Y’all is from where?: Texas regionalism

This is LONG overdue, but since my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about regionalism and my identity as a writer. This has been an ongoing internal discussion for me, but lately, as my friends list expands in Facebook and I reconnect with old pals from across the state of Texas but especially back home in Boerne, I’ve started thinking of my own work in explicitly regional terms. Many of the friends I’ve recently reconnected with have noticed my profession and my current focus on writing, and they’ve asked me for some of my work. I’ve linked them to a few pieces online (like “Coffee, Black,” “Distance,” and “How Long My Bruises Will Last“), but right now I’m heavily into a story collection set entirely in Texas and mostly in and around Boerne, so to appeal to our common background in the Texas Hill Country, I’ve started sending them drafts of stories set there, and this has got me thinking once again about what sort of writer I am and how I am presenting myself. It turns out, I think, that I’m a regionalist. But then, aren’t we all?

I’ve had regionalism in the back of my mind ever since early grad school, when I began studying the then-new author Tom Franklin a full year ahead of my masters thesis on him. Back then I was primarily concerned with Southern regionalism and spent a great deal of time exploring various definitions of the literary South, paying special attention to Joseph M. Flora’s division of the South into eight subregions (this from his introduction to Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South, 1993). I was working to explain what Franklin meant when he called the swamps of southern Alabama “my South,” but in the process, I started wondering what exactly my south might be. Flora sets aside an unconventional region of the South he calls the “Southwest,” which includes at its westernmost edge Louisiana and parts of woody East Texas, the childhood stomping grounds of Rick Bass. My parents come from this region, my mother born in the bayou of southwestern Louisana and my father born and raised in Port Arthur, Texas, and I spent a significant part of my childhood there either living in nearby Port Neches or visiting my grandparents in Groves and Nederland. So, I figured, this must make me a Texan writer.

But I’ve always felt at odds with the old home state, and to complicate matters, as I studied more I learned that Texas has no signular regional identity. Rick Bass, whose brilliant The Watch is set in the southeast Texas where some of my cousins still live, has since moved several times and is now as identified with Colorado or Montana as he is with Texas. Cormac McCarthy, whose popular fame depends on his novels written in and set in Texas, is technically an Appalachian writer (according to Flora) since he and his style hail from the hill country and mountains of Tennessee. And there are plenty of anthologies and literary journals that lump Texas in with the Southwest instead of the South, and with Texas’s self-promoted cowboy identity and heavy Mexican influences, it does seem more at home there.

There are some who argue that Texas is in fact both Southern and Southwestern, the dividing line between the regions as easy to find at I-35. I don’t recall the source, but I remember reading somewhere that Dallas and everything east is Southern, and Fort Worth and everything west is Southwestern, for the simple reason that you can grow cotton east of Dallas but you can only grow cattle west of Fort Worth. Despite the wide expanses of Panhandle cotton fields I’d pass on the long drives from San Antonio to Canyon when I was in grad school, the distinction made some sense to me, and explained why Flora included only East Texas in his “southwest” region of the South. When I was living in Denton and spent my weekends hanging out in Dallas and Fort Worth, I became convinced, because despite their mid-mitosis ameobic abutment, the disparity between Big D and Cowtown is unmistakable.  (For a great illustration of this dialectical divide, check out this page on American dialects.)

That left the question of which side I wanted to toss my lot with: South or Southwest? The answer turned out to be neither. A lot of people have argued that because Texas is somehow both, it winds up being neither, and thanks to its size (and sense of self-importance), it deserves to be a region unto itself. Readers of Texas Monthly, or the Texas Review, or those bumper stickers that declare Texas is “a whole other country,” would certainly agree. But those same Texans will also recognize the diversity within their own “other country”: Cattle ranchers in the Panhandle have only a little in common with the dairy farmers of East Texas, less in common with the German goat farmers of the Hill Country, even less in common with the oilmen of Southeast Texas, and nothing at all in common with the artists, musicians, film-makers, and self-professed “freaks” of Austin. In fact, when governor Rick Perry falsely claimed Texas had a constitutional right to secede (again) from the US and set itself up as its own country (again), the clause he was actually thinking of was a provision for the massive state to divide itself into five separate US states, each reflecting the distinctive regions that exist in Texas.

So, like Flora and his eight-fold partitioning of the South, I want to acknowledge the regional divisions of Texas and place myself among them, and this is what I’ve been thinking of since that last post. My own divisions are for now largely dependent on demographics and linguistics, since I’ve studied as a hobby some of the Texas dialects and accents and since I’ve lived in most parts of the state. In a future post, I’ll list some of the authors from these regions, but doing so is going to be hard because, big a state as Texas is, people tend to move around in it a lot. I’ve lived in every region but West Texas, for instance. Also, this list isn’t conclusive or even necessarily concluded — I might move some things around once I get a better feel for the kinds of fiction coming out of these regions — but for now, here they are:

  • East Texas: On the border of Louisiana, from the Piney woods and dairy-farming country down into Southeast Texas, and including Houston and the Gulf Coast as far as Galveston.
  • South Texas: the heavily Spanish- and Mexican-influenced region the Rio Grande Valley up to San Antonio.
  • West Texas: despite my masters alma mater‘s claim on the name, I’m using this to refer mostly to the mountains and deserts west of the Hill Country and south of the Panhandle. I might consider Lubbock as the bordertown between West Texas and the Panhandle.
  • The Panhandle: Lubbock north, with the capital — of course — as Amarillo.
  • North Texas: I’m going to lump DFW together in this and let it run from Wichita Falls in the west to Greenville in the east, from the Red River down to Waco.
  • Central Texas: The dead center of the state, from San Antonio north to Waco, and from Killeen to Katy. It’s a strange region because it’s hard to define in terms of culture — it seems to bleed its culture from the regions that border it, with the great liberal donut hole of Austin setting itself apart entirely. Still, if Texas had a “heartland,” this would be it.
  • The Hill Country: My stomping grounds, mostly the old German farming communities and the leftovers of the German Freethinkers movement, this tiny pocket between South, Central, and West Texas is distinct enough to deserve its own definition. Just ask LBJ.
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