Queering the Southern Gothic: A Conversation with Genevieve Hudson
I’ve been reading and loving Genevieve Hudson’s smart, strange, heart-wrecking work for nearly a decade. It was thrilling to see her work catch fire in 2018 with a fabulous story collection, Pretend We Live Here, which was short-listed for the Lambda Literary Award, as well as a stunning hybrid of memoir and cultural criticism called A Little in Love with Everyone. Hudson’s debut novel, Boys of Alabama, is a coming-of-age story lush with queer desire, political tension, and magic. It follows sixteen-year-old Max, who moves from Germany, to a small Alabama town where God, guns, and football are the holy trinity. Published by Liveright in May, Boys of Alabama has been hotly anticipated by everyone from Ms., Bitch, and Lit Hub to Entertainment Weekly and O, The Oprah Magazine.
Hudson has a complicated relationship with the American South, where she grew up; she spoke to me about the challenges of portraying a place that has hurt you as much as it has nourished you. We also discussed toxic masculinity, writing across genres, antiracist reading lists, and the need for a queer literary archive. Although Hudson and I both live in Portland, Oregon, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, we had the following conversation online.
The Rumpus: We’re in a seismic political moment. Millions nationwide are rising up against white supremacy and police brutality, the Supreme Court recently ruled that gay and trans employees are protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and more Americans have been killed by COVID-19 than by World War I. How do you think about writing in, from, and about this extraordinary time? How are you, as an individual artist, processing our collective urgencies?
Genevieve Hudson: I wish I had a clearer answer for you, but the truth is that I, like so many of us, am trying to figure out every day how to listen and respond to these collective urgencies. I’m doing a lot of reading—I’m reading articles and books and tweets and Google docs and lists posted on Instagram. I’m trying to listen. I’m having a lot of hard conversations with myself and with my community. I feel hopeful, tentatively hopeful but still hopeful, that things might be changing for the better. I feel hopeful that communities around the country are naming white supremacy for what it is and pointing to the way it’s shaped every institution in America and saying it has to stop. I feel hopeful that there are protests every night in cities around our country against police brutality and that people are looking for creative and comprehensive ways to sustain the movement. I believe in our collective power, and I hope that by coming together—in a movement that includes BIPOC people, queer people, people with disabilities, white people, straight people, people that are poor and working class, old and young people—our voices can grow too loud to ignore. We can dismantle a broken and toxic system and build something better.
Rumpus: Which writers or texts have you been reading that stand out as particularly vital, sustaining, illuminating?
Hudson: I love reading adrienne maree brown. Have you read her? Her writing is vital. Reading her feels good and makes my brain fire. There is something so alive about her work. I am rereading parts of Pleasure Activism, which I read last year, and reading Emergent Strategy right now for the first time. I’m also revisiting some Audre Lorde essays and thinking about how we can use pleasure and erotics as a tool for resistance. I’m also reading Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis. My friend, the poet Catie Hannigan, is a wonderful educator. She put together a curriculum and engagement schedule as an Instagram post with antiracist, social justice, and Black history texts; I’ve been reading a lot of the work on her list. I have been appreciating the way social media is synthesizing and making accessible a lot of educational tools and literature. I’ve also been reading more about the roots of the Stonewall riots and thinking about how the early acts of resistance for gay liberation were against police brutality.
Rumpus: Your new novel, Boys of Alabama, critiques the American South’s racism, sexism, and homophobia while powerfully evoking the region’s natural beauty and cultural complexity. This multilayered rendering of place, this capacity to see many things as true at once, is remarkable. How did you approach the portrayal of your home state?
Hudson: It was important for me to capture the contradictions and the complexities of the Deep South. The South is often flattened through stereotype and cliché, and I wanted to resist that. One of the ways I did was by trying to show its contradictions and by breaking open its single story. The South has always been a hard place for me to write about, even though I come from there. Maybe because I come from there. It’s a land of extremes. There’s the hellish heat and the neon sunsets, the good manners and the God-fear. I love the South and the South has also hurt me deeply. Its legacy of violence and denial of that violence has been incredibly toxic. Many communities in the South have continued to deny the trauma of their oppressive legacy, specifically the legacy of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow laws and the years of disenfranchisement and systemic racism that still continue to this day and are enacted and upheld, especially by the prison systems. What does that do to a community of white people, to inherit that kind of capacity for violence? It traumatizes a community. When you live in a place that has centered injustice for so long, no one can be free, not the oppressor or the oppressed. I wanted to write into that and try to document the results of living with inherited violence and trauma.
