Last week a woman from the Bay Area was in town and considering moving here to work for The Independent. I was asked if I would meet with her and answer questions about life in North Carolina. After only five months here I’m certainly no expert, but since the good folks at The Independent had the questionable sense to hire a Californian for the editorship of the South’s finest alternative weekly, I figured I owed this woman the benefit of my experience.
I knew what would concern her, because they were the same things that concerned me–the same preconceptions, in fact, that Southerners have heard from transplants for generations.
She wanted to know about race relations, about conservative politics, about the Bible Belt. She was afraid that, moving from California, as physically beautiful and politically progressive as it is, she would feel isolated. The minds of Yankees and Westerners, as Southerners know, are full of images of Jim Crow and not much else when it comes to the South. And in the South of that mind, there is not much to choose from between Alabama and North Carolina.
And, of course, she wanted to know if there was any decent ethnic food.
First, I told her what not to expect. Physically, North Carolina takes a lot of getting used to for a Westerner. The big skies, the towering mountains, the beautiful shorelines–these things will no longer be at your doorstep. Get used to tree canopy, I told her. The influence of landscape on peace of mind is no small matter.
Beyond that, I tried to put culture and race in context. Remember, I said, that in California, Anglo society has systematically oppressed Latino culture since statehood in 1850. Race relations in the South, I told her, are in some ways a model for the West.
Most importantly, I said, you will find here a culture that values manners and expression. Southern speech and southern writing have a sweetly oblique quality, a generosity combined with craftiness that rewards subtlety in both praise and insult.
At first I thought it was just a literary habit, but I have come to see how that habit grows out of everyday experience. Conversation here is an art form where words are chosen for their effect, and considerable delight is taken in nuance. It is no surprise how those layers of tone and meaning have enriched the literature of the region. And it has been my good fortune to be able to work with writers who have taught me a thing or two about style.
A few days later I learned she had decided to come here. I know there are other reasons for her decision, such as wanting to be able to afford a house and start a family, which in the unnatural economy of California is becoming harder and harder to do. And I hope I haven’t steered her wrong. But the first thing I plan to do when she arrives is take her to my favorite Mexican restaurant. I’m sure she’ll feel right at home.