Johnson City, Tenn.
A Tale of Two Souths
By Meenakshi Krishnan
Everybody in the South has a yarn to spin. Some are long, and some are short. Some are about ourselves, others about where we come from. Some are soft and comfortable, like the sweaters you wear on the front porch on a fall day. And others are knotty, requiring more time to untangle.
I’m just another Southerner, and this is my yarn.
I’m from Johnson City, a small town in the mountains of East Tennessee. My family came to the South two decades ago, after traveling for seven years across three continents. I loved the home we created for ourselves – the hazy blue-green mountains that encircled our town, the Appalachian twang that greeted us at the grocery checkout line, the calm of the streets at twilight – but as I grew older, I became convinced that there was more out there, more that life could offer than our town’s main drag of restaurants and stores. I bought into the frequently spun myth that things didn’t happen in the South, willfully ignoring all the life being lived before my eyes. But I also grew weary of the more troubled side of this place. I was tired of seeing the Confederate flag on pickup trucks, being one of the few non-white people in school and encountering the prejudice that too frequently confronts outsiders who come here. And the few times I left the South, I faced the pernicious stereotypes burdened on this region without possessing the ancestral ties that I thought were necessary to feel loyalty to this place. Caught between my love for the land, the growing bitterness I felt for its problematic aspects and the certainty that the South would not accept me, I did not believe I could ever belong here. Later, nearing the end of college in North Carolina, I knew I had to do something to remedy that stifled feeling. I had to go elsewhere.
But in that elsewhere, I realized that what I hold dear is rooted in this land, that it is responsible for how I think and what I value, that for too long I had ignored the remarkable dramas that unfolded before my eyes in the South. After graduating college, I left for two years in Europe. My first year in England, I felt liberated, but I also sensed the first stirrings of something I had never before experienced, a profound yearning for the South. But it took another year, and another South, to recognize these feelings for what they were: the longing for a place I had never realized could be home.
Andalusia, the southernmost region in Spain, is the second South in this tale. It is an exotic land, occupying a romantic place similar to that of the South, equally shrouded in mythmaking and haunted by otherness. If the South is beleaguered by magnolias, mint juleps and persistent (and, as any Welty, Faulkner, or O’Connor enthusiast will tell you, unfounded) accusations of anti-intellectualism, the popular mind conceives of Andalusia as a land populated by roving bullfighters and seductive flamenco dancers, where a slower pace of life is misinterpreted as a preference for idleness.
I lived in Granada, an enchanting city in eastern Andalusia that has witnessed Christian conquerors and Moorish rulers, whose streets are steeped in history and myth. Granada could not be more physically different from my little town of Johnson City, but as I became acquainted with the geography and personality of the place, the parallels between these two Souths increasingly began to strike me. There is something about the physical geography of being Southern that renders both of these regions unique in the consciousness of their countries, and every now and then I would glimpse a footprint of the South I had left in the one in which I had arrived.
Though Andalusia’s geographic boundaries are more fixed than those of the American South, the region, like its counterpart across the ocean, still grapples with its multicultural history. Andalusia has yet to come to terms with its Moorish legacy, its Romany (gypsy, or gitano) populations, and its Christian past and present, while the American South tends to favor its biracial history at the cost of forgetting its legacy of multicultural exchange – the roles of Native Americans, Spaniards, Latin Americans, and newly arrived immigrants in the formation of the modern South. Are the descendants of the expelled, converted Moors considered “Andalusian”? Are the sons and daughters of Spanish explorers or recent immigrants in the American South as “Southern” as those that come from planters or sharecroppers?
Both of these Souths wrestle with contested histories, both societal and individual. These accounts clash not just for a place in the history books, but also for identity: what it means to be from a place. I was living in Granada as part of a project to interview members of its gitano community, and in my early conversations with them, I was struck by how much they identified with Andalusia, a region that has absorbed their rich culture while also denying their place there. Interestingly, the gitanos often asserted that the culture of Andalusia was theirs, that they were the true, authentic Andalusians. These conversations were my first intimation that sometimes, how you feel about a place is what matters most.
