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Southern Bound

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Anthology editing must be one of literature’s most thankless jobs. You are challenged by writers, readers and critics on every front: whom you included, whom you omitted, the book’s order, its theme, the intro you cobbled together to justify your reasoning. God help you if you make a bold claim in the title, like Best American Political / Travel/Sports / Nature / Spiritual Writing. No one will ever be happy.

So I looked on the latest volume of New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best with collegial empathy. Its editor, Tennessean novelist Madison Smartt Bell, is worthy of such a post. Among other accolades, he won the 1996 Anisfield-Wolf Award for the year’s best book dealing with race, All Souls’ Rising. He completes his task admirably here, compiling 21 short stories from south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nearly all are enjoyable. A few are genius.

Yet I have a mighty rant on this book, starting with a passage from Bell’s introduction that is spotlighted on the book jacket. Observing how deeply the South has changed this millennium, he writes: “To the traditional black and white recipe (ever a tricky and volatile mixture) have been added new shades and strains, from Asia and Central and South America and just about everywhere else on the shrinking globe.”

Sure enough, Rahul Mehta’s lovely contribution, “Quarantine,” lets us tag along as a gay Indian-American takes his boyfriend home to West Virginia. The story’s antagonist is Bapuji, a cantankerous grandfather who lives in the family basement, unaware of his grandson’s sexuality. The truth spills when the three take a road trip to a Hare Krishna commune. Tempers flare, a car crash is narrowly avoided and someone dies within arm’s reach of the Bhagavad Gita.

This is not a tale Flannery O’Connor could have told. It is a “new story” in every way, worthy of inclusion in this anthology.

Let’s read about those Central and South American “shades and strains” now, shall we? The South’s Latino population more than doubled in the 2000 Census and is projected to do so again by 2010. Tons of material, in other words. I plowed through the volume for stories about the Colombians in South Carolina, say, or the Mexicans in Georgia.

No, not here. Two stories mention “illegal aliens,” but none so much as says hola. Upon finishing the 350-page tome, it occurred to me that none of the writers was Latino, either. I searched through the tables of contents of the series’ previous 23 volumes, and guess what? No Latino writer has ever been published in New Stories from the South. Not Sandra Cisneros, not Dagoberto Gilb, not Oscar Casares, not Denise Chavez. Nadie.

I can’t get over this omission. But I’ll admit that this collection does contain some good storytelling. Let’s start with the language. Where else but the South can you find characters with names like Guilfoyle, Plummy and Earl Fitts? Or people derided as “coonasses” and “Boomer rats”? Where else is somebody’s mama described as “a low-down, walk-all-over-me-and-I’ll-show-you-how-good-I-can-make-the-soles-of-your-feet-feel kind of woman”?

New Stories from the South opens with a chorus of youthful voices, the strongest of which is an 18-year-old named Destiny, who appears in Katherine Karlin’s “Muscle Memory.” “If Destiny had three wishes to make, the third would be that she could learn to weld,” the story begins. Her father was an accomplished welder who provided for his family until he drowned a couple of years ago. Destiny doesn’t need to say how, because we instinctively know: Hurricane Katrina. Later we learn that when his body was found beneath a bridge by St. Claude Avenue, his skin was “filleted and peeling in thick wrinkled layers like a soggy roll of toilet paper.”

Destiny and her mother are battling to survive in post-apocalyptic New Orleans—a city where houses are still collapsing years after the flood. Her mother copes by hording canned goods, including stewed tomatoes in the toilet tank. “When I wake up at night it gives me comfort, looking at these cans,” she explains, caressing a tin of pears.

Destiny, meanwhile, tries to learn welding from an old-school musician in a shipyard. As payment, he makes her study musical legends like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Fats Domino. “You young people shouldn’t forget. You’re the only ones who can remember,” he says.

The problem? “Listening to that musty music did not make her feel connected. It made her feel alone. Destiny wanted to hear what other people were hearing. Living people.”

From there, the anthology dips into middle age, where the problem appears to be miserable marriages. In Charlotte Holmes’ “Coast,” a painter contemplates ditching his wife of eight years for a Rilke-reading, German-speaking Pole. “Sometimes I wonder if the human tendency is to freeze in place at whatever age we are when we meet,” he muses. Perhaps if he’d met his wife later in life, “we might act like the adults that other people see functioning in the world, instead of the college freshmen we seem to become when we’re together.”

Ghosts make a few cameos. In Stephanie Powell Watts’ “Family Museum of the Ancient Postcards,” the young narrator is asked if she can see her aunt’s long-dead daddy. “Some of the dead you feel like warmth, their presence a consolation, or so I’ve heard. … But I knew from the cold rage coming off of Aunt Ginny that her daddy’s presence was no comfort to anybody.” When she asks her aunt why she can’t just tell the ghost to leave, the response is ominous: “Are you used to things being easy?”

Perhaps the anthology’s most striking point of view is that of a feral dog leading a pack of hungry mongrels in Pinckney Benedict’s “The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.” Who knew a dog could be as poetic as this: “It was a life of riot, of constant noise and hunger, of wolfing down any bit of flesh that came his way, no matter how hard, how bitter, how rotten, of running through the dark, constant running, and falling down to sleep only when the others fell down around him, curling himself over and against the closest dogs, his nose to his neighbor’s tail for warmth, the neighbor’s nose likewise digging into him.”

New Stories winds down with thoughtful pieces about reaching life’s end. “Well, if this is dying, I’ve seen living that was worse,” quips the grande dame of Wendell Berry’s “Fly Away, Breath.” The volume could well have concluded here, but instead slays your heart with a triumphant final piece by Juyanne James called “The Elderberries,” about a black family that ushers their community out of Katrina’s murderous wake: “They moved in a cluster, just as they had lived their lives; but here, on this day when the flood waters were rising, they waded out in obvious bunches, as though they would willingly be taken up by the swirling enemy in these small, tightly-drawn entities, but they would not allow even one of them to be caught alone and taken up and dragged away by the stale and impertinent water.”

This kind of prose is what makes New Stories from the South so hard for me to critique. The stories are largely beautiful. I just pine for those “shades and strains” who keep getting dissed by this series year after year. Like all those Honduran evacuees I interviewed in Houston two weeks after Katrina. They had fled their home country after it was pulverized by Hurricane Mitch, only to nearly drown in Louisiana seven years later. When we met, they were planning their escape from incoming Hurricane Rita. None possessed more than the shirts on their backs, yet they kept offering their lunches to me.

Where can I go to read about Southern brothers like these?

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of three books, most recently Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines. Visit her website at aroundtheblock.com.