Archive for January, 2014

John Pritchard talks Sailing to Alluvium, Junior Ray with Publishers Weekly

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014 by Brian Seidman

Sailing to Alluvium by John PritchardPublishers Weekly has just released a great Q&A with John Pritchard, author of the “Junior Ray” books and the newly released Sailing to Alluvium. PW Southern correspondent Paige Crutcher spoke with Pritchard about the publication of his third novel, becoming a first-time author at age 65, the Mississippi Delta as a character in his novels, and how he comes up with all of Junior Ray’s expletives.

Here’s a selection from the interview:

PW: You’ve said before that when you write Junior Ray, you listen to him. Does he talk to you even when you’re not working on a book?

Oh, yes. He will not stop. Indeed I have often said that I am his stenographer. Almost anything in daily life can be viewed through Junior Ray’s perspective. And his reactions are usually unpredictable–for instance, I hypothetically took him with me to a hypothetical political rally. There we were, behind the barricades on one side of the street, facing the opposition on the other. Be mindful that Junior Ray does not know the difference between a liberal and a conservative, nor does he really care. In any case there we were, and a woman quite near us raised her fist and shouted, “Get your hands out of my uterus!” Upon which, I suppose in the spirit of solidarity, Junior Ray shouted: “Mine, too, sumbich!”

PW: Would you say that setting, The Delta, is also a character in Sailing to Alluvium?

The question says it all because of course it is the place–the Mississippi Delta–with which I am most concerned. Thus, quite literally, that place stands sine qua non as the main character in all three of Junior Ray’s books. This Delta, which is Mississippi’s Yazoo basin, bounded on the east by the bluffs of the Loess Hills and on the west by the Mississippi River, is a paradoxical bowl of ravening eccentricity dominated by an insistence on conformity and is, therefore, a place which logically cannot exist. But Deltans have never let logic stand in their way.

In short, more than race, class was paramount, and that issue is at the heart of Junior Ray’s narrational perspective. But certainly one of the great shapers of that odd land’s persona, its speech along with its food, its customs, its music, and possibly its whole way of looking at things, is in the largest of measures derived from the indisputable influence of the Delta’s African-American majority, without whom there would have been no story at all worth telling.

PW: Junior Ray was born with a mouthful of expletives, but how much of Junior Ray is in John Pritchard?

I normally do not cuss as much, except when the computer goes haywire or I can’t get the lug nuts loosened on the wheel of the car. Then I find profanity useful and, I am convinced, effective. Mainly, though, I am highly entertained by Junior Ray. He often speaks in imagistic tropes that remind me of a wonderful friend I had when I was in the Army. … His speech was colorful–intensely so, as I mentioned, and original but it was not at all that profane–“Lieutenant, I was stannin there with my tongue hangin out like a red necktie–red as a fox’s ass in poke berry time!”–and his sparkling, Zorban delight in living made an indelible impression on me …

Read “Junior Ray Returns: Q&A with John Pritchard” in full at the Publishers Weekly website.

John Pritchard’s Sailing to Alluvium is available now in hardcover and ebook from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore. His previous “Junior Ray” books, Junior Ray and The Yazoo Blues, are also available. Follow Junior Ray himself on Twitter at @JuniorRaybook.

On MLK’s Holiday, a Few Words About the Poor

Monday, January 20th, 2014 by Randall Williams

Today is the MLK holiday, although in Alabama the adoption of the holiday passed the legislature only by designating it as also being in honor of the birth of Robert E. Lee, who coincidentally shares the same birth week as King, so that white state workers taking the day off didn’t have to do so in tribute to civil rights.

Setting aside that head-in-the-sand Alabama political posturing, it is MLK Day, which means it’s a good day to remember that though MLK is rightly celebrated as a leader of the movement which broke the back of legalized segregation, toward the end of his life he was mostly campaigning to end economic injustice and war (at the time, in Vietnam). And while the civil rights movement was relatively straightforward — Jim Crow laws were an obvious evil — and gained the support of government, business, and, for the most part, the public, the same support was not forthcoming for anti-poverty and anti-war efforts.

For one thing, poverty and war have complex causes that are not easy to identify, much less target. For another, while changes in the U.S. economy and infrastructure had largely eliminated the economic benefits to white Southerners of first slavery and then segregation, there remained/remain powerful interests who profited from poverty and war.

The poverty part of that profit equation is hard for some to swallow, though I believe the case can be made. Consider the hugely profitable low-end loan, check cashing, rent-to-own furniture, etc., businesses that prey on the poor. Consider the prison-industrial complex that has expanded alongside the increased incarceration rates of the poor. Consider the increased numbers of well-paid and well-pensioned judges, prosecutors, police, and support personnel, and all the suppliers and manufacturers of their furnishings and consumables needed to keep a lid clamped on the “criminal” poor.

The military part of the profit equation is more obvious; even President Dwight D. Eisenhower, our last five-star commander in chief, famously warned of this danger, but we just keep spending and spending.

But back to the poor, and the impetus for my taking up your time today …

The NYT has recently been running a good series, “The Great Divide,” about the country’s return to Gilded Age levels of income inequality. Reading the NYT this morning, I was struck by today’s entry about the results of a study by an epidemiologist examining linkage between poverty and mental health. Her conclusions seem to indicate that — surprise — giving poor people money improves their lives and saves the taxpayers money. I suppose this is the academic equivalent of the folk wisdom that money can’t buy happiness, but the absence of money does buy misery. And the societal costs of misery are high.

As Congress dithers on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, and is likely to pass a Farm Bill that will further cut food stamps even while subsidies continue to agribusiness, it seems a good time to think about policies that might actually help the poor and the country.

Bob Zellner talks to Bill Moyers about North Carolina Moral Mondays

Monday, January 6th, 2014 by Brian Seidman

The Wrong Side of Murder Creek by Bob ZellnerA recent episode of Moyers & Company, hosted by political commentator Bill Moyers, featured the current “state of conflict” in North Carolina. The state has a Republican-controlled legislature that is “steering North Carolina to the right”; liberal groups, lead by the NAACP’s Reverend William Barber, have organized a series of “Moral Mondays” protests against the Republican’s new laws.

Participating in the “Moral Mondays” movement is civil rights activist Bob Zellner, whose memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek explores how he left behind a prejudiced upbringing to become the first white Southern field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Many of the “Moral Mondays” protesters have been arrested during the protests, including Zellner, 74.

Legislative changes that the group is protesting against include, according to the Moyers & Company website, “slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, providing vouchers to private schools, cutting unemployment benefits, refusing to expand Medicaid and rolling back electoral reforms, including voting rights.”

“Our purpose in life is to work for those who are powerless,” Zellner told Moyers & Company. “What’s happening now in the Moral Monday movement is on the same moral plane as what happened in the civil rights movement.”

Watch “State of Conflict: North Carolina” below or on the Moyers & Company website.

Bob Zellner’s memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement is available in hardcover and ebook from NewSouth Books, Amazon, or your favorite bookstore.