So what is Southern (capital ‘S’) literature, anyway? Is it the bastard love child of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, conceived over bourbon and peacock feathers in some undisclosed, rural location a few clicks south of the Mason-Dixon? Is it defined by some sort of geographic designation? By the distinction of dialect? By the summer-slow motion of the stories the South breeds? Is it even a real thing or just some nebulous category that refuses to wither away? Lord only knows. But perhaps (hopefully) Southern literature is becoming more defined by the voices it has erased and shuttered for too long, voices that are beginning to rise (far too slowly) to the page. One of these voices belongs to Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle, the first published novelist from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Her debut novel, Even As We Breathe, is a richly woven wonder—textured and honest, with a plot that rolls out gently and confidently, not unlike the mountains of Western North Carolina where the story is set.
Cowney Sequoyah, the protagonist of Even As We Breathe, is a nineteen-year-old Cherokee tip-toeing toward the edge of manhood. In an attempt to breach the borders of his Cherokee reservation and earn money to finance a dream of college attendance, he takes a summer job at the luxurious Grove Park Inn in Asheville. The narrative plot-kicker? It’s 1942, and the Grove Park Inn houses not high-rolling tourists, but Axis diplomats and foreign nationals. (In this case, you can translate “houses” as “imprisons.”) In his job as a grounds keeper’s assistant, Cowney navigates a winding and often mysterious path among the military guards, the foreign nationals, teenage infatuation, and the incessant but not unexpected racism that looms over the manicured grounds of the Grove Park Inn during the early days of World War II.
For Clapsaddle, the genesis of Even As We Breathe lies in a newspaper feature she ran across about the Grove Park in ’42. “It was an article on Asheville’s role in World War II, mostly about the Biltmore housing works of art. It mentioned the Grove Park housing Axis diplomats and foreign nationals. The story came from there.”
And what Clapsaddle did with that rich set-up is utilize a classic storytelling strategy: put a character where he might not necessarily belong. Young Cowney is a stranger in a stranger land, and though he returns time and again to the reservation, he is always drawn back to the Grove Park Inn, back to the grounds teeming with soldiers and foreigners. In other words, Clapsaddle’s protagonist is caught between the familiar yet stifling reservation and the opulent Grove Park, and his allegiances in both places provide the ingredients for a compelling and authentic read.
This high degree of authenticity was a priority for Clapsaddle from the outset of her writing process. She says, “If you look at who has been telling the stories of native existence, it’s not been native people for the most part. You can go back to Hawthorne talking about the dark man in the woods, and those are the first voices, and that defines what native literature is for America. So when you have other people defining what it is, and you hear an authentic voice, it almost sounds inauthentic. When you focus down into Eastern Band Cherokee, we’re very different than other tribes. We’re even different than Cherokee nation in Oklahoma, in terms of our relationship to place. I know in my own experience, people in the publishing world just don’t get that sometimes.”
Clapsaddle’s definition (or perhaps redefinition) of native voice and authenticity permeates each page of Even As We Breathe, no doubt due to the responsibility she feels as the first published novelist from her Cherokee community. “It becomes representative in a way. For a while, when someone asks about literature from the Eastern Band Cherokees, there’s only going to be me. And there’s not just one story from our tribe. I don’t want anyone to assume there is one voice from the Eastern Band because there are so many.”
And yet, we see so few books penned by native writers. As Clapsaddle puts it, “There are only small spaces for our sorts of voices.” Fortunately for readers, Clapsaddle’s publisher, the University Press of Kentucky, gave her story the opportunity to see the light of day and carve out a space of its own. Under the editorship of acclaimed novelist Silas House, Clapsaddle fine-tuned her narrative into a story that Publisher’s Weekly dubbed, “an astonishing addition to WWII and Native American literature.” Reviewer after reviewer has praised its addition to the canon of Appalachian novels. Interestingly, though, Clapsaddle says, “I’ve never been referred to as a Southern writer. I’m curious to see how that plays out.”
I am too. Writers like Clapsaddle and books like Even As We Breathe should serve to alter our idea of literary categories because she occupies so many. She’s a woman. A Cherokee. An Appalachian. And a Southerner. Storytellers like Clapsaddle remind us how arbitrary and perhaps unnecessary these literary categories are. They are typically and traditionally created by people (publishers, reviewers, readers, etc.) who don’t actually create the work inside of them. And yet they persist.
Which brings me back to the original question: What is Southern literature? Sure, the typical and probably most popular answer (which you’ll hear writers recite time after time) is that Southern authors have an almost obsessive attachment to place. If that’s the case, there’s nothing more Southern than the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. As Clapsaddle says with a laugh, “We’ve been here the longest.”
Her laugh is almost symbolic of the good humor and humility Clapsaddle employs as a first-time novelist gaining national attention. “If you had told me five years ago that I would be debuting with a university press during COVID, I would have said ‘forget that.’ But I do think there’s a little bit of a change in the publishing industry. People are looking to smaller presses to see what’s coming through.”
And what’s “coming through” are voices too long ignored, stories finding footholds through the tenacity of small publishers, many of which are housed in the South. So thank goodness for small, independent Southern publishers. Thank goodness for writers who continue to create in silence and solitude until their stories find a crack where the daylight comes in.
What is Southern literature? I haven’t got a clue. But I do know this: The South is a wide, sprawling place. There should be plenty of spaces for all the voices that deserve to be heard, like Annette Clapsaddle’s. She is the first published novelist from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
You and I both know the second is out there, waiting.