Rumpus: When you were writing Boys of Alabama, which manifestations of this violent inheritance were the hardest to put on the page?
Hudson: I wanted to show how the violence that white people inherit and accept destroys the communities that perpetuate it. At the end of the book, the boys’ violence finds an outlet they did not expect or intend. But in my final scene, the boys’ impulse to do physical harm is spring-loaded in their bodies. I won’t give away what happens but they begin to literally and spiritually turn the violence toward themselves. They don’t mean to, but it manifests in ways beyond their control. This is what happens when you live into a legacy that has done harm but has never been reckoned with. It was hardest for me to bring to life the physical manifestations of violence. It wanted to show their brutality in a way that didn’t glorify their violence or their impulse to harm, and I hope I was able to do that.
Rumpus: In an interview about your first book, Pretend We Live Here, you defined the Southern Gothic as “a combo of freak literature and the ghost story. It’s an attempt to render the South in all its dark, paranoid, God-obsessed truth and to do it with concern and clarity.” In what ways does Boys of Alabama belong to this tradition, and in what ways does it resist or break from it?
Hudson: Boys of Alabama is a book about misfits. Everyone is odd in their own way and trying to fit into an odd place. Even the “norms” of the town are bizarre—the churches drink poison and handle snakes, political figures invoke God’s plan during rallies, boys hang out in abandoned asylums and use their pee as baptismal water, teens tip cows in fields, spells are cast. The characters are nervous, paranoid, and searching. So, I’d say it’s following in the footsteps of my past definition of Southern Gothic pretty well.
Rumpus: The misfit souls, religious fervor, and eerie disquiet echo the work of O’Connor, Morrison, McCullers, and Faulkner, but your novel repurposes and reimagines these tropes in fascinating ways. You’re queering the motifs. Take Pan, who is probably my favorite character; I experience him as an outsider among outsiders, someone who is stubbornly and magnificently committed to freakdom in a way that your narrator Max, for instance, is not. Would you tell us a little about Pan and how he impacts the book?
Hudson: Pan is a genderqueer goth kid who identifies as a witch. He is angsty and has the heart of an activist. He unapologetically rejects the country-fried, God-fearing, football-obsessed attitude of the Alabama community. In many ways Pan has built his identity in opposition to his community. He feels the limitations of Alabama and is dying to be able to charge forth into the life he wants. He casts spells and paints makeup over his stubble and wears fishnet stockings and combat boots. Even though the boys at school think Pan is unbelievably strange, they accept him, because he grew up alongside them; they see him as one of them. Pan was inspired by a dear friend I grew up with in Alabama, and like Pan, my friend’s embrace of witchiness and goth culture was tolerated because the more masculine, traditional boys around him had learned to love him in their youth. Having witnessed his transformation, they felt more accepting of it.
Pan shows Max, the narrator, that a different choice, a different life, is possible in Alabama and beyond. He is a foil to the radical conservatism of the football team and the Judge with his snake-handling and the poison he feeds his church. Pan shows what it can look like to step into your power and live your truth. Max (and I think some of the other boys, too) are attracted to Pan’s queerness because it represents authenticity. Pan is also vocal in his observation of corruption and not afraid to put himself on the line for justice.
Rumpus: Why did you choose to center Max’s perspective in telling this story? What questions or challenges, if any, arose in writing from the point of view of a teenaged German boy?
Hudson: It was important for me to have the narrator be a stranger coming to Alabama for the first time, with almost no context for understanding the culture. Max is a queer teen boy, but he is also from a predominantly white European nation with its own white-supremacist history. Max’s European heritage makes him more easily accepted as a “good” kind of different to the white boys in Alabama. He’s welcomed, accepted. In return, Max is more willing to be swayed by their friendship.
