There’s supposed to be such a thing as a Southern writer. A tradition, a style, a locale, and an ego too I guess. I don’t know if there is such a thing. But, I grew up in the South and I write, so I ‘spose you can put me in whatever category you’d like.
I write mostly to pass time, to do something, because there’s nothing much else to do that seems to matter. I ‘spose that sounds pretty “Southern writer-y” of me…but it’s true.
I’m also not sure if exile writers exist, as some definable category that is, but they’re supposed to be a thing too. And it makes me posit, if the South is home because another home can’t be, then does that an exile Southern writer make?
Perhaps I’m biased, but the way I figure it, the South is a good place for exile.
For one—there are weeping willow trees in the South.
They’re up North too, but down South they’re not in a park or some special find. They’re in lots of places and they’re sort of just present in spots where people naturally stop. It’s like they were planted knowing there’d be a stop sign nearby where kids would wait for the bus one day, or knowing this field might go but everything would build around it, or knowing a swing set would need some shade, or knowing when the tobacco was gone that the green rolling hills would need something to break the landscape.
Weeping willows in the South don’t get trimmed the way they do in East Coast parks; they don’t get trimmed at all. You see, weeping willows are always there before the owner of the house or the land. No one owns the weeping willows. They were there before your house and they’ll be there after you move away, and they don’t need your help to make them any more beautiful or presentable. But every other tree, people trim obsessively. The willows take care of themselves, and because they do, they make you feel like you’re taken care of too.
I looked it up once. They were brought to Europe from Aleppo, from Halab. And I wondered if there are any left there now. If there are weeping willows taking care of anyone in Syria. I wondered if the willows knew they’d end up in a colonized American South where one day, exiles would flee.
I don’t know, but I sure was grateful for them as a kid in Tennessee.
I asked my Dad if we had willows in the South in Palestine too. He said no, but that we had other trees that made you feel the way a weeping willow does. I wondered how he knew what a willow made me feel, but I guess Dads just know these things.
I think good trees are important for exile, for building homes away from home. Big trees, especially. Kids climb them I think because it’s a little like conquering something when you get to the top. Or when you’re in the middle of a massive willow, with all the branches hanging down, it’s like you’ve made it to the center of something significant. You march home convinced you’ve acquired some wisdom on par with the trials and tribulations of your parents.
A friend told me once that of all the things that struck her about my southern-ness, it was that for as well-traveled as I was and for as much as I craved the diversity of the urban, I was surprisingly so happy, so at ease with the rural.
When I first moved to the East Coast or started spending time on the West, I have to admit I was jealous of the urban, the community that for so many was such a part of Palestinian life in America. But when I think about the willows, I think that exile, I think that everything, would have been so much harder without them.