Presentations: Anne Lovett

Home by Another Way

“Home,” says T.S. Eliot, “is the place where one starts from.” When I go back to my home town of Dublin, Georgia, I know how things work, and I can speak the lingo, lapsing into words I seldom use in my present home of Atlanta. Indeed, almost without consciously realizing it, I learned to speak several different dialects of “home.” So, here is home in its concentric circles: Dublin, Atlanta, Georgia, the South, the United States.

But I’d like to talk about home particularly as the Southern U.S. Several years ago I attended the Sewanee Writers Conference, where participants came from all over the country. I made a point to sit with different people at meals so that I could meet, say, Yankees or Coloradans or West-coasters. Before long, I found myself part of a coterie. I didn’t think about what we had in common until I overheard one man comment, “The Southerners stick together! They talk in shorthand! They’re like an ethnic group!”

A New York woman put her hands on her hips and regarded one of our group, who was from Mississippi: “Why is that woman dressed up like a birthday cake?” The rest of us knew why—the same reason she had Lyle Lovett tapes in her car. Another person said, referring to lightning bugs, “Hey, they really have them here!” as if the creatures might have been mythical inventions, like the Tar-Baby.

We homegirls or homeboys stick together, I guess, because we don’t have to explain lightning bugs, because we know that ruffles are as natural for southern belles as black is for New Yorkers, and because we know there is a secret South, one that doesn’t play up to Northern or Midwestern assumptions. Newcomers look around eagerly for clones of the Dukes of Hazzard (unfortunately promoted by some self-parodying Southern writers), ignoring that there are many of us who prefer Australian novelist Shirley Hazzard.

And speaking of Hazzard, who wrote of London, in due time I realized I had another home, one that kept me from being mired in too much red clay, moonlight, and honeysuckle. At Sewanee, I was required to turn in a story to my instructor, Margot Livesey, whom I chose because I liked her writing. She received my story to critique before she ever met me, and when we finally sat down to discuss it, she was flabbergasted to find that I was Southern. A native Scot, she had guessed I was, like herself, an expatriate Brit.

Maybe, in some respects, I am, considering that’s where my ancestors came from. My story dealt with an American in Europe, traveling with a couple of Brits. Depicting those characters wasn’t hard to do. They were as familiar to me as the eccentric aunts and haunted young men of the Southern U. S. It is true that I once spent three months in England, and have been there four separate times, but that’s not the whole explanation.

When I first arrived in Britain, I felt as if I had come home. The landscape and people were soothing, and I didn’t feel the least as if I were in a foreign country. Was it some primeval memory stored in my genes? My forebears had come from various corners of the British Isles, and my paternal name Lovett is Norman French. It means “little wolf,” leading me to imagine some short and ferocious ur-ancestor.

My familiarity with Britain also might have to do with literature, theatre, and film. I grew up with Peter Rabbit and Mr. Toad, with Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, with King Arthur and the Round Table. And later I fell in love with Jane Austen, Trollope, Kingsley Amis, My Fair Lady, Masterpiece Theatre, and even Benny Hill--not to mention the Beatles.

Of course, Britain isn’t home, exactly. To paraphrase Robert Frost’s definition of home: If I had to go there, they wouldn’t have to take me in. But if I did go there, I know that in a month or so I’d be speaking like the natives. I would understand the lingo. I would drive on the opposite side of the road and find it quite natural. By another way, I would have come home.

Copyright ©2007 Barbara Knott · All Rights Reserved
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