New Texts and Old Problems

Posted by on Mar 7, 2018
New Texts and Old Problems

I recently attended the Society For The Study of Southern Literature Conference held this year in Austin, Texas. Titled “South By and By,” this conference marked the 50th anniversary of the society and pondered society’s future and the future(s) of southern studies more broadly. In addition to questions of geography, borders, race, and sexuality, there was a strong contingent of scholars reading and analyzing the environment. These inquiries ranged from how does climate change, ecology or environmentalism change the ways we see the South to reading Southern texts that specifically engage environmental change or asking what do the analytics (and problematic) of southern studies offer those engaged in ecocriticism? Leaving the conference, I had a long list of primary materials in my Amazon cart – I’ll share two honorable mentions and then provide a deeper look at John Biguenet’s “The Rising Water Trilogy” – a collection of plays that examine the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Approaching a year old, the podcast “S-Town” was an immensely popular source text (I realize this might be an ‘old news’ plug for those more connected to the podcast world than I!) An investigative journalism piece, “S-Town” follows Brian Reed, a reporter, as he interviews the rather eccentric John B McLemore who lives in a small Alabama town. McLemore is, among other things, obsessed with climate change and the ways in which his town (and nation) refuse to acknowledge the growing problems. While the podcast focuses on a plethora of issues, including a feud, an alleged murder and an actual one, I think the way climate changes penetrates this text is evocative and haunting.

My second shout-out goes to Jeremy Love’s graphic novel Bayou. Again, I’m late to the game but the third volume is just coming out for those that need more! Bayou depicts the South as a “a strange land of gods and monsters” and follows Lee Wagstaff as she tries to prevent a mob from lynching her father. Intuitions, such a Jim Crow, become literal monsters in the world that rip apart unfortunate victims. A seemingly simple but highly complex text, I highly recommend reading as I think it would be a very good teaching text.

Finally, I end with John Biguenet’s trilogy of plays: Rising Water, Shotgun, and Mold. All originally produced by the Southern Rep Theatre, Biguenet’s work examines three pivotal moments in New Orleans following the failure of the levees. Rising Water takes place just hours after (the second act takes places on the roof of a house); Shotgun examines life a few months following and traces the attempts of two families to rebuild homes and a city; and finally, Mold returns us to New Orleans a full year after the flooding only to find the home of our protagonists uninhabitable and covered in mold.

Each play presents powerful moments of reflection, emotion and sympathy. Indeed, one does not begin to question the verisimilitude or accuracy of the depictions. A New Orleans native himself, Biguenet lived through Katrina and the aftermath—it is clear he knows the city, its people and the history of this event. But as an avid reader of drama, something about these plays becomes unsettling. I confess the more I read, the more I saw August Wilson’s Fences again and again. The restless and angry masculinity of fathers, even angrier sons, put-upon and overworked mothers—dead dreams and even more dead dads. There are, of course, clear parallels between the character’s Wilson writes and those in Biguenet’s plays. Both worlds have been stacked against (mostly) hard working people–intuitional racism literally materialized.

One could say Biguenet’s plays exhume the form of Wilson’s Fences (1985) or perhaps Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesmen (1949) but like the flooded and molded covered house that hold furnishings of these characters, the forms tell a history and age. In other words, these plays smell of Modern Drama. Rather than build new houses or plays, we settle back down into the old. I haven’t decided yet if I think this is a specific artistic choice on the part of Biguenet. Should we be uncomfortable watching these performances, not solely for the action and characters, but because the plays too eerily remind us of other performances—ones that should be dead. Or, is it a fitting choice to represent the death of a way of life, death of a city, death of a civilization in its on forms? Why invent new ways to signal the same affect?

And of course, how southern of me, to think of how things that ought to be dead aren’t quite yet so….