Finding one’s place in a wide literary landscape
By Wiley Cash
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
Langston Hughes wrote these lines and the poem “Theme for English B,” from which they’re taken, in 1951, when he was nearing 50 years old. I first read the poem as a 20-year-old college sophomore. I’ll turn 40 in a few months, and I can honestly say I’ve thought about this poem almost every day since I read it.
In the poem, the speaker’s college composition teacher has asked the students to go home tonight and compose a page about themselves, and whatever results from this assignment will speak to something about who the students are, where they’re from, and what they’re made of. The idea is that what comes from you speaks to what there is of you.
As I mentioned, I was a college sophomore when I encountered “Theme for English B.” I had enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Asheville because the English major featured a track in creative writing, and a writer was what I had decided to be. I was a little unclear as to how this would be accomplished, but I was there to learn, and learn I did. But looking back, the best thing I learned about writing was that I wasn’t the kind of writer I wanted to be, meaning I wasn’t someone who wrote like Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov or Toni Morrison, nor did I write about the things these authors wrote about. I had never visited Carver’s Great Northwest. I couldn’t imagine the lives of Chekhov’s peasants. I couldn’t speak to the African-American experience in Morrison’s Ohio. These people lived interesting lives of conflict and history and culture, and they hailed from interesting places.
I was from Gastonia, North Carolina, raised Southern Baptist, loved basketball with all my heart, and spent my summers lifeguarding and my free time reading the masterworks of authors whose lives were more curious than mine, and whose literary voices were more distinct and powerful as a result. But I kept writing. In my little campus dorm room I locked my eyes on the monitor while my fingers pecked away at the keyboard of an enormous, ancient computer. Not once did I lift my gaze to look at the world around me, not once did I dare look back at the world from which I’d come. As a result, the stories that spun from my fingers were regionless, devoid of place, meaning they were almost wholly devoid of life. I refused to acknowledge that any place I was from could be interesting enough to warrant representation, and I also refused to acknowledge the fact that I couldn’t write well enough to make up for the “placelessness” of my fiction.
In the fall of 2003, I left North Carolina at the age of 25 and lived outside the state for the first time in my life. I had enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English and creative writing at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, which is in the heart of Acadiana, more commonly known as Cajun country. Soon, I found that I missed fresh water. I missed the gentle swell of the Piedmont hills as they rose toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. I missed cold winters and mild summers. I missed the good, clean smell of mud that wafts up from a trickling stream as you draw closer to the water. I missed ferns. I missed the music, accents and cuisine I’d always known as comforts without ever realizing the emotional tether they had on my heart. In short, I missed home.
I had chosen this particular graduate program in this particular state because a particular author served as the university’s writer-in-residence. Ernest J. Gaines had long been my literary hero, and I still believe he’s one of the finest writers our nation has ever produced. He’d grown up on a plantation just west of Baton Rouge, the same plantation on which his ancestors had been slaves and later sharecroppers, but he hadn’t begun to write about the place he knew until he joined his mother and stepfather in California when he was 15 years old. He wrote about southwest Louisiana because it was inside him largely because it was no longer outside him, and he longed for it. He began writing about Louisiana while he lived in California, and it led to some of the most important literature in American history: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, A Gathering of Old Men and A Lesson Before Dying.
Ernest J. Gaines and Thomas Wolfe are perhaps the greatest influences on my writing life, and I took a page from each. From Gaines I learned to write about what I know and where I’ve been, and from Thomas Wolfe, especially Wolfe’s autobiographical hero Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, I decided to turn my eyes “to the distant, soaring ranges.” My first novel is set in the mountains of western North Carolina, where I’d made the decision to become a writer. My second is set in my hometown of Gastonia, as is my third novel, The Last Ballad, which will be released this fall.
A few months ago I returned to Louisiana to spend a few days with Gaines and his wife, Dianne, where they purchased land and built a home on part of the plantation where Gaines was born and raised. One evening around dusk, I was standing on the banks of the False River across the street from the Gaineses’ home when I recalled a line from Hughes’ poem: I guess I’m what I feel and see and hear. I could feel the old dock beneath my boots, every creak as the water lapped against it. I could see the sun fading in the trees across the river, could see the lights winking on at homes on the other side of the water. I could hear the trucks and cars pass on the road behind me, the occasional motor of a boat that passed along the darkening water, the flip of a fish as it broke the surface and then fell beneath it. At that moment, I had no doubt that what I was feeling and seeing and hearing had turned me toward the writer I’ve become, but the things that surrounded me at that moment were not the things that made me the writer I am. Those things rested farther north in the hills and mountains of the Old North State, hidden along creek beds and gurgling streams. Shaded beneath towering maples and sweet gums. Pressed into the rich earth beneath a blanket of ferns.
I often wonder about the things that will make up my daughters’ lives, as they will not be the things that have made up my own. They were both born only a few miles from the ocean, and they will both be raised in a landscape that is flat and in air that is humid and tinged with salt. Will they know the magic of the place from which they’ve come? Or, like me, will they have to leave home to find it?
Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His forthcoming novel The Last Ballad is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.