JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Full disclosure: I read and enthusiastically blurbed Reba White Williams' debut novel, Restrike. I enjoyed the spunky, stand-up-for-themselves heroines, the behind-the-scenes view of the New York art world, and the small cultural touchstones of Southerners living up north. As someone with strong Alabama roots living in New England, I can well identify with that. So, as a matter of fact, can Reba...
In 1967, Willie Morris, an admired Southern writer, published North Toward Home, a memoir of his Mississippi childhood, his Texas college days, and his move to New York.
I was attracted by his title, which told my story, too. I was a Southern child, and I had come “North toward home” to New York. But I suffered none of the worries that tortured Willie, torn between Mississippi and New York, troubled about losing his Southerness, and about turning his back on his past. He saw himself as an exile, “alienated from Mississippi, but forever drawn back to it,” and was unhappy in the city he called the “Cave.”
Why did he come to New York? He wrote: “We had always come, the most ambitious of us, because we had to, because the ineluctable pull of the cultural capital, when the wanderlust was high, was too compelling to resist.” He sounded as if he came against his will. He seemed to see the City through dark and dismal glasses, criticizing everything about New York, including the people. I resolved to adopt his title, ignore his misery, and to embrace New York with the love and appreciation it deserved.
I had left North Carolina with only $500, under a cloud of family disapproval. I took a train to New York, but with no money to spare for a reserved seat, I was crammed into a crowded ladies’ room, sitting with four women sipping moonshine from mayonnaise jars. I was offered a swig, but declined, not because I feared germs, but because the ride was rough and I feared I’d be sick. Despite my discomfort, I was so excited, I felt as if I were flying.
In New York, I shared an apartment at 601 Cathedral Parkway with a friend who was studying at Columbia, two of her classmates, a large collie, a small diapered monkey, and a pigeon with one wing. Did I dislike my new home? I wasn’t wild about the monkey, but even he was part of the adventure. My roommates introduced me to subways, bakeries, Broadway, Chinese food, pizzerias, the automat, and a Murphy bed.
I saw New York City through rose-tinted glasses. I embraced all that they showed me and much more. I loved everything, especially the fast pace, and the fascinating people. I worked at three part-time jobs to pay my share of the rent, and didn’t complain. I mastered the subway, and used it to explore the city. I attended most of the Broadway shows alone, and standing at the back of the theatre.
Mocked and teased about my Southern drawl, I was unfazed. I kept my Southern accent, and resolved to transport aspects of the South I loved to New York, notably flowers and food. My garden features Magnolia Grandiflora trees, crepe myrtles, mimosa and honeysuckle.
I serve homemade ice cream made from ripe peaches from the Carolinas to neighbors in the summertime. While Willie wondered, while eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day in Harlem, “where else could a Southern white boy have such a meal?” I and any number of other Southerners were eating that New Year’s meal every year.
I found another apartment, and got a great job as a researcher at McKinsey. My life was all I’d dreamed about. The touches of the South I brought north added a subtle touch of spice to the flavor of a favorite recipe.
I give my books a touch of Southern flavor: Coleman and Dinah Greene, the protagonists of Restrike, are from North Carolina, but live and work in New York. They and some of their friends speak with Southern accents or phrases. Dinah often prepares Southern dishes. They remain influenced by their Southern past, but they are true New Yorkers. They, like me, have come North toward home.web site.