In my role as a high school writing teacher, I’ve heard the question hundreds of times and tried to help students struggling with this age-old quandary. So when I was wording the theme for Nobody’s Home, designing a subject for other people to write about, it was like finding the lane between Scylla and Charybdis. The phrasing had be concise but clear, open to varied interpretations but focused on a single idea. I also know from my experience as a writer that too much freedom can lead us into a sort of blissful panic, while themes that are too stringent leave many of us saying, “For that, I got nothin’.”
I feel certain that some writers see the theme of this project and immediately think, Political, he’s looking for political. Some will naturally want to tackle the big issues in Southern culture: race, poverty, inequality. Others may drift toward something nearby, like a narrative about particular situation or an examination of public policies that affect their lives. While those socio-political subjects are very relevant to this project, they’re not the end-all be-all. And no, I’m not necessarily looking for something political.
Take sports, for example. As this pandemic continues, I’ve wondered what beliefs have caused our culture to OK the return of football while continuing to be unsure about the possibility of in-person classes. I’ve also wondered, long before this pandemic, why aren’t there free and reduced ticketing programs like there are free and reduced lunch programs? Advocates for school sports might say that athletics costs money. I’d say, So does food. There are beliefs and narratives that support this thinking, and I’d be curious to read someone’s ideas on what those are.
Another example of beliefs that drive our culture but that never enter the political realm involve the intersections of family and food. Every Southerner knows that home cooking taste best, which leads us to myriad debates on foods ranging from cornbread to barbecue sauce. How do you cook greens? Your answer is probably your mama’s answer, which is probably her mama’s answer. If a state legislature even dreamed of trying to end the debate by declaring all recipes except one illegal, we would certainly take on that Gandhian attitude: they can’t arrest of all of us! Narratives about food begin at home, and home means family. Which might give people a warm, fuzzy feeling, but what I’m curious to read about is this: how do those generational habits affect our health and well-being here in the South?
Beliefs, myths, and narratives are all around us, not just in the overtly political spaces. We might call them assumptions or opinions in daily life, but the fact is: they inform our behavior. We have beliefs about what is important, what must go on unimpeded, and what can be cut when times are lean. Some of those beliefs move into the realm of myth, where we insist that they’re more than just a preference— they’re the truth. And we have narratives that underpin those beliefs and myths, stories that we tell and re-tell to assure ourselves that our myths are, in fact, true. When public officials wanted to hit us Southerners where it hurts, they told us that, if we didn’t get COVID-19 under control, we couldn’t have football. Wait, the South said collectively. Cancel football? You can close schools, shutter restaurants and bars, lock down nursing homes, ruin family businesses, put people out of work, put court cases on hold, keep inmates in overcrowded prisons . . . but you can’t cancel football. For some people, it’d be as wrong as putting sugar in cornbread or handing them barbecue sauce that isn’t red.
Some writers may be looking at the project’s theme and thinking, “I mean, what am I supposed to write about?” My answer is simpler than one might think. Southern culture is loaded with beliefs like these, deep-seated mythic beliefs that spread out farther and wider than the voting both and the state capitol— pick one that matters to you and get to writing!