Flannery O’Connor didn’t write about the red clay of Georgia because she was trying to entice readers to relate to it, or relate to what she called her “Christ-haunted South”. She wrote about the way the South looks and feels because she considered the graphic details of place to be a portal to what she called our “true country” — where we are most deeply and authentically at home. For O’Connor, that true country had a specifically religious meaning: being at home in the mystery, and ultimately in the grace, of a living God.
For less religious readers, true country might mean arriving at our life’s meaning and a sense of self-acceptance, something which many of us grapple with throughout but most especially now, as we age.
O’Connor never wanted to be considered a local writer, or even a Southern one. Her famous retort — “All writers are local somewhere” — simply says that whether we use the details of place in reading and writing or not, they are our particular architecture for understanding the world and the universality of the human condition. Her rural Georgia was no less authentic or universal than the point of view of someone living in literary Manhattan.
Those of you who’ve read my memoir, Good Daughter, Good Mother, know that I don’t write with a strong sense of place. Readers know I grew up in Kearny, New Jersey, but not much about what Kearny looks like — or the village in Rio Hato, Panama, for that matter. Rather, the portal for me is a dense web of relationships. I’m not sure if that has to do with my family’s moving a lot when I was a child, or whether I’m simply wired differently from O’Connor.
A trip to another place has value in itself, but more so if we can bring back deeper questions about the meaning of place itself. I’ve been thinking about place a lot since I took this shot of the red clay in Flannery O’Connor’s back yard. Phyllis pointed the opportunity out to me, after I’d said I thus far hadn’t gotten quite the vivid picture I wanted. We were standing right on top of it. All I had to do, with Phyllis’ opportune prompt, was look down.
Do you feel deeply rooted to a place, either where you grew up, or another one? Does that sense of place figure prominently in your understanding of your own “true country”? If something else, will you share what that might be?