Familiar As Family

By  |  February 25, 2016
“Gravel Road with Cell Tower, Mississippi County,” by Norwood Creech “Gravel Road with Cell Tower, Mississippi County,” by Norwood Creech

When I was sixteen years old, a friend’s dad encouraged me to pick up a magazine I’d never heard of. The Oxford American’s 2003 Southern Music issue came with a CD, and he thought I’d be amused by track twenty-two: “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” a song about leaving town performed in breathy delivery by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell (from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Neither actress was from Arkansas, but Little Rock was my home—my people have lived here since the 1850s. At the time, however, I could think of nothing better than leaving. I was a student at Central High School, intent on raising hell at the campus newspaper and then moving far away. Arkansas was dull —a sleepy backwoods or the butt of jokes. Nothing ever changed. At first opportunity, I departed for college in Boston.

Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana before I’d been gone a week. Several of my childhood friends lived in New Orleans, a city I’ve always felt close to. The dissonance of riding a bus in the shadow of skyscrapers while worriedly awaiting news from evacuees would remain my most lasting and lonely memory from that first year away. I coped by reading Walker Percy and John Kennedy Toole, and, yes—the Oxford American. Like many others, I discovered Barry Hannah and William Gay in these pages, Beth Ann Fennelly and Wendy Brenner. I heard Big Star and Karen Dalton, Iris DeMent and Eartha Kitt. My view of the South widened.

Some years later, while working for a publication in Nashville, I met Roger D. Hodge, who was newly hired as the Oxford American’s editor. He said he had a job for me if I’d come back to Little Rock. I was heartened by his assuredness in an era when print was said to be dying. (“Readers still yearn for good stories well told,” he wrote confidently in his first issue.) And I couldn’t stop thinking about a news item I’d recently read about a group of women in Water Valley, Mississippi, entrepreneurs who made art and invested in the Delta town; I was inspired by their commitment to make change in their small community. During that time of deliberation, I revisited an essay by Jesmyn Ward. “Something about the South feels as familiar as family, as true as blood,” she wrote in the OA. “This is the South and this is my blood and this is my home.”

I decided to take the job.

“It is time for a good general magazine to originate from the South,” wrote founding editor Marc Smirnoff in the inaugural edition of this magazine, in 1992. “The Oxford American is primed for the trials, and glories, ahead.” In central Arkansas (where the magazine has been based since relocating from Oxford, Mississippi, in 2002), I occasionally hear folks muse that someone should write down the entire epic—glories and trials alike—from the first issue to the present, including gaps in publication and dramas of varying renown. In his “Declaration of Intent,” Smirnoff correctly predicted, “If we are to last it will be through the strength and courage of our believers.” Next year will be the Oxford American’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

Oxford American readers will want to know what to expect now that the magazine has again changed editorial hands. The OA has always published vital, important stories—from the borderlands, the Gulf Coast, Appalachia, and many locales in between. This will not change. Our writers—the singular voices you discover in every issue—continue to thrill me with their creativity and their craft. Three years ago, Hodge introduced a new front section, Points South, a refuge for literary miscellanea, or as he wrote, “short essays, very short stories, poems, interviews, character studies, lyrical or comic feuilletons, paintings and photographs, reviews and appreciations, comments overheard, brief moments of surprising intensity and descriptive sketches and musings.” Happily, Points South is sticking around—as is Omnivore, the section in the back where we publish imaginative, sometimes delightfully offbeat criticism and commentary. In this issue you’ll find Will Stephenson evaluating the scattered legacy of the Texas-born writer Terry Southern, and Kelly Alexander considering the role of dishes—especially Fiestaware—as fetish objects. As he has since 2013, Chris Offutt will close the magazine with his irreverent column, “Cooking with Chris.” And 2016 marks the eighteenth year of John T. Edge’s remarkable examination of Southern foodways in his “Local Fare” column.

Long essays, reportage, fiction, and poetry will always have a home in the OA. Our offerings this issue include Alex Mar’s meditation on ancestry and her particular connection to Florida’s Fountain of Youth legend; Crystal Wilkinson’s profoundly beautiful short story about the birth of a child in rural Kentucky; John McElwee and Chris Fowler’s chilling report from the Mississippi Delta, where they sought the source material for Lewis Nordan’s fiction; Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s tale of an unforgettable soccer season for a New Orleans team; and new work by C. D. Wright, the brilliant Arkansas-born poet whom we lost far too soon on January 12.

The Oxford American remains dedicated to the Southern Music series, to chronicling the vast influence artists from this region have had and continue to impress on the world. Look for the next music issue—complete with CD soundtrack—in December 2016. When we feel so inspired, we’ll introduce additional themes. Next up: Our summer issue will explore Southern Journeys through space and time.

In February, the Oxford American won a National Magazine Award in General Excellence—our first such honor, acknowledging both editorial and visual achievement. The award is a tribute to the writers and artists who animate the OA, to our hardworking staff, and to our loyal readers (all you believers). I accepted the trophy in New York City then took an early flight back to Little Rock, energized to finish the issue you now have in your hands.

Lately I’ve been reading Bright Dead Things, the stunning recent collection by our contributor Ada Limón. The opening poem, “How to Triumph Like a Girl,” begins:

I like the lady horses best,
how they make it all look easy,
like running 40 miles per hour
is as fun as taking a nap, or grass.
I like their lady horse swagger,
after winning. Ears up, girls, ears up!
But mainly, let’s be honest, I like
that they’re ladies.

It has come to my attention that I am the first female editor of the Oxford American. People ask: What does it mean? How does it feel? I say: It is significant because there are still too few women at the top of magazine mastheads. Masthead stats can’t possibly tell the whole story of a publication’s commitment to different viewpoints. But with every passing year, I become more attuned to gender and racial disparity in the literary arts—an awareness that has arisen in part thanks to the essential and groundbreaking research from VIDA, a nonprofit organization that reports on demographics in publishing.

The American South has always been a home of thriving, raging diversities, and I believe this magazine will be better—more interesting, indispensable—if our coverage reflects the region’s depths. The OA welcomes diverse and surprising ideas, voices, writing styles, works of art, and musical traditions.

At a time when storytelling is available in a myriad of media, I deeply appreciate your trust, whether this is your first issue or your ninety-second.

May we all keep our ears up. May we run fast and make it look fun.

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Eliza Borné is the editor of the Oxford American.