Although we both grew up in Memphis, across a city that isn't that large, I didn't find Zandria F. Robinson's writing until a decade after I left home, when the Internet and Beyoncé led me to her. This speaks to my upbringing in the intentionally, explicitly white South. After reading her pieces in Rolling Stone on "Formation"'s engagement with black Southern regionalism, I found her personal blog and her Twitter, where she posts with unrelenting joy about and critiques on pop culture, Memphis life and politics, black music, art, and literature. She is an essential black, Southern, woman writer, sociologist, and ethnographer, which is to say an essential teacher. To study Memphis, to make art of it, is to study an American locus point.
As Zandria writes in the award-winning This Ain't Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South, Memphis is "neither Old South nor New South" and "sits at the physical, temporal, and epistemological intersection of rural and urban, soul and post-soul, and civil rights and post–civil rights." She is also a beloved mentor and teacher of black feminism and popular culture. She is a force for equality and growth in artistic, nonprofit, and academic circles down South and nationally.
Reading her most recent work, "Listening for the Country," nominated for a 2017 National Magazine Award, I see her generosity and her investigation into all that is Southern. Hungry for her father's country blues and country fortitude after his sudden death, she writes, "I became an ethnographer in part to understand that world empirically, with facts … I always listened, and am still listening, for that world, the formative one that made Daddy." I finally met her last summer, back home, where we started a conversation, on this city that breaks and bears, that has continued over this past year, over many Old Fashioneds with our friends and families, and eventually in our email chains and Google Docs, which I'm lucky to share here.
Molly Quinn: When did you start to write? Did you feel a responsibility to write about Memphis when you were young, a sense of writing about home?
Zandria F. Robinson: Most of the writing I have done for most of my life has been required, on command, in response to a prompt of some sort, for an assignment, or the turgid kind of writing academics do. Teachers said I was a good writer. But who isn't, you liars, I would think, so I didn't think of it as a thing that one did per se. Writing had been mechanical for me, not necessarily because I did not enjoy it, but because I did so much of it that it had become like breathing.
The kind of literature I was attracted to, which I took writing cues from, was almost exclusively Southern, and I had begun reading it around ten or eleven. Hurston. Faulkner. Ellison (the Census says Oklahoma is the South). Welty. Poe. So regardless of the prompt, the South, and the black South in particular, was in my writing. It was the viewpoint through which I interpreted most things.
Still, I don't think I actually thought about home as a thing to be responsible to. It just was. I had traveled and been places, but home was just an unchanging thing. I don't think I conceptualized the city as somewhere to like or dislike. I didn't think about living in other places at all, come to think of it.
When you are away from home, though, you become aware of it in a way that can feel painful and exposed, and that certainly happened to me when I started my Ph.D. in Chicago in 2005. I don't know why I thought I was going to get there and the library was going to have all of the contemporary-Southern sociology that was missing from our country Memphis libraries. But it wasn't there. And then I was on a mission to write scientifically about Memphis, but I also had this Southern-literary penchant to write about, speculate about, and find out about home more broadly and regionally defined. Zora had Eatonville, I had Memphis, and we both had the black South.