As promised, here is 9L staffer Eduardo Gabrieloff's interview with Tim Parrish, where they discuss Parrish's essay from the current issue of Ninth Letter, "Southern Men: 1958-1968." I'll keep my preamble short and let you get right to their discussion.
9L: Your essay explores racism from a much-less explored angle: a child being taught how to be racist. How do you feel this fits in our country's exploration of racism?
Tim Parrish: I don't believe there actually is much serious exploration of racism in our country, at least not outside people focused on the matter. Most people don't, I think, see the pay off in such a discussion, and they settle for easy caricatures, like, "I don't burn crosses so I'm not a racist," or "That person is a racist and therefore should be flatly condemned." People are afraid of the stigma that admitting, or even come close to admitting, that they are racists brings. Our culture definitely holds, pardon me, a somewhat black-and-white way of seeing racism, as if most people would choose to be one and then are irredeemable if they are, rather than someone admitting, like I hope I do, that I was raised as a racist and racism is still part of my wiring. In some ways, confronting racism is like confronting alcoholism -- you have to admit you have it, take a look at it, and then constantly work on it. So I believe there's a lot of denial and condemnation, which leads to easy positions of self-protection and self-righteousness, but do nothing to encourage introspection or a deep understanding of the complicated, often-nuanced causes and manifestations of racism.
9L: Was it hard to not try to play yourself or your family off more sympathetically?
TP: Yes. Writing this memoir is the most difficult writing I've ever done. The challenges are to be honest without being exploitative or sensationalistic, and to show people's complexities. It's hard to reveal myself and my family in ways that are shameful and will certainly cause discord, but I chose the subject matter because I believe it's important and so it's my responsibility to get to the truth. I hate memoirs and fiction that blatantly sentimentalize people and avoid hard truths. Quite simply, those books are lies.
9L: How do you think your piece relates to people today? Mainly, I mean in terms of terrorism, and how we currently think of terrorism.
TP: The book in its entirety is very much about how fear can be manipulated to justify attacking others, especially if those others can be cast as different and a threat to our way of life. The book actually came out of the aftermath of 9-11, when the Bush Administration's use of jingoism and a holy-war mentality brought back a lot of my upbringing and actions. I was raised in a racist church that yearned for an apocalypse in which two clearly-delineated sides battle it out and the righteous side is embraced by god. Then, when I was terrorized by some outlaws at 13, I began looking for someone to protect me and that person turned out to be a brutal racist who offered a false sense of protection if I allied myself with his violence. I wanted a simple solution to my fear, which is what people want in dealing with terrorism, but which is obviously impossible.
9L: You end your piece showing how you lost out due to racism. How do you think your family lost out, aside from the lack of swimming?
TP: Obviously, everybody loses because of racism; most severely, the people who are the object of it, be it personal or institutional. It's difficult to say in a brief space how my family and I "lost out" due to racism, but I guess the simplest way to say it is we all suffered from the moral poverty and toxic rage that comes from harboring stereotypes and trying to generalize and blame people simply because they're different from us. Racism is corrosive to the spirit and to a full experience of the world. It makes us react to the world hatefully and fearfully, which is not a healthy way to react, especially when there is a true threat and we need all our faculties and judgment intact. My family's and my racism makes me very sad.
9L: How have you considered your family in what you've written, and how have they reacted to this piece and to your book?
TP: I'm not quite sure what you mean by "considered," but I always think of my family and how something I write will affect them. I do want to protect them, and I do as much as I'm able, while still telling the truth as I see it.
My family doesn't tend to read my work, and this book isn't yet published and doesn't have a publisher (it has several agent rejections, so if there are any agents or publishing houses interested, please contact me!). Their reaction to my story collection was mixed and even unknowable. My middle brother, who is the basis for the character Bob in the book, was very supportive, although we did have some intense discussions. My oldest brother said he didn't read it, but his wife told him that my depiction (highly fictional, by the way) of our parents was "hateful." I'm not sure my father read it. I found the paperback of it stacked with other books in the garage, but at least it was on top of Ann Coulter's and Bill O'Reilly's books!
Thank you to Tim Parrish for taking the time to speak with 9L and for such a great discussion! To read "Southern Men: 1958-1968," pick up a copy of Ninth Letter (vol. 7, no. 1) in our webstore.