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We Have Much To Learn From 'A Place Like Mississippi'

Mar 16, 2021
Originally published on March 17, 2021 11:22 am

How did a little state that rests alongside the banks of a mighty river make so many contributions to American letters and literature?

That's the question posed early on in A Place Like Mississippi, Ralph Eubanks' new book about his home state. And he's got a point: The state produced Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Jesmyn Ward, and so many others, all spinning stories of the South and class and gender and race.

Eubanks wanted to explore how the place shapes the writing — and how the writing shapes our understanding of the place. In the book, he uses a quote that's often attributed to Faulkner: "To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi." Eubanks says it's not actually clear if Faulkner ever said that, or if people just wanted him to say that. But either way, he says, he believes it's true. "There's so much that you can learn about the world, and I would say about this country, from studying what Mississippi writers have done and written about this place, which I think telescopes onto our larger national issues, and even some of our larger international ones."


Interview Highlights

On what Mississippi can say about our national issues

I always say that to find a good Mississippi story, you have to explore the silences. It's the things that people don't talk about. And I think in this country, there are lots of things that we don't talk about. But in Mississippi, we are getting to the point where we are talking about a lot of those things and we're exploring them and we're probing them as deeply as we possibly can.

I think Natasha Trethewey does that exceptionally well in her poetry. And I begin this book not in the place where we think Mississippi literature begins, which would be in Oxford or in the Mississippi Delta, but on the Gulf Coast, right there in Gulfport, where in her poem "Theories of Time and Space," she says, go to this point, bring only your tome of memory and your blank pages, and begin there.

And that's exactly what I did. It was it gave me a sense, too, of what that silence was and maybe some of the things that people didn't talk about, looking out at Ship Island, thinking about the Native Guard that no one ever talked about — and no one talked about until Tretheway wrote her collection, Native Guard.

"A Woman of the '30s," a photograph by Eudora Welty.
Courtesy Eudora Welty Collection / Mississippi Department of Archives and History

On including photos by Eudora Welty

One of the things that I love about Eudora Welty's photographs is the intimacy of those photographs. She always connected with her subjects in some way. And I have spoken with her biographer, Suzanne Marrs, about this. And Dr. Marrs says she never really used a photograph to create a story. But there's a photograph, "A Woman of the '30s." And whenever I see that photograph and I read her story, "A Worn Path," with the character Phoenix Jackson, it describes her right down to the buttons on that dress.

On Welty, who was white, photographing Black people

I think that one of the reasons that Eudora would ask permission from people to take the photographs is that, as you know, anyone who studies photography knows that to take a photograph of something is to appropriate the thing photographed. So she knew she was taking something from them. And she also knew that Black people had a lot of things taken from them in this state. So before she took their image, she wanted to make sure that she connected with them. And very often what she did was she would go back and she would give them a print of that photograph that she had taken, and I think that speaks to Eudora's understanding of what the racial dynamic was in the state.

I mean, one of my favorite stories by Eudora Welty is her "Where is the Voice Coming From?" Which is a story that she wrote the night that Medgar Evers was murdered. And she said, "it's the only story I ever wrote in anger. And I wrote it because everyone in Mississippi knew the mind of the person who committed that murder. And I wanted to communicate that to people." It's a story that I believe — you know, Martin Luther King said the great enemy of the civil rights movement was the white moderate. And I think that was a story that had more influence on the white moderate than anything else that happened during the civil rights movement.

On the tensions inherent in Mississippi, between beauty and devastation

I think Jesmyn Ward knows exactly how the Gulf Coast as a place has been devastated. And when I visited with Jesmyn in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi and looking out on that landscape, she could tell me exactly what that landscape looked like before [Hurricane] Katrina and what it looks like now. But she also has a long family history there. Some of it is marked by violence, by death, by destruction. And she sees that, too. But she also reconciles that with the beauty of the place. And when I ask her, you know, "why don't you leave? I mean, why do you stay here?" And we were standing out there. She said, "You feel that warm breeze around you?" And I said yes. She said, "That's like an embrace. I just can't leave that." And I understood.

On the Oxford City Grocery, a literary bar in Oxford, Miss.

It's it's a bar that has a very rustic looking floor, right on the square in Oxford. The bar has a copper top on it. And then there are these brass plates on it with regulars' drinks on them, and their names. And whenever a writer had a reading at Square Books, there was always a standing ovation given to them when they went up the stairs into the bar. And whenever there was an occasion, when there was a new book, there was a birth, or there was a death, it was where everyone gathered, I think probably post-pandemic, that is the thing that I am looking forward to the most, is gathering my friends again at City Grocery.

This story was edited for radio by Justine Kenin, produced by Elena Burnett and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How did a little state that rests alongside the banks of a mighty river make so many contributions to American letters and literature? That is the question posed early on in Ralph Eubanks' new book about his home state, Mississippi. And he's got a point. The state produced Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, William Faulkner, Jesmyn Ward. Eubanks wanted to explore how the place shapes the writing and how the writing shapes our understanding of the place. The book is titled "A Place Like Mississippi."

Mr. Eubanks, welcome.

RALPH EUBANKS: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Let's start with Faulkner because he looms so large, because it feels appropriate. You're speaking to us from Oxford, Miss., today. This quote - to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi - you use that quote in the book. You say it's not actually clear Faulkner ever said that or if people just wanted him to say that. But either way, you believe it's true.

