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Reading Percival Everett

Claude Julien
Anne-Laure Tissut

IV. The Writer's Own Turn

“The South”

(Maison des U.S.A., MRSH université de Caen, May 4, 2005)

Note de l’éditeur

The theme for the whole day was “The South”. Other guests were the United States Consul in Nantes, Prof. Flore Zéphyr (University of Missouri-Columbia), Denis Clavreul (a French water-color painter who recently toured the South), Yvon Chatelain (who authored a book on Audubon) and Jack Lanco, the Consul for Finland in France. The session was hosted by Prof. Alice Mills who teaches at Caen University.

Texte intégral

1Alice Mills: It is a pleasure to welcome Percival Everett who is the author of eighteen books of fiction and who also teaches creative writing at the University of Southern California. Though a Southerner by birth, Percival Everett has been living in the western United States for many years. He was born in Georgia but grew in South Carolina from age 5 to 16. We also know, because it was widely reported in the press at the time that in 1989 he was invited to give a speech at the state legislature of South Carolina. As he was speaking, he noticed the Confederate flag in the room, interrupted his address and walked out.

2Percival Everett: Um... Actually I knew the flag would be there. I showed up and then refused to speak.

3Alice Mills: Sorry for my mistake! Let us remember that you started a controversy that eventually led to the removal of the Confederate flag from the Capitol building a few years later. We would like to hear you on the South, on your memories in general and whether you have considered going back. Did you leave voluntarily to go west, or under other circumstances? We would be very much interested in any thought you might like to share with us.

4Percival Everett: Thank you for inviting me to speak here. As your introduction suggests, I have a troubled relationship with the South and with the United States in general, I must add. First of all, I would like to dispel some of the stereotypes of the South. I have a “white” great grandfather, a Jew who lived in Texas where he married a former slave. He sent my grandfather to medical school in Tennessee which he left to eventually become a practitioner in South Carolina. I don’t think I have a southern accent. This is an expectation with people in the United States. I am tired of hearing “You don’t sound like you are from the South”, whatever that is supposed to mean. My entire relationship with the South has been formed by this family background. I believe I sound like anyone I grew up with. Maybe I don’t, but I really believe that.

5I left South Carolina for Miami when I was sixteen. I remained a Southerner there, considering Florida is as far South as you can go in the United States. But it was there I got a foreign accent, in college where everyone around me was actually speaking Spanish. The character of Miami was not at all like South Carolina where the Civil War started and where I had had a high school teacher who taught us the Civil War was a war of aggression. I did not first go west when I left South Carolina and there are other places I lived at before I settled across the continent.

6After I published three novels and my first collection of stories (by the way, all four books are set in different locations across the country), I was invited back in South Carolina to address the State Government on the subject of art —as if they had some idea what art is. I did know the flag was flown above the Capitol and in that chamber, but when asked if I would come and speak my immediate response was “yes” —though my immediate feeling was “Are you kidding? No. I don’t want to speak to you.” However, I kept that to myself because I knew what the right thing to do was: start my address and quickly come to that awful symbol, the basis of my troubled relationship with the South. So, I stepped to the lectern and said that I was here to speak to them on art, but that art and politics are inextricably bound together and that that flag, a symbol of exclusion, was unacceptable. And I left. Having said that, I now believe that flag out to be there, ought to be flown atop the State Capitol, ought to be in that chamber for the reason it tells you what the United States really is. You know, when you walk into a minefield, it helps to have a sign that warns: “minefield”. It’s a good thing and that’s how I feel about the United States. Now I have been in many places in the country, I sometimes tell myself they ought to keep a Confederate flag in hotel rooms, just as a reminder.

7The United States has used the South as a wonderful scapegoat. If you have a really awful member in your family, anytime you do something bad you can point to that member of the family and feel good about yourself —think you have done better. That’s what the United States have used the South for, not when just about everyone thought there was nothing wrong with slavery, of course, but later when it became practical to criticize exploitation and segregation. The North and the large western urban areas have excused their behavior toward minorities, the American word for downtrodden and disenfranchised peoples, by blaming the South for all the evils in the land. But the most segregated city in the entire United States is not in the South: that’s Chicago, Illinois; and the only place in the whole United States where I have ever been called a “nigger” is Cambridge, Massachusetts. I grew up where the Civil War started but no one ever called me a “nigger” there, though I know my father was. This is what America means to me, and this relationship with the United States supersedes my relationship with the South. I am a Westerner. I don’t think about the South. I don’t want to return and live in the South. I want to see the sun set on the ocean.

8Jack Lanco: To move beyond the South and the Civil War, I’d like to know how you look at America today. Do you see it in terms of fractionalism, or of unity based on the motto “united we stand and divided we fall”?

9Percival Everett: It seems to me America has made a career of being fractured. The Civil War is a white-on-white fracture among many others. I have to address this question on today’s situation by prefacing my answer by saying that when George W. Bush became president I went to Canada and bought a house. I actually live in Canada part of the time now. I think that the situation, the political game created by the Bush administration, is hinged on fracturing —on polarizing American society. In fact, we have an ongoing conversation about Red and Blue states, the Blue states having voted for John Kerry and the Red ones (including the notoriously litigious Florida) for George Bush. We have maps with all the Red states in the middle and the Blue ones on either coast. And, sadly, this Blue and Red language has been embraced. For the truth of the matter is that the margin of victory in terms of seats in any of those states was negligible. And the more the Republican Party and George Bush can underscore the alleged differences between those states, the more distinct people will feel —the more fractured a society we will have and the more paranoid people will be.

10Jack Lanco: How do you see the future? Communities, ghetto and non-ghetto living apart?

11Percival Everett: Oh, the future... The same bad way that it is now will continue. For whatever reasons you can think of the rich will get richer and the poor poorer. That’s America. I do not perceive any change coming.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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