Nick White explores the experience of Southern queerness in ‘Sweet & Low’

Posted on Jun 24 2018 - 6:58pm by Jake Thrasher

Nick White signed his brilliant collection of short stories “Sweet & Low” at Off Square Books on June 21. Following his debut novel “How to Survive a Summer,” White explores topics like sexuality, identity, relationships and trauma in “Sweet & Low.”

White grew up in Possumneck and attended undergraduate at Mississippi State University. He now holds a master’s degree of fine arts in creative writing from Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in English and creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He currently is an assistant professor of English at Ohio State University.

In “Sweet & Low,” White’s experience of growing up gay in Mississippi adds a genuine and nuanced presentation of the Magnolia state. The sweltering Southern heat can be felt in these stories that examine queer Southern identities.

“One thing I realized when I was reading a lot of queer literature was that a big narrative is when you’re gay and from a small rural area, you leave the place as soon as possible and go to a big city. While that narrative is true for some folks, it’s not true for everyone.” White said.

“Sweet & Low” combats these queer literary tropes by focusing on the narratives of queer people who do not leave their small towns.

Stories such as “The Lovers” challenge the norms surrounding relationships through the complicated affairs of Arnie Greenlee, a married doctor, and Hank, a younger gay man exiled from his family. The love triangle gets more complicated after Arnie dies in a plane crash, and the complexities of the relationships make the reader question what ways love can manifest both in and out of committed relationships. Arnie’s wife, Rosemary, was content with Arnie’s affairs because the couple was happy that way, but the death forced her and Hank to find closure which inevitably outed Arnie. These events raise the question posed by Rosemary’s therapist, “How well can you know a person?” which is a common thread in all the narratives in “Sweet & Low.” These stores momentarily pull the reader into a new character’s life just long enough to experience his or her loves, pains, and heartbreaks.

While these stories are works of fiction, White draws inspiration from his own experiences and others’ stories he has heard. The final short story of the collection, “The Last of His Kind,” was inspired by a story White’s uncle told him. In it, a woodpecker continuously pecks at its reflection in the glass door of White’s uncle’s house. After a couple of days, his uncle decided to finally shoot the bird. This is just one of the many examples of what White describes as stories entering his brain and leaving completely refashioned.

Over the eight years White wrote for this collection, he wanted to explore how queerness and masculinity manifest themselves in the South. These ideas are fleshed out directly like in “The Lovers,” but also more indirectly in stories such as “Cottonmouth, Trapjaw, Water Moccasin.” In this piece, a man named Pete gets pinned under his lawnmower he flipped and is faced with a water moccasin headed towards him. In only a few pages, White creates a complex character who developed unhealthy masculinity due to childhood trauma but also indirectly analyzes the sexuality of Pete’s son through flashback narrative. In this short story, White deftly deals with the intersection of the masculinity and sexuality of multiple characters through the perspective of just one person.

“Sweet & Low” is not only an entertaining collection of short stories to read this summer but also a raw and innovative portrayal of  Southern queerness.