course, the rub is how to do it healthily… and/or whether or not to move out!
KL: Colleen is such a thoughtfully made character. She really does feel like family: She’s inhabited, flawed, appealing, exasperating. How did she come about?
OL: I spent years living with her character. She was a brief story, then a series of vignettes in my collection, and then she took over this novel, which was not supposed to include her. I wrote her with and against my inclinations. I rewrote my own war and postwar memories with Colleen as the protagonist. I spoke to her while watching PBS and drinking beer. Wrote her into locations that would force a response.
The goal was to know most but not all of her—yes, just as I might know a close family member.
KL: Colleen is an Iraq War veteran; you served in the Gulf War. You’ve talked about coming back from deployment and being treated by society as if you were the highest form of capital-M-Man, and the disconnect between the superficiality of that treatment and how you actually felt as a veteran. How did this experience influence Some Go Home?
OL: That disconnect—the war experience versus the postwar, well, endowment—is critical to my veteran characters. The rupture can drive them for years.
To be fair: this treatment didn’t come from my close friends. (I don’t think I ever gave us a reason for us to speak of my deployment.) Rather, it was the family-friend pastor and the not-so-close pals, the professor and employers who positioned me as a hero. And I felt so ashamed of it, because I felt like such a fake. There were all the celebrations, the fetish. The “End of the Vietnam-era”-type hype around the Gulf War. My body had gone from being a vehicle of American violence, to being a vehicle for some sermon about morally-justified killing. Ugh.
Most troubling was that I’d been complicit in this process, this myth-making.
KL: Without giving too much away, can you tell us how Colleen’s storyline incorporates those feelings of complicity?
OL: At the opening, she is 26, married, a homeowner, newly pregnant. She’s become exactly what everyone—from her parents and hometown, to someone who’s never been to the South—might expect of a white, female, high-school grad from rural Mississippi. And there is zero wrong with that lifestyle, save that it doesn’t fit Colleen. We learn that she has struggled against this identity for some time, and that the war only stoked her ambition to be someone else.
Yet there she is, stuck in a life of her own making, living for everyone but herself, a textbook example of the person she doesn’t want to be.
KL: That’s a situation a lot of people can relate to, veteran or not. When you’re in it, it feels both natural and terrifying. In your writing, the notions of suffering, heartlessness, illness, terror, and the sense that most everyone is just a fender bender away from losing it, are treated with a warlike frankness. They feel like war stories. But there’s no combat on the page.
OL: My war experience was built on peripheral fear, which is, I suppose, the way you want these things to go. There were fighter jets overhead, and blast novas in the distance, and SCUD missiles streaking elsewhere. There was a female troop whose body couldn’t process the pyridostigmine bromide we were made to eat, and who was sent away without a word. Point being, the trauma, the tension was nonstop, yet it wasn’t “combat,” in terms of what we expected that to be.
I don’t want to be too convenient here, but: in a way, that peripheral terror, and the related state of awareness is similar to the coronavirus experience. At least, this has been my experience. It’s everywhere, it’s nowhere. The triggers are random, and relentless.
KL: Pitchlynn is a fictional town that feels knowable, familiar, lived-in. What was your actual process for making up a town? How deep did you go? Did you draw maps? Calculate routes between places? Was it freeing to create a town from scratch and not have to worry about getting it right in terms of where streets intersect or the number of the state highway? Did it ever feel constraining?
OL: I made up timelines and place names, neighborhoods and landscapes, and stitched them to real-world spots around north Mississippi. I added in bits from a regional oral history project, and a late 19th-century judicial record. Small, factual stuff, to try and authenticate the fiction.
Oh, and I worked on the Mississippi Encyclopedia for ten years—so that helped!
I wanted to make sure that this small Southern town was at once hyper-local—trapped by its aspiration, ambition, and its defining, Civil Rights-era violence—while also linked to larger legacies of identity and property (c/o the book’s Chicago/gentrification section), or, at its outer reaches, to the landgrab of war.
Not that Mississippi or the South can or should be parted from the atrocities of race, place, policy, land. Period. But as I said to the folks at Norton (while huddled up on 5th Ave): the biggest racist on the planet isn’t a landowner from Mississippi. He’s a real estate developer from Queens. My little town of Pitchlynn had to echo that truth, too.
KL: That’s right, I forgot you worked on the Mississippi Encyclopedia for all those years. What a perfect job for a novelist.
OL: I can’t imagine a greater job than to read and help to edit hundreds of essays, written by 700+ scholars, across 30 subject areas. Over 1.4 million words. It was amazing to be employed as a learner, working to document and historicize places, bodies, policies, and traditions that have often been diminished, if not disregarded.
The project showcased the complexity of Mississippi: at once so local, yet since the 16th century, so global. One day you’re learning about Christian socialist co-op farms, the next you’re learning about Mississippi Lebanese, or Choctaw leadership, or the northeasterners known as “nabobs” who made millions off of antebellum slavery… and then went home with the loot, at times without manumitting.
KL: What was your relationship like, growing up, to the statues and monuments at the forefront of the national conversation today? Do you remember when you became conscious of what they stood for? Did you ever think you’d see the Mississippi state flag redesigned?
OL: The Southern “memorials” I remember from childhood were The Dukes of Hazzard, the Smokey and the Bandit movies, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Urban Cowboy and the like. This entertainment was a national phenomenon. Millions of kids who looked like me wanted to be Bo or Luke Duke, to drive that ’69 Charger with the battle flag on its roof, and shoot arrows fixed with dynamite. (Let’s not even get into the positioning of cousin Daisy!) So those symbols? The action figures and watches and lunchboxes—all featuring that battle flag, by the way—those things were promoted as no less than aspirational. They were glorified, nationally, and they were from the South, where we lived. It was intense. It is intense. I’d be interested to hear other takes from the era.
Of course, I didn’t begin to question any version of monuments or memorials until decades later, when the Iraq War started (early 2000s). At that point, the pop culture nostalgia was joined to real-time violence. The associated masculinity was linked to monuments, to whiteness… to war. It all started fitting together for me, pushing my fiction.
KL: That’s something to consider in the current conversation around statues—that pop culture played a huge role in romanticizing the battle flag and that brand of Southern culture.
OL: Whether folks aspired to be Luke Duke or David Duke, or even if they just wanted to be “rebels” c/o fast driving and poking fun at hokey cops, I think the normalization, the nationalization of the battle flag helped to coast it into another generation. To not only normalize it for a national audience, but to incentivize the symbol. I mean, make no mistake, the show was a parody. But again, parody or not, the cliché-making of Southern narratives still has import.
Conversely, consider Deliverance, from that same era, and the positioning of the rural Southerner as the ultimate grotesque, with regard to heteronormative, non-Southern bodies: the toothless redneck homosexual rapist, prowling the back woods with a shotgun, who will insist that you pretend to be a farm animal—that you “squeal like a pig”—before penetrating you. Or, to complicate further, consider the impact of Southern culture on ’70s progressive circles and politics. The activism that grew out of the Civil Rights movement, or the way young Southerners lined up for Jimmy Carter. The outspoken, progressive musicians, writers, journalists, actors. For a time, it was as if they tried to rebrand the battle flag—with “as if” being a key phrase!
There is much to say about the process by which the Mississippi state flag was removed. I can only note here that I believe in a better South. That I love the idea of it. I look forward to the continued, critical lessons as to how and what this means.