The question of authenticity is at the heart of these self-examinations – it implies that there is a certain ‘true’ Andalusian or a ‘true’ Southerner – and it is intimately tied with the question of depth, geographical and spiritual. I think there is something intrinsic to the topographic quality of being below, a profundity that forces us to mine our corporeal depths. It is this property that leads both regions to an obsession with self-examination, to fixate on two fundamental questions: What defines the American South or the South of Spain, and what does it mean to be from there?
Both regions have sought comfort in musical forms to articulate these existential debates. Though one was born in the muggy Mississippi Delta and the other in the dusty plains of Andalusia, the blues and flamenco share a similar DNA. They are woven from the same strands of generational suffering, ferocious loneliness and the urgent need for redemption. In flamenco, the musical form native to Andalusia, the cante jondo, or ‘Deep Song,’ is the repository of the most profound human emotions. It is neither easy to sing nor easy to hear. It requires untangling. This implication has also been voiced here, where the ‘Deep South’ tends to be a closer approximation of whatever picture we have in our minds of the ‘real’ South. Does such depth or knottiness of the soul connote truth?
It is March, and I am listening to a flamenco guitarist, Juan Habichuela Nieto, in the Sacromonte caves, the traditional neighborhood of Granada’s gitano population. The musician is a member of the Habichuelas, a gitano flamenco dynasty in Granada famed for their guitar prowess. As Habichuela began to play, he said to the audience, “Eso es para Graná, mi tierra y mi gente.” This is for Granada, my land and my people. His fingers moved lightly but firmly along the strings. There were notes of profound longing and suffering, yearning for another time, joy punctuated with sharp nostalgia. It was the cry of the gitanos, for a treasured land that had given them a home but at a tremendous cost.
In flamenco, there is something known as duende. Attempting to define duende is a quixotic task, but it is at once an emotional release, the triumph of authenticity and the sudden actualization of a lingering feeling. Listening to the wistful music, I was shocked to feel duende for the first time, astonished by how the guitar not only evoked Granada and Andalusia, but also how connected to the American South I suddenly felt, to my land and my people. I longed for home and felt at home all at once. The writer Federico García Lorca, one of Andalusia’s most treasured and controversial sons, wrote of duende: “We have said that the duende loves the edge, the wound, and draws close to places where forms fuse in a yearning beyond visible expression.” That night, the duende unearthed my wound, identified my yearning for home, and awoke a connection between these two Souths. I never felt it again after that one evening, as duende is an ephemeral thing. In Lorca’s words, “the duende never repeats itself, any more than the waves of the sea do in a storm.” But if I could find a pocket of my South here in Andalusia, even if evanescent, then I could no longer doubt the weight and truth of my connection with it. I realized that the South had buried itself in my bones, and I carried it with me, even here, so far from home.
In both the South and Andalusia, place is the locus that draws its inhabitants inward, serving as a vital wellspring of identity, especially when your relationship with that place has not come easily. It’s something that Flannery O’Connor recognized. Any admirer of the writer will remember that her farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, is named Andalusia. Though the land had been known as Sorrel Farm for many years, O’Connor rechristened it Andalusia once she learned of its original name. Though there is no record of who originally named Andalusia, it is possible that it was chosen by Spanish explorers, who transplanted a part of their old home to their new one. What interests me more, though, is why O’Connor chose to return it to its original name – maybe she recognized something exotic in the landscape that recalled the South of Spain, perhaps it was a tribute to its original settlers, or possibly it was an acknowledgement of how many varied, difficult lives this land has witnessed.
Andalusia and the South share the sense that the terrain in which its inhabitants exist becomes essential, life-giving. The land is a stage, the milieu in which so many have lived and remembered, breathed and died. There is an elegiac quality to Granada, its steep alcoves cordoned off from each other, so many lives happening stacked one on top of another. Walking alone at night in the city, I felt something haunted, a sense of inquietude. I have been aware of this similar sepulchral feeling when I drive on the back roads of Tennessee, passing farmhouses and barns, though there it is saturated with an intimate belonging. Both regions are used to living with ghosts, both accustomed to them brushing up alongside us. These two Souths are engaged in constant acts of remembrance and mourning, of others’ lives playing out as epic tales against the backdrop of terrain. They both recognize man’s life as narrative, as a grand plot that contains climax and denouement, sacrilege and salvation. Everybody in Andalusia is a storyteller. Everybody in the South has a yarn to spin.
