Low Country: A Southern Memoir
I first came across J. Nicole Jones in her review of Maryse Condé’s I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem (1986) in the Paris Review October 2020 issue, where she writes, “every blow and slur Condé places into her historical re-creation is an intentional violence for the purpose of remembering.” In her debut, a memoir, Jones catalogues family violence as a part of her remembering; violence becomes a framework and connecting thread for the 13 vignettes that explore her own, her family’s, and her hometown, Myrtle Beach’s troubled and collective past. I’m not always a fan of memoir as it seems to be practiced currently, though I count a few memoirs among my favorite books (Joan Didion, Jesmyn Ward, and Roxane Gay come to mind). But I read Jones’s defense of memoir in the Los Angeles Review of Books with interest (“Becoming Story: the Art of Memoir,” LARB, January 10, 2013). Jones pushes back against various critiques of the form including Lorrie Moore’s description of memoir as “jumbled confessions” (from her piece “What If?” in the New York Review of Books) and Neil Genzlinger’s suggestion that memoir should somehow be earned “by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience.” (“The Problem With Memoirs,” in the New York Times Book Review, January 28, 2011) Of course, Genzlinger’s critique is problematic in the way it suggests silencing: who gets to decide who’s earned the right to speak? And how do we ensure that unheard voices are heard? It’s clear Jones and I would have a lot to talk about, after all, we both love a good story and I agree with her suggestion that memoir is “autobiography that relies less on chronology and more on good writing” (LARB). Like many obsessive readers, I’ll read anything if it’s well-written. But Jones loses me in her piece when she uses the usual male writers as examples in support of memoir and ends with “Getting back to Tolstoy—don’t all roads lead back to him?” I have to answer, politely, no—not for all of us. Although it took me years of graduate study and all of that obsessive reading to get out from under the thumb of the male writer. Jones should know this, it’s what her memoir is actually about: if one can’t actually smash the patriarchy, at least we can try to escape and write our own stories.
In Jones’s string of tales (because, more than anything, that’s what this book is), she writes about her hometown, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and generations of her family. There is sharp prose: “Vengeful spirit remains among the main opportunities for ambitious women in the Low Country,” and “Women must not only tend to the wound but conceal the scar.” These are just a few of the quotable lines. There are also some clunky metaphors, her father sleeps “the deep sleep of whiskey and defeat,” goes through “girlfriends like packs of cigarettes,” and in one scene, “Cigarette smoke coils like fat water moccasins around branches of groping hands and through wisps of feathered hair.” I was so focused trying to picture those water moccasins, I lost the scene. There are distracting asides to the reader, “At least I’m being upfront with you,” and “Have you seen it coming?” And some phrases that are just confusing, “Remembering is survival, and beauty the easiest faith.”
There are also phrases that hold the whole thing together: “Here we chuck out Aristotle in favor of the forms of women who tell stories shaped like themselves that history made a point of forgetting. The stories of women, like their bodies and lives, are fuller, rounder, softer. Prone to repetition. Like love. Like songs. Like ghosts.” I came back to this passage after reading the last section, the last page, and understood. I realized the places I almost skimmed, the places I paused and reread were clear—I had little interest in stories of the hard-drinking, sometimes violent, often broke, outlaw country musician-father and much more interest in the women: Nana who survives decades of her husband’s abuse and holds the family’s stories together. Jones’s mother: young, beautiful, faithful to her husband despite all his failings, at one point barely surviving pre-eclampsia, but somehow also almost keeping her family together. And the women of history and myth whose stories Jones weaves throughout: Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Theodosia Burr (daughter of Aaron), the wandering female ghosts of Myrtle Beach; ghosts whose stories are told as lessons, “this is what happened to women who didn’t know their place.” When Jones fantasizes, “Maybe we could all take tea together before sailing off to an imagined land where their dispositions were not punishable, by noose or plank,” it’s hard not to want to board that ship.
One reviewer complained that Jones’s vignettes don’t each contain a traditional arc (Aristotle again), and therefore don’t make “good” reading (whatever he means by that). Not all stories have arcs and didn’t the French feminists tell us we could move beyond Aristotle? It’s clear that Jones is trying. She tells us she comes “from a line of women for whom being walked all over and jumped on for the fun of cruelty was progress.” The violence that threads through these pages is brutal: physical and verbal abuse that would leave most of us shattered. Like many women before her, Jones seeks escape, first through books and then college. Similar to other memoirs, there is also the expression of deep loss: loss of place, loss of family, loss of self, “The ironing out of accent was a way to fool myself into believing that I could be different than those women who suffered to make me.”
The South Jones writes about is one I’ve never seen (the South I know is New Orleans—a very different place from Myrtle Beach), but the power of home, the draw of the land is one many of us can understand. For Jones, the ocean and the beach are where she grew up and where her extended family made a living. Her brutal, racist “Grandpappy” was a millionaire businessman, her uncles ran hotels, motels, bars, and restaurants, her parents met while working in a family-owned bar. There are pirates (Blackbeard ransacked the Carolina coast and hid in local waters), rum-runners, moonshine, and burlesque joints. And there are hurricanes. The matter-of-fact way Jones writes about hurricanes is some of the best regional writing in the book. Hurricanes appear as another thread or marker throughout the book. Hazel (1954) transforms the coastline of Myrtle Beach, allowing her family to develop their tourist business. As a child, she’d pin the local newspaper’s hurricane map to the wall at home. During Hurricane Fran (1996), the family plays in the front yard. “You have to face the wind head-on, and the last person standing … wins.” They lose everything when their storage unit floods. After Hurricane Hugo (1989), “none of our maps worked anymore.” Jones describes her journey North “like pushpins in a hurricane map,” and her own story-telling process as, “like a hurricane, I will change tack without warning.” There is a striking moment toward the end of the book where Jones writes about the death of her beloved maternal grandfather, “Grandpa,” and describes summer as “the season of disasters and catastrophes.” It’s a perspective so markedly different from my own that it shifted my entire understanding not only of the book I’d just read but the world. Imagine if the end of summer, that golden time when days stretch long and hot and begin to shift to the anticipation of fall, imagine if those days signaled “disasters and catastrophes”—not just terrifying hurricanes, the ocean flexing and winds pummeling, but irreparable loss.
Jones says that she “used to think I learned storytelling from my dad,” but that “men have always been credited with the stories women kept alive.” She claims her own power, “I am in charge of the story now,” in the moments after Nana has died. Because, it is not her father or, really, any of the men in her life (not even Aristotle or Tolstoy) who are the storytellers, it is the women—whether Nanas or ghosts, or Jones linking her own work with “little Julia Legare, who nightly forces open the doors between death and memory.” A difficult, sometimes meandering, but ultimately, powerful debut.