When is something a stereotype, and when is it simply landscape?
Since returning from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference I’ve been digesting the feedback my work received there. In an early chapter of my novel, the reader learns (among other things) that my character, Bertie, lives in a single-wide trailer with azalea bushes growing in front of it, and reads Reader’s Digest to increase her word power. In the Sewanee workshop, one workshop leader commented that trailers, azaleas and Reader’s Digest were all southern stereotypes and that having all three was just too much. I’ve been pondering that comment, and here are some of my thoughts. I’d be interested to hear yours.
I’m embarrassed to say I had no idea Reader’s Digest was a stereotype, and a negative one at that. I actually made Bertie read Reader’s Digest to show that she was someone who tried to better herself, though without much success. I had fond childhood memories of reading the back issues of Reader’s Digest that filled the basket next to my grandfather’s recliner in Little Washington, North Carolina, not to mention the condensed books that lined the shelves. Mary Stewart’s Airs Above the Ground was my favorite condensed book, and sometimes still I go to the library and check out the uncondensed version to re-read. Thanks to the Sewanee workshop, I now know that Reader’s Digest falls in the category of publications for which smart people should have contempt. I took the reference to Reader’s Digest out of my novel, both because it invoked a stereotype, and because of an astute point a Sewanee friend made.
Here’s how I had used Reader’s Digest in my novel (it’s Bertie speaking): "There was a word in last month’s Reader’s Digest that I had no trouble adding to my word power: ‘reproof.’ Eugenia’s sharp tongue pinned it to my memory, her always reproofing me about the size of my trailer, me and James missing a week of church, or some past mistake I’ve said I’m sorry for a million times." (Yes, I do know that the real word is "reproving" but Bertie didn’t know that).
My friend pointed out that even though I as a writer was very interested in language and vocabulary, normal people (like my character) were not likely to be so interested. I thought that was a valid observation, so I took the reference out.
Next, trailers. The workshop comment made me think that maybe I had gotten it wrong. Maybe mobile homes weren’t really part of the landscape of western North Carolina and I had put Bertie in a trailer out of pure unoriginality, after watching too many Dukes of Hazzard reruns. To check, I took a day trip to the part of western North Carolina where my novel is set, and counted trailers. According to my unscientific census, about every tenth residence was a single-wide mobile home. So, on the one hand, trailers (and red mud and azalea bushes and screen doors that do in fact bang when you enter and exit) are simply part of the landscape of the American south. On the other, just because something is true doesn’t mean it isn’t also a stereotype. I suppose the tilt toward stereotype begins when you use the fact that a character lives in a trailer as short-hand to describe who he or she is. Joe Bob lives in a trailer, so he’s a beer-drinking, shiftless, ignorant redneck, and there’s nothing more to him than that.
Of course there is more to southern folk than that. On this same day trip, I visited relatives who live in a single-wide mobile home. The trailer sits on family property with a view any Yankee developer would kill for. On a hot August day we sat comfortably up on the ridge, with a breeze blowing through woods behind us and cool air rising from a creek (a "branch") below. Our aunt and uncle have two young granddaughters, aged five and seven, who immediately took my nine-year-old daughter to the creek to hunt "pennywinkles" (a freshwater snail). It was the seven-year-old’s birthday, and this little cousin was so generous she offered my daughter (whom she had never met before) one of her new Littlest Pet Shop bobble-heads to keep. If you have a daughter in elementary school you know what a sacrifice this represented. I checked my aunt’s plants. Not an azalea bush in sight, but she and my husband, another green-thumb, compared notes about an exotic tropical plant she had acquired that was thriving on the back deck. The entire porch rail of the trailer was lined with perfect heirloom tomatoes my uncle had managed to grow even in a severe drought, and of course he insisted we take some when we left. So, beyond the corrugated metal siding of this particular single-wide I found the deep connection to place, and the abiding generosity, that is the South.
I decided to keep the trailer in my novel, because it isn’t in there gratuitously. It represents Bertie’s disappointment at how things have gone for her in life, because when she moved into the trailer thirty years ago she thought it would be temporary. For various reasons it has turned out to be permanent.
And the azaleas? Azaleas are flora. I suppose some plants (magnolias, gardenias, kudzu perhaps) could be deemed stereotypical, but if you are writing about a place, and a particular plant predominates, it seems to me it’s appropriate to include it in the description of the landscape. There are cacti in the desert, cypress trees hung with Spanish moss near the coast, rhododendron (laurel) in the mountains. I decided to keep the azaleas.
By now you’re thinking "this gal just can’t take criticism" and you’re probably right. My hope, though, is that with a few more revisions, I will have written the novel well enough to flesh out my mobile-home-living, azalea-growing character so that my readers will know there’s oh so much more to her than that.
Copyright 2008 by Heather Newton