Give anyone enough time and they will break your heart. I am a southerner. I live in Denver now, but I spent the first 21 years of my life in Mississippi. I first read Joyce Carol Oates’s short story, “How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again” as part of an English class in the Jackson, Mississippi public school system. I knew I wanted to read more and over the years, I did. I read Black Water. I read Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been? I read American Appetites. For the better part of a year, I used my refrigerator poetry magnets to spell out one of Oates’s titles: Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. I joked that year that it was my answer anytime anyone asked me why I was doing something. I was young and prone to such moody pronouncements, but it was no accident that I chose Oates as my inspiration. I loved her books. I loved her dark subject matter. I loved how her female characters were complicated and interesting and often unlikable. I loved Oates for her sheer prolificness. How could anyone write so many books so quickly? I imagined her holed up in a room with piles of books and a never-empty cup of tea, scribbling page after page until she was buried beneath her own words. It seemed wonderful to me. I aspired to a fraction of her greatness.
I follow Oates on Twitter. I like that she posts a lot of pictures of cats—hers and others. I agree with her on most things political. Reading the day-to-day musings of people you admire is one of the great pleasures of Twitter. It offers you a level of intimacy, a peek into the workings of a person’s brain, and a glimpse of their personality. Today I witnessed Joyce Carol Oates’s ugly side and it was like a punch to the gut. This writer that I first fell in love with while sitting in a Mississippi classroom tweeted the following:
Sigh. I get it. She’s referencing the decision of a Biloxi school district to remove To Kill a Mockingbird from the curriculum. And, look, I agree with her. That was a dead stupid decision. But it was a dead stupid decision made by a handful of misguided people. To paint the rest of us as illiterate, is irresponsible, insulting, and also dead stupid. Mississippi was Faulkner’s home. He wrote about nothing else. Without Mississippi, Faulkner doesn’t exist. And Mississippi gave us Eudora Welty and Willie Morris and Barry Hannah and Shelby Foote and Richard Wright and Ellen Gilchrist and Elizabeth Spencer and Ellen Douglas and Greg Iles and Michael Farris Smith and Tom Franklin and Jamie Kornegay and Angie Thomas and so many more. National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow Jesmyn Ward is a Mississippian. Renowned poet Beth Ann Fennelly makes her home in Mississippi. Pulitzer winner Donna Tartt was raised there. And Mississippi is home to some of the finest bookstores in the country—Lemuria in Jackson, Square Books in Oxford, TurnRow in Greenwood, among others. Bookstores don’t thrive without readers.
Look, I know the state of Mississippi feels like an easy target. And the state deserves some of the criticism leveled at it, but people are not states. Let me assure you that Mississippi is jam-packed full of readers. You might not like the politics, but you gotta love the literary conversation. Open your mind. the surest way to do this is to pick up a book from a Mississippi writer. I guarantee you’ll learn something. Changing your mind about the people of Mississippi will likely make you a little uncomfortable, but isn’t that the point? And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t read books that make you uncomfortable, then you are no better than those school administrators in Biloxi who took To Kill a Mockingbird off the reading list.
You owe the readers of Mississippi an apology, Joyce Carol Oates. Feel free to put it in writing. We read, and we are waiting.