Update, Sept. 6, 2021: This piece was updated to reflect that Natasha Tretheway’s book Native Guard is a collection of poetry.
Growing up in Leicester, Erica Abrams Locklear imagined becoming a pediatrician one day. She loved to read, though, and remembers enjoying Southern authors Jill McCorkle and Clyde Edgerton. But Abrams Locklear didn’t become aware of the breadth of Southern literature — or its sister genre, Appalachian literature — until after her undergraduate years at UNC Chapel Hill.
Early in her career, Abrams Locklear worked as a technical writer, but a single recommendation changed that course entirely. “A friend said, ‘Oh, you haven’t read Lee Smith?’” she recalls. “I started reading her books, and I completely fell in love. [Smith’s] work is the reason I went back and got my doctorate.”
Today Locklear teaches literature and gender studies at UNC Asheville, where she was named Distinguished Teacher of the Year in 2021. She is the author of Negotiating a Perilous Empowerment: Appalachian Women’s Literacies, a 2011 book about Appalachian women and literacy, and recently submitted Appalachia on the Table: Representing Mountain Food and People, a second book on Appalachian foodways.
Abrams Locklear spoke with Xpress about the authors she loves to teach, how reading literature teaches empathy and “exploding the canon” one marginalized writer at a time.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Were you exposed to much Southern or Appalachian literature when you were growing up?
Not as much as I would have liked, but I did have some really fantastic English teachers in high school. My senior year, I had this vague awareness that there was this thing called Southern literature. I found William Faulkner in college and Flannery O’Connor and some of those more well-known writers. I remember I read a Lee Smith story as an undergraduate; it didn’t register that she was one of the best Appalachian writers.
If someone wants to explore Southern literature beyond well-known names like Faulkner or Harper Lee, who would you recommend reading?
One writer whose work I just love is Monique Truong. She actually spent part of her growing-up years in Boiling Springs. The book that I teach is called Bitter in the Mouth. It’s a really complex, rich book about relationships, family, immigration, trauma and the South. And acceptance — there’s a gay character who hasn’t come out and finally does.
Another one would be Natasha Tretheway. Her book Native Guard is really good. It’s historical poetry. Part of it is about her own personal history, but part of it is about African American troops in the Civil War and their mistreatment, their erasure from history.
The last one I’ll say is Jesmyn Ward. The book I teach in Southern lit is Sing, Unburied, Sing. That’s a tough one; it’s very triggering for people, but it’s so good.
What authors would you recommend for someone new to Appalachian literature?
I would say Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Fred Chapell and also Crystal Wilkinson. She identifies as an Affrilachian poet: African American Appalachian. Her last novel is called The Birds of Opulence. It’s a very difficult book — but it’s beautiful — about three generations of women in Kentucky and recurring cycles of trauma that happen, but also growth and beauty.
Another writer I wish more people knew about is Robert Gipe. My students respond to his work so well. He’s got these adolescent protagonists who are in very difficult situations. Their families are often addicted to substances. They live in coal-mining areas, where mountaintop removal has just decimated that landscape, and they’re always struggling for a way out.
Why is studying literature important?
It’s a two-prong answer. I hope students translate the skills that they’ve gained to future opportunities — that students can clearly express their ability to be clear and good communicators, to engage in deep, true, critical thought, to express arguments in a rational and respectful way.
The other piece of it is that reading gives students the capacity to feel empathy for other people, to imagine through these stories what experiences could be like. It’s not the same as living through it, and we talk about that a lot. But you could at least imagine and maybe get a little bit closer to understanding. And I feel strongly about exploding ideas of canon as much as I can.
Can you explain what “canon” means?
“Canon” is the implied — not necessarily written down anywhere — list of authors’ texts that are routinely taught in courses from high school to college. These are primarily male authors; they’re primarily white. There are some women authors, but they’re primarily white as well.
So what does “exploding ideas of canon” mean when it comes to assigning books in your courses?
It means incorporating writers who, at their time, were just as important and may have been just as commonly read, but for whatever reason are not commonly taught. It’s often people whose voices have been muted and marginalized in other ways as well.
Something that I didn’t experience until I was much older was seeing experiences that were like my own in print. That was so validating. Stories were always set in New England or someplace I might have visited and thought was pretty, but it wasn’t home. It means a lot for students who are from the South, who are from Appalachia, to see themselves represented in the literature they’re reading or for characters to speak in a very heavy dialect — whatever that dialect is.
What’s your favorite independent bookstore in Asheville?
Malaprop’s is amazing and wonderful, and it’s so fun to go in there. In the “Before Times,” [prior to the pandemic], I would require students to go there. They have the best Southern literature and Appalachian literature sections. They make wonderful recommendations; their staff is so knowledgeable and well versed.
I also really love Downtown Books & News on Lexington Avenue. In the Before Times, most Friday nights we would wander down there. It was so fun to see what new thing you could pick up, feel like you were getting a bargain and go on a little adventure hunt!