In his latest book “A Place Like Mississippi,” W. Ralph Eubanks asks, “Why does this land inspire and produce so many writers?”
It’s a question many book lovers have posed. In fact, a popular ad campaign promoting Mississippi once quipped: “Yes, we can read. A few of us can even write.”
Eubanks’ book serves as a new definitive source on Mississippi’s writing community that belongs on every aesthete’s bookshelf.
Eubanks will be the keynote speaker for the 33rd annual Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at the Mississippi University for Women, which is slated for Oct. 21-23.
A native of Mount Olive, Eubanks is a visiting professor of English and Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He previously served as the director of publishing for the Library of Congress and editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.
“A Place Like Mississippi” is Eubanks’ third book. His editor Will McKay first approached him in 2018 with an idea for a book that would chronicle the Mississippi Writers’ Trail. Eubanks developed this concept into a travelogue that takes readers on a journey through the distinct regions of the state, with full-color photographs throughout.
The title of the book is inspired by a famous quotation attributed to William Faulkner — “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi” — that Eubanks discovered may have actually been coined by Willie Morris. Despite its contested origin, Eubanks believes that these words ring true, especially to the scores of writers who have grappled with Mississippi’s legacy in their work.
“If you can find where the past and the present intersect within Mississippi,” he writes in the book’s prologue, “you can indeed understand the world.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You grew up in Mississippi and moved away, but you’ve come back and you maintain a foothold here. Can you share more about your own personal relationship with Mississippi?
Mississippi is a place that just never leaves you. Over time I have had to surrender myself to Mississippi, because despite all its flaws, this place is a part of me.
I would not be who I am today without growing up in Mississippi, because being from a place that has become a metaphor for the entire South made me a writer. And in becoming a writer, I had to come to the realization that the issues we confront in Mississippi are not just the Magnolia State’s problems, but they are national problems. And I feel the need to bring clarity to the way others see and view this place.
A feeling of dislocation becomes a constant companion to those who return to where they spent their youth. As I have learned, there can never be a full repatriation to the place you once called home once you have left. A divided sense of self becomes a part of your identity. Part of returning home is accepting a feeling of exile amidst the familiar.
What I have chosen to do is use that sense of exile like a gift, one that allows me to look at the very place that shaped me with the sensitivity of a native but with the eyes of an outsider.
How did you go about collecting and capturing the photographs that became part of the book?
I was seeking to present a visual idea of the South that is complex and can’t be reductively narrowed down. Just as we can rethink the stories we tell and document, I think we can do the same with images of the South.
I was lucky to get to choose images from some of my favorite photographers: Maude Clay, Langdon Clay, Rory Doyle, David Rae Morris and Tabitha Soren.
The biggest challenge was finding photographs of my native Piney Woods, which is perhaps the least documented region of Mississippi. As a native, I spent a couple of days with a camera capturing spots that I felt matched with the narrative. Those images don’t match up with the artistry of the work of the professional photographers, but they do the trick.
You spoke with dozens of contemporary Mississippi writers for this book. Who would you have liked to talk to who is no longer with us?
I would love to have had a conversation with Richard Wright, since I often wonder if he thought about coming back to Mississippi when he was writing his novel “The Long Dream.”
I gained a new appreciation for the work of Ellen Douglas and would like to talk with her about the craft displayed in her short story “On the Lake.”
I met Larry Brown only once and I would like to have gone fishing with him in that pea-green bass boat of his just to see what he might talk about.
And every day I wish I could talk with Brad Watson again, whom I miss terribly.
If you had the opportunity to give more space to Columbus’ contributions to Mississippi literature, what would you describe?
I would have spent time in Columbus talking with students in MUW’s MFA in creative writing program. Since “A Place Like Mississippi” came out, I have met so many wonderful writers from this program. Now I realize that rather than just noting that Columbus is the birthplace of Tennessee Williams, I should have talked about a new generation of writers from his hometown who are Williams’s successors.
In the last chapter, you go to Parchman to participate in Louis Bourgeois’ Prison Writes Initiative. Why was that important to you to include in the book?
What I learned from my time at Parchman is that a good education system — both inside and outside prison — may help reduce the number of people we have inside prison walls in this country. I hope that more people will begin to think about the connection between Mississippi’s lack of funding for education and the rising numbers of men and women in prison.
There is a narrow grey liminal space between crime and punishment, especially in Mississippi, which has a long history of racial discrimination in jury selection and discriminatory sentencing. Parchman is a part of that long dark line, since it was a place established by eliciting racial fear. It was set up by Governor James K. Vardaman to house “criminal Negroes,” which included many innocent people.
Dostoyevsky had it right: Pain and suffering are always inevitable for those with a large intelligence and a deep heart. In Parchman, there is a great deal of intelligence, as well as pain and suffering, among the writers I encountered. After spending time there with Louis, I truly came to see those men as my fellow Mississippi writers. In writing about Parchman, I wanted others to share in the experience I had there, which was life-changing.
Emily Liner is the owner of Friendly City Books, an independent bookstore and press in Columbus.