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My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
My Sunshine Away is our Debut Spotlight pick for February and M.O. Walsh's smart work of Southern fiction had me hooked from the first chapter. Part coming-of-age story, part mystery, and fully immersed in the climate and culture of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Walsh explores many things through his sensitive and achingly relatable narrator--central to them being how our future self is shaped by pivotal moments in our youth.
If this seems obvious, you're right, but as I peeled back each layer of My Sunshine Away new connections and observations revealed themselves to me, notably in the realm of first love and all the loves thereafter. M.O. Walsh is, himself, a Southerner and as the director of the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans one of the things he tries to teach his students is about writing Southern men, and why so often they are cast as drunks, degenerates, and rednecks. In the exclusive essay below, Walsh shares his thoughts on the subject.
Where Have All the Good Boys Gone?
As someone who has lived my whole life below the Mason-Dixon, I’ve known my share of Southern men.
There are the men I come across in my community: musicians, chefs, attorneys, boat captains, and prison guards. And there are the men I come across in my work: alcoholics, degenerates, philanderers, criminals, and absentee fathers.
Why the huge difference between these fellows? Well, I live in the real world and I work in the imagination. Specifically, I work as a teacher of fiction writing in an excellent MFA program in New Orleans. As such, many of the unpublished stories I read in workshop are stories of the South, and many of their characters are Southern men.
I take this stuff seriously. Southern writers have big shoes to fill, after all, with Faulkner and Welty and Hurston and Lee and Hannah and Nordan. It’s a great tradition to write from. So my students are often surprised when one of their classmates’ stories about Southern men (a young boy whose daddy beats him runs into the woods, where he meets a truckload of dangerous dip-spittin’ rednecks) throws me into a sort of rage.
“I don’t understand,” I’ll tell them. “Why does the dad beat his son? You realize this is aberrant behavior.”
“Because he’s a drunk,” they’ll say.
“Not every man who drinks attacks his child,” I’ll say. “What else do we know about him?”
Sometimes, one of my braver students from a place like Connecticut will argue, “Well, we don’t really need to know his whole backstory. He’s drunk. It’s, you know, the South.”
It’s at this point I’ll tap my breast pocket, and ponder my cyanide pill.
“If I read one more story this semester,” I’ll tell them, “where the Southern male serves no purpose other than to guzzle Jack Daniel’s, beat his wife and kids, or commit crimes, I’m giving you all C’s. Class dismissed.”
Is this good teaching? Likely not. However, as a Southern man with a wife and family I cherish, and having been raised around Southern men who were able to do good things without needing a pistol strapped to their belt, I’ve gone from being simply bored by these stereotypes to being offended.
So, after class, I’ll often take the author of that redneck story by the back of his own neck (which is rarely red) and pull him close to me. I’ll apologize for my tirade and he will tell me that it was unfair, because there are lots of bad men in the South, where he is also from.
“I know that,” I’ll say. “But did you notice that nobody argued when your peer said the reason he got drunk and beat his kid was because the story is set in the South?”
“Tell me about your dad,” I’ll say.
“He’s a deacon. At our church in Tennessee.”
“Is he a bad guy?”
“No,” he’ll say. “He’s also a painter.”
“All right, then,” I’ll tell him. “That’s all I’m saying.”
But what I want this young writer to understand is that he has a responsibility to the place he is from. And that if a story of his allows a reader to assume that the reason for a character’s destructive behavior toward his own family is simply that he is from the South, then that story is slapping tape over the mouths of generations of men like his own father. And that, by allowing this, he is participating in, even if unknowingly, the perpetuation of a stereotype that not only puts the Southern literature we love in danger of becoming redundant but, even worse, of being disingenuous.
“Write all the Southern bad guys you want,” I’ll tell him, “but remember: the only way you can conceive of their evil is because some Southern man showed you good. And not only do we want that man’s story.We need it.”