I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky
Cliches become cliches because they’re true, and for me, “sometimes you can come home again” is that cliche. I’ve lived my entire life in Louisville, KY, and I spent a great deal of my adolescence and early adulthood despising my home state. Tired of my accent marking me as ignorant, and of saying “yes, I’m wearing shoes” to not-so-funny jokes, I tried to exorcise the twang from my voice and the bluegrass from my blood. Longing for a home to make my dreams come true, I thought I needed to flee.
You see, I’m a writer. And when I was growing up, local history wasn’t covered in schools, and local authors were never read. I was in college before I discovered Robert Penn Warren, Wendell Berry, and Bobbie Ann Mason, and even then I thought they were anomalies. I thought that in order to be a writer, I needed to be where “culture” was, somewhere like New York or at least somewhere with an appreciation for the arts. I never moved, but I dreamed of the day I’d leave it all behind and find the place I was meant to be.
I didn’t realize I was here all along.
A couple brief examples from my most recent MFA residency: in workshop, any time my accent “slipped out,” I apologized. “Excuse me, my Kentucky’s showing.” It was a joke, but not really. Another example: One of the faculty members, Fenton Johnson, related that when he travels throughout Europe and says he’s a writer, he is immediately given respect. In America, it’s the opposite–he gets the question “What do you really do?” As if writing is just a hobby, and one cannot really write as a lifestyle. There’s one exception to this, however–Kentucky. This is the only place where he has seen writing receive any respect in America. So I guess we’re doing something right!
I’ve also been fortunate enough to sit in lectures and readings by Kentucky writers like Crystal Wilkinson, Frank X. Walker, and Silas House, all of whom are proud of their Kentucky heritage. By hearing their Southern voices drawl out words that ring with beauty, I began to hear my own accent as less embarrassing.
This past Friday night, I emceed a reading at Louisville’s Local Speed Art Gallery, “Spalding at the Speed: A Gathering of MFA and Community Writers.” The series was my brainchild but I’ve never emceed it before. It was scary, especially when there were so many writers who I deeply admire reading (Kirby Gann, Debra Kang Dean, Sarah Anne White Thielmeier, Bernard Clay, Sean Patrick Hill, Justin Dobring, Kimberly Crum, and Bobbi Buchanan). I should mention that any time I’m nervous, “my Kentucky slips out.” “I” becomes “ahh” and not “eye,” “get” becomes “git,” etc.
Normally, I would cringe.
Normally, I would be embarrassed.
I heard my twang, and I realized something: I am proud. My state is not perfect. We’re blowing up mountains for coal, and there is discrimination here–but we’re also working to save those mountains, and I watched as a small Appalachian town passed a fairness ordinance. There is poverty and illiteracy, but there are grassroots organization, a concern for one another, and so much literature.
My Kentucky’s showing, and I’m damn pleased that it is.