Saturday, August 15, 2009

Regional flavors

One thing I had taken for granted came zooming back at me last night when I read Mary Ann's zombie story -- regional voice.

Every writer has a voice, but some writers have distinctive regional voices. Midwestern writers get cheated a bit because they're so middle of the road that you can't tell an Iowa writer from a Wisconsin writer without references to cornfields or cheese. Yes, that's a bit of a generalization, but not by much. That's why some writers leap out and stay front stage center, their unique regional voice.

You can't read Tennessee Williams and not think of New Orleans and genteel squalor or the excess and eccentricity of Eudora Welty's little confidences from her little backwater town. Flannery O'Connor and Harper Lee cannot be divorced from their southern roots or their stories from the towns and characters that give them life.

New Yorkers have as much regional voice as any southerner, deriving as much from their surroundings as their insular qualities that sever them completely from their hometowns. They are no longer from anywhere but New York and the cadence and timber of their stories rooted firmly, or as firmly as possible, in the steel, concrete and glass of their ever changing landscape of gallery openings and restaurants that last a hot New York second. The boroughs also have a voice of their own, New York chic polish over earthier tones.

The voice of the eastern seaboard, entrenched Yankee territory, is clipped and matter-of-fact with little tolerance for for anything that wastes time, money or words living as they do through harsh winters in isolated communities that have changed very little from Revolutionary days. They know how to pinch a penny and get value for it.

California has a voice all its own, all sunlight, sand, surf and mellow with more than the occasional New Age flight of kumbaya, while Texas is hot, dusty, rowdy and clad in cowboy boots with a gun strapped to the waist. The Texan voice is the biggest, best and bawdiest of all the American voices.

There are some softer regional voices, but you have to work hard to discern them without local references.

And New Orleans has a voice all its own, a polyglot melting pot of Cajun, Creole, French and any number of other incursions that is unique in its passion, heat and excess.

Some writers pick up flavors, literary tofu, borrowing spices,accents, references and colloquialisms from the regions they inhabit for a while, but they comprise the vast middle range where most writing is set, voices that reach everywhere and are universal in their appeal. They are the ambassadors of the word.

If asked to name my favorite, I could not choose just one. I love them all for their different qualities, suitable to my varied moods, and I delight in discovering new regional flavors and favorites. For now, I travel to New York to marvel at the towering structures glittering under the sun where millions climb skyward on a tiny island between the Hudson and East Rivers. Tomorrow, it's back to Paris.

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