James Jacob Seawel discusses his nonfiction piece, Big Fat Freebird End of Times, from Arkana Issue 9.
Questions from Jennifer McCune & Arkana Staff.
Jennifer McCune: This is such a curious and engaging piece. What inspired it?
James Jacob Seawel: The committee of voices that live in my brain penned this piece. Often I feel as if I’m a bridge between multiple worlds—gay and straight, black and white, rural and urban, liberal and conservative, believers and non. It’s exhausting, but I don’t know any other way to live.
JM: How do you approach capturing dialect in a humorous, yet thoughtful way?
JJS: One of the pitfalls of living in a politically correct world, and I say that as a wannabe-woke liberal, is a constant fear of offending. I grew up around old Ozarkers who would unknowingly drift into Appalachian and even Elizabethan speech. To a Midwestern observer such dialect might come across as quaint or even cornpone, but it sounds like home to me. My Granny was forevermore commencing to do somethin’-or-‘nother and never failed to use “yonder” when giving directions. When I miss home, I just turn on some Loretta Lynn and home comes to me.
As much as I love the Ozarkian and Appalachian folk speak, African American Vernacular English blesses my ears too. I hope I never see the day where folks in the Ozarks talk crisp mainstream suburban newscaster English and I hope the old Black men of Biddleville don’t start code switching. It just wouldn’t be funny if the old gentleman in my story had said, “Excuse me kind sir, but your posterior is immense.” Actually, on second thought, it would have been hilarious, but you know what I mean. As much as I want America to be united, let’s not homogenize our speech. Let’s preserve it. It’s a beautiful part of the patchwork quilt that is America. Apologies to Karl Childers, but when I’m in a culture with rich accents and dialogue I could easily say to many folks I meet, “I like the way you talk.”
JM: What impression/feeling did you want to leave with the readers of this colorful piece?
JJS: I wanted to paint a picture of America. For better or worse, this global pandemic has revealed and exposed us for who we are, and we’re not just rural white people in red states or urban blacks in blue cities. We’re Americans and most of us haven’t played by the rules very well during this pandemic. My liberal friends in Charlotte might have worn masks, but they didn’t do a good job of staying at home. People still have birthdays and the local watering hole is still serving margaritas, so Cheers! Meanwhile, my conservative friends in rural Arkansas often didn’t even think the coronavirus was a thing. Someone’s old Grandpa died and it was like, Well, he was 90. It was his time to be with Jesus. Let’s go to the home game. Pappaw would have wanted us to. America was handed a mirror in 2020. It’s been a 1 Corinthians 13:12 moment in my mind. Sadly, most of us are still seeing dimly. Lord, help us.
JM: One notices the mention of Faulkner at the end. Is he an author who inspired you, and if so, how?
JJS: Goodness, yes. I grew up on Faulkner. I didn’t read him until high school when I struggled through A Light In August under the tutelage of owl-eyed professor, Herby Early. But my parents quoted Count No ‘Count. I know Faulkner wasn’t gay, but I always sensed a kindred spirit. It seemed he would a helluva lot rather sit around and tell ribald and racy stories than work in the fields. Most of my male peers wanted to bust a gut in the fields to show the menfolk they could lift that barge and tote that bail. I just wanted to nap and read. Hell, I’d mow the yard and pick the tomatoes, sure. I wasn’t trying to get a Democratic handout, but I wasn’t trying to get a hernia to prove to some redneck I had balls. I’d discovered those already. All the more reason to stay home.
Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha is much like Randolph County, Arkansas where I grew up. Maybe not to the casual eye, who just sees rice and soybeans in the Delta east and oak groves and cattle farms western Ozarks foothills. But I have always seen that there are those with the right last names and those who’ll never measure up in the eye of public opinion because of what their ancestor of generations ago might have done. It may not be spoken, but that world is alive and well even to this day. Faulkner showed the best of such worlds in pleasant, happy people and he showed the worst of such worlds with cruel, miserable people. And often as not all of those traits lived in each person and in each family. I would never deign to condemn my culture of origin, but in order to paint a true picture I can’t omit the ugly. I did try to lighten it in Big Fat Free Bird. I’m sure the couple in the pickup truck from my story had different outlooks on life and the current culture wars than I, but for just a minute we were fellow travelers enjoying just a moment of a springtime afternoon on a gravel road and none of that mattered. That’s the South I miss. Faulkner captured that South in spades with his Snopeses and Sartorises.
I thank you for the question, but I realize I don’t deserve to have my name in the same sentence as William Faulkner.
JM: What comment did you want to make regarding the pandemic with this work?
JJS: Putting it into a little bit of context seemed appropriate to me. No one on my timeline wanted to hear one more do-gooder liberal wax self-righteous with stay-at-home/save-a-life preaching. Some of the folks screaming stay at home had jobs that, you guessed it, let them stay at home. Liberals, like myself, can be out of touch sometimes, but at the same time I felt I had conservative friends, especially rural ones, go out of their ways to flout the rules that even our conservative Republican governor put into effect. As much as it all made me want to scream, I tried to focus on the humanity of it. People on both sides love their mommas and want the best for their children, we just aren’t functioning as one America right now. We aren’t making a lot of sense. I know rural folks who to this day believe the whole Covid-19 shebang was a hoax concocted by the baby-eating pedophiles who rent space in the basement of Hillary’s New York pizzeria and email-deletatorium. And, I know urban liberals who believe every word out of the mouth of Dr. Fauci who never turned down an invitation to cram in the backseats of Ubers and gather at the local bar to talk about how stupid country people who don’t believe in science are. Heaven help us.
Read Big Fat Freebird End of Times here!