This content contains affiliate links. When you buy through these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
When I was 15, my family moved across the country from my hometown of Los Angeles, California to Jackson, Mississippi. Suffice to say that it was a shock for my system. I went from a multicultural and cosmopolitan city with liberal values ââtoâ¦ wellâ¦ in Mississippi. Like many 15-year-olds, I was already pretty gloomy and my new “home” didn’t help much.
I have a love / hate relationship with Mississippi. When my family first moved there, Obama was just running for president against McCain. I myself was pretty excited for Obama to win, but I had classmates who were openly against him because of the color of his skin.
I even had a classmate who said calmly and without irony: âObama is the antichrist. I expressed my disbelief and decided to keep my distance from said classmate. When my mother was working at our family business reception in Jackson, a white man handed her a Bible and said forcefully, “You are in America now.” She had been an American citizen for almost 20 years at that time and was perfectly able to read a map. All she could do was laugh.
Race and Mississippi
At the time, I had no language for what I was going through as a young American Indian. However, I knew that my experience compared to that of my black comrades was much more privileged. It wasn’t until I was 20 that I learned the word for my experience: microagression.
Indians are part of the “model minority”, which strangely and unfairly gives us a privilege over other racial groups, despite our brown skin and our “foreign” religions. It amazed me how different whites treated me after learning that my last name was Patel and that I had a clear American accent. These protected me from the worst of the racial sentiments that Mississippi gladly conveyed to its marginalized residents, but not from my all-time favorite question: “What are you?” What a thoughtful and eloquent question. The answer is always a Martian (obviously) and go do something rude to yourself.
I say all of this to express that while my experience in this maddening state was (for lack of better words) colored by my brown skin, Mississippi’s real crimes are against its black residents, who have a rich history of the arts, including including music, dance, food and literature, which are strongly influenced by their experiences, joys and traumas.
Why did I choose these writers
It has always amazed me how, even in the 21st century, white Mississippians have had very different experiences than black Mississippians, which is seen in their literature. John Grisham comfortably writes thrillers about white people winning against a villain and even having the cops on their side. Let’s just say Angie Thomas has different things to say about cops.
I purposely included books by black and white writers because I want to illustrate this dichotomy. Mississippi was created for a select group of people, and the rest of us just have to carve out spaces for ourselves or settle in.
Despite my personal misgivings about Mississippi, I can’t help but swell my chest with pride every time I see a writer from my city or her books displayed on a national or international stage. There’s just something about the Mississippi that I can’t let go.
To this end, I have selected writers that you may have heard of but may not have realized were from Magnolia State. Each of these writers has helped me see my brief Mississippi home through a new lens.
Note: I kept this list alphabetically by author first name because I wanted to even out the stories while clearly highlighting the experience differences between black and white writers. I myself am not a member of any of these communities, so my take is that of a former resident of Mississippi from the outside, and I thought it was fairer for me to grant a equal treatment for each pound.
Why these authors?
With the exception of The hate you give, every book on this list is explicitly defined in Mississippi all or part of the time. Additionally, all of the authors were born or made their home in Mississippi at some point.
The hate you give by Angie Thomas
How could I create a list of Mississippi writers without including this amazing book? Although Mississippi is not directly mentioned in The hate you give, Angie Thomas was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, in a house not far from where civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered. The hate you give talks about the fallout and trauma of a fatal police shootout against an unarmed black man. Thomas drew on his own experiences of gun violence as well as the murders of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to write his story.
The boyfriend by Donna Tartt
The boyfriend takes place in Alexandria, Mississippi, and begins on a Mother’s Day when a young boy is found hanging from a tree. 12 years later, the murder remains unsolved, leaving a heartbroken family in its wake. Determined to bring her brother’s murderer to justice, Harriet, with the help of her friend Hely, stubbornly breaks down the racial and caste barriers of her town.
Delta wedding by Eudora Welty
As a teenager, I had never heard of Eudora Welty until I moved to Jackson, where her home is a historic site and a popular tourist destination. Personally, I have never read Welty’s novels but I was impressed with his short stories. Although The optimist’s daughter is what won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, I included Delta wedding in this list because of its location in the Mississippi Delta.
History is a history of manners, in particular that of the noble and aristocratic Fairchilds. Told from the perspective of 9-year-old Laura, the story speaks of Laura’s resentment towards her extended family and her eventual understanding of them. Although Welty is a brilliant writer, I will say that Delta wedding is about a wealthy white family isolated and perfectly free from the racial discrimination for which Mississippi is famous.
Recover the bones by Jesmyn Ward
I was still living in California when Hurricane Katrina hit the south in 2005. I remember the heavy rains for several days vividly, but not much else. But when I moved to Mississippi two years later, people were still talking about it, and I had classmates who had definitely moved from New Orleans to Mississippi because of the shipwreck. Recover the bones will take you to Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, which is close to the Gulf of Mexico. Here, a family is preparing for the impending storm and must deal with the things that separate and bring them together.
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
I read Laymon’s memoirs Heavy last year, and it was one of my ten favorite books of 2020. Hands down. Even though our experiences with Mississippi are different, I still linked to Laymon’s impressions of the state and the effect it has on its marginalized communities. In Heavy, Laymon explores how the weight of discrimination affects a black body while recounting fearless tales of his life as the stubborn son of a complicated black mother in Jackson.
I highly recommend reading Heavy and Black boy (see below) together because the two books will give you a great overview of what it means to grow up black in Mississippi.
Memorial route by Natasha Trethewey
Another of the top ten favorite books of 2020 was Memorial route. Trethewey is a beautiful writer whose elegiac memories are almost like a love letter to her mother, who was murdered by her second husband. I loved this book because it not only expressed the trauma of gun violence, but also a deep bond between mother and daughter, even after one of them died. Mississippi emerges as Trethewey’s birthplace and is the landscape in which she grew up as a “child of miscegenation.”
Black boy by Richard Wright
I first read Richard Wright in college and marveled at his mastery of prose and the way he eloquently but succinctly relayed complex narratives. Wright was born in Adams County, Mississippi, and Black boy is his memoir which chronicles his life growing up in the Jim Crow South. It is an important coming-of-age tale that is as relevant today as the day it was first published.
Cat on a hot tin roof by Tennessee Williams
I’m stupid. Honestly, I thought Tennessee Williams was fromâ¦ wellâ¦ Tennessee. In fact, Williams was born in Columbus, Mississippi, and one of his all-time famous works, Cat on a hot tin roof, takes place in Mississippi. The classic tale follows the petty rivalries and complex relationships within a privileged southern white family.
Many people take history at face value. However, I encourage you not only to appreciate the story (and the equally classic movie starring Elizabeth Taylor because Elizabeth Taylor), but also to consider the stark differences between the trials and tribulations of this aristocratic white family and that of the black families that they don’t have. doubt exploited in their social ascent.
As i die by William Faulkner
Mississippi doesn’t have much to boast about. However, I learned a few things when I moved to this state: Sweet tea is liquid gold, you’re either Hail State or Hotty Toddy (if you know you know), and William Faulkner is from Mississippi. As i die is one of his most famous works and is the tale of the Bundren family as they cross the Mississippi to bury their wife and mother. It is not only a cornerstone of Mississippi culture, but American culture.
When you’re ready for more, take a tour of the Southern Literary Trail, Mississippi I-55, and Oxford, Mississippi.