Monday, July 6, 2009
Hi Fellow Gargoyles,
Many (some? none?) of you have been waiting eagerly for this year's list of SIBA Book Award winners. The rest of you are scratching your head and wondering (again) what the heck I'm on about.
SIBA is the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, an organization of scrappy, non-corporate, southern bookstores. These booksellers come together online and out in the real world to celebrate and/or bemoan the bookselling life, to exchange advice on making it in the current economic climate, and -most significantly, for this post- to promote good books for southern readers.
(A disclosure: The Gothic's former commander-in-chief, Gerry Eidenier, was president of SIBA once upon a time. While his dream of an insurgent battalion of armed, poetry-reciting booksellers was never realized, he is nonetheless remembered fondly by SIBA members. For our part, we at the Gothic are predisposed to feel generous towards SBIA as an organization.)
Once a year the SIBA members vote on the best new writing to come out of the South. Now, don't get me wrong: I loves me some Southern Lit. Both of you who read this blog have seen me wax enthusiastic, if not eloquent, on books such as Padgett Powell's Edisto, Donald Hays' The Dixie Association, and Frank Stanford's The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You.
I'll confess, though, to approaching the SIBA awards with a little wariness. As a community of booksellers, we sometimes endorse the same names and topics over and over again. I like a good straight-up narrative yarn as much as the next fellow, and I'll eat grits pretty much any day of the week (especially if served up in a giant make-your-own-grit-bowl over at Durham's own Watts Grocery). But I feel that we SIBA members are inclined to promote books that are broadly palatable and that reinforce an image of Southern-ness that is less nuanced than it could be.
There's good reason for this, of course. We're all trying to sell books here. Slapping our award sticker on the cover of a proven seller such such as Pat Conroy or Rick Bragg (no offense meant to either of these fine writers) is a more profitable move than promoting stylistically experimental writing from the amazing Selah Saterstrom or dark, challenging writing from Robert Goolrick. I get that, and I get that we as a community are often too busy to go digging up writers from independent presses when corporate presses have lots of bells and whistles to draw our attention.
But we owe it to our customers, and to the reading public at large, to reach a little. When we proclaim a book "the best in Southern Literature by the people who would know", let's make sure that it actually is the best and that we actually do know.
You wouldn't believe it, but all this soapbox crankiness is by way of saying that I was particularly pleased with one of the awards this year. Kevin Young's moving, elegiac book, Dear Darkness, was given the 2009 SIBA award for poetry, and I couldn't be happier about it. I've been a big fan of Young's work ever since his book To Repel Ghosts, originally published by the independent press Zoland Books. (Young has since moved on to being published by one of the corporate biggies, which tempers only slightly my enthusiasm.) Dear Darkness is a book of work that reflects on place, family, and history. In the midst of Young's working on the book, his father died unexpectedly. Temporarily silenced by grief, he ultimately turned to writing poems about the food he so closely associated with his Father's Louisiana-based family. Pickled okra, turtle soup, maque-choux, kitchen grease: these and more down-home delicacies get turned into verses that evoke both the complexity of grief and longing and the comfort-food that helps heal such grief. It's truly a knockout of a book.
It seems incredible to say so now, but when I first heard these poems read aloud at the great A Cappella Books in Atlanta, Georgia, I never considered that they might be "Southern" poems. I think that's what makes me so enthusiastic to see Dear Darkness in the ranks of the SIBA awards. Though many of the poems deal with the touchstones of life and food in the South, they are not in structure or even tone what we have come to expect from the canon of SIBA-endorsed verse. Our booksellers reached a little on this one, and I think that with more such efforts the award will carry more significance moving forward.
SIBA is starting a new brand: the Okra Picks, designed to promote newly released southern writing. This is a chance for SIBA to broaden its perceived tastes a little bit, to show that being Southern isn't being static. I'll be doing my best to find lesser-known writers and publishers to recommend. Any (either) of you readers out there who want to direct my attention to a book I might have missed should email me through the blog. I'll be happy to pass on any suggestions.
Congratulations to Kevin Young on his award, and congratulations to SIBA members for a wise selection this time around!