That’s the South

Travel writer, Paul Theroux, at the Jaipur Lit Fest

Travel writer, Paul Theroux, at the Jaipur Lit Fest

Alabama graces the Jaipur Lit Fest in India.

By Trevor C. Hale 


Imagine my surprise in Jaipur, India, when Paul Theroux, the dean of global travel writers, told the audience he’d recently spent time in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa and was writing a book on the Deep South. After writing dozens of travel books and novels (The Great Railway Bazaar, The Mosquito Coast) set in locations around the world, Theroux, who hails from New England, recently discovered what we southerners have known all along: There’s nowhere else like the South.

He said that on one of his recent trips to the South, “I was looking in a map in my car and the woman in the car next to me said, ‘You lost, baby?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m looking for this church.’ And she said, ‘Well, I can tell you.’ I told her the church. She said, ‘I can take you there. Follow me.’ She drove three miles out of her way. I mean, we had been in a parking lot and she was going to church that morning, too, but not there and took me to the church. And I thought, ‘This is wonderful, I like this.’ And afterwards, I thanked her profusely. And she said, ‘Be blessed.’ And I thought, ‘That’s the South: Be blessed.’”

Theroux was one of hundreds of authors in Jaipur for the renowned Jaipur Lit Fest (JLF), the largest free lit fest in the world. In its ninth year, the JLF attracts more than 250,000 people. From Nobel laureates to local language writers, Man Booker prize winners to debut novelists, every January, the most remarkable, witty, sensitive, and brilliant collection of authors come together for five days of readings, debates, and discussions at the beautiful Diggi Palace in the Rajasthani capital.

I’m wondering what Theroux will write about the South. In his African travelogue, Dark Star Safari, he sets the stage by describing his “usual” travel mood: “Hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling.” There is, of course, no shortage of the picturesque, miserable, or appalling in the South, depending on where you look, and more importantly, how you look.

Maybe the reconciliation of his long and famous feud with Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul at the JLF this year is an indication that he’s mellowed somewhat, which bodes well for how Alabama will be portrayed. He has said in previous interviews that something was waiting for him in the American South. When asked by NPR if he found it, he replied, “Yes, I found everything. I found churches, music, food, difference of all sorts. The idea that all of this, this richness, this treasure, this identifying with the roots of American culture, all of that was there all along and I was looking elsewhere. I was in China and India and I didn’t realize that right in my own backyard, there it was and this. And so there’s a great deal to write about.”

Travel writing was a popular theme at the event. Religious tolerance another. In 2012 Salmon Rushdie’s appearance at JLF was cancelled due to threats from Islamic extremists still upset about his controversial Satanic Verses, for which a Fatwa was decreed on him. This year, British writer Hanif Kureishi jokingly called on participants to defeat radical Islam by having more sex.

Literature in South Asia has never thrived more. New Indian writers like Amish Tripathi are selling millions of books. His mythological trilogy about the Hindu god Shiva is in virtually every Indian shop and airport. Book sales in the U.S. are flat, but in India, the market has grown by 41 percent since 2011, with almost 20 million books sold last year, according to Nielsen Bookscan.

What about literature in the South, where storytelling is high art?

Does Birmingham have a lit fest? It should.

And if it did, here are a few imagined book debuts…

Harper Lee’s other lost book: Girl With A (UAB) Dragon Tattoo. Scout’s Goth cyberpunk granddaughter escapes Monroeville, befriends #SaveUAB, hacks AL BOT, uncovers evidence of BOT/Illuminati/Freemason secret brotherhood. Threatens to publish inappropriate pagan ritual picturess and liberates UAB’s governance. Wins Nobel and Pulitzer prizes.

Fan the Flames of Fair-Weather Fans. From the Evil PR Genius file. Business case study in how to energize fan base: cancel athletic program without consulting anyone in seemingly most inept way possible. Fans are super-energized and ready for blood.

Brokeback Commandments. Elected official worries his rabid and public homophobia indicates buried feelings he’s afraid to confront. Scout’s granddaughter has a cameo. Denied the right to marry her partner, she hacks into the official’s home computer. Wacky hijinks ensue. Justice is served.

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