International Writing in the South

In my day job, I teach World Literature, among other things, so I was excited this year to direct the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium and include a number of international writers. The Symposium normally focuses on Southern writers, so I tried to find writers who had been living and writing in the South for quite awhile, and to find Southern writers whose international experiences had been influential. And of course, I invited a few other transplants who are Americans new to the South or Southerners who’ve lived outside the South.

The group that came together was a lot of fun. Everyone had good experiences in the South to share, and everyone had challenges. I was glad that Judith Ortiz Cofer, in her keynote address, talked and read a poem about the ‘invisible’ migrant workers who have become a bigger part of Southern life. There always have been migrant workers, of course, but now more and more of them are Latino, and it is important to acknowledge that the culture of the region is changing.

Arab-American writer, Pauline Kaldas; African (now Mississippi) writer, Sefi Atta; Chinese (now Mississippi) poet, John Zheng; and Indian (now Texas) writer Latha Viswanathan reminded us just how international the South has become. Ethnic communities exist, not just in the big cities, but also in small towns like Columbus — our audience included a broad range of cultures, too, in part because the Mississippi School for Math and Science brought its students, too.

It was good for those students (and us) to be reminded that their communities have a voice in Southern culture (and by extension in American culture). The South is no longer a monolithic society with one majority and one minority. Soon there will be no clear majority group at all, once the largest group has less than 50% of the total population. Working together and understanding each other will become that much more important.

Ann Fisher-Wirth and Michael Smith reminded us that international experiences have always been important for writers. And Michael Kardos, Minrose Gwin, Joy Castro, and Randall Horton represented the range of cultures within the South.

All in all the weekend was a stimulating and throught-provoking experience And we all had a lot of fun.

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