The Folklore Project
Where You From, Honey?
By Gwen Mullins
By eighth grade, I made a studied, conscious effort at enunciation, to pronounce the g at the end of going, or fixing, while avoiding “fixing” when I meant “about to,” as in, “I’m fixing to go to the store.” I did not want to sound poor or uneducated. More to the point, I did not want to sound Southern because to me those adjectives – poor, ignorant, racist, Southern – were inextricably linked. And true, where and how I lived in those years, such traits were often shades of the same spectrum.
By 10th grade I had begun to pronounce the flat e in Gwen (not, as I was known then, Gwendy, my nickname that rhymes with Cindy when spoken by my family). My efforts produced a stilted, labored speech pattern. Once at age 16 when ordering a doughnut at a Krispy Kreme, the clerk asked me, “Where you from, honey?” and refused to believe me when I told her I was from here, from northwest Georgia, from southeast Tennessee. Her refusal pleased me; it meant I was succeeding in eradicating what I considered as the hick from my voice.
Even in college, where several of my professors spoke in Southern accents with a clarity bred of education and unselfconsciousness, I remained unswayed, undeterred by Dr. Verbie Prevost’s elegant Mississippi tones or Dr. John Tinkler’s unapologetic drawl. Yes, I knew they were intelligent and widely read, but I was unconvinced that an accent did anything to improve their credibility as professors or thinkers. I married a man from New Jersey who was glad I did not “talk like a hick.”
For years I coasted, tightening up my accent whenever I traveled to New York or when I spoke with a colleague from Massachusetts or Maine, which I frequently had occasion to do at work. Sometimes, when I drank too many glasses of wine, my accent slipped in, my vowels becoming swollen and elongated. Years passed. When I wrote short stories, they were set in cities like New York or, worse, they were set nowhere at all, and my characters were accentless and well traveled, like a bunch of newscasters from the Midwest.
Then I went to Vermont for graduate school, where my new friends dubbed me Southern, where people I didn’t know asked me if I hailed from Kentucky or Tennessee. Where a lovely woman from middle Georgia introduced herself to me because she heard me speaking to someone else and came over to ask that quintessential Southern woman’s question, “Where are you from, honey?”
When had I stopped paying attention? At what point had I become so obviously Southern? How had I lost the ability to beat my natural voice into submission? I felt as though I had failed, as if I had been exposed for what I really always was: poor, uneducated, Southern.
I came back from my first graduate residency in Vermont to attend my grandmother’s funeral. There in the northwest Georgia mountains sandwiched between Alabama and Tennessee, I despaired that not only would I never sound intelligent, but I would also never actually be smart, or at least not smart enough. I had not read or written or understood the same things everyone else at grad school had (I learned later that most folks felt that way). All I could speak and write with authority came from this place I have always been, the soil I have never left. A wise man and teacher shared with me that William Faulkner, in his interview with The Paris Review, had said, “I discovered that my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth writing about and that I would never live long enough to exhaust it.”
But I am not Faulkner, not by a long shot.
A couple more years passed. I graduated from that lovely low-residency program, and I started to think that I should try to embrace my “faults,” like a woman who has finally come to terms with the shape of her hips. And then one day I met Dorothy Allison, a woman whose writing is harsh and cruel and beautiful. And Southern, so very Southern. At the Conference on Southern Literature in my hometown, I held a book out for her to sign.
“Where you at, baby?” she said, her accent somehow both aggressive and relaxed. And again that question in her own way, that “Where are you from?” we all ask.
“Here, I’m from here,” I said, my voice hushed.
And I was, finally, ashamed. Why had I been trying to defeat, to bury, the person I most essentially am? My teenage struggles with speech were a sham. I had come so far from that trailer where I grew up, but I felt like I had never really left. If I had, I would not have needed to try so hard to prove it in my adapted voice. Now I am trying to find that voice again, not just when I speak, but when I write.
I never meant to be a Southern writer (hell, I didn’t even want to be a Southern speaker) but it seems I can’t help it any more than I could successfully standardize my speech. Yes, I know I’m in good company. Company so good, in fact, that I am reluctant to associate myself with it. Sometimes when I try to use that voice on the page, the voice of my grandparents and my aunts and my cousins, it feels contrived, or worse, condescending, like Al Pacino trying to adopt a Southern accent in “The Devil’s Advocate.” False, wrong, ugly in the places where it should be beautiful and true. But that, I suppose, is just another Southern story.