And these Souths also share a profound love for the land that stores the memories of these lives.
When we were young, my sister and I watched “Gone with the Wind” more times than I can remember. At the time, we probably could not have answered why. As everyone knows, of course, the film is guilty of endlessly romanticizing the antebellum South, glossing over the devastating human carnage and sacrifice that made those grand plantation houses possible. But I think what we subconsciously identified with, even then, was Scarlett O’Hara’s almost atavistic connection to the ground. It is a sacramental rite, the giving of alms to the land and the receiving of blessings. We live in hallowed geography, and this place never stops reminding us lest we forget. This is an appreciation shared in Andalusia, where the poet Francisco de Icaza wrote of Granada, “Dale limosna, mujer. Que no hay en la vida la pena de ser ciego en Granada.” Give him alms, woman, for there is nothing sadder in life than being blind in Granada.
These two Souths are not strict analogues, of course. But as I listened to Juan Habichuela Nieto play on that March evening, I realized that for too long I had prioritized nativity in my conception of Southern identity. I understood I had been denying my connection to the South for years not because of my lack of sentiment for it, but because for much of my life, I felt like an impostor. Could it be possible that this land, whose cemeteries have never held my ancestors, whose soil has never fed my forefathers, be embedded in me? Or was I embedded in it? For too long, I had created parameters around what belonging meant, and this self-imposed otherness here had fettered me with a resentment of a land that I thought would never accept me. I did not understand my connection to the South, so I cloaked it in bitterness. Of course, as in Andalusia, the South has long labeled the multicultural and foreign as Other. If you come from somewhere else, the love for this place can come at a high cost. It is a love for a place that at turns detests and protects you, embraces and rejects you. Coming to grips with my Southern identity has been and continues to be a fraught process. But upon seeing the echoes of my South in that second South, I grasped that you did not have to be born in a place to instinctively understand its genetics. To belong somewhere was as much a choice as a place on a map, especially if that map is as ambiguous as that of the South.
Where do I take you to show you the South? Is it up in the Smoky Mountains where my surrogate grandfather showed us how to cool a watermelon in the creek? The steps of the Columbia statehouse where blacks and whites stood together as the Confederate flag came down? Or the town of Andalusia, Alabama, whose urban layout mimics Spanish cities, down to the inclusion of a central plaza? My enclave here in eastern Tennessee is nothing like Nashville or Memphis, never mind Savannah or Tuscaloosa or New Orleans, but they are all incontestably Southern. The South is not just a geographically defined region; it resides in the feelings you have about the place. And what it awakens in me may not be exactly what it stirs in another Southerner. It is Southern Gothic, it is “Deliverance,” it is watermelons cooling in the creek. It is grace, and something more.
There are certain places that you stake out, and there are those that take ownership of you. This duality is what the South has given my family and me. We all create identities – I am an Indian-American, I am a Southerner, I am a Tennesseean. In Spain, there is a similar unpacking of selves – Spanish, Andalusian, Granadino. But in these places, there is also a telescoping of identities, not so easily differentiated. As any Southerner knows, living here can be both difficult and transcendent; it is a living conundrum. The things that have transpired here are of the beautiful and the damned. We tell people what the South is and isn’t, we sometimes exclude voices that do not fit the mainstream narrative, we tend to express suspicion and hatred and violence toward those that do not conform to our conceptions of Southernness. These are things we Southerners must urgently address. But underneath all of that, this ability – to unravel our common threads of humanity and grasp the particular, to see man’s life as narrative, to choose to feel deeply rooted in a place – is what this South has raised me with and what that other South, Andalusia, allowed me to see.
Sometimes, I think back to the spring of 1995, when my father was considering other jobs in Pittsburgh and Boston – I cannot imagine our many possible lives there, in those cities. Here, down South, I am grateful every day that this place found us, and now, after my sojourn to a second South, I know that even when I’m not here, I can find pockets of it elsewhere. Of course, the exact alchemy of this terrain is best felt when my feet are on Southern ground, but as Flannery O’Connor once wrote, “When in Rome, do as you done in Milledgeville.” I think that’s all we really need to know, adopted and born Southerners alike, to remember this wild, ethereal, haunted place when we are not lucky enough to be here. When in Rome, do as you done in the South.
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