New City, New Reading List by Erica Wright
Author Erica Wright’s advice before moving to a new city: read the local writers. Wright explains why there is no better way to learn the quirks of a new place than to seek out the writers who once called it home.
Last weekend, I walked around an iconic city, impressed to the point of laughing by the live music issuing from fancy restaurants and honky-tonks alike. Cover bands and singer-songwriters crooned through open windows, at least a dozen in a row. Is this real life, I wondered, as I settled down to pancakes while an impressive front man sang “Ain’t No Sunshine” to a half-attentive audience. I may not own cowboy boots and my books may not be alphabetized (yet), but it’s clear I have a new home: Nashville, Tennessee.
At twenty, twenty-five, and even thirty, I would have sworn that I would be a lifelong New Yorker. “Oh, I don’t fit in anywhere else,” I’ve said offhandedly more times than I can count. So three years ago when I boarded a one-way flight with an unhappy cat and the latest Kim Harrison book, I was panicked to say the least. It would be the first of three moves—first to Atlanta, then Gainesville, then Nashville. I should be a pro at relocating by now, but I really only have one piece of advice: read the local writers.
There’s no better way to learn the quirks—endearing and otherwise—of a new place than to seek out the artists who once called it home, or those who still do. In Georgia, I revisited Flannery O’Connor and Natasha Trethewey, and then bought books by Gina Myers, Collin Kelley, Jamie Iredell, and Charles McNair. In Black-Eyed Heifer by native daughter Shelly Taylor, I read “I wasn’t a bit shy that I wasn’t the same oak moss fish jump scaling southern thing my father’s loins did spit & say get gone, I once was.” And I thought, now that’s a music I can get used to.
For the second move, I had Karen Russell, Barbara Hamby, and Dennis Lehane to keep me company I had Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Florida” and Jaswinder Bolina’s “Love Song of the Assimilated.” And if you read with just enough wide-eyed wonder, it feels a bit like having starter friends, people to help you pronounce “Alachua County” correctly, then steer you toward the crawfish.
In some ways, this last move has been the easiest since I was raised in Tennessee, though a much more rural area. Because of that connection, I can rattle off local writers I admire, from luminaries such as Alan Lightman and Ann Patchett to new toasts of the town like T.J. Jarrett, Beth Bachmann, and Amy Greene. I’ve even had a coffee date with Dana Chamblee Carpenter. It’s comforting, this illusion of connection. I recommend it for traveling, as well, since there’s little as boring as a guidebook. It’s a sneaky way of becoming familiar with the new vernacular, the histories only a neighbor could know. It can make a stranger feel right at home.
Erica Wright is a senior editor at Guernica Magazine. She is the author of the poetry collection Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press). Her debut crime novel, The Red Chameleon (Pegasus Books), was included in O Magazine’s roundup Best Books of Summer 2014. A sequel, The Granite Moth (Pegasus Books), will be released in November.
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