Jennifer Davis spent her childhood roaming the shores of Lake Martin and the Tallapoosa River in central Alabama, and the region sank its tangled and overgrown roots deep in her heart. After completing her MFA at the University of Alabama in 2001, her first collection of stories -- Her Kind of Want, published by the University of Iowa Press -- received the 2002 Iowa Short Fiction Award, the annual prize juried by the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Since September, she has been on the faculty of the Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University. Davis will read from Her Kind of Want on Monday at Auntie's.
"Winning the award has certainly opened doors for me," she says. "I got to teach in the program here, which wouldn't have happened without the award. As a writer, anything to make it a little easier is welcome."
The lush landscape of rural Alabama figures prominently in each of the nine stories in the book. While the characters may appear initially to resemble stock Southerners -- they marry young, bear many children, drink too much -- it soon becomes apparent that these people are far more complex than revealed at first blush.
"I was trying to subvert Southern stereotypes," she says. "You know, the big-haired dumb whore out of Alabama who doesn't have a voice. Or, if she does, then you're making fun of her. I tried to give her a voice, to draw that out. In our culture, I think there's a strange romanticizing of the South. There are many beautiful things there, but poverty sucks."
Some of the women in Her Kind of Want have big hair, but what they lack in formal education they make up for in world-weary wisdom. They know that what little power they have comes from sex, and they know how to enjoy using that power. They know that most men end up leaving, either physically or emotionally. They struggle to hold onto hope, although the possibility of a happy future drifts further away as they age. Reflecting on a woman's loss when her boyfriend disappears along with her paycheck and her like-new woodworking tools, Davis writes: "It's not that she used the tools, it's that she could have used them, and when your could is gone, what's left?"
While the situations are drawn from the insular central Alabama towns of her youth, her characters and their yearnings would be at home in any isolated rural American community. The conflicts here are not North against South; rather, tension develops between rural and urban, blue-collar and professional, educated versus unschooled. Ultimately, the stories come down to insiders and outsiders. Like Carolyn Chute, Annie Proulx and others who mine the nation's small-town idiosyncrasies, Davis uses the very specifics of region to tell a universal tale.
"The South has a rich tradition of regional writing," she says, adding that her writing teachers advised against an emphasis on region. "I was told not to do it, but there wasn't much else I could do, because this is what I know. Now I'm terrified of being pigeonholed as a Southern writer." Still, she thinks readers will see beyond the trappings of region to the themes within. "I'm starting to think that [the book] transcends region and becomes a story of class differences."
Illustrating this point is "When You See," the closing story of the collection. The main character, Dena, straddles the insider-outsider boundary in her hometown. She went away to college, so many of her old friends think she's too high-falutin' for them. But she moved back, and her boyfriend Robert and his academic colleagues from Atlanta have a hard time reconciling her cussing and drinking with their knowledge of her education. Like a child of immigrants, Dena knows how to "pass" in both cultures, but she tires of being the only translator between the two groups. When Robert takes offense at a homophobic joke told by one of her friends, Dena imagines telling him why she still loves them.
"I suddenly wanted to... make him understand why my friends - who were sometimes racists and ignorant and unforgivable - could at other times bring tears to my eyes. I wanted him to understand how deep they want, how hard they labor, the pleasure they take in telling their stories. How they can be on their way to work at a job where their manager'll fire them for being five minutes late, and they'll pull off the side of the road and take off their caps if a funeral passes, black or white, because they may be ignorant, but they have respect for some things his world couldn't understand."
Davis says this story comes close to describing her own experience in her hometown. "I don't tend to write autobiographically, but the angst and the voice of that character is closest to my own. In my family, I'm the academic who went away. You feel like an outsider wherever you go."