The essays in M. Randal O’Wain‘s debut memoir, Meander Belt, tap into what life was truly like growing up in the rural South. Subtitled “Family, Loss, and Coming of Age in the Working Class South,” the book is a raw and intimate portrayal of an area often at the mercy of stereotypes or often altogether left out of media portrayals.
There is no glossing over the truth here. O’Wain leans into the rough edges of life and allows readers into the true essence of the South.
O’Wain currently teaches creative writing at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has a story collection entitled Hallelujah Station forthcoming from Autumn House Press.
I corresponded with him via email to find out more about his debut essay collection Meander Belt.
How and why you started writing about yourself and your surroundings from your upbringing?
I actually never intended to write about my life or my family, even after the death of my father and brother. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with memoir as a genre because there is often an expectation that the structure will reveal a transformation, as in, I was ill and now I am not; I was addicted to drugs and now I am not. This has always felt dishonest to me because even when we are sober we carry the addiction, when we are healed we carry the physical memory of illness. Grief is similar. It is not that I no longer grieve, but grief is now part of who I am, you know, and I wanted to “get at” grief in writing Meander Belt as opposed to explaining my grieving process. Does that make sense? My father died in 2004 and then three years later my older brother followed. My mind kept telling me stories of who I was in relation to my family, stories of where I came from and how place and landscape shaped me or hurt me or allowed me to become a better human. And so I started reading nonfiction authors that pushed boundaries of narrative, like, Wayne Koestenbaum, Peter Handke, Maggie Nelson, and Rebecca Solnit. It was Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth, however, that truly inspired me to begin considering my memory as something I could render artfully. I stopped pushing against my impulse to write about experience. I started this book in 2008, and, to be honest, I’m not sure Meander Belt would be the same at all if I began writing it now. Instead, I feel as if I wrote the book that would have most excited me when I first fell in love with nonfiction.
These essays, while cohesive, are distinct. Was that always the plan when writing as opposed to constructing a linear memoir?
In the beginning, yes, I’d imagined Meander Belt to look exactly as it does now. While in graduate school, however, I was contacted by an agent and she coached me into writing the book as a linear narrative—It was called Same Kind of Stranger then—and because this agent was fancy and had fancy contacts, I agreed. When I finished the draft and sent it to her she took a very long time to get back to me, and when she did, it was to drop me cold via email. She said it turned into a book she didn’t want to read. She was right. It wasn’t a good book because the expectations of the genre rarely allow for experimentation and I wanted to experiment with subtly and storytelling. My first mistake was compromising my initial vision and so after a few very dark months, I revised the manuscript to reflect my original intent. Throughout the years I was with this agent, I had continued to write essays that mirrored the memoir, a ghost book of sorts, and these essays turned into Meander Belt. Except for the Memento Mori Suite, that section was lifted almost entirely from the linear version.
What opportunities were there in the South to learn about writing and literature?
Earlier this week, Dorothy Allison came to Carolina to receive the Thomas Wolf Award that the university gives out for lifetime achievement in literature. During her lecture, Allison talked about how her mother read mystery books and how, as a girl who loved language, this was all she had to satisfy an itch to read. My growing up was similar. The first book I read front to back was IT by Stephen King. I was in the fifth grade and I was so damn proud of reading such a huge book, man, that I carried it around even after I’d finished reading. I wanted more, of course, and as a teenager I met other working class kids at punk shows who were interested in reading and we started scouting used bookstores and trading the names of authors in the same way we traded mix tapes of bands we liked, or baseball cards a few years before. I got into Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Jeanette Winterson, and after I’d exhausted works by those authors I began to buy used books based on the covers (that’s how I discovered the amazing novels People of Paper and Blindness).
The short answer is that in my working class world, these opportunities did not come from adults or institutions. My initial literary education came from other kids who, like me, were desperate to understand the complicated and strange world we’d come of age in.
The book tackles misconceptions of the areas you grew up in. Do you still feel people perceive stereotypes as reality or has technology made these places better understood?
When I was sixteen, I left home and traveled to Montreal with a friend that I write about in the essay Rock and Roll High School. Before going to Canada, however, we stayed in Flint, Michigan, at a punk house filled with U of M students on summer break. For all of the energy they put toward social justice and idealistic anarchism, these dreadlocked and patched-up activists constantly harangued me for my accent, for using words like “y’all” and phrases like “fixin’ to” that were common to my tongue. They asked if people wore shoes in Memphis, if men wore shirts.
Northerners had total freedom to mock the south because, well, the history of slavery and Jim Crow laws. They asked: who were these people if not the same ones that smiled below a lynched man? I don’t blame them; stereotypes often come from truth before they are rendered false. I think that social media has helped calm or address this seemingly knee-jerk impulse, but not because of a new found kindness for the south or for working class folks. Instead, I think social media has shown us that this specter of a darker time is not isolated to one region but makes up (at least according to recent presidential polls) nearly half of the entire population. And this openly misogynistic, racist, nationalist persona has revealed itself not as southern or working class, but more often as the upwardly mobile and suburban.
The misconceptions that I wanted to write against in Meander Belt is this stereotype that men are cruel and violent, women are maternal but also emotional terrorists, children hurt other children because they are hurt. Sure, that’s all there in the same way that it exists in Waspy New England families. It was not what I learned, however; I learned that love was haunted because our livelihood was precisely balanced and we were always without a net. I also learned to trust this love.
I first heard about your book through Mesha Maren, who thought I’d like it after our own conversation about her book Sugar Run. What is the writing relationship between you like, considering there seems to be common themes running through your works?
I’ve never really thought about that before, but I suppose it makes sense. Mesha and I came into this whole writing-thing together about thirteen years ago. We submitted short stories and worked on novels (hers became Sugar Run, a damn good book, and mine is in early revision stages). We traveled abroad when we could afford it, and I’ve lost count of how many bars, restaurants, oceans, swimming pools, or alleyways, we’ve stayed up too late and talked too loudly about the importance of concrete images or sensory details or symbolism in literature. Of course, there was a long period in the very beginning when we didn’t really know how to do anything of those things, but over time, we learned together. I read at least ten drafts of Sugar Run and I bet she’s read the same number of drafts that Meander Belt has gone through. I’m certain now, however, that our new books (her second novel and my first) read very differently from Sugar Run and Meander Belt respectively. First books seem to be where you learn how to write the next book, and perhaps this trajectory never stops.
What advice can you give to writers exploring their own upbringing?
Don’t apologize or make excuses for your own mistakes, bad behaviors, or kindnesses. And don’t make excuses or apologize for other people either. Humans are stupidly complicated and this complexity should be respected on the page. It is important to trust the ways we think about the world and to observe the ways that we physically see, hear, taste, smell, or touch our surroundings. All stories have been told, sure, we all know birth and we all know death, but the trick is to write about this shared constant from the unique and peculiar ways in which the unique and peculiar mind considers our messy existence.
Hallelujah Station is coming out in 2020 via Autumn House Press. What can you tell readers about the stories in this collection?
Throughout writing Meander Belt, I often had ideas for short stories about strangers who were often crisis. These characters and their lives had nothing to do with me or my family, and so they often functioned as well needed breaks from sifting through and dissecting my memories. I think of Hallelujah Station as an antidote for the sadness I inhabited regularly while writing Meander Belt.