Book Reviews

Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South at NewSouth Books

Genre Gay / Lesbian / Trans* / Contemporary / Nonfiction
Reviewed by Holly Maholm on 21-February-2016

Book Blurb

Crooked Letter i offers a collection of first-person nonfiction narratives that reflect the distinct 'coming out' experiences of a complex cross-section of gay, lesbian, and transgendered Southerners from all walks of life and at different stages in their lives. The experiences represented here pivot around a central theme -- finally finding language to understand one's identity, and then discovering we were never the only ones. Revealing a vibrant cross-section of Southerners, the writers of these narratives have in common the experience of being Southern and different, but determined against all odds.

Book Review

Briefly, ‘Crooked Letter i’ is a collection of coming-out stories by gay men and women who grew up in the South. There are sixteen first-person accounts: heartfelt, honest, remarkably well-written, and accessible to any reader. There is nothing indecent or salacious here, unless you find stories of purposeless cruelty inflicted upon undeserving children – who happen to be gay - to be in any way “indecent.”

So this is a book about gay men and women growing up in the South, so naturally I will start by telling about a report I recently saw on television about air pollution in Beijing. The pictures were appalling. A reporter stood out by the side of some expressway, the camera pointing up to where the skyline of Beijing should be. However, the entire city was completely obscured by an impenetrable, black cloud of noxious air pollution. The young reporter wore a white surgical mask, as if that scrap of fabric could protect her lungs from the dense and corrosive mixture surrounding her on every side.

Leaving Beijing behind and shifting my focus to those sixteen men and women who wrote their stories for this book, I soon learned that during their years of growing up in the South, they were surrounded with a similar (but supernatural) cloud of dense, oppressive “spiritual miasma.” A presence which had the same effect upon their youthful, energetic spirits as air pollution would have upon their lungs.

Let us examine that supernatural cloud and learn what it is.

To begin with, and for those who have read Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, we know there is in the South that low-hanging shroud of history – a relic of an era which has died but which refuses to cross over – haunting the living with a legacy of melancholy, ennui, and unresolved regret. Those suffocating vapors, we know, visit equally upon both the gay authors of the book as well as their friends and neighbors who claim to be straight.

Then next, there is in the atmosphere a rich odor of the earth. Not that this represents any form of spiritual oppression – it’s just a consequence of those hot and humid days in the South when the air hangs heavy upon the spirit. Again, both straight and gay must labor to breathe this air.

And going on – again shared by both gay and straight - is the ubiquity of the soil; making its presence felt with every breath because the South is largely a rural place, and the seasons of the earth, its crops, its farms and farmers, are never far away. So we see, thus far that spectral haze overlaying the South is a common burden shared by all – both gay and straight.   

Nevertheless, until I read ‘Crooked Letter i’, I had no idea that as tragic and melancholy as Faulkner showed the South to be, even he failed to capture the fresh and vivid suffering of gay men and women growing up there. This is no legacy of the past, nor is it in any way shared with the straight residents of that region.

Gay men and women do not need to refer back to some plantation-era injustice to find who it is who oppresses them. They need only sit real still and quiet on a Sunday morning… listening off in the distance for the hymns that sing out their damnation. Where else would you find the source of those hateful voices who spitefully whisper the word “abomination?”
And after all, isn’t the Bible, itself, the product of another – in many ways similar - ancient, rural tradition reflective of the same biases and the same rigid, pitiless proscriptions we see in our modern South?

Where are the Gideons when we need them? You will not find any hotel or motel in all the land any bedside, table drawer that does not have its Bible (including, as it does, its own pages of Leviticus, where you will find that ancient, unanswerable slur so painful to any man or woman who is gay).

But what we need, now, is for the Gideons to fan out to every Bible-centered church in all the South and slip a copy of ‘Crooked Letter i’ into those little racks that hold the hymnals. Give those who love the Bible another collection of stories to study on a Sunday morning. And when they are done with all the churches, let them go on to all the high schools, where pretty much everybody could stand to learn a thing or two about the value of storytelling in our world.

You will find in ‘Crooked Letter i’ many heartbreaking accounts of men and women who came into this world with spirits no less pure than any other innocent child, but who – growing up in the South - suffered in an atmosphere of rejection and condemnation as poisonous as any air you will ever find in China.





DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been provided by NewSouth Books for the purpose of a review.

Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Anthology/10 short stories, 208 pages
Heat Level
Publication Date 20-August-2015
Price $9.99 ebook, $25.95 paperback
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