Thursday, August 9, 2007

Stay out the way of the southern thing

Left: Kudzu (from The Fruit Fly)

I am from a southern mother, and like Rita Mae Brown, I repatriated as an adult. Moving south was like coming home, only it wasn't.

Being an ethnically-displaced person is strange and oddly transcendent. I think of VS Naipaul, an Indian and Hindu, born in Trinidad. No one else makes India more real to me. He loves India as an insider and outsider, and in his writing, he shapes-shifts, back and forth, inside and out.

I never felt like a yankee. My family was looked down on and called hillbillies, but I had never actually lived in the "hills" at all; I grew up in the city. To me, "hillbilly" meant that my family played in a country-and-western band, and we ate certain foods like cornbread and pinto beans. My grandfather said "shit fire!" which shocked my young yankee schoolmates--one of them asked: what is 'shit fire'? (I had to admit I didn't know, but it was reserved for situations that nowadays would call for a response like "Fuck me!") So I was never a proper yankee, but when I first got here, could not in any way feel like a southerner either. I remember being in tears when I couldn't understand about half of my neighbors, so deep were their accents.

After over 20 years of marriage into a deeply-southern family, I feel that I finally belong.

I can still remember when I first saw kudzu, covering everything like a thick, lush, wavy, symmetrical, emerald-green blanket. Upon my arrival in Columbia, SC, I even took photos of it. I have photos of kudzu snaking up telephone poles and electrical wires; enveloping houses, abandoned gas stations and shotgun shacks, turning everything beautiful, as snow does. Transforming the whole world into green leaves. But there are snakes and other varmints in there. Kudzu chokes other plants and kills them. Southerners cuss the kudzu, and here I was, in my neo-southern repatriated ignorance, wanting to plant more.

Kudzu hides things, as southerners tend to hide things. How fitting that it has traditionally been used in herbal medicine as an alcoholism remedy and to detoxify drug addicts; conditions that thrive on what is hidden.

Some people go to war with the kudzu: goddamn shit is gettin outta my yard if it's the last thing I do! And other people resign themselves to it: you can't kill it. Surrender Dorothy! As an herbalist, I am dedicated to understanding the kudzu, but I daresay, it is the way we once tried to "understand" the Soviets. Shades of "we will bury you!" come to mind. Does the kudzu want to co-exist? Or will it take over?

It's indestructible, and will survive the nuclear war, they tell me, just like cockroaches. Probably.

But I can't help it: I love survivors. Particularly southern ones.


Victoria Marinelli said...

"I love survivors. Particularly southern ones." Nice. Also, enjoying all the exile literature references. (Have you read Salman Rushdie's essay Imaginary Homelands? If not, you must.)

FWIW, my blog used to be called Southern Discomfort, partly after Rita Mae's book (the first of hers I read), and partly because of the liquor... I am named, as it happens, after the granddaughter of the founder of Southern Comfort, one Vikki Fowler, who was a friend of my mother's back in her brief stint at William & Mary. (Evidently, the two had some wild, vaguely Kerouacian road trips together... which is about as much info as I could ever get out of her as to why she'd given me Vikki's name. Of course, I have my suspicions.) But the main reason my blog was (at least for a time) called Southern Discomfort was that being Southern is an inevitable, simultaneously uncomfortable and essential part of my identity. I mean, I'm in Richmond, for shit's sake. ("Cradle of the Confederacy" as the 'necks like to remind us.) I love the South - deeply - but am hard pressed most of the time to explain why.

P.S. My very hillbilly grandmother - from Southwestern Virginia - has an expression for when something is just so unacceptable: "Why, that's scandalous to the buzzards!"

Daisy said...

Victoria, check out Southern Rock Opera, by the Drive-by I said in my piece about Bergman, it somehow bypasses your conscious mind and goes straight to your (southern) id! I can't explain how some artists can do that!

My granddaughter has your name also! :)

Mindless gossip: Did you know the TOP CHEF hostess Padma Lakshmi, is Salman Rushdie's soon-to-be-ex-wife? This of course makes her LADY Rushdie, but at least they don't call her that on BRAVO.

I loved his book The Jaguar Smile.

Daisy said...

And I forgot to say: great to see you here! Some of your narrative is startlingly similar to my daughter's, which makes me the hippie parent, I guess. :P But I love reading what you write!

antiprincess said...

can you eat the leaves, or pods, or roots, or anything?

Daisy said...

They have seasonal kudzu-eating festivals (like pie-eating contests), so apparently you can eat it:

...but nobody seems to want to. :P Kudzu tea is a pretty common herbal tea.

For something that can grow a foot a day in summer, that ain't nothin!

Chris said...

The root makes a really good cooking starch, available in fancy hippie stores as "kuzu." Unfortunately, said root is usually about four to six feet down in the ground and the size of a St. Bernard, and the starch doesn't come out without grinding and boiling and such.

When I was in Virginia I always meant to get a goat or two so I could eat the kudzu indirectly, but I never got around to it. Instead I just kept the stuff hacked back by hand — we had a small yard so it wasn't that big a deal — and what was left attracted the Japanese beetles away from the roses, so that worked out OK.

bint alshamsa said...


I can't tell you how much I enjoy your references to the south that are all throughout your blog. I live in Louisiana (Dixie, to be exact). Here we have the Water Hyacinth that, while producing gorgeous purple flowers, also acts as an invasive species that most folks down here would rather do without. They say it was introduced to the state during the first World's Fair that we hosted back in 1884. They gave the plants out for free at the fair and some folks who didn't want it just tossed them into the water. It's been choking our ponds, streams, and spillways ever since.

alphabitch said...

I love kudzu too, and found it freaky and amazing when I first moved south after 30-some years in Minnesota. There area a couple of (mostly older, out-of-print hippie-type) books about uses for kudzu -- some medicinal as well as culinary. In Japan they harvest the vines and make ropes and fabric from it, but apparently the process is pretty labor-intensive.

You can also buy kudzu starch at asian groceries, for mere pennies. It's highly excellent for cooking -- way better than cornstarch or flour.

Daisy said...

Thank you, Bint! I've seen those lovely flowers in Louisiana and didn't know what they were called! I could never throw away that flower--I guess I'd be one of the folks planting it!

Alphabitch, thanks for letting me know about kudzu starch; I will make finding this a priority. I'd love to be able to share a recipe and tell people "Yes, and then I added a little kudzu starch" and watch em go "HUH?" :)

Daisy said...

And--welcome Chris!

Blue Heron said...

Beautifully written.