An outsider writes the South

Webb, Elisa (2022) An outsider writes the South. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


My contribution to knowledge is my original novel Three kids and a dead dog which illustrates how a British writer can write the American South creating a Southern Gothic novel for children/young adults without visiting the American South. I travelled and researched by text instead. Moreover, by using Bakhtin’s concept of the novel’s chronotope as a writing tool to enable this project, I discovered that the Southern Gothic literary landscape manifested all the elements of a Gothic house: labyrinthine extensiveness (the house or Southscape is bigger on the inside than the outside), remoteness and isolation, and haunted-ness and decay. Consequently I used each element to structure and compose my novel. The new perspective created here stems from all of the above elements combined but is realized via an intuitive collage methodology. Thus there will be strange adjacencies and messy entanglements. My thesis will be a lot less ‘tidy’ compared to the traditional PhD monograph. I am responding to Faulkner and other writers in the Southern canon such as contemporary M.O. Walsh who all state, one way or another, that a writer must be a native in order to write the American South with any skill and credible authenticity. Also, although contemporary academics who work within the Southern field may not act as gatekeepers intentionally, they often assume those who write the South are from there and largely live there. This practice-based PhD project aims to create a credible Southern Gothic novel to challenge and overturn such orthodoxy. My rigorous research and creative writing was in constant dialogue with Southern fiction writers and those such as Joan Didion and Afia Atakora, non-Southerners, who wrote the South. I was also forced into dialogue with academics who claimed the South no longer existed in the postmodern era. Though, further significant research signposted a New New South which manifested a regional specificity and a cultural imperative to keep writing ‘the South’. Therefore I believe writers should have ‘access to all areas’ when acting in good faith as this enables us to tell a good story and uncover latent phenomena and even foreshadow futures of society like literary Cassandras. Osborne argues art (including literary writing) is emblematic of a category, [such as Southern Gothic] and that by including an art work in that category or canon the art may change said category or canon and even lead to a mutation. My hybrid work may suggest that literary borders and dogmatic barriers are malleable. My text will allow other writers to cross or transgress that which was previously fortified and forbidden, at least by the likes of contemporary Southern author M.O. Walsh. So: ‘[…] categories are transformed, reflecting back upon their more narrowly art-historical meanings and changing them in turn’ (Osborne, 20). Thus, my conclusion is that writers do not have to ‘just write what they know’. My research started as a way to fully realize my novel but soon the novel became a way to test my research (an Ouroboros?).

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