this post first appeared on zelda & scout on 8/29/14.
Memphis, TN. 1998. Mom and I have just come back from a trip to Costco and are unloading the back of her fire engine red Suburban or, as my daddy calls it, the tank. Arms full of paper towels and blueberries, she asks me to grab some forgotten item. Laundry detergent, I think. I’m already halfway up the steps, so I turn and holler, “I’m fixin’ to get it as soon as I put this stuff down.” My mother’s eyebrows shoot up to meet her graying hairline. “What did you just say?” “I said I’m fixin’ to get it in just a second,” I reply, rolling my eyes in impatience. With a deep inhale, she intones disapprovingly, “Jennifer, in this family, we speak proper English. ‘Fixin’ to’ is not in the dictionary.”
The International Dialects of English Archive has a label for the way people talk back home: Kentucky Seven. Twangier than Tennessee, faster than Georgia, and with a hint of the Midwest sneaking across the Indiana border, it’s a hybrid dialect. Louisville sits smack on the Mason-Dixon line, bridging the gap between North and South, between y’all and you guys (ever the geographical middle child, we settle for the compromise “you all”). Linguists say the city lies on the isogloss between the Southern and Midland dialects. All I can tell you is that we yes-ma’am and no-sir with ease, but we wouldn’t be caught dead near an ain’t or a fixin’-to. When asked if we’re a Southern or Midwestern city, the jury is hung. And we don’t pronounce it Looeey-ville, or Lewis-ville. It’s Loo-uh-vul. Swung down South, with a Kentucky twang, and a heavy dose of pride in our quirky hometown: the city with an identity crisis.
Providence, RI. 2011. It’s the beginning of my senior year at Brown, and I’ve signed up to be a peer adviser to a gaggle of eager freshmen, something my school calls a Meiklejohn. A French professor and I have been paired up and assigned a trio of advisees: a varsity lacrosse recruit from Florida with the easy swagger of a high school star athlete and a secret passion for architecture; an econ and applied math double major from Westchester who, with her pearls and “Elect McCain” bumper sticker and investment banking dreams, is not exactly a typical student at my very liberal school; and a sweet, nervous, international relations major whose father’s suicide made her a multi-millionaire at the age of 8 and who spends several sunny afternoons talking to me about how her uber-ritzy Swiss boarding school didn’t prepare her for the vigorous class participation expected at an elite American university. On this particular afternoon, I’m meeting with advisee number two, who has questions about math requirements and business grants that I feel completely unqualified to answer. She arrives with her boyfriend in tow (fellow Westchester kid, fellow undergrad — they met at a bar mitzvah at age 13 and are on track for a Hamptons wedding by age 23). His Meiklejohn is a flake, unresponsive and unhelpful, so she’s wondering if I will take him in as my foster advisee, adding him to the tiny flock in my care. The early September sun sinks behind the brick buildings on the green as we spend a half hour discussing activities fairs, roommate issues, and where to find the best burritos on College Hill. Suddenly, she turns to her boyfriend and bursts into giggles. “You’re just so Southern,” she informs me. “It’s great.” I’m confused: Between my lack of accent, my liberal sensibilities, and my matriculation at this particular New England university, “so Southern” is not a descriptor I’m used to. I ask her what prompted this conclusion. “You’re just so nice,” she explains. “You’re, like, happy. Optimistic.” “So people in the Northeast are all depressed pessimists?” I laugh. She and the boyfriend exchange a wry look. “Yes,” they both reply.
I did not come into my Southernness easily. I think I inherited the denial from my parents: ask them where they’re from and the South is usually not the first thing that comes to mind. This despite the fact that my mom was born in Virginia and spent several formative years in Houston, while my dad spent every summer in Lafayette, LA making jambalaya with his Cajun aunts and father. From the moment we were born, my sister and I were told emphatically that we were Californians. One uncle referred to us fondly as “California chicks,” a reference I found particularly confusing as a toddler whose realm of knowledge included ample barnyard animals but not much slang. My brother is a proud Jayhawk, having spent the crucial first year of his life in Kansas. It wasn’t until I was sitting on a plane flying home for Thanksgiving my junior year of college that I realized I have lived in the South for over two-thirds of my life. Seventeen years to be exact. One quarter of my blood is Louisiana Cajun, well-seasoned and spicy like Tabasco-laced gumbo. Another quarter is Georgian, sweet as the iced tea my grandma drank riding around Atlanta in the back of her father’s lending library. Now a good chunk of me is Yankee, Boston-bred since the days of the Mayflower—we’re talking DAR material here, Harvard professors and Vassar debutantes. The final quarter is made up of D.C. doctors and New York singers, owners of candy stores and nurses at mental hospitals. So I must admit that the math doesn’t lie: Factor in 50% blood, 70% lifetime, and 2% drawl, and you’ve got a bred in the blood, not born but raised, cornbread-loving, bluegrass-living Southern girl.
Paris, France. 2011. My roommate Hayley and I are sprawled across the sofa bed of our hotel room. It’s our first week in the new city and we’ve spent the evening sucking down cheap wine and chocolate pudding cups. The ethernet cord is stretched taut from the table across the room to Hayley’s computer, which she’s using to Skype with her mom back in Yosemite. She introduces me and, after effusive greetings and a “thanks for being Hayley’s friend,” her mom asks where I’m from. I reply confidently, “Louisville, Kentucky.” She stares at me blankly. Thinking there’s a connection problem, or maybe she just didn’t understood my lazy Loo-uh-vul vowels (I’m used to being met with bewilderment when I pronounce my city’s name correctly — one friend dubbed it “the land of the univowel.”), I repeat, enunciating, “Loo-ee-ville, Kentucky.” She lets out a big whoosh of a sigh. “Louisville, Kentucky. Well, that is…” Completely stymied, she searches for the words. “That is, uh, somewhere else,” she finally stammers. This woman spends her summers in Thailand, took each of her children to a Third World Country when they were ten so that they could see how different people live and what other cultures feel like. And yet it’s my corner of America that’s got her at a loss for words.
There’s a range of reactions I’ve come to expect when I tell people I’m from the South: why don’t you have an accent, you must love fried chicken, do you ride horses, where is that again? As humans, we like to put people in boxes, neatly sorted, labelled, and filed away. If you were to believe convention, Southern is a synonym for backwards, conservative, Walmart-shoppin’, consonant-droppin’, and morbidly obese. By the same convention, New Yorker equals rude, loud, self-centered, close-minded, promiscuous, materialistic, and obscenely wealthy. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the “Loo-ah-vuhl what now?”’s, it’s that nobody, and no place, fits the rule. We are all of us weird and complicated, squirming out of one box and into another, straddling two or three or five dozen at once. Here at Zelda & Scout, we’ve decided to throw them all out the window. Boxes are overrated.