EUBANKS: I do believe it's true. There's so much that you can learn about the world and I would say about this country from studying what Mississippi writers have done and written about this place, which I think telescopes on to our larger national issues and even some of our larger international ones.

KELLY: And dig in on that - what this could tell us about our larger concerns and the whole country.

EUBANKS: I always say that to find a good Mississippi story, you have to explore the silences. It's the things that people don't talk about. And I think in this country, there are lots of things that we don't talk about. But in Mississippi, we are getting to the point where we are talking about a lot of those things, and we're exploring them, and we're probing them as deeply as we possibly can.

KELLY: I love the idea of listening to the silences, exploring the silences. Can you give me an example of a book you would point to, a Mississippi writer who does that?

EUBANKS: There are several of them. I think Natasha Trethewey does that exceptionally well in her poetry. And I begin this book not in the place where we think Mississippi literature begins, which would be in Oxford or in the Mississippi Delta, but on the Gulf Coast, right there in Gulfport, where in her poem "Theories Of Time And Space," she says, go to this point; bring only your tome of memory and your blank pages and begin there. And that's exactly what I did. It was - it gave me a sense to - of what that silence was and maybe some of the things that people didn't talk about - looking out at Ship Island, thinking about the Native Guard that no one ever talked about and no one talked about until Trethewey wrote her collection "Native Guard."

KELLY: I want to ask about another writer, Eudora Welty - about her writing but also about photos. Your book is sprinkled with photos from today, from the past, a few of which were taken by Welty, including three that she shot during the 1930s. Talk to me about them and how they fit into her writing.

EUBANKS: One of the things that I love about Eudora Welty's photographs is the intimacy of those photographs. She always connected with her subjects in some way. And I've, you know, spoken with her biographer, Suzanne Marrs, about this. And Dr. Marrs said she never really used a photograph to create a story. But there's a photograph, "A Woman Of The '30s." And whenever I see that photograph and I read her story "A Worn Path" with the character Phoenix Jackson, it describes her right down to the buttons on that dress.

KELLY: We should mention Eudora Welty was white. This photograph that you're describing is of a woman who was Black. What does it tell us about the very different experiences of Black and white people in Mississippi?

EUBANKS: Yes, I think that one of the reasons that Eudora would ask permission from people to take the photographs is that as, you know, anyone who studies photography knows - that to take a photograph of something is to appropriate the thing photographed. So she knew she was taking something from them. And she also knew that Black people had a lot of things taken from them in the state. So before she took their image, she wanted to make sure that she connected with them. And very often, what she did was she would go back, and she would give them a print of that photograph that she had taken. And I think that speaks to Eudora's understanding of what the racial dynamic was in the state.

And one of my favorite stories by Eudora Welty is her "Where Is The Voice Coming From?" which is a story that she wrote the night that Medgar Evers was murdered. And she said, it's the only story I ever wrote in anger, and I wrote it because everyone in Mississippi knew the mind of the person who committed that murder. And I wanted to communicate that to people. It's a story that I believe - you know, Martin Luther King said the great enemy of the civil rights movement was the white moderate. And I think that was a story that had more influence on the white moderate than anything else that happened during the civil rights movement.

KELLY: This is - I mean, we're talking about the interplay of Black and white experiences in Mississippi, how that plays out in the writing. I'm also thinking, you know, your book takes on a lot of the other tensions inherent in the state, this state that is naturally beautiful and yet is marked over and over and over by hurricanes, by floods, by devastation. Give me another example of how that - the pain and the beauty and the darkness and the light all being wrapped up in each other - how that plays out in the literature.

EUBANKS: I think that a lot of the - you know, for example, I think Jesmyn Ward knows exactly how the Gulf Coast as a place has been devastated.

KELLY: This is Jesmyn Ward, who people will know is a novelist, won the National Book Award.

EUBANKS: Yes, a two-time National Book Award winner.

KELLY: Yeah.

EUBANKS: And when I visited with Jesmyn in her hometown of DeLisle, Miss., and looking out on that landscape, she could tell me exactly what that landscape looked like before Katrina and what it looks like now. But she also has a long family history there. Some of it is marked by violence, by death, by destruction. And she sees that, too. But she also reconciles that with the beauty of the place. And when I ask her, you know, why don't you leave? I mean, why do you stay here? And we were standing out there. And she said, you feel that warm breeze around you? And I said, yes. She said, that's like an embrace. I just can't leave that. And I understood.

KELLY: Yeah, that's lovely. One of the things I love that you highlight in the book is that the writing scene is alive and well. You talk about this bar in Oxford, City Grocery. Describe it and its place today in the literary scene in Mississippi.

EUBANKS: It's a bar that has a very rustic-looking floor right on the square in Oxford. The bar has a copper top on it, and then there are these brass plates on it with regulars' drinks on them and their names. And whenever a writer had a reading at Square Books, there was always a standing ovation given to them when they went up the stairs into the bar.

KELLY: I love that. Yeah.

EUBANKS: And whenever there was an occasion - when there was a new book, when there was a birth or there was a death - it was where everyone gathered. I think probably post-pandemic, that is the thing that I am looking forward to the most - is gathering with my friends again at City Grocery.

KELLY: Well, that sounds like something to look forward to indeed.

Ralph Eubanks, thank you.

EUBANKS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking with you.

KELLY: His new book is "A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through A Real And Imagined Literary Landscape." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.