Southern studies faculty present new works at Off Square Books

Posted on Jan 23 2019 - 5:50am by Eliza Noe

Local literature fans packed the rows of wooden fold-out chairs to hear Southern studies faculty members Ted Ownby, Kathryn McKee and Jessica Wilkerson read from their recent book releases.


Ownby, McKee and Wilkerson presented excerpts of their works to a crowded house of colleagues, students and other community members.  

Ted Ownby, Kathryn McKee and Jessica Wilkerson read from books about the American south in the nineteenth and twentieth century at Off Square Books on Tuesday. Photo by Parker Galloway

After a brief introduction, Ownby discussed his book “Hurtin’ Words: Debating Family Problems in the Twentieth-Century South,” an analysis of expression, “brotherhoodism” and familial discourse in the South.


Ownby said the title — inspired by Tammy Wynette’s song “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” — refers to parents spelling out unpleasant words like “divorce” and “custody” around their children.


“That was intriguing to me,” Ownby said. “It’s a book about the idea of family problems, words — hurtin’ words — about the expression of family problem and the argument, disagreement or debate (of family problems).”


McKee’s book, “Reading Reconstruction: Sherwood Bonner and the Literature of the Post-Civil War South,” relays the story of Bonner, a Mississippi writer in the 19th century. McKee said her writings on Bonner are more than 20 years in the making and began when she featured a chapter on the author in her dissertation.


“Since then, I have been haunted by Sherwood Bonner, which is something you don’t say lightly in Barnard Observatory,” McKee said. “I have come back to her, picked her up, put her back down, and come back and finally decided to stick with her for a while.”


In her book, “To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice,” Wilkerson nods toward the middle-class white women and their leadership in feminist and Civil Rights movements.

Ted Ownby reads an excerpt of his book “Hurtin’ Words” at Off Square Books on Tuesday. He read and discussed his book along with Jessica Wilkerson and Kathryn McKee. Photo by Parker Galloway

When asked about the inspiration for her work, the east Tennessee native said her upbringing and adolescence were the main influences on her writing.


“Everyone pictured these (Appalachian) women as larger than life, but actually they were part of this bigger network,” Wilkerson said. “I was starting to figure that out as I did my oral histories, and I decided to focus on a group of these women.”


Cam Calisch, a junior anthropology major, said she attended because she admired Wilkerson’s work and wanted to hear more about the local writers.


“The collaboration really stuck with me,” Calisch said. “You can see that this is bigger than publishing a piece of work. It’s the blood, sweat and tears, and you can definitely see it coming through in what they said.”

Ted Ownby displays copies of his books at Off Square Books on Tuesday during a reading with Kathryn McKee. Photo by Parker Galloway