When you have an accent, people like to ask you where you’re from. I don’t have much of an accent these days, though it surprises me sometimes by asserting itself in odd moments.
When I was first starting out in my career, I moved to Austin, Texas, and deliberately began trying to shed my drawl. Austin is not like other parts of Texas. It is full of transplants from California or the East Coast. A strong southern twang is not the norm. Some people told me they liked my accent and that I should work to keep it, but I am ever practical. There is nothing like a southern accent for encouraging other folks to underestimate you or brand you as slow-witted. Sometimes this can be handy, but often it will hold you back. In my early twenties, I still looked like a teenager and the last thing I needed was one more reason for folks to underestimate my abilities or my intelligence. I’m a good mimic. I learned how to clip my vowels and put the hard ‘g’ on the end of ‘ing’-words. I stopped saying I was “fixing to go somewhere.”
Nowadays, people are often surprised when they find out I grew up in Mississippi. “You don’t sound southern,” they say, a note of suspicion in their voices. “Give me a glass of wine,” I tell them. “Or wait until I talk to my mother on the phone. Then you’ll hear it.” And they do.
Another surefire way to bring my southern drawl back is a trip down South. I just returned from a weekend with good friends in New Orleans followed by some time with my parents in Mississippi. If you ever wanted to hear me “talk Southern,” now is the time.
I bring this up because, when traveling, people often ask me where I’m from. I always hesitate when I get this question. After all, what they are asking most of the time is: Where do you live? I have lived in Denver for more than fifteen years now, and Denver is certainly my home. I love Colorado; my feelings about Mississippi are more complicated, but I am from Mississippi. Always. No matter what. Often I answer this question by saying, “Well, I live in Denver, but I’m from Jackson, Mississippi.” In New Orleans–anywhere in the South, really–everyone gets it. They nod and smile and give me that knowing head tilt that says, “you are still one of us.” Elsewhere, though, people are sometimes puzzled by my need to clarify. “So you grew up in Mississippi?” they’ll say, and I have to stop myself from correcting them. I’m not trying to tell them about where I went to school or where I was raised; I’m trying to explain where I’m from.
If you are from somewhere, you never really leave. You can move to another state or another country, you can change your name or your hair color, you can surely change the way you speak, but when you have a glass or whisky or talk to your Daddy or visit with your old friends, all of the from-ness will bubble right up and spill over into your newly created life. It happens to me all the time. I spill a lot of my from-ness into my writing. It’s handy to have an outlet. But if I didn’t write, it wouldn’t change anything. I’d still be from Mississippi, from Jackson, from South Jackson. These distinctions matter.
And it is this from-ness that allows me to pick up with old friends no matter how long it’s been since we last talked. Even though we live different lives, even though we have vastly different political opinions, even though some are devoutly religious and others haven’t been inside a church in twenty years, even though some of us have no sense of fashion or home decorating trends while others might as well be setting up a shoot for Southern Living every damn day; we are all from the same place. This is not something you lose. And it’s why, when asked where I’m from, I will continue to say, “Well, I live in Denver, but I’m from Jackson, Mississippi.”
If you want to talk about it, buy me a glass of wine or a shot of whiskey. I’ll be happy to let my barely suppressed Southern drawl out for an evening.