My new book is a collection of travel tales set in the Deep South of the USA. People are always asking me why I love the South and Southern literature so much. As a queer man, it might seem that there is much about the South for me to dislike. Well, let me explain, drawing on some of the Preface of America Divine.

The landscape of my travel tales is the American South, a place that I have visited a number of times over a decade or so. Although I am certainly writing about my experience of the South during those visits, I am doing a bit more than that. I am writing about a landscape that exists beyond the physical boundaries of the Southern states. I am writing about a South of the mind, a metaphorical South.

My first encounters with the American Deep South were as a child through old black and white films replayed on television. I was a reclusive boy, constantly skipping school, and I spent many of my mornings watching these old movies.

The first one was Jezebel, starring Bette Davis and set in New Orleans. That was enough to get me hooked. Then I saw Hush… Hush Sweet Charlotte, Gone With The Wind, The Yearling, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Streetcar Named Desire and a number of others. Of course, these films are partly about the real South, the historical and factual South, but they are more about the metaphorical South, the South of the mind and of the imagination. I got to know this South very intimately as I avoided the drudgery of my all-boys Catholic school.

I’m not sure why the local television station in Toowoomba, my hometown in regional Australia, played so many films set in the Deep South. It seems a very strange thing for them to do. After all, what had the American South to do with Toowoomba, a small town nesting on a mountain in the Darling Downs?

Toowoomba was then, as I was growing up in the 70s, a town known for being something of a peculiarity in the state of Queensland, because of its distinctly eccentric atmosphere, but was also almost fervently Australian. In this respect at least, Toowoomba had something in common with Southern American towns which were also both eccentric and deeply patriotic.

As a boy, there was another stand out quality to those films that reminded me strongly of my hometown. This was those films’ fascination for the supernatural. Toowoomba was a place equally captivated by these things; ghost stories, gruesome crimes, tall tales and outlandish characters. 

Perhaps those films were also played because the programmers felt what I came to feel sometime later, that there were many themes and issues explored in those films, and that affected Southern society, that resonated with the history and life of that strange town on the mountain.

Queensland in the 60s, 70s and 80s was a police state noted for corruption, wonky elections and the repression of non-whites, women and homosexuals. Many of the marginalized residents of Queensland must have seen the issues they were dealing with in their everyday lives reflected in those old films. I for one certainly did.

As a young boy it became apparent to me that other boys like me were not appreciated in Queensland. I was a bit of a sissy and found my fellow boys much more fascinating than was considered normal or appropriate. In fact, at the time I was watching those films, homosexuality was a criminal act. If you indulged your fascination for members of your own sex and were discovered or exposed, you could look forward to a custodial sentence in some of the nation’s most backward prisons. This did not change until the mid 1990s.

A little later, when I was a teen and should have been enjoying myself by exploring the delights of the flesh, the AIDS pandemic hit. Suddenly homosexuals were not only evil and unnatural, they were diseased, infectious, vampiric and condemned by God to a slow, agonizing death. One AIDS activist said rather controversially that, and cover your eyes if you're easily offended, fags had become the ‘niggers’ of the world.

Although it still shocks and upsets me, the ‘n word’ is not as shocking as it once was. These days it is frequently used in Rap & Hip Hop music and even, by some African-Americans, as a term of affection for each other. But in the 80s it still had the power to shock, offend and outrage. What that AIDS activist intended to say by using it, was that because of the HIV virus homosexual men had become the most despised group in every nation across the globe. He wasn’t referring to African-American people themselves, but to the notion of a universally vilified and oppressed category. For me, problematic and insensitive though that comment was, it also made a connection between the mutual struggle of African-American, lesbian and gay people for equal rights. Southern cinema and literature often reflects those struggles and does so in ways that Australian cinema and literature are yet to do.

It was around the time of the onset of the AIDS pandemic, the early Eighties, that I fell in love with Southern literature, principally Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty and the plays of Tennessee Williams. Much of this writing explored gender and sexual dynamics in a direct way and made more explicit for me the ways that the oppression experienced by African-Americans, women and queers in the South of the U.S.A. was not dissimilar to that experienced by those in Queensland.

I am not surprised at all, when I look back at it, that I identified with the marginalized characters of those Southern films. To the young me it must have seemed that queers were oppressed, because of their sexual difference, in a way not dissimilar to the ways that African-Americans were enslaved because of their racial difference and rebellious Southern women were oppressed because of their gender difference.

Of course, Southern racial and gender dynamics are much more complex than I could have grasped at the time. Nevertheless, those films and the books of Capote, McCullers and Welty gave me a way to recognize, think about and reflect on all of these injustices. They also acted as a kind of exposure therapy, a safe visit to unsafe territory that helped me to frame and to deal with my own hostile environment. I am extremely grateful that I was exposed to them when I was.

Having said all of that, America Divine does not directly address why a sissy boy from Toowoomba grew up obsessed with the Deep South. Instead, it reflects my fascination for the South’s culture and history and presents the idiosyncratic experiences of a Queenslander trying to get to know it better.

The tall tales I tell in my new book document my journey to discover more of the real South as much as they document my continuing love of the cinema and literature of America’s Southern states.

Because I am often writing about a South of the mind, a metaphorical South, my stories have that taste of the South that I encountered in films and books. This is often the taste of the actual South, but sometimes differs from reality in subtle ways that are difficult to express in words.

While travelling in the South, I find it impossible to relate to the place and people without those films and books feeding into my perception. Every street corner is haunted by those films, every building filled with celluloid ghosts. The landscapes and the people are ‘written over’ by the literature and by the myths.

I’m not sure if I should be concerned about that. Perhaps I should, but the metaphorical South so completely overlaps the landscape and features of the actual south that, for an outsider anyway, it is practically impossible to see one without the other.

Southerners themselves often talk about their home with reference to those very same films and books and so visitors are encouraged to experience the actual South while reflecting on the metaphorical South. It’s almost as if Southerners don’t really want us to see the real thing. Perhaps they prefer to hide behind a cinematic and literary veneer.

That veneer is very nostalgic and tends to gloss over that which is dark about the South – the racial inequality, the conservative (often closed) mindset, the environmental degradation, the lack of focus on heritage and cultural preservation, the political hypocrisy. But, every place has its good and bad. Every place has beauty and ugliness. Every region has its saints and its villains. The South is no different.

I intend to go back to the South again. They say that anyone who has been to the South once cannot help but return. That is certainly true for me. Perhaps that's true for you too but, if you’ve never been, I hope that you can make the trip soon. In the meantime, you could make a trip to the metaphorical South in the form of America Divine. Whatever the case, I hope y’all enjoy your stay.