I was living in Amsterdam during the years I wrote this book and was interested in the Western European experience of America, especially the American South. Many questions came up while writing from Max’s perspective—how does a culture of toxic masculinity imprint on young men? How do you grow into your gender identity? How does your queerness find an outlet when it’s forced into hiding? What do boys do with power? What does it mean to find your truth?
Rumpus: Max picks up on all these little cultural markers and social dynamics and coded behaviors that might go unnoticed by an American, helping the reader, in turn, to be struck afresh by the peculiarities of football practice or drinking at a bonfire. How did living in Holland affect the way you write about the US, especially in terms of race and gender identity?
Hudson: Many Northern Europeans are fluent in and fascinated by American culture. In conversations with my European friends, I was often struck by how funny they found certain American oddities––fridge magnets that say things like “Don’t talk to me until I’ve had my coffee!” and the big to-go mugs we put beverages in. How much water we drink and how we get to eat in our cars. Other remarkable things: takeout donut shops, the way we sensationalize TV news programs, how political debates get blockbuster intros that make it seem like you are watching pro sports, mega churches with televised sermons, the fact that teenagers have cars, how much politicians talk about God. I wanted to bring Max’s outsider fascination to the page as he was confronted with unfamiliar things that many readers would find familiar.
I don’t want to generalize or speak too broadly across cultures, but it’s been my experience that many white Europeans believe racism to be mostly an American issue, not a European issue, which is of course not true. And in Europe the nuances of American racism are not deeply understood. So Max arrives in Alabama with an underdeveloped idea of the cultural history of the American South.
Rumpus: Max joins the high school football team, and the novel goes into vivid granular detail about a sport that is typically a hyper-masculine and hyper-straight cultural space. I’m curious about your relationship, as a queer woman, to the game. Did you grow up watching it?
Hudson: In my hometown, Tuscaloosa, football reigns king. You can’t escape it even if you want to. The whole city shuts down on game days, and thousands of people flood in to watch and tailgate. I used to play pickup games with the boys in my dad’s apartment complex; I was fast and scrappy and I loved the feeling of tackling boys and ripping the ball from their hands, getting grass stains and bruises. I also knew that as a girl there was no way for me to play on a real team. That kind of thing just didn’t happen. As I got older, I began to associate football with, as you say, a hyper-masculine, hyper-straight cultural space, and I started to reject the game. But football was still there in the background. I did tons of research for this book, including watching many hours of practices on YouTube. It’s a cultural phenomenon that fascinates me and shaped my earliest years, so it makes sense to me that I needed to process it in the form of a novel.
Rumpus: Speaking of form, you’ve worked in a range of prose shapes. Your books include a novel, a story collection, and a hybrid text of memoir and cultural criticism. How would you describe your relationship to form and genre?
Hudson: I love being able to play with different modes of writing and see how they inform each other. I feel like the language and the sonics of my prose shifts in subtle ways when I write across genres. My sentences sound different in fiction than they do in criticism or in memoir. At least I notice a small difference in the way they show up on the page. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but I think it has to do with voice and the way I let myself inhabit my writing.
I was recently on a panel with the poet Roy G. Guzmán and they spoke about how writing across genres was about writing across truths and how each genre has a different relationship with truth and accountability to it. I related a lot to that. When I am writing about my own experience, I am centering a specific kind of lived truth that reflects a version of reality I inhabited. When I am writing into fiction, I center another kind of truth. Through making things up, I am trying to approximate a deeper capital-T Truth of the human experience. Each truth invokes a different language, a different kind of sentence.
Rumpus: In your book about Alison Bechdel and coming-of-age narratives (A Little in Love with Everyone), you emphasize the importance of representing queer lives so that queer kids can imagine futures for themselves. While working on Boys of Alabama, were you conscious of wanting to map a path for queer readers?
Hudson: Absolutely. Queer literature literally saved my life. It made me feel less alone and helped give my life story. I had never read about queer teenagers in Alabama navigating football and religion and power and wanted that story to exist. I want art to be as queer as possible, and I’m definitely excited to see a queer future in literature that is as diverse as our community is. That means I want an archive of stories that represents the full breadth of queer experience—its joy and pain and lightness, the boring parts, the coming out stories, the friendship sagas, the everyday. All of it is worthy of story.
Photograph of Genevieve Hudson by Thomas Teal.