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Here’s a test. Pick up and start paging through just about any book written by a Southerner. Chances are quite good that, before long, you’ll start to notice a terrain populated by quirky, eccentric, offbeat, and sometimes downright queer characters. This is, of course, the South, where things move a bit slower, people are generally friendlier, and everybody knows everybody else’s dirty little secrets.
Of course I’m exaggerating, but only just a little bit. After all, the South has historically prided itself as exceptional, a region defiantly apart from the rest of America, and its writers have repeatedly embraced this sense of separateness and otherness with remarkable gusto. Indeed, it seems that “otherness” in all its multiple identity forms ranging from the pathological (say, insanity and alcoholism) to the inherent (race and homosexuality) has always been intractably linked to the South and Southern texts.
Melissa Delbridge’s memoir Family Bible is a fine example of this Southern otherness, even though she differs from many Southern writers by virtue of her crafty circumspection. Now granted, Southern writers are renowned for “taking the long way ’round” when telling their stories, but ultimately when they (finally) arrive at the point, you the reader are sure that you’ve received the message. Throughout her memoir of growing up in 1960s and 1970s Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Delbridge’s lyrical prose and deft, meandering storytelling (meandering in the sense that her stories don’t follow a strictly linear timeline) lulls the reader into complacency and then surprises you with seemingly throwaway statements that explain everything without actually spelling it out.
A prime example of this combination prevarication/revelation is the way in which Delbridge reveals her lesbianism. It happens, surprisingly enough, very late in Family Bible, after Delbridge has already exhausted a litany of anecdotes that would make any Southern gothic or grotesque writer proud. Stories of attempted incest, alcoholism, cheating husbands, racial tensions and racial violence, and (of course) religious conversion and revivalism, weave their way through Delbridge’s memory before expressing themselves sparsely, yet thrillingly, on the page. This is how she reveals to readers her heretofore unexpressed lesbianism:
“It was at a meeting of the Tuscaloosa County Genealogical Society that I learned of the existence of one of my family’s ancestral Bibles. Seems it was in the possession of Nan Tyler, nee Lattner. I called her the next day.
‘Hello, Nan? Melissa Delbridge here. I’m not sure if you remember me. . .’
‘Why of course I do! We were all so proud to hear you made Phi Beta Kappa. Vicki Forest keeps us updated too.’
I could imagine the nature of Vicki’s updates. She was one of my exes, and not known for her discretion.”
Discretion is absolutely the key word here, since up until this point in the memoir there is nary a mention (or, shockingly, even a hint!) of “othered sexuality.” However, this discretion is soon cast aside as Delbridge discloses just a few pages later, she and the aforementioned Nan (who, as it turns out, is also a cousin) engage in what is referred to, with hilarious indelicacy, as “a whole lot of high-level gourmet screwing around.”
In fact, Delbridge performs this literary legerdemain throughout Family Bible, effectively turning what would otherwise be fairly straightforward retellings of routinely “queer” Southern goings-on (á la Flannery O’Conner or even Dorothy Allison) into something that manages to be poignant, unexpected, tragic, hysterically funny and, ultimately, defiantly Queerly Southern. Family Bible is a masterful addition to the already-crowded field of Southern writing, but it should also be required reading for persons interested in the craft of memoir. My advice: pour yourself a glass of sweet tea, sit a spell, and let Delbridge’s Family Bible tell you a little bit about the South.
Melissa J. Delbridge
University of Iowa Press/$23.95
Cloth: 168 pp.