Whenever I read poems somewhere, the first thing I make them say about me is “Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago.” It’s one thing I know. The more I make people say this, the more it becomes an incantation: “A Southern person living in Chicago.” It’s like I never really left, like I can choose to wrap my life around two places. Even if I live here til I die, and I want to, I’ll always be a Southern person. Even if I never decide what that means.
I was born in Mississippi 30 years ago. My mom grew up in upstate New York. When she moved to Jackson with my dad, she had to ask people to repeat their sentences two or three times. “People must have thought I was stupid,” she says. She couldn’t make out their words through the thick swamp of a deep Southern accent. I can imagine my dad translating for her, intensifying his own Georgia drawl. His accent served as a passport, showing they both belonged.
I was born in Mississippi, but I never lived there. We left when I was three months old. I grew up in Nashville and a few different places in the Piedmont of North Carolina: the center of the state, a swath of rolling hills and rivers binding the mountains to the coast.
I learned the regions of North Carolina in middle school, along with the names and county seats of all hundred counties. I had just moved from Nashville, I had no friends, and I hated memorizing these names more than any assignment in my school career. My resentful 12-year-old heart knew I would never be from North Carolina: not from the Piedmont, not from the mountains, not from the coastal plain. I would not be a redneck who loved barbecue and NASCAR and guns, the things that stood out to me from billboards on the desolate two-lane highway that led to my middle school. I would be myself by rejecting everything I thought was the South.
When I moved to Chicago, my dad liked to say Erin, you’re making the Great Migration. And I’d say not really, Dad. The Great Migration was when black people left the Jim Crow South for Chicago. That’s not my history to claim. Also, the Great Migration was massive. I left on my own, much as I tried to Pied Piper my whole college friend group up here. They all left, too: for New York, DC, Boston. They left for grad school, for careers, for far-flung partners. To each her own little migration.
It felt like everyone I knew always meant to leave. When a good high school friend and I got into U of C I wanted to join him, but not enough to take on a lifetime of student loan debt in the place where fun goes to die. So I stayed behind.
North Carolina can be a hard place to feel like you’re from. It’s the South, but not the Deep South. It’s chock-full of Yankees who moved down looking for good weather and jobs in the Research Triangle, with its universities and biotech businesses. It feels like everyone’s from elsewhere, especially in the larger towns.
It helps that it’s beautiful. I don’t think any view I’ve woken up to can rival the stars over Swannanoa, up in the mountains. North Carolina is the polar opposite of that Nelson Algren line I hate a lot. Y’all know this one: how loving Chicago is like loving some chick’s broken face. But if you can avoid the Tea Party wingnuts, and you can, North Carolina is lovable as all get out.
As pretty as it is, I wouldn’t live there again. I want to be from a place with public transit and a street grid and real winter temperatures. I want to be from a place that’s fucking broken in a way that I get.
All the same, I love the place I grew up, the place I still say I’m from when Chicagoans ask. I got 10 years of really good public education in North Carolina. That’s how I learned to articulate where I come from. It’s where I learned to write.
My favorite high school English teacher taught Faulkner – specifically, Absalom, Absalom! I remember him saying that we’d all have the experience that frames that book. We’d all be called upon to “tell about the South.” My teacher said, you won’t feel like it’s yours to account for. But you’ll be asked to represent it all the same.
At the time, I thought this was exaggerated. Surely everyone’s from everywhere in this modern digital age, or something like that. But I’m growing into the truth of it. It’s becoming an imperative question: how do you tell about the South? Well, everyone is coping with historical disasters. There’s the legacy of slavery and racism, of agriculture and industry failing, of livelihoods disappearing — sometimes over generations, sometimes overnight. That belongs to us in a way we don’t want to own. It’s inextricable, painful, and real.
My dad is from the real-ass South. Albany, Georgia is on some Flannery O’Connor shit, dripping with Spanish moss and a pervasive, lingering strangeness. It’s a town far from the interstate, some strip malls stuck among cotton fields and gnarled, dark pecan trees.
My dad is from Albany because he was adopted as an infant. Like me, he always knew that he would leave the place he was raised.
I remember a lot of childhood conversations with him about the South, and wanting to leave it. Once, I told him I felt like I would always be different from other people. Like I would never be able to tell where I’m from. I would always be lonely. I was 17, and we were sitting in my room looking up at all the contact sheets from my photography classes that decorated my walls. He was unusually quiet for a minute. He said that he felt the same way at my age, but he’d always assumed it was because he was adopted.
When my dad left Georgia he went to Vanderbilt, because his parents wouldn’t pay for college if he followed his hippie dreams to Berkeley. At college in Nashville he became an alcoholic, and then a journalist. Every Easter, he took our family to visit his parents in the house where he grew up. No one was supposed to talk about adoption in Albany. Our grandparents would see it as some kind of failure, some way they weren’t enough. But we knew. My dad, the reporter, is big on truth.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised when my dad showed me a packet of non-identifying information about his birth parents. Because he is an investigative reporter, non-identifying information became a pair of names after a month of searching microfiche and making phone calls. The names became an obituary of a man who died of a heart condition at the same age my dad was then, and a letter to a woman named Helen in a pinprick of a town called Kite, in central Georgia. The letter started, “You might want to be alone when you read this.”
The last time I went to the place my dad is from, we buried his parents, the ones who raised him and gave him his name. They died on the same day in December, in a dementia ward just north of Charlotte. My grandfather raised prize-winning camellias, so we covered the dirt with their pink and white petals. Everywhere I went that day, I thought, this is the last of this. The last time I’ll see the flag at half mast outside my grandparents’ country club. The last time I’ll eat some neighbor’s homemade caramel cake out of a plastic box. This is the first and last time my whole family will leave our van on the side of a rural road, and trespass behind a curtain of pines and kudzu into a stranger’s yard, where my grandmother’s family has graves.
I stood in front of the fading headstones and tried to etch it in my memory, this place that my family migrated forever away from. And then we drove north. We stopped in Kite to visit Helen, my dad’s birth mother. We ate some rich homemade food, and sat in her living room with a picture of ourselves on a side table. We drove five more hours to Charlotte. To home, whatever home is.
My dad got laid off earlier this year. With some money his parents left him, he’s taking time to make the documentary he’s had in mind for years. It’s about his birth father. He’s interviewing Helen often, taking video of her in her home and her church. My dad’s birth father was an alcoholic too, and a patient in a state mental hospital where Helen was a nurse. My dad keeps telling me he wants to fly to Chicago and interview me for this documentary. He keeps coming back to a pair of questions: How angry can I be with this man I never knew? What did he leave behind?
My dad wants me to be a part of his documentary because I’m the only one of his four children who remembers him before he quit drinking. It’s so far away now, I say. I only remember you in Nashville, being sleepy on the floor of my bedroom with an empty can of Bud on your chest.
How much love can I have for a place I don’t really know? The stories I have to tell about the South aren’t mine. They’re from my family, and from scraps of things I’ve read, or heard, or made up. When I talk about the South, it’s sprawling and weird and full of lost threads. I keep trying to write poems about it, and I just suck the life out of them looking for something true.
Here’s what is true: I’ll always say “y’all” when I need to address more than one of you. I’ll always cook collard greens on New Year’s. But I don’t know how to tell about my Southernness. I might never. When my teacher said we’d have to tell about the South, he was talking about form: Faulkner wrote his world fragmented, murky, equivocal. And this too is a way of telling, of exposing certain scars. At home in Chicago, struggling over my Southern poems, I know some stories can’t be wholly told.
Erin Watson is a Southern person living in Chicago and on the internet at torridly.org. Her poems appear in Anthology of Chicago and in the self-published chapbooks No Experiences, Instax Winter, and Nickels. Her poetry criticism appears on the Volta Blog. She was a finalist for the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award and one of New City’s best emerging poets in Chicago in 2014. She’s performed poems and essays at Miss Spoken, Story Club South Side, and Tuesday Funk, among others.