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Rural Literature: A Tweet-Sourced List

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Holly Genovese

Staff Writer

Holly Genovese is a Ph.D student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is also completing graduate portfolio programs in African and African Diaspora studies, as well as Women's and Gender Studies. Her writing has been published in Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, Electric Literature, The La Review of Books, Literary Hub, Hello Giggles, and many other places.

I am in the midst of writing a big, giant essay on the concept of rural literature that features women, POC, members of the LGBT community, etc. I’m sick of the idea that rurality is either not important (see, Rebecca Solnit’s essay) or is full of white protestant men (literally everything about Trump voters, but notably Hillbilly Elegy). I spontaneously tweeted asking for favorite books of rural literature, and boy did I get a list! Here they are! I have read and loved many. I haven’t read many others! Some are classics, others just came out. But all of them focus on the diversity of rural (or small town) life in the United States. Some of these authors are white men, but the vast majority are not. Here we go.

  1. William Faulkner. I know. I am starting this list with a white man. But I think it’s important to think of Faulkner not just in his context as a Southern author, but as someone who grappled with the rural (and the ways in which it was diverse). If you are just starting out with Faulkner, may I suggest As I Lay Dying?
  • their eyes were watching god by zora neale hurston coverZora Neale Hurston. The original queen of the rural south, IMO. If you haven’t read Hurston, please order Their Eyes Are Watching God immediately. Hurston is one of the few writers who has crafted a rural, all-black world and been lauded for it (though that’s recent). She was writing in opposition to the masculinist urban obsession with the Harlem Renaissance and it shows. Her folklore can be problematic, but it also shows the ways in which Hurston so valued rural African American culture.
  • Flannery O’Conner. Nobody does grotesque like O’Conner. If you are new, definitely start with the short stories, though her novel Wise Blood is a favorite of mine.
  • Jesmyn Ward is one of my favorite writers ever and was suggested to me about a million times for my essay. She’s won the National Book Award multiple times and writes beautifully about POC in rural Mississippi. If memoir is more your speed, her 2015 memoir  Men We Reaped is jarring but my favorite is her most recent novel Sing, Unburied, Sing.
  • Louise Erdrich. One of my very favorite authors, Erdrich writes beautifully about the experience of Indigenous people in the United States, on and off the reservation.
  • Jeannette Walls. I went back and forth about including The Glass Castle here, but if you haven’t read Walls’s tremendous coming of age story you need to (and, bonus, it’s now a movie!)
  • Affrilachia by Frank X Walker. This one is new to me, but has come super highly reviewed. Poetry focused on the experience as an African American from Appalachia.
  • Toni Morrison. I would suggest Beloved if you have not yet read it.
  • Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by Janisse Ray.
  • Weedeater by Robert Gipe.
  • The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson.
  • Anything by Willa Cather. I just read My Antonia, which I loved, but The Song of the Lark has come up a lot.
  • Annie Dillard. I am ashamed to say I have yet to read Annie Dillard, but she’s next on my list.
  • Jane Smiley. Ah, anything by Jane Smiley. The trilogy is great, as is A Thousand Acres, though it’s quite the bummer.
  • bell hooks, Appalachian Elegy. More poetry about the experience of Appalachia, by none other than bell hooks. This is one of my very favorites.
  • Barbed Wire Heart by Tess Sharpe. I just started this one, so no spoilers.
  • Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez. YA focusing on migrant labor.
  • Tomas Rivera “And the Earth Did not Swallow Him”
  • Cottonmouths by Kelly Ford. Focuses on a queer women who gets caught up in Meth in her rural Arkansas hometown. It’s brilliant.
  • Sketches of Southern Life by Frances Harper.
  • Cane by Jean Toomer. I finished this one in January and still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it. It’s VERY modernist and may have gone over my head. But still, it was groundbreaking for a reason.
  • Long Division by Kiese Laymon.
  • Boondock Kollage by Regina Bradley
  • In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens by Alice Walker.  Beautiful on its own, but gives a lot of insight into the “rediscovery” of Zora Neale Hurston.
  • Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzuldua. I just love Anzuldua so much, particularly This Bridge Called My Back, but Borderlands/La Frontera was so influential to me at 19.
  • The Scamp bu Jennifer Pashley. I haven’t read it yet, but it’s come HIGHLY recommended.
  • I’m not quite sure if I should consider this rural, but I am including Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina anyway, because it’s one of my very favorite books. Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

    This is clearly not everything and the books I haven’t written much about come highly recommended and are on my living room floor, waiting to be read, right now! Hope you guys